Archive for January, 2017

Assassin’s Creed

Posted: January 20, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons.

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“And then baby bear asked ‘who’s been sleeping in my bed'”

During the Spanish Inquisition, a man named Nerha is accepted into the Assassins, a secret society charged with protecting something named the Apple of Eden, an artefact that is supposed to provide the genetic “antidote” to human free will. The apple is sought by the Templars, a rival group who want to eliminate strife by eliminating free will.

In 1986 a young Callum Lynch arrives home to discover his mother has been killed by his father, who it turns out is an assassin. As Templar forces arrive his father tells Callum to run.

Thirty years later the adult Callum (Fassbender) is on death row. He’s strapped down and receives a lethal injection…and then wakes up in a secret facility in Madrid where he meets Dr Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard). She introduces Callum to a complex device known as the Animus. Callum is the last ancestor of Nerha, and the Animus uses the genetic link between the two men to allow Callum to inhabit Nerha’s body. Sophie, and her father Alan (Irons), hope that Callum will lead them to the Apple. Nerha was the last man in history known to have possessed the Apple, and the Rikkins (being Templars) are eager to get hold of it.

As Callum experiences the past, and learns about his heritage as the descendant of an Assassin, will he chose to help Sophia and her father, or will he choose a different path?

 

“It was like a computer game” is a complaint often levelled at CGI heavy films, and whilst there is some truth in some CG looking like it came out of a game, on the whole it’s an unfair insult. It implies computer games are dumb, and many of them are not. What they are is a very different form of media than film, much as a book is. In a computer game the idea is that you are the hero, you decide what happens. This is part of the reason that computer games translate poorly to the medium of film, because you’re not playing the game anymore, you’re effectively watching someone else play the game.

Assassin’s Creed is worse than most. Here you’re not watching someone play the game, you’re watching Michael Fassbender as he watches someone play the game!

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Cotillard watches Fassbender watching someone else playing Assassin’s Creed

I’ve never played the game, but clearly it is very popular and people are drawn to both its parkour style acrobatics, and also its sense of history. On the surface you would imagine this would make for an engaging film, especially when you throw talented actors like Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons into the mix. If you imagined this you would be wrong.

Assassin’s Creed is poor, and worst of all it’s boring. It’s directed with a po-faced earnestness that does it no favours, it features hackneyed dialogue that even good actors (and beyond the lead three this film features the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling) can’t make work, and the plot is confused. Is modern day Callum being possessed by his ancestor, is he learning from his ancestor? Who knows! The notion of the Apple of Eden is preposterous, and the idea of removing free will just reminded me too much of the old Man from UNCLE film ‘How to Steal the World’ but whilst that had a sense of fun, and a clear notion of how ridiculous it was, Assassin’s Creed plays it utterly straight and therefore becomes wince inducingly bad.

Fassbender tries to imbue Callum with a personality, and at times you can almost see a glint of “what the hell have I got myself into?” in his eyes, but he isn’t aided by a script that gives Callum limited personality. He isn’t even allowed to be a truly bad man, when it’s mentioned he’s killed someone he answers simply “He was a pimp” well that’s all right then. Cotillard looks empathetic and conflicted but really seems to be phoning it in, but then again she isn’t given much to work with. Irons tries, and occasionally succeeds, in chewing the scenery and he gets pretty much the only laugh in a film almost entirely devoid of humour.

But surely the action sequences are worthwhile, you ask? Not so much. For starters too many of them are clearly CG, and even when they’re not it’s hard to make much out due to the frenetic camera work and the fact that much of the film seems very dark. At times it was hard to make much out, and we did wonder if we’d accidentally gone to see the 30% light loss 3D version!

I’ve heard several reviews that suggested the modern-day stuff was boring but at least the bits set in Andalucía in 1492 are exciting. I’d actually say the reverse. Both are dull but at least the characters in the present day have some personality. Nerha is a complete cipher and, for a man determined to safeguard free will, he ironically doesn’t seem to have much of his own!

