Assassins Creed: As Good As You Expect A Video Game Movie To Be

I have no doubt that Hollywood will eventually make a good, if not great, video game movie. In recent years, Video Games have delivered richer, more insightful narratives then most big blockbusters. Almost 25 years after the abomination that was the Super Mario Brothers movie, its fairly reasonable to expect that we are finally due for a video game movie that does right to audiences and fans alike. But lets be clear: Assassins Creed is not that film.

Based on the Ubisoft series of action video games, the Assassins Creed film seems destined to be more notable for the talent behind the film, rather then the actual content within the films running time. Pulling in big named stars like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and so on would indicate something unique or interesting within the films’ script. Yet somehow, Assassins Creed does what many film adaptations succumb to, dumbing down elements that fans of the source material would enjoy, yet simultaneously adding too much exposition in many scenes so as to confuse newcomers.

Admittedly, the basic plot of the games can be equally confusing, following our protaganist experience the memories of his assassin ancestors and become an assassin in the process. But, perhaps in an effort to add extra drama to the film, the script tries to make a mystery out of which side each character is on, regardless of how clearly defined it already is. Several twists throughout the film reveal that certain characters are either an Assassin or Templar, despite our already knowing which side they already align with, leading to a major disconnect between the filmmakers and the audience. At times, you’ll be either 5 steps ahead of the filmmakers, and at others be completely lost as to what’s going on; more likely, you’ll just give up and stop caring, finding the film lacking in rewarding audiences for their time and money.

Not helping the undecipherable plot are performances that can best be described as un-involving. Regardless of whatever’s going on in the scene, most dialogue comes off as unemotional mumbling, often feeling as if the actors are simple reading right off the script. Fassbender does alright in the lead role, but the combination of no material to work with and a script riddled with cliche’s makes it impossible to connect with his present day Cal, or past ancestor Aguilar. We never get to learn anything about his supposed assassin friends either, wasting veteran actor Michael Kenneth Williams in the process. As for the villains, Marion Cotiliard suffers from a lack of motivation given to her character, resulting in a character with no defined side in the films conflict, and appears to switch roles unnaturally to support the script as needed. Special mention must be made of Jeremy Irons, an acting legend that we know can do better, but spends his time in Assassins Creed sleepwalking through monologues about control, order and other typical villain motivations.

As far as the split stories going on between the past and present, the far more interesting-in-concept past segments only account for barely a third of the films running time. We spend far too little time in the past, and as a result never get to learn anything about the characters, conflicts or stories in the past. What should feel like a parallel storyline going hand in hand with the events in the present is instead treated like action scenes to interrupt the main story, and the film suffers because of it. Making matters worse, the action is terrible, with over editing and poor cinematography serving as the main culprits; you certainly get the IDEA that something cool is happening, but rarely do you ever see this action on screen. For a film with so little else going on, its a shame that Assassins Creed couldn’t even succeed as the kind of mindless action film worth renting.

Ive seen a number of reviewers try and defend Assassins Creed, claiming that points like “it’s not as bad as previous video game movies” is enough to earn the film a better rating. I want there to be good video game movies as much as anyone else, but if we are to get good ones, we have to treat them as we did the comic book movies of the past. We had to praise the good ones, but more importantly call out the bad ones, if the genre is allowed to improve and evolve. Assassins Creed puts no effort into making an enjoyable, interesting or even coherent film, and is simply a waste of time.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 3 Moments of Apple Symbolism out of 10

Passengers: A Stalkers’ Love Story

Due to the insane nature of Passengers‘ plot, Reel Thoughts will be dividing its review into a small non-spoiler section, and a more in-depth spoiler filled review. We find that our impression of the film cannot be fully explained without giving away major details of the films’ story, and want to spare anyone considering seeing the film. So, Please enjoy the shortened, spoiler-free review bellow, with the full-spoilers review afterwards.

