Assassins Creed (2017)

ass.jpgEver since this film was announced I’ve been curious to see it. I was a huge fan of the first Assassins Creed videogame, it felt like a breath of fresh air and something genuinely new. Sure, some of the story was daft in a ‘Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code’ kind of way, but it was a gaming experience that clearly lended itself to a cinematic treatment. Cast news etc during the making of the film seemed impressive and the intent was evident to make the proverbial ‘first good videogame movie.’

When the film came out, it quickly became apparent something was wrong and I chose not to go to the cinema to watch it, and even when it came out on disc I steered a wide berth, when in years past it likely would have been a blind purchase- but my curiosity remained. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and the reviews and word of mouth seem pretty much right.

It is curious that the wife of Assassins Creed‘s Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, herself featured in a movie based on a videogame (the Tomb Raider reboot) and it largely suffered from the same problem that Assassins Creed does – it was just too faithful. There are both sincere and well-made but treat the source material with simply too much respect, becoming stilted and marred by too many action set-pieces intended to evoke moments of the videogame originals. Both films needed a life of their own, I think.

In Assassins Creed‘s case, the inherent daftness of the central premise is only accentuated by the film taking it all too seriously and elevating far too highly. This isn’t Shakespeare, and it isn’t even Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I’m not suggesting being irreverent either, or even being a little camp, but it just seems to me that an adjust was needed. Right from the start and the opening text (that is largely I suspect for non-videogame familiar viewers) the tone is wrong: For centuries, the order of the Knights Templar have searched for the mythical Apple of Eden. They believe it contains not only the seeds of man’s first disobedience, but the key to the free will itself. If they find the relic and decode its secrets, they will have the power to control all freedom of thought. Only the brotherhood called the Assassins stands in their way… 

Maybe I’ve watched too many conspiracy films/tv shows and too many sagas with secret societies and well, maybe too many Dan Brown books/movies. Its all very pompous and apocalyptic and self-important. Better, I think, to have just introduced our protagonist to the mystery gradually, and the audience with him. Maybe eased off with the two warring factions of Templars and Assassins- the central premise of the story, that history can be re-experienced through genetic memory, is conceit enough for a film, I think. You can ‘buy into’ a lot of that other stuff fine in a videogame, in just the same way as you can all the mythology in comicbooks, say, but once you start translating all of that into movies, well, you’re risking all sorts of trouble. It becomes too larger than life, I think.

Which is a curious thing to consider- maybe it’s blowing things up onto a movie screen, with real actors and a music soundtrack and visual effects, all of that, maybe that’s artifice enough, that even subconsciously as a viewer there’s sometimes just too much suspension of disbelief involved with all the videogame paraphernalia on top of everything. Indeed it is the same problem comicbook movies have, managing to accept bizarre realities with people dressing up in weird costumes and defying all the laws of physics with their superpowers- its okay in a comic but in a movie it can all look a bit… weird, daft.

In any event, this film is structured strangely anyhow, with a strange quest (trace the fabled Apple of Eden) with indistinct reason (Templars defeat Assassins, ensure peace through the end of Freewill, whatever it actually means) and uncovering the strange lineage of our convict hero with Daddy issues. Its just a messy story awkwardly told, unless I was paying insufficient attention.  I suppose you just have to go along with all the nonsense, particularly when our baddie finally gets the famed Apple and, rather than use it to ensure World Peace etc, he waits for the annual Templar Convention in London to do it because he’s a sucker for a showstopper and the applause of his superiors. I mean, you’ve got the answer to Everything and the vindication of centuries of struggle and sacrifice and you just… don’t use it? I know it would have been the end of the movie, but, you know, why script it like that and leave it hanging like a big plot hole just sitting there bugging me for the rest of the movie.

Not that there was a lot of movie left after the bad guys attend their annual bad guy conference: most damning of all, the film fizzles to a halt, just stopping as if we are missing another twenty minutes and a ‘proper’ ending. Are we supposed to be left on the edge of our seats waiting for another installment? Well, that may be the cause, because there was evidently a franchise in mind with this film, a familiar blight of films now. You can’t just tell one, self-contained story anymore with a beginning, middle and end, no, it’s all a serial now, just more the pity when poor box-office cuts such prospects adrift.

So Assassins Creed was quite frustrating. A great cast, and some really nice action sequences and art direction, competently done generally, but undermined by a stodgy script laden with self-importance and lapses of logic. I also think the direction (or maybe it was the editing) was lacking at times, in simply telling the story. Its one thing to maintain a mystery, another to leave the audience lost not understanding what’s going on or why. Mind, it all seemed to make sense in the videogame.

But videogames aren’t movies, and movies aren’t videogames…

Inferno (2016)

inf12016.82: Inferno (Cinema)

Inferno benefits, at the very least, by having a fairly reliable race-against-time plot to ensure the pace never really lets up enough that anyone really has time to consider how daft everything is. The problem only arises afterwards when you think back and consider how implausible it all is and how it starts to collapse into all of its the plot-holes when given any thought.

