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Assassin's Creed (2016)
A Clockwork Apple
Assassins Creed 15th century: "The Templars" wants an apple containing the genetic code to free-will and with it curb humanity to their bidding (The Ludovico Apple?). The "Assassins" try to stop them because people retaining their free-will is preferable to turning people into clockwork oranges, they also rescue the son of a Sultan (used as a bargaining chip by the Templars to get the Sultan to surrender the Apple). Fighting and jumping up and down buildings ensues until the Assassins finally kill the villains and hides the apple with Christopher Columbus whom takes it to his grave.
This plot--if fleshed out with some characterization, wit, exposition and depth--would probably require something like 110 minutes and could have been a pretty good adventure-film. In adapting this game there was an obstacle however, another element that needed to be included for as not to be unfaithful: The twist that outside of the period piece/adventure-tale we have a modern, high-tech kidnap/detective/conspiracy-plot.
Assassins Creed present-day: Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a criminal that saw his mother (Davis) murdered by his father (Gleeson) is arrested and sentenced to death. He is then saved by the "Abstergo Foundation", an organization run by Templar Alan Rikkin (Irons). Also working there is Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard), a leading scientist on the "Animus Project". The "Animus" is a machine that can be hooked up to humans and trace the memories of their ancestors and so gain information from history. Lynch happens to be a descendant from Aguilar, the Assassin involved in the plot to keep the apple from the Templars. Proceeding from here we get a stew of father/mother/son-drama, an uprising of assassins against their captors and some drama with the Templars (pressure from bosses, father/daughter-drama and discussions on their motives).
Now take a gander and decide which one of these plot-lines has the most potential to make a decent film. Then imagine them both squeezed into 110 minutes, then realize that only about 35 minutes of 110 is set aside for the 15th century, then get good with fact that even during the meager 35 we--in the most annoying way possible--has to cut back to the present for Fassbender-gymnastics and reaction shots.
"Assassins Creed" works as a game because outside of the Animus things take their time to be revealed and to move forward. It's a game so it can afford to do so, the player of the game will want to get past that stuff as fast possible anyway to get back into the Animus where things are more engaging. It's about playing to the mediums respective strengths, something this film wasn't allowed to do because it wanted to be a faithful adaption and not incur the ire of its fans. The strength of a big-budget blockbuster would have been to focus on the plot back in the day rather than the present. Imagine the set-pieces, locations, armies, battles, plotting, spying, assassinations and betrayals and similar things that at the least could have made for a passable action-adventure-film. Instead, we're stuck with 75 minutes of disinterested actors showing up on set trying to explain what's going on and who everybody is. And the 35 minutes in the 15th century? it's underwritten to the nth-degree and completely butchered by the up- close, hand-held camera work and the aforementioned cutting to the present during action sequences.
The tone is depressing and lacks humor, the characters are weak and it's saddled with nonsense. Why have the silly father/mother/son- drama at all? Lynch could have been a regular person (with a penchant for violence if you need to keep the "violence is genetic-shtick") that gets captured by Abstergo and is subjected to experiments. Then he starts to despise them for the treatment he and his fellow test subjects receives (a rather good scene actually sneaks past the screenwriters where we see the damages that's been done to uncooperative subjects) and starts plotting escape with Moussa (Williams) and the other captives (the uprising is another section that's underwritten). Instead we get a moment taken from a Harry Potter-film where Lynch has a vision of mom while hooked to the Animus (some kind of full-synchronization deal when Lynch becomes more attuned to the Assassins) and has a revelation that he belongs with them.
Thematically the film is ambitious. Violence as mankind's constant flaw, the question of free-will and identity are all held up for inspection. It's ambitious indeed, and I wonder if the idea was to get those themes working and so not need to spend so much time inside the animus (where they would put most of the action), have the film transcend the expectations of its genre and end up as something more profound. It's possible I guess, because otherwise I can't figure why so little time was spent inside the Animus. The problem is that this isn't a screenplay with sharp examinations of those themes. The idea that "The Ludovico Technique" should be deployed en masse is something worthy of a Bond-villain in this context, because we simply lack the worldbuilding informing us that the world has devolved into such utter chaos to convince us that some of the Templars actually believe that they'd be doing something good. The theme of identity works better, even though it's rather dull considering the characters we're served with: Lynch is a lost soul, having drifted around from early age with baggage of seeing mom killed by dad and not having a place of belonging, and so Lynch latches on to the identity of a Templar for a short time after a confrontation with dad (also a captive) but later upon seeing mom while in full sync with the Animus, becomes an Assassin instead. It's textbook and "arc-ish", not interesting nor well done, but still something of a success in a big honking fail like this.
Verdict: Not worthy of the 110. If interested in the themes or in adventure and action look further afield.