Spoiler-Free:

Passengers certainly isn’t without its bright spots, highlighted by generally good performances and an engaging first act. But once the main idea of the film is presented, the writing cant help but make this film feel far more disturbing then intended, turning what should be a space-set love story into something more unsavory. The film certainly tries to recover, but does so in a way that seems to miss what the problem with the script was in the first place. Combined with effects that never make you feel like you are really there, and a number of major plot holes towards the films climax, and There’s very little to recommend. While it may make for a fun rental, Passengers will likely be remembered less for the first on screen pairing of two Hollywood icons, and more for the ludicrous places the script tries to take its audience.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 5 Concerning Ideas About Love out of 10

 

Spoiler Review

Passengers, on paper, seems like a perfect film: a sci-fi romantic thriller, staring two of hollywoods’ biggest stars, with an ad campaign that teases at a greater mystery in the film. Although certainly popular right now, Hollywood has been releasing Science Fiction films concerned with ideas like love for several years, with this years’ Arrival as the most recent example. But what this film may have lacked in originality, it was hoping to draw in audiences with its twist of what wasn’t being shown in the trailers. And while Passengers starts out engaging, it’s not long before the creepy nature of the script unravels the films initial promise.

While the ads presented that Co-Stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up together in the beginning of the film, as a result of malfunctioning stasis pods aboard a spaceship, the film actually begins with just Chris Pratt’s pod malfunctioning. During the entirety of the films first act, we watch as Pratt’s Jim explores his new surroundings, realizes he is now alone on the ship for the rest of his life, and tries to make peace with this. Pratt’s entire performance at this point is left on his shoulders, and he delivers an engaging performance, pulling you into the sense of desperation that should come with current situation. The standout scene comes in a montage where Pratt experiences all the ship has to offer, beginning playful and childlike, and slowly turning depressing, as he begins to come to terms with the hopelessness of his new life. It’s one of the few real moments the film has, made better by the portraying most of reactions through visuals, rather then dialogue.

Everything for the film changes, however, once Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora is introduced. While the ads for Passengers made it appear as if her stasis pod had also malfunctioned, she is actually woken up on purpose by Jim. As Jim drunkenly walks into where the pods are kept, after a failed suicide attempt, he sees her sleeping in her pod and forms a bond with her. He spends the next few months in the film reading everything she has written, looking up everything he can learn about her, and struggling with whether or not to awaken her, which he ultimately does. The problem with this is that these actions are that not of someone in love, but a stalker, looking up ways to manufacture a version of himself that she could come to romantically invest in him. While the film shows his struggle with whether or not to wake her up, it never questions his looking up everything on her, creating this persona for her to fall in love with, and the questionable eeriness of Jim’s actions.

Once Aurora is awakened, Lawrence and Pratt show plenty of natural chemistry with one another. It makes sense that they would end up romantically entranced by one another, and obviously they end up falling for one another. What’s concerning about how the film portrays this is that while it begins by showing how disturbing Pratts’ actions are, there comes a point where the film suddenly switches sides, ignoring how he is responsible for taking away Aurora’s life, and instead looking at the events of the film as “isn’t it touching how these two found each other and have fallen in love?”. To answer your question, Passengers: this isn’t romantic, because Jim forced all of this to happen, and destroyed another persons life in order to do sowhich is less “romantic” then it is a deeply disturbing and selfish act.

While it is eventually revealed to Aurora that Jim is responsible for taking her life away, the script only continues to make bad decisions by trying to make the audience feel bad for Jim, often having him try to explain that what he did was okay “because he fell in love.” One particular scene has him explaining his disturbing actions to Aurora on the intercom of the ship as she tries to run away; with a change of setting and tone, this is a scene from a horror film, about a trapped woman running from a man she doesn’t know who has taken her and claims that he “loves” her. There is never a moment where Pratt and Lawrence’s characters sit down and discuss the disturbing implications of what Jim has done, and thus the film ends up being in favor of his kidnapping of Lawrence’s life.

The Last third act could have been spent trying to fix this, perhaps giving Jim a moment of realization, or the talk between our leads we discussed previously. Instead, the film tried to deliver a trial for our characters to overcome, through a malfunction that threatens to destroy the ship. While not done poorly, it’s an all too familiar third-act sequence, full of teasing character deaths and ticking clocks. It’s the kind of movie scene where lines like “theres no time”, “this is the only way” and “I have to do this” and thrown about a dozen or so times. Not helping matters are the subpar special effect, which while not bad in any noteworthy way, are fairly lackluster and green screen heavy, distracting from the emotional weight the film tries to portray.

