Monday 23 April 2018

Film review: Assassins in search of a story

Michael Fassbender struggles to make sense of this tacky action vehicle

'Tedious muddiness': Michael Fassbender in Assassin's Creed
'Tedious muddiness': Michael Fassbender in Assassin's Creed
Endless Poetry

Paul Whitington

I am not the world's leading expert on video games, but learned friends inform me that 'Assassin's Creed' is one of the better examples. It dramatises, if that's the right word, a centuries-old conflict between a secret order of selfless warriors called the Assassins, and the Knights Templar, here re-imagined as a global network of the super-rich with politely fascistic tendencies.

They do battle across time, sword-fighting on rooftops and dodging sadistic inquisitors. As of last year, over 93 million copies of the game's various versions had been sold.

It's a perfect case for movie adaptation then, because lots of video games have been turned into thrilling films, right? No so much: though a new version is on the way, 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' was tolerable at best, and seems like 'Citizen Kane' next to the likes of 'Hitman', 'Warcraft' and the deadly dull 'Prince of Persia'.

Turning narratives that involve endless loops of pursuit and conflict into watchable dramas is not so easy, then, but with its rich historical resonances you'd have thought Assassin's Creed would stand a better chance than most.

Michael Fassbender seems to have been of that opinion, because not only does he star in this $125m action vehicle, but his film company, DMC, is co-producing. Fassbender is Callum Lynch, a career criminal and murderer who's fulminating on death row and due for imminent execution when his sorry life takes an unexpected turn.

He's put on the gurney of doom and injected with poison, but instead of dying wakes up in whitewashed room where he's greeted by a beautiful scientist.

She is Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), who explains to Callum that he's been spirited away to a secret facility in Madrid run by the Abstergo Foundation, which turns out to be a front for the Templars. They (and you'll have to make a leap of faith with me here) are searching for the Golden Apple of Eden, the actual piece of fruit that led Adam astray and contains the essence of human violence and sin, which could be eradicated by those possessing it.

Callum (they have discovered) is a direct descendent of Aguilar de Nertha, a fierce 15th century Assassin who battled the Templars and the Inquisition and was the last person to be seen with the Golden Apple. If Callum can unearth his genetic memory with the help of a virtual reality machine, he may just lead the Templars to the one prize they've always desired.

Sophia wants Callum to engage with the project voluntarily, but her father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) is not so sentimental, and the Asbtergo facility is as much a prison as a laboratory. But the more Callum reconnects with the life of Aguilar, the more powerful - and angry - he becomes.

So there you have it, folks. It would take a genius to turn that bewildering premise into a coherent feature, and though I really liked Australian director Justin Kurzel's last film, 'Macbeth', (which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard), he's all at sea in this one.

A tedious muddiness pervades the aesthetic of Assassin's Creed, and when action scenes come, they're edited in such a frenetic way that they're impossible to follow. Aguilar may be a terrific hand-to-hand fighter, but I couldn't tell what he was doing from one moment to the next, or who was winning and losing.

Fassbender, normally so reliable, is driven to extremes as he searches for depths in his character that do not exist, and sails wildly over the top in the film's last and crucial virtual reality sequence.

Marion Cotillard is given even less to work with, and midway through the proceedings her soulful brown eyes begin to mist over with a fog of boredom.

In an all-too-brief scene, Brendan Gleeson adds Thespian heft to the proceedings as Callum's sad-eyed and misunderstood father, but Jeremy Irons has played dozens of oily villains before, and this one adds nothing to his slick, lazy repertoire.

The actors, however, are not at fault here, the story is - or rather the lack of one.

Assassin's Creed

(12A, 115mins)

2 Stars

Films coming soon...

La La Land (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt); Live by Night (Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller); Manchester by the Sea (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol).

Recollections of a poet’s Bohemian life

2017-01-06_ent_27562488_I1.JPG
Endless Poetry
 

Endless Poetry

(18, 128mins)

4 Stars

It is hard, in a single sentence, to sum up the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky. At various points this leading light of Chilean Bohemia has been a poet, an author, an actor, musician, composer, comic book creator, and circus clown. He even invented his own religion for God's sake, but he's best known for his films, violently surreal arthouse escapades that culminated in the grisly 1970 acid western 'El Topo', which attracted an underground following in the US, and briefly raised his profile.

He tried and failed to make a movie based on Frank Herbert's 'Dune', and abandoned filmmaking entirely in the 1990s in favour of writing and theatre work. But over the last few years, in his mid-80s, Jodorowsky has embarked on a colourful and typically ambitious series of films based on his own life. In 'The Dance of Reality' (2013), he recalled his difficult early childhood as the immigrant son of Jewish-Ukrainian parents in a provincial Chilean town. Endless Poetry begins where that film ended, as Alejandro comes of age and begins to reject his parents' bourgeois values.

As war rages in Europe, young Alejandro grows tired of working in his parents' shop, and wearier still of his bullying and overbearing father (played, with a Freudian flourish, by Jodorowsky's son, Brontis), who counts his pennies and distrusts intellectualism of all kinds. Hope and tenderness are provided by Alejandro's mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), who communicates only in operatic song, but even she is horrified when her son announces that he wants to be a poet.

He starts reading the works of Garcia Lorca, a known homosexual, and when his outraged father tries to browbeat him into changing his ways, Alejandro runs away.

Now a young man, and played by Jodorowsky's youngest son, Adan, Alejandro moves in with two female artists, begins dressing more opulently and composing breezy lyric poems. Advised that he needs a muse, Alejandro haunts Santiago's bohemian bars until he meets Stella Diaz (also played by Pamela Flores, and Jodorowsky seems to be wickedly toying with the sacred tropes of psychoanalysis here), a terrifying, flame-haired, huge-breasted poetess who repels all male advances with kicks and blows and initially dismisses this callow young scribe's advances.

His wide-eyed sincerity eventually wins her over, and they begin an affair that doesn't seem to make anyone very happy but is certainly stormy enough to inspire an entire volume of poetry. Inevitably, they separate, and Alejandro sets up house and becomes a well-connected member of the city's artistic scene. He makes friends with a winning surrealist poet called Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), but when they fall out over a woman, Alejandro dreams, like Stephen Dedalus, of escaping the petty restrictions of his birthplace altogether.

Jodorowsky has always admired the films of Federico Fellini, and the Italian master's influence is everywhere in Endless Poetry, from the dwarves and cartoonishly opulent temptresses that haunt the edges of his story to the movie's eloquently fanciful attitude to its narrative.

But it's distinctively Chilean, and distinctly the work of Jodorowsky too, a fiercely personal film that uses humour and surrealism to float fluently back through the years. Jodorowsky even turns up himself, to whisper earnest advice into the ear of his younger self, who will of course ignore it.

Interwoven into Jodorowsky's wild, wilfully eccentric and wonderfully opulent film are meditations on the role of the artist, and art itself, as well as the simultaneously ridiculous and vital role played by the poet/singer/storyteller. Jodorowsky, of course, is all of those things, and I do hope he gets to make the next instalment in his fascinating cinematic autobiography.

Irish Independent

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