Fantastic Studios and How They Make A Fortune
Continuations of stories have obviously been part of the film industry for a long time and without spitting out bizarre amounts of films that got a sequel I'm going to mention a couple: "The Godfather", "Alien", "Terminator", "Jaws", "The French Connection" and "Jurassic Park". So what is it that makes these aforementioned films work in spite of them getting a sequel, regardless of that sequel's quality? I'm going to go out on a limb here and answer as follows: Because those earlier films can all stand on their own, regardless if they were set up as a "first of more to come" from the start or if they were simply made to have a continuation after the fact. Nothing about "Jurassic Park" screams "The Lost World", nothing about "Jaws" begs for "Jaws 2" and "The French Connection" wasn't preparing for continuation at all. "The Godfather" might be the perfect set-up for the masterpiece "Godfather Part 2" but ending the first one where they did works perfectly fine on its own. "Alien" and "Terminator" too could be seen as broad enough to continue to build upon in further films, yet they still end in a way that would've been completely satisfactory.
So what does this have to do with "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"? Well, unlike the examples above, it's a movie engineered specifically to function as a "first of more to come" and is choked to death precisely because it--from start to finish--wails and craves for a follow-up film.
Where "Beasts" reveals its aspiration to be a first film among others is the overstuffed "plot", throwing way to many things into the mix for anything to work: some guy (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York under the pretext of acquiring some beast, but he really is headed to Arizona to unleash a Phoenix (?). He also manages to lose several of his pets and has to go look for them. In addition to this we have another person trying to start a bakery and gets caught up with the magical plot, an "auror" is fired and is trying to get her job back, another "auror" is really not an "auror" at all and tries to get a kid that is afflicted with some kind of magical disease to reveal the magic world to the "No-Mages" (?), Jon Voight is trying to get his asshole son elected to the senate and his other son is in the movie as well and some lady is adopting magical children for some reason.
Yes, all of this and more is in the final cut of the film, about 130 minutes that manages to feel too short and too long at the same time. Too short because this is amounts of plot worthy of a mini-series. Too long because it's mostly badly written and badly spaced out through the running time and thus becomes a chore to get through. How potentially good the actors were or how impressive the special effects, set design and costumes might have been or how much it "added to The Harry Potter universe" is largely irrelevant when churning out crap like this, and it's all made in service to a series of films rather than this particular one. Of course there will be more of these coming out, it probably made a billion dollars. In the sequels no doubt all this crap about the newspaper baron and his son, the captured Voldemort-character, the public opinion on magic-folks and the off-screen love-interest of Eddie Redmayne will all matter in some way.
All in all this movie never really stood a chance to work because so much of it hinges on the fact that the producers knew that this already had an existing fan base they could milk for money and so it could just as simply be made into a series that could make them even more. So what if the plot points and characters set up in this film will become important latter and that I'll just need to be patient and wait and see where it's all going? Well, after this I don't care to see another one because it was crap and I really wasn't looking for a mini series where the episodes are released two years apart.
To reiterate: sequels, prequels or reboots or what have you has existed for a long time and its nothing new really. The difference now seems to come down to the increased savviness of the studio and the over-preparation for the movies to come rather than focusing on the movie at hand. But I'm being silly of course, we're just gonna have to have to wait and see where it all goes!
Rogue One (2016)
Peter Cushing: Resurrection
Expanding upon the opening crawl in George Lucas' "Star Wars", director Gareth Edwards and Disney opts for an overwritten plot verging on incoherence. A simple enough premise(Rebels winning their first battle against the empire and spies making off with plans of the dreaded Death Star) wasted on father-daughter drama, stepfather-daughter drama, defecting imperial pilots, multiple rebel factions, Imperial politics, remorseful intelligence officers, Darth Vader fan service and much more. One Murky establishing shot after the next, depressing planets and facilities one after another, Edwards struggles to find a momentum.
The cast is rather flat--demographics clearly the biggest concern here--Some talent slips through for sure, but their skills are mostly wasted, the characters a group of bland ciphers with hardly more than their look and weapon of choice to distinguish between them and lacking any chemistry or interesting dynamic. Ironically, the most human character in the film is a robot, a "funny-droid-character" that feels completely out of place. It offers a big chunk of the films humor (Admittedly humor of low quality) and feels--compared to its human comrades--almost living.
A positive about the film would be its aim to create an overarching theme of self-sacrifice. A neat idea if you ignore the complete lack of investment in the characters. It's interesting considering George Lucas' six films (nor The Force Awakens) struck me as having a straightforward, unifying theme for each picture, but felt more sprawling with all its allegories and homages. Perhaps a byproduct of this being a standalone affair while the others all part of trilogies?
Proclaimed as a "war-film" and for being different to earlier entries in the series, the film nonetheless soaks in fan service, winks and callbacks which compounds on the tone. What at times feels like the lighthearted space adventures we've seen before, sometimes feel like a much darker and somber story about good people committing atrocities during time of war and oppression. Among other things, there's a blind, stick-wielding force user with a sidekick gunslinger, completely out of place in a supposedly "gritty war-film". This--like the casting-- stinks of studio control and careful analysis of how to be able to pacify and accommodate anyone that could possibly spend money on their product.