In the final minutes of the film, it is revealed that Jim has managed to find a way to put Lawrence’s Aurora back into stasis and give her her life back. Instead, She chooses to stay with him, forgiving his actions without any explanation, and robbing the audience of an explanation for why we should forgive his actions. It comes off less as a “love conquers all” message, and feels more like a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, where in Aurora resigns herself to the emotions she’s feeling, and moves past the fact that this man destroyed her old life in favor of making his better. It’s an eerie, highly disturbing look at how love works, whose muddled message carries with it an unfortunate translation for viewers who end up miss-interpreting it.

Ultimately, Passengers is a film about selfishness, where in no one pays for their own selfishness in any meaningful way. Jim steals vital resources from the ship to create gifts for Aurora and doesn’t pay for it, putting his needs over those of the other 5,000 members of the ship. He steals Aurora’s life from her so that he wont have to be lonely, and doesn’t even not pay for it, but be rewarded for his own selfish act by having her stay with him for the rest of his life. The film tries to romanticize its own view of love, which has nothing to do with attachment and connections, and instead has everything to do with attraction and selfishness. The first act may intrigue audiences, and there may be some okay effects and performances from the films leads, but Passengers script ultimately astonishes in how far it goes to try and justify and glamorize the deeply concerning actions of its lead actor, leading to one of the years most morally dubious film of the year.

Rogue One Modernizes The Star Wars Franchise

While The Force Awakens was certainly a critical and commercial success when it released last year, many complained that its success was due in part to its familiarity, using a familiar story structure to the now familiar A New Hope. More importantly then that, even fans agreed that although Episode 7 director J.J. Abrams had managed to recreate the feel of the original Star Wars films, his entry into the series play things safe, rather then adding new elements into the almost 40 year old franchise. With added pressure to correct the previous films’ mistakes, as well as supporting the existence of several upcoming side-story films, Rogue One shoulders the weight of many high expectations. But against such high expectations, the latest Star Wars film manages to deliver an exceptionally made blockbuster, that never lets its franchise ties eclipse its own merits.

The tale of the the brave rebels who stole the plans to the original Death Star already has plenty going against it, in as much as its a story where the ending is well known to anyone familiar with the original trilogy. But rather then try to keep the audience guessing as to the fate of our heroes, director Gareth Edwards instead chooses to frame the story as a look at the insurmountable odds our protaganist’s faced, and what it was that they sacrificed their lives for. While past films showed the war between the Empire and Rebellion through a series of skirmishes, Rogue One delves into the war at the heart of the original trilogy, looking in detail at the Empire’s subjugation of planets, as well as the more ruthless lengths the Rebels went to fight them. While the the film gives clear protaganist’s and Antagonist’s to root for/against, there’s no mistaking that our “heroes” are murderers and capable of bad things, grounding the conflict and reminding us of the real loss of life that is often forgotten in most Hollywood blockbuster films.

Much of this is thanks to the strong performances of our leads. Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso is a strong female action hero, who manages to remain realistically flawed and down-to-earth, even when put in fantastical scenarios. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor gives us a different side of the rebellion, showing the men tasked with less-heroic acts, such as assassinations and acts of terrorism; many of these honest looks at the actions of the rebels are put on Luna’s performance, and he is thankfully up to task. The supporting cast all deliver engaging characters, despite sharing limited screen time, with Donnie Yen standing out as the Blind force-wielder Chirrut Imwe.

Part of what makes Rogue One such a risk, as well as its greatest triumph, is the dramatic shift in tone. As previously mentioned, many parallels to real-world wars are shown in the actions of the Empire and Rebellion. Our heroic rebellion now takes on the role of terrorists, more concerned in their goal of destroying the Empire at times then they are in protecting the galaxy. Likewise, the Empire now comes off as a more ruthless and imposing foe, willing to sacrifice innocent lives and planets in pursuit of what they view as “order.” Despite going to such dark material, Rogue One manages to keep either side from feeling  black and white morally, a flaw many have cited with previous films. Likewise, the world returns to a dirtier look, making the alien worlds feel real and lived-in, which helps bring more emotion to the battles that take place within them. Should this film be a success, it’s likely that future films will have to address this dramatic shift in tone, which Rogue One thankfully benefits from.

The film’s new direction does cause some problems during the first act, as we jump between several planets and perspectives. While not engaging, there does come the feeling of a lack of connectivity between the events taking place, which makes it hard to invest in the events of the film early on. Once the second act begins, and our characters have come together for a defined purpose, the film quickly adds plenty of action set pieces and elaborates on the different dynamics between our characters. A few too many cuts might be made throughout the film, referencing characters and events in future films, but this never feels distracting to the immediate events going on, and manages to add context to certain characters placement in the saga as a whole.