In that sense of course its no different than the previous two films, but I guess on the plus side, Inferno lacks the pomposity and self-seriousness that weighed them down- I don’t really think Inferno takes itself at all seriously at any time during its breezy two hours. Indeed, compared to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Inferno feels decidedly lightweight. For the first time, I think the film-makers have cottoned on to how daft and badly written the Dan Brown books really are and have delivered a film the books deserve. Its a b-movie that knows its a b-movie.

The stakes are certainly higher this time around- the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance here. Billionaire nut-job Betrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, probably too good for this film, like pretty much everyone else in it, to be honest) is convinced that he can save the world by killing half the human population with a plague he has designed- the Inferno virus. He sets the deadly virus in a bomb in a bag (seen any unattended bags just laying around lately?) and then goes on the run so the Good Guys of the World Health Organisation can’t catch him and torture the bombs location out of him. Why on earth, having got virus and bomb all ready, that he doesn’t just trigger the damn thing and be done with it escapes my understanding. Anyway, he throws himself off a tower and dies. Somewhere a deadly bomb is going to go off and launch a plague that will kill billions. It could be anywhere.

So as usual with Dan Brown’s stuff, the daftness is launched almost immediately. The bomb is going to go off at a certain time and to ensure that it all goes to plan Zobrist has left elaborate clues based on Dante’s vision of Hell so that his girlfriend can ensure that the bomb will indeed go off. I mean, what? The same clues that can ensure the good guys can find the bomb and ensure it doesn’t go off? What? The same clues that ensure that some bad guys can get the bomb and sell it to the highest maniac bidder? What?

inf3.jpgIt feels that this film is just a few years too late (it is, after all, some seven years since the second film). Tom Hanks is dependable as ever but even he looks tired and disinterested this time around. The one genuine plus point for this film is Felicity Jones as his doctor, who just happens to be a huge superfan since her childhood of Robert Langdon’s books on symbols (what?) and elects to assist Langdon as he launches into his quest to unravel Zobrist’s clues by visiting museums and messing up historical facts. Jones is earnest in her role and seems to be having some fun with it all, as is Irrfan Khan who leads a shadowy organisation that despots and Bond villains hire to hide conspiracies (you know, the guys who hide the truth about who killed JFK and who was really behind 9/11- you’ll find them in Yellow Pages or something). There’s a few twists and good guys turning out to be bad and a few bad guys gaining a conscience (well killing a few billion people mist be bad for business, after all). Its a Dan Brown movie.

Even Hans Zimmer’s score, ditching the high strings and religious choirs of the previous films in favour of noisy electronic muzak, betrays a lack of effort that seems to run through the film- at least the last two films had decent scores that raised their profile; this noise is hardly music at all.

I haven’t read the book, but my wife has and it was her fault we watched this at the cinema (well, that and a cinema voucher for her birthday), and it has to be said she was more disappointed by the film than I (like I had any expectations to disappoint, aha). It turns out that the film-makers changed the ending from that of the book, which had a rather more downbeat conclusion. I must say after she told me about it, I had to agree that the books ending would at least have offered an unusual twist on what viewers may have expected at the start (I mean, we all know how these things are going to turn out, don’t we?). Perhaps that would have been a saving grace for such a lightweight film, having a darker conclusion than one might expect. Hollywood does like its moral high ground though, doesn’t it, and the good guys always win, even if we are past caring at this point.

Diabolical Angels

ad1Angels & Demons (2009),  Blu-ray

Hmm. What exactly was this film about, exactly? Some Irish priest who wants to usurp the Catholic church for Reasons Unknown and become the Pope by stealth, murder and intrigue? Or was it about some scientific discovery regards the ‘God Particle’ and how its existence proves and/or disproves the existence of God? Or is it about an assassin hired to kill four cardinals in elaborate fashion on the hour every hour as a distraction from a massive bomb nuking most of Rome and the heads of the Catholic Church? I ask because I think its all of the above, but I’m not entirely certain. Whatever it is, it finally collapses into complete farce with the bad-boy priest seizing control of a convenient helicopter and flying the bomb into the heavens in an act of saintly sacrifice, only to conveniently parachute down from the massive explosion and certain Popedom, until hero Robert Langdon discovers a handy secret camera confirming the imminent Pope is really a James Bond villain in the wrong movie.

Yes its the elaborately nonsensical sequel to The Da Vinci Code (although the book is actually a prequel as it was written first, but… well, never mind)and like that film this is a fiendishly staged and competently structured thriller that eventually unravels under the weight of an increasingly preposterous plot. Until its final twenty minutes it might even be a better movie, as its race-against-time story does have some measure of tension and mystery until everything is finally revealed to be shockingly stupid.

Its the fascinating thing about the Dan Brown books, their popularity and that of the films- its like  everyone’s Dirty Secret. They are utter tosh and we know it, but we read them and the films become some kind of Modern Event, complete with major star actors, major  league director (Ron Howard) and talented crew behind the scenes (the visual effects are convincing and spectacular). The films are made with such sincerity and conviction its almost heartbreaking when you realise the crass stupidity of it all.