There was potential for an Indiana Jones style action adventure film here, but instead all we get is a turgid mess that isn’t even interesting enough to be enjoyably terrible. Bland, boring and forgettable. Assassins’ Creed? Assassin’s Crud more like.

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The Inquisition’s ultimate torture. Heretics were chained up and forced to watch Assassin’s Creed on a loop.

 

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Rogues

Posted: January 19, 2017 in Book reviews
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Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

51u06-9fvdl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s been a while since my last book review, mainly because I’ve been ploughing my way through this monster! That makes it sound like a chore which it wasn’t—well maybe occasionally—in fact this was an enjoyable read, but then anthologies often are, if only because even if you get a dud story you know it’s not far to go until the next one.

And there are some duds in this collection, but they’re outweighed by the gems thankfully.

Although Martin’s name is prominent, and the fact that this includes a Game of Thrones story is also highlighted, this isn’t solely a book about fantasy rogues, there are stories set in the present day or the recent past, and a smidgen of sci-fi too.

There are 20+ stories here, and I don’t intend to go through them all, but I’ll try and give you a flavour, and highlight the best ones (and the worst).

The book opens with Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie, and this story probably has the highest number of rogues in a single story as it follows a mysterious package that passes from person to person in a fantasy city. It’s an interesting tale but the shifting perspectives do let it down slightly.

Next up is What Do You Do? By Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Set in the present day this is an intriguing thriller and I liked it a lot, it’s only let down by one too many twists at the end.

Bent Twig by Joe R Lansdale is a pulp detective story and probably the first tale in the book I didn’t like, I didn’t warm to the characters and couldn’t engage with the prose.

Provenance by David W Ball is a tale of stolen artwork and Nazis. It’s not especially original or surprising, but it’s well written enough that you don’t really mind.

Roaring Twenties by Carrie Vaughn is a tale of magic and gangsters set in a speakeasy. It sounds like a great idea but I felt it never really went anywhere so it’s another one in the thumbs down column.

A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch on the other hand is a wonderful tale about a bunch of predominantly female thieves co-opted by a powerful warlock to perform an impossible heist; to steal a street! It’s wonderfully quirky, funny engaging and just downright entertaining and is probably my favourite tale in the book.

Bad Brass by Bradley Denton is a tale of a less than honest high school teacher and some stolen musical instruments. It never quite turns into the story you expect it to, but it’s interesting and original all the same.

Paul Cornell’s A Better Way to Die is a story I feel I should have liked more than I did, and I think I was slightly hampered by an unfamiliarity with the universe it’s set in, one where 19th Century Britain has taken a very different turn. It’s an odd one as initially I didn’t think I’d liked it, but it’s stayed with me more than most.

A Cargo of Ivories by Garth Nix, featuring a knight and his companion, an enchanted puppet (I kid you not) was something of a trudge to get through, but luckily it’s immediately followed up by Diamonds from Tequilla by Walter Jon Williams, which features a very engaging lead, a Hollywood actor embroiled with murder and drug cartels south of the border.

The Caravan to Nowhere by Phyllis Eisenstein was an interesting read, detailing a troubadour with teleportation powers who joins a camel train crossing a wide desert where phantom cities are seen.

The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives by Lisa Tuttle wasn’t a particularly original Sherlock Holmes style tale, but was well written at least.

If unfamiliarity with some of the characters might have dented my enjoyment in some tales, familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere only served to enhance my enjoyment of How the Marquis got his Coat Back, a tale which follows the ludicrously cool Marquis de Carabas as he attempts to, er, retrieve his coat!

Now Showing by Connie Willis has a neat central premise but is too long and way too knowing. The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss is probably too long as well, but it’s a sparkling sort of fairy-tale about a young man who trades favours/secrets with children.

It’s shame to report that the story that rounds off the collection, a Game of Thrones tale from Martin himself, is one of the weakest in the book. It’s not that Westeros isn’t an incredibly interesting locale, nor that Martin is a poor writer, but this felt less like a story than a history lesson or a passage from a history book, so even when it was interesting it never really gripped me the same way a lot of the stories in this collection did and I can’t help feeling he’d just lifted a chapter from his world building bible and slapped it down at the end of the book.