Where Rogue One goes from good to great is in its final act, the climactic assault on the planet Scarif. A Saving Private Ryan-level depiction of war, here the darker tone benefits the film the most. Edward’s pension for filming large-scale events comes through, depicting how much the odds are stacked against our heroes, making every victory feel earned, and each loss that much more tragic. No character goes out in a blaze of glory either, keeping the film from turning death into a hollywood spectacle, and helping add to the emotional impact of each characters end. The finality of each death only makes the characters’ actions resound that much more, making Rogue One feel like an important story to tell, even with the well-known ending.

Rogue One is an important turning point for the Star Wars franchise, forgoing the more flashy direction of previous films in favor of a darker, more grounded approach. Only time will tell if Disney decides to explore this more in future films, but as it stands, Rogue One is one of the riskiest Hollywood films in recent memory, one that doesn’t compromise its darker vision in favor of mass appeal. This is Star Wars for the 21st century, and the future is bright in a galaxy far, far away.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Hopes Delivered out of 10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Distracting Subplots

Among the most successful film franchises of all time, Harry Potter invited audiences to a world of magic and adventure at the wizarding school of Hogwarts. But for the next film in JK Rowling’s series, Fantastic Beasts introduces new characters, a different time-period, and a new setting in the streets of New York. For the most part, this change in tone and perspective helps remove some of the sameness that comes with franchise reboots and spin-offs. But while the immediate film is certainly enjoyable, the quality falters when Fantastic Beasts’ focuses more on setting up sequels then its own strengths as a stand-alone adventure.

With the shackles of the Harry Potter storyline removed, Fantastic Beasts‘ is allowed to forge its own identity, creating a more adult interpretation of the wizarding world then we are familiar with. the 1920’s setting compliments this new direction by stewing the film in a combination of prohibition-time intrigue, as well as a look into the differences between how British and American wizarding communities function. While there are the occasional name-drops that longtime fans will enjoy, they never distract from the immediate actions in the film, merely serving to add context to the film in relation to the Harry Potter series.

Most of the performances add plenty of dramatic weight to your traditional blockbuster fare. Eddie Redmaynes’ Newt Scamander is portrayed as a Grizzly Man/Steve Irwin-esque figure, a man whose inability to connect with people is only outmatched by his love and respect for animals. Theres a legitimate love and care that comes from Redmayne in these scenes, and it brings a lot of life to what are otherwise CGI animals. Special mention should be made to Dan Fogler, who delivers an enjoyable turn as Scamander’s friend, even while he never breaks out of the typical comedic relief archetype.

And while these performances are all well and good, the real stars of Fantastic Beasts are the beasts themselves. While the CGI doesn’t exactly make them appear lifelike, the designs manage to shine through, and give us some of the more creative moments in the film. At its best, the film takes the time to explore these creatures, making even the more wildly creative beasts feel fully fleshed out, if not more believable. The team behind bringing these creatures to life should be commended for their work, and are likely to receive recognition for their efforts come awards season.

Sadly, For a film titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there aren’t that many to find. While that isn’t to say this aspect of the film is neglected all together, a large portion of this film spends its time setting up sequels, and it never naturally melds with the Fantastic Beasts‘ portion. Often, the film stops things just as they seem to be getting interesting, and it never seems to gain back its momentum. Perhaps this comes from the length of the original story, but the way Director David Yates attempts to overcome this ends up distracting from the stand-alone strengths of this first entry into a new series. While things appear to get larger-then-life by the end, it all feels artificial with the knowledge that they are setting up something supposedly bigger.

Making matters worse is the set up for upcoming villain Grindelwald. For those who don’t know, he’s intended to be this series’s Voldemort, but he never feels natural in Fantastic Beasts‘ plot, even harming what seemed to be the films’ main antagonist by-association. Yet despite this, the film constantly treats each mention of the name Grindelwald like a bombshell, much in the same way the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity was handled in the last Star Wars film; this is problematic, considering what should be the jumping point for anyone not intimately familiar with the Harry Potter franchise are already being left out of major moments in Fantastic Beasts, just because they didn’t already read the book and know why this Grindelwald person is so important. And with how prevalent these mentions are within the film, it ends up making Fantastic Beasts feeling like a side-story in its own film.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Fantastic Beasts, but the film never allows you to sit back and enjoy it on its own merits. By forcing a stand-alone plot into the role of a franchise stepping stone, the plot feels inconsequential, with constant reminders of “something bigger coming” undercutting the importance of the current events going on in the film. There’s still plenty to love, from strong performances from the lead stars, and creative creature design that will delight audiences young and old alike. But the constant set ups to future events, and the overall lack of focus, takes away most of the magic that we should have found from the get go.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6.5 Albino Bad Guys out of 10