In the end, although this film has its fans I do think the first film is the superior of the two (the ending with the helicopter is just a step too far for me, although the book is actually even dafter as I recall). The conspiracy behind The Da Vinci Code is just too seductive and enjoyable compared to this films strange arc of Catholic politics and fiendish murders. I’m still not certain if these films are just silly fun or horribly insulting.

Something’s missing in the code…

davinci1The Da Vinci Code (2006) (Blu-ray)

With Inferno coming to the cinema next week, it seemed timely to revisit the earlier films in the franchise, so to make a start I dug out my old blu-ray of The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, guilty admission time: I quite enjoyed the Dan Brown book, and have a soft spot for the film. I remember reading the book on a summer holiday, thinking it was a great (albeit daft) page -turner surely destined to be a movie (in a similar fashion when reading The Martian years later).Of course the success of the book inevitably had the Hollywood big boys attention and what might have been a successful minor film turned into a triple-A talent blockbuster starring no less than Tom Hanks in the lead with Ron Howard directing.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know  I have my issues with Ron Howard- he’s a competent director with some box-office hits behind him, but his films are generally functional, well-crafted but lacking any personal ‘voice’ and thats true of The Da Vinci Code too. It tells its story and technically its competent, but it never gets under the skin of the characters or what makes the central conceit of the story so beguiling; it isn’t based on the book or a commentary on the book, it simply is the book.

Its a standard thriller/page-turner/potboiler and feels rather soulless. Its as lazily presented as the book is lazily written, full of both interesting and preposterous ideas, tantalising possibilities and gaping plot-holes, all swept up in a driving rush to the finale (the whole point of the hot pursuit and relentless pace of the film is simply to stop the audience having time or opportunity to think too much about what they are seeing).

Its a Hitchcock thriller by way of art history notes/conspiracy angst and religious dogma- Stanley Kubrick might have added some personal commentary or examination of what exactly attracted people to the wild fancies of this book, and what that might tell us of Western Civilization in a new millennium. Howard though, is no Kubrick, he’s a director with a job to do; to simply put the book onscreen, which he manages admirably. I would have liked a bit more but it’s likely unfair to criticize Howard for doing his job. Its doubly unfair of me to compare Howard to Kubrick too.

The film does have an above-average Hans Zimmer score though, which is something, but even that feels fairly routine -there’s no humour in the score at all, something which might have enlivened the film a little. The whole thing is deadpan and serious, treating the story with a reverence that is almost confounding. Not once does Hanks give the audience a wink that he knows it’s all daft hokum. Instead the film threatens to collapse under the weight of all that reverence and rigidity to a book that doesn’t really deserve it, or is able to support it.

That said, there is an old-school, Hitchcock thriller feel to the film that is rather endearing, and it’s certainly a change from all the CGI-dominated superhero heroics dominating Hollywood today, so yeah, despite my misgivings, I do have a soft spot for it. One of those guilty pleasures I guess. And nothing with Tom Hanks in can be all bad.

Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons Renewed

Well, here’s some good news from tv-land; both Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons have been renewed for third seasons. These are two of my favourite shows at the moment. Currently I have my Tivo recording both their second seasons for me to watch when the complete seasons are ready (I have the first seasons on Blu-ray which I plan to re-watch prior to each).

Hanniballpic1

Hannibal has suffered from poor ratings since it started (it’s second season renewal was uncertain) but has rightfully enjoyed critical success- thankfully international financing helps covers its costs which makes it easier for NBC to renew it- importantly this also helps avoid network interference with the show. Considering how great Hannibal is, its ratings are odd (if this show was on HBO it would be huge, I’m sure) and I’m frustrated by how it gets lost in the schedules over here in the UK on a fairly minor satellite/cable channel. Nobody I know watches it. It feels like The Wire all over again; I expect word of mouth to ensure healthy DVD/Blu-ray box set sales in years to come. The writing is brilliant and the acting superb; this kind of stuff is better than what we see in movies, frankly. But anyway, a third season is great news and I can relax when eventually watching season two knowing there is more to come (I think the producers intend it to run seven seasons in order to tell the entire Hannibal storyline from the books and movies).

Da Vinci's Demons 2012Da Vinci’s Demons is the real guilty pleasure of these two shows. Its got a thoroughly preposterous premise but nevertheless its a joy to watch- I wasn’t sure for the first few episodes but once I ‘got’ what the show was I settled into it. Its really an adult comicbook, a what-if kind of thing, a flight of fantasy set in a strange sexy  medieval world in which fictional characters like Dracula exist in the same world as dashing hero Da Vinci. It seems to take its cues from conspiracy theories and political/religious intrigues – sort of  Dan Brown but wilder. Thanks to its period setting it looks and feels different to most everything else I see. Yes its daft but great fun. The performances are very good, the scripts imaginative and the production amazing considering its filmed here in the UK.  Its also graced by a terrific, highly ambitious music score by Bear McCreary that is, like his BSG work, a whole additional character in the show. Again, it seems to have a long story-arc in mind across several seasons and in many ways its clearly a harder sell than Hannibal so confirmation of a third season is brilliant news.

So anyway, anyone reading this who hasn’t tried either of these shows- give them a shot, you may be very pleasantly surprised.