It’s a shame but it in no way dented my overall enjoyment of a book that’s kept me out of Roguish mischief for quite a few weeks!

 

 

La La Land

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

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Anything you can do…

Aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and jazz pianist Seb (Gosling) initially meet on a crowded Los Angeles highway, flipping each other off after Mia doesn’t move off fast enough when the traffic starts moving again. Later that day Mia attends a soul destroying audition. Despite not being really interested she accepts the invitation of her housemates to go to a swanky Hollywood party. Later on, after finding her car has been towed away, she walks home alone. Passing a club she hears beautiful music and steps inside to catch the end of an improvised jazz solo by Seb. Unfortunately Seb is sacked at that moment by the club owner played by J.K. Simmons (who’d just wanted him to play Christmas tunes) Mia tries to compliment Seb but he ignores her and storms out.

Months later the two bump into each other again, which gives Mia the opportunity to get her own back by teasing him over the covers band he’s forced to play in. After Seb walks her back to her car, the two sing about how little chemistry they have, whilst the opposite is plainly true. Meeting up again the two soon become lovers, but as time passes how will their romance endure when compromise and success come calling?

 

There was a point, I’m not sure when, maybe a third of the way through La La Land, when I realised I was smiling. A moment later I realised I’d probably been smiling for some time, and I kept smiling pretty much right to the end, even if that smile became somewhat bittersweet at times. Sometimes everyone tells you a film is great and you can only be disappointed, but sometimes the hype isn’t hype, it’s the truth.

Believe the hype, because La La Land is wonderful. The first thing I said after it finished was “That’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.”

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I think I probably had a similar expression on my face watching this film

The plot of the film is nothing particularly new, it’s an old story of people with dreams who fall in love and have to deal with what happens to that love when it looks like their dreams may come true, but what makes this film so special is the execution of that well-worn idea, much as a jazz musician can make something brand new out of the same set of notes.

From its cinemascope opening titles to its glorious The End this is a film that harks back to a golden era of film making. It’s a cinema literate film, but not in a snobbish way, not in that Tarantino ‘look how clever I am’ kind of way. La La Land doesn’t want to one up you, La La Land is a film that says “Do you like movies? I like movies too”. The LA locations speak to this love of film; Mia works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, the two of them visit Griffith Observatory, scene of many films. The film has a bright colour palette of the kind you found in classic musicals of days of yore, and of course it’s a musical.

And yet. Much like the jazz band Seb ends up playing for that’s trying to do something new with jazz, there’s something very modern about this film.

Writer/director Chazelle is 31, and this is his third film, yet he directs it with such talent and aplomb that you might imagine it’s his twenty third. Every scene is imbued with so much that I suspect it’s a film that will just get better with successive viewings. I haven’t seen a film this well put together since The Artist. A few favourite moments include; the opening dance routine, Seb and Mia’s first song and dance routine, the shot of Mia backlit by movie titles,  Mia gradually pushed towards the back of an audience at one of Seb’s gigs, and of course the final beautiful bitter sweet number. This is a film where even when nothing is going on, something is going on.

I like musicals, but for me the best musicals are those where you forget you’re watching a musical, and La La Land makes you forget very quickly. You’re just watching a great film that happens to feature spontaneous song and dance numbers. Time will tell how catchy the tunes become, but City of Stars is lovely. And sure, Stone and Gosling aren’t the greatest singers/dancers in the world (but that’s kinda the point and their less than perfect performance just serves to reinforce the idea that they’re regular people).