Doctor Strange: Genre Weirdness Everyone Will Enjoy

For Marvel‘s second cinematic outing this year, Doctor Strange certainly has a lot to live up to. Not only does the film need to properly introduce Strange himself, a major driving force in the Marvel Universe, but also properly introduce and explore the world of magic, which the MCU has thus far not discussed. But through impeccable direction and writing, stunning special effects, and standout performances by all of the cast, Doctor Strange is one of the most imaginative and entertaining films of the year, let alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s hard to know where to begin on all of the things this film does right. The story, while familiar Marvel fare of an arrogant man being humbled and becoming a hero, feels reinvigorated thanks to the work by writer C Robert Cargill. The film smartly simplifies Strange’s life before learning the mystic arts, while leaving all the important details to flesh out his character. Once Strange begins learning how to use magic, the film slows down enough to really explore the possibilities of this new world we’re learning about, just as much as Strange is. The dialogue avoids feeling exposition-heavy, and manages to keep things moving at a steady pace, keeping viewer interest throughout the 2 hour runtime.

Equally impressive is the films large cast of well-renowned actors and actresses, each of whom deliver a stellar performance. Cumberbatch may play Strange with similar beats as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, but he is none the less charming, engaging and an absolute delight to see on screen. Likewise, Tilda Swinton is surprisingly charming as The Ancient One, Doctor Strange’s teacher, and manages to steal many of the film’s best scenes. The Supporting cast of Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor play their roles well as Strange’s compatriots, managing to play off Cumberbatch well, and serve as engrossing characters in their own right.

The weak spot for the Marvel films thus far have been in their romantic leads and villains. And while the characters are not given as much time as our protagonists, Doctor Strange manages to be the exception to the rule as far as its romantic lead and villain goes. Rachel McAdams is untraditional Doctor Christine Palmer, supporting and caring for Strange but still having her own responsibilities as a surgeon. Unlike other love interests, her small role in the film has less to do with her lack of importance in the film, but rather that she has her own life and responsibilities to attend to, serving as a more mature love interest who doesn’t drop everything for the needs of our male lead. Likewise, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is a given more material then the typical Marvel villain, thanks in part to his unique perspective on this new world we as an audience are being introduced to. The script gives Mikkelsen more depth to his character, so that even while he isn’t as strong as Strange as a character, we understand his motivations as more then just evil for evil’s sake, while still being an imposing threat throughout.

The real star of the film, however, are the visuals. There simple aren’t words for how uniquely bizarre the visuals manage to get, with characters bending reality and enviroments at will, leaving audiences as surprised as characters can be. Standout moments include a chase sequence that literally reshapes all of New York into an M.C. Escher-esque maze, as well as  Its frankly beautiful to look at, vibrantly colorful and simultaneously foreign AND understandable. While many have compared the visuals to Inception, there there’s nothing to visually compare Doctor Strange to, let alone a film that uses its visuals as enjoyably as this.

An enjoyable popcorn-flick, an experimental Super Hero film and a genre-bending art exhibit, Doctor Strange simply has it all and does it beautifully. Its the kind of film that you cant just see, but experience on an individual level. In a year where Super-Hero films were muddled in lore, realism and consequences, it’s beyond refreshing to find one that is so outlandishly fun, well told and, yes, strange.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 10 Astral Projections out of 10

 

 

The Mechanic: Resurrection Ends Summer on an Unceremonious Thud

What happened, Jason Statham? When you came out with the original Transporter film, it felt like a charismatic new action star had been born. But that was 12 years ago, and since then it seems that you have resigned yourself to the same cliched films about anti-heroes who choose to kick their way out of any foreseeable problems. The latest exercise in mediocrity is the The Mechanic: Resurrection, a predictable action romp that marks the lowest point in the careers of everyone involved.