Edwards' action on the ground is what you might expect considering the proclamation of "war-film": A documentary style approach using lots of hand held camera work that computes with the supposedly gritty tone. What doesn't compute is the continuation of the terribly inefficient troops in the Empires' employ. The ability to eventually hit something is there, but considering the amount of shots missed and all the Storm Troopers mowed down it feels like a contradiction. In space things are naturally more fun, if still neither original nor dramatically tense. It's a big clutter of memorable space ship designs, explosions and pilots resembling those from the original film (even some stock footage from 1977 I'm told).
So despite its pretensions to being fresh and different I think it's easy to spot how limited the film is in that regard. True, we don't have a John Williams' score anymore, just someone else trying to make something similar to what he did, an opening crawl isn't needed anymore because we're making movies from previous crawls and CGI-Tarkin has now replaced Governor Tarkin and on and on it goes.
Verdict: Dull characters, convoluted plot and shaky tone mixed with lots of explosions, effects and nostalgia. No doubt a treat for many, disappointing to others.
Doctor Strange (2016)
An Englishman speaking in an American accent plays an arrogant show- off doctor that belittles his co-workers and only takes the hardest of medical cases. Fortunately, we're not dealing with a House M.D prequel or reboot looking to cash in on the title character's success, but rather a new Marvel Cinematic Universe feature looking to cash in further on it's brand.
In a moment of brilliance, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as the main character Dr. Strange, throwing away the cap in Sherlock and exchanging it for a cool cape.
The film is an upper level MCU-flick, stronger than most. What carries it is the strong cast and the relatively original approach it takes to the superhero genre. The Special effects are also very interesting and are used extensively to conjure up different sorts of dimensions and display the power with which our characters can manipulate them. The film also subverts a few expectations (More on that below).
The weaker areas would be some of the character stuff as well as a boring score (It's not bad, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd heard it before). There's also much exposition about multiple dimensions, different kinds of powers and artifacts, some of it is cleverly done but it gets tiring after awhile. the film also reveals very early on much of it's clever special effects. It only takes a few minutes until we get to see a whole lot of the "reality-warping" stuff we'll be treated to throughout and one gets the feeling they should have restrained themselves a bit longer.
The humor in the film would fall in the hit & miss-area. The cape that Dr. Strange acquired was hilarious and a clever way of introducing a comedic sidekick character that's not even human. On the other hand some of the other gags were more cringe-inducing than actually funny.
Above I mentioned that the film succeeds in using a "relatively original approach", by this I don't mean that it's successful in doing so every time. We're for example treated to a fairly unoriginal origin story for Dr. Strange. He gets injured, becomes obsessed with fixing himself and ends up joining a group that defends the earth from invaders. Were this does manage to feel original however is in the details surrounding the story (other dimensions, setting and magic) and not so much the story itself (How Strange goes from asshole doctor to desperate man looking to heal his injury to fighting sorcerers and devoting his life to a new cause).
Subversion of expectations are also in evidence, likewise with mixed results.
Doctor Christine Palmer played by solid actress Rachel McAdams is one such. It's obvious they're trying to subvert her role of the heroes love interest by making her the ex of Dr. Strange and leading them down a path of friendship with a few bumps in the road instead of straightforward romance. The problem is that the role doesn't really rise above the trope and--because so much else is going on--ends up as an underwritten character. It's interesting though to consider that if she was given more screen time, would the writers have turned her into the more regular love interest instead of this weak subversion? Not sure what I'd prefer.
The villain of the film Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) is an upgrade from recent villains (Zemo, Ultron) but is still disappointing (It's not really established how powerful he actually is and he isn't given much time). Still, the character is allowed some backstory (his family was murdered) and he has a goal that's not completely evil (let the demon Dormammu consume the earth in to his "Dark Dimension" where time doesn't exist and thus stop entropy and save humans by eradicating their mortality).
Two other important characters in the film is The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Eijofor). The Ancient One is the leader of the sorcerers protecting the earth from invaders from other dimensions. She is enigmatic, wise and a hypocrite: preaching absolute obedience to their code (Don't mess with nature and don't dabble with the Dark Dimension) but doesn't conform to that standard herself, leading her to clash with Kaecillius whom wants to do the same.
Mordo is probably the most interesting character. He is a supporter of The Ancient One and is completely inflexible in following their code. As the film proceeds his worldview starts to crumble. The Ancient one is exposed as a hypocrite and Dr. Strange more than breaks the laws of nature in the finale battle (More on that below). In the end Mordo leaves the order and sets himself on the path of a well-intentioned extremist by eliminating--what he considers--superfluous sorcerers around the world.
Concluding this review I'm going to mention the finale battle: A battle we're initially led to believe will be the usual fare of buildings being destroyed and heroes punching bad guys. But the film completely subverts it. In a clever move Strange uses "The Eye of Agamoto" (A device that can mess with time) to reverse the boring ending and initiate a better one. He then heads into the encroaching Dark Dimension and traps Dormammu in an endless time loop. This sequence is a blast with Strange showing up again and again until finally the demon relents and leaves earth alone.
Verdict: Doesn't give enough due to it's many excellent cast members, throws to many gags at the wall and sees what sticks and employs a boring score. On the other hand it has an improved villain, interesting effects, subversion of expectations, a comfortable running time and a lot of nice details that feels distinct from other MCU- flicks.