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Two great actors, two great performances

However good Chazelle’s script and direction are, let’s not forget the two fantastic performances at the heart of the film. Emma Stone is simply wonderful here. Her girl next door, innocent charm serves her admirably, but should not in any way obscure what a truly great actress she genuinely is. Her auditions we see at the very start and end of the film, when she’s acting at acting, are fantastic, and you believe every word she says, every emotion she shows. Gosling is similarly an actor at the top of his game, imbuing Seb with genuine passion for jazz and genuine love for Mia. He has a natural laid back cool yet deftly shows us the comic timing he used to such good effect in The Nice Guys. And the chemistry between them feels utterly natural, and incredibly charming, right from the off.

The film works on so many levels it’s almost impossible to count. It’s a love letter to LA, a love letter to dreamers, a love letter to films (and especially musicals) and jazz and to roads not taken and, when it comes right down to it, a love letter to love, and yet it’s never mawkish, it treats love realistically in a way that reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (another gorgeous film featuring two wonderful central performances and another film that never tries to peddle the notion that true love necessarily lasts forever.)

It’s magical, joyful, uplifting, bittersweet, genuinely heart-breaking in places and whilst I think it’s too early to suggest it’s going to be my favourite film of 2017, I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t end up in my top five. I think it’s fair to say that I’m Ga Ga for La La (Land).

Having seen my first film of 2017 at the cinema (review coming soon) I thought it would be fun to rank the films I saw at the cinema in 2016. First a caveat. Technically I saw 23 separate films at the flicks, but the 23rd was my third viewing of The Force Awakens, which was really a 2015 film. Suffice to say TFA might well have been top if I had included it!

So, the below is my list, best to worst. This is just a bit of fun, a rough idea of where I’d place the films I saw. Ask me another day and it might look quite different but, right now, this is it!

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  1. Arrival- A slow burning, intelligent science fiction film that hits you with an almighty punch at the end.
  2. Deadpool- The Anti-Marvel/DC superhero film. Exceptionally funny and exceptionally snarky.
  3. The Nice Guys- Shane Black does what Shane Black does best, a classic buddy comedy thriller starring Crowe and Gosling on top form.
  4. Star Trek Beyond- After the debacle that was Into Darkness the rebooted Trek crew go on a fun and frantic adventure, a film that really feels like Star Trek and a great way to celebrate Trek’s 50th.
  5. Captain America: Civil War- It’s probably overlong but worth it to see Marvel’s finest go toe to toe with one another.
  6. Rogue One- A very good science fiction war movie with a fantastic final third, even if it never quite feels like Star Wars.
  7. The Magnificent Seven- Delightfully old fashioned western, fun and action packed to boot.
  8. The Big Short- thoroughly engaging docu-drama detailing the 2008 banking crash.
  9. Bridget Jones’s Baby- Bridge is back and she’s as lovably rubbish as always!
  10. Ghostbusters- a reboot that was more fun than it had any right to be. Great cast and, whilst not perfect, a film that didn’t remotely deserve the crap it got before anyone had even seen it.benedict-cumberbatch-dr-strange-splash-news-040416
  11. Dr Strange- By the numbers Marvel, lifted somewhat by Cumberbatch at his best and a finale that trades fighting for thinking.
  12. The Witch- A film to admire rather than like. Authentic and creepy in places.
  13. Blair Witch- a sequel/soft reboot that works way better than it should. Genuinely scary in places if far too long.
  14. Zoolander 2- A sequel that’s nowhere near the classic the original was, but still raised a few laughs.
  15. X-Men Apocalypse- Decidedly average entry in the X-Men franchise.
  16. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice- starts well but just descends into utter nonsense and the very epitome of style over substance. Affleck is the bomb as Batman though.
  17. Independence Day: Resurgence- pointless big budget sequel that feels like it was made for TV.
  18. Dad’s Army- great cast and I did laugh, but played it far too safe.
  19. Blood Father- Drab thriller that at least reminds you how much screen presence Mel Gibson has.
  20. Passengers- Fails on just about every level. Looks beautiful but it’s utterly hollow and features some cringeworthy sexual politics.
  21. Triple 9- Great cast wasted in an unbelievably dull film.
  22. Suicide Squad- Utter mess that even Will Smith and Margot Robbie can’t save.maxresdefault