In yet another story of “action hero saves his damsel in distress girlfriend,” Resurrection‘s plot stands apart from its competition by doing everything it can to offer nothing new. Character motivations are bluntly explained, providing little to no further intrigue into our protagonists, and thus no room for emotional attachment. Villains run the gambit of Russian, Asian and African stereotypes, often resorting to bizarrely outdated stereotypes so as to not stray from what audiences have already seen in older, better films (at one point, an African warlord/shaman literally explains that “My juju shows me everything”). It’s fine for a film to understand what it is, but to try so little to make anything about the plot unique causes  Resurrection to feel that much more wasteful of the audiences time.

Worsening the by-numbers plot is a cast that simply doesn’t try. Statham sleepwalks through the same quiet, professional badass he’s portrayed for years, offering no distinction to make you forget this is just Jason Statham playing Jason Statham. Jessica Alba is a bore as Statham’s girlfriend, a stock forgettable damsel who only serves to motivate our her and occasionally provide the standard bikini shot to try and shamelessly lure in younger viewers. A special mention must be given to Tommy Lee Jones, who at least chooses to overact his bad performance, making him an enjoyable train wreck to watch. Much like the rest of the film, the remainder of the cast serve only to fill out typical bad guy roles that even the 80’s grew out of,  only adding further to Resurection’s simplicity and tedium.

You would at least expect a Jason Statham action flick to try and present something worthwhile in its action, but the film seems especially lacking here. Statham delivers the same roundhouse kicks to the same goons over and over again throughout the film, providing little variation or visually interesting elements to make fights stand out. The henchmen Statham fights are all the same poor aiming, unable to fight cannon fodder that don’t so much make him look like a badass, but instead displays how inept our villains are, further adding to Mechanic’s tedium. With how prevalent  good action is to find, even in television offerings like the Netflix Marvel shows, Resurrection’s lackluster action exemplifies the lack of effort present in all other aspects in the film.

A soulless, forgettable film, there’s nothing here to recommend anyone go out and see, even for fans of cheesy b-films. As a former fan of Statham’s work, it’s sad to see him reach this point in his career, where it’s clear that paychecks take priority over innovation. Were anyone really trying, you could at least expect to have a few drinks and laugh at yet another Statham bomb. As it currently stands, however, The Mechanic: Resurrection seems ironically titled, as it marks the final nail in the downward spiral of Statham’s career.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 3 Failed Career Resurections out of 10

Don’t Breathe Offers Near-Flawless Thrills

The state of the horror genre has been more then lacking, as of late. What few shinning gems that come out are quickly milked, often churning out uninspired sequels that fail to deliver on the strengths of the original. And with the lack of new concepts, we’re more likely to be shown a reboot or continuation of something we already saw, rather then something new or unexpected. Luckily, in comes Don’t Breathe, directed by the Evil Dead remake’s Fede Alvarez, which manages salvage the disappointing summer movie season with excellent filmmaking and performances throughout.

The films central concept, which sees a group of house robbers hunted in the home of a blind man they planned to steal from, offers a scenario very similar to 2009’s The Collector, and smartly focuses on challenging the audience’s loyalties. Despite our protagonist’s motivations for stealing being noble enough, the film never lets us forget that they are criminals, and invite the horrors thrusted upon them once they attempt to rob this blind man in his home. Likewise, while the blind man in question is more then justified to defend himself against his would-be robbers, there comes a point where he goes out of his way to inflict pain and misery upon the assailants, making him as morally conflicted as they are. Its in this middle ground of rooting for and against both parties that Don’t Breathe feels less like a film, and more like a real life scenario, drawing audiences in further and making for a more tense and involving horror film.

With so much emphasis on this middle ground, its fortunate that the small cast delivers such believable performances. Evil Dead‘s Jane Levy delivers a more human take on the typical “final girl” trope, being confident while still remaining realistically vulnerable. Likewise, Dylan Minnette does well as the groups voice of reason, despite not being given as much motivation for his actions. The real standout here is Stephen Lang as the titular blind man, and while he doesn’t often speak, Lang’s acting through body language makes his blindness seem realistic, even as he chases down the films protagonists with lethal precision. Lang is tasked with delivering on many of the film’s darker moments, and despite how far the film takes this material, you never feel like Lang is giving a performance, but rather embodying a broken, tragic figure, complicating the audiences allegiances that much further. 

Yet even with the remarkable talent on display in front of the camera, it’s director Fede Alvarez and his sense of style that shines through the film’s other strengths. Though a decrepit house is not the most original setting, Alvarez’s creative cinematography helps the setting feel like a character all its own. An early tracking shot in particular helps point out key locations early on to help viewers familiarize themselves with it early on, without spoiling the film’s many twists and turns. The highlight of the film is a basement chase filmed in pitch black, forgoing the usual green night vision look in favor of a more frightening and believable viewpoint. Throughout the 90 minute runtime, it almost feels like Alvarez is constantly experimenting with new ways to film and track each shot, making for a horror film that can also be surprisingly beautiful to look at.

Equally important to the film is its excellent sound design. With so much of the tension based around our protagonist’s not being heard, the sound mixing in Don’t Breathe helps make every creak in the floor feel like a thunderstorm, further adding to the tension. There also never comes a point where a character seems to be breathing to loudly or making too much noise, helping the film remain believable for why certain characters remain hidden in certain scenes. On the opposite sound spectrum, gunshots are frighteningly realistic, with the sound of bullets loudly tearing through flesh and debris adding heavily to the weight and impact of every round fired. Simply put, for as beautiful of a film as Don’t Breathe is to watch, just as much work has clearly been put into how the film sounds.

The only major flaw with the film presents itself in the third act, but does simplify a movie whose strength was originally in its deep complexity. Without getting into spoilers, a certain twist on a character is revealed to completely change the audience’s thoughts on them. Because of this, the previously mentioned middle ground between whom to root for is thrown away, in favor of more clear cut villains and heroes. The film also gets decidedly darker, going into one particular scene that makes a character all but irredeemable; what’s sadder is that you can clearly see how this darker plot point could be easily removed without impacting the overall plot. What may have felt like a natural turn of events during filming sadly comes off as an attempt to be edgy that detracts the from Don’t Breathe‘s better moments.

With its excellent production values, stellar performances and questionable morality, Don’t Breathe stands as further proof of Alvarez’s place as one of the great horror filmmakers of our time. Playing on what scares people is difficult enough, but managing to balance that with an audience’s empathy while trying to make everything stay plausible is an even more impressive feat. Avoid spoiling the film for yourself as much as possible, For Don’t Breathe manages to truly impress and innovate when you….don’t see it coming.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9 Bad Jokes to End Reviews on out of 10

Suicide Squad, At its Best, is Painful to Watch

Readers, I want to begin this review with something witty or interesting to say about Suicide Squad. Maybe I could have discussed how this was DC’s third chance to try and get their cinematic universe off the ground, with a fantastic film that would rival Marvel’s offerings. Perhaps I could have talked about the movie’s complicated development, from the several reshoots it underwent, to complications on set between the actors, or the directors affinity for throwing vulgarities at Marvel Studios. I could say plenty about Suicide Squad, but after spending 2 hours with the film, I’m honestly loathing the possibility of remembering any of this poorly written, under-acted, offensively boring thud of a motion picture.

It’s disappointing that a concept rich with opportunity, where in a team of known super villains are forced by the government to complete missions or die, is frankly lost under the muddled desires of Warner Brothers and their cinematic universe. Much like Batman V Superman, Suicide Squads story is tasked with putting the origins of many new characters, a team film, a Joker side story and set ups for Justice League all in one script, causing all parts to fall flat. What 10 minutes of the Joker we see feel completely disconnected from the rest of the film, and feel like they could be excised with little to no impact on the plot. The lack of time divided amongst the Squad themselves causes the film to focus on only 4 of the 8 members, with the other 4 serving no purpose in the overall plot.

This lack of emphasis on certain characters would be fine if they were at least compelling in some way, but the films script is often more concerned with what these characters do then who they are. All we ever know about characters like Katana, Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang or Slipknot is that they are good at hitting thing, and only ever hints at further depth, without actually exploring anything. The only exceptions to this come from Will Smith as Deadshot and Margo Robbie as Harley Quinn, but even this is undercut by how simplistically written the characters are. While they are the stand out stars of the film, this exclusively comes from the fact that Will Smith and Margo Robbie are charming, and not from the depth their characters posesess.

Surprisingly, the low bar of quality our main characters present is quickly shattered when presented with our main villains. Actress Cara Delevingne may deliver an Oscar-worthy performance in her other movies, but her turn as The Enchantress in Suicide Squad is a level of bad overacting not seen since the Schumacher batman films. Her one note is to constantly sway back and fourth comedicly, followed by whispering or shouting her every line. Her partner, an equally powerful god that’s never explained, fills every box of a generic henchman, lumbering about and shouting every word to try and seem more intimidating. You have seen these characters done better in super hero films made years ago, as have Suicide Squads scores of generic grey bad guys, and third act blue beam shooting into the sky.

So all of the pieces of Suicide Squad don’t work, but even a movie made of cliches can put itself together to at least work on a basic storytelling level. But the script has enough plot holes to drive through, with major questions like why normal people are the best choice to face off against meta-humans and the Sumerian god-like being that the Enchantress is. The squad’s first encounter with the faceless grey henchmen is begun with their intelligence operative telling them that the grey beings can’t be killed, and is immediately followed with a firefight where they mow down scores of them, with no explanation. In the final act, the main antagonists are defeated with normal explosives, proposing the real question of why the suicide squad was needed in the first place, which is the last question you want to ask in a movie that tries to convince you on how cool the suicide squad is. On every level, it seems like someone just didn’t try, and the result is an exhausting, overly long film that will leave you asking yourself why you’re still watching it long before the credits begin rolling.

My last notes on this film is actually a legitimate warning to audiences who are offended by racially insensitive content, because in David Ayers attempts to make Sucice Squad more “urban”, he often turns to offensive, outdated stereotypes. While small examples come out in the portrayals of captain boomerang (an Australian who is constantly getting drunk), and Katana (a Japanese woman who we only know as someone good with her literal katana), most of the problems arise from El Diablo. The lone Latino character, El Diablo is a former gangbanger, covered in tattoos, who is only referred to as “Esse”, and lives in the projects with his wife and child he can’t provide for (it’s important to note that his wife also refers to the pair having sex as “we can kick it”, which is equal parts hilariously outdated and incredible stereotypical).

Not wanting to be outdone by its subtle racism, the film also portrays women in an exceptionally negative way as well. The only female characters are either victims to make male characters more interesting, motivation for male characters to be more interesting “badasses”, or objects to be sexually exploited (no joke, killer crocs reward is BET on the tv in his cell, which he then uses to watch women shake their butts). Making matters worse is the films glorification of the Joker’s abusive relationship with Harley Quinn, which never portrays him as a bad person despite his torturing and mentally abusing of Harley. This is even more troubling as Ayers goes so far as to end the film on their reunion and tries to spin it as a happy ending, which is an awful message to send to young women who will see this movie. Simply put, Suicide Squad is offensively bad in both its message and content as a film, and should be avoided at all costs.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 2 Likable Actors in an Awful Film out of 10

“The Shallows”offers intense, thoughtful thrills

There are some premisses in film that better films overtime make redundant. Just as most science fiction films will be compared with Star Wars, and Zombie flicks will draw comparison to the Romero classics, The Shallows was likely to be passed off as another movie trying to re-capture what made Jaws such a classic. And while it certainly doesn’t come close to dethroning Jaws, an unexpectedly slower pace and plenty of effort from the people behind the film help make The Shallows stand out as an unexpected gem in this summer of sequels and reboots.

The plot is fairly standard. Blake Lively plays a young woman named Nancy who returns to a beach her mother visited years ago, and sets to surf the ocean waves, until a shark attack leaves her stranded on a rock far off from shore. While there, she must use her own medical knowledge, survival instincts and intuition to outsmart the shark and ultimately survive. Nothing about the plot screams original, and the film knows this, spending only as much time on the pre-shark scenes as is necessary to make us empathize with our protagonist. Although this would be a flaw for other films, the simplicity of the plot keeps the audiences attention on the current situation, immersing them in Nancy’s struggle to survive.

While not a breakout role, much of the film is dependent on Blake Lively’s performance, and she’s thankfully up to the task. Though Nancy is not explored in major depth, Lively uses a lot of subtle cues to add dimensions to what could have been a stock horror film heroine. The film spends much of its time beating Nancy down, which Lively wears as much in her performance as it does though her make-up. You like her character, and are simultaneously rooting for her and worried for her safety, which is more then you can say for most films in this genre.

As for our other co-star, the shark itself, the word of the day is realism. The bites it takes out of people are displayed in gory detail, while managing to hold back on anything too over the top. The effects for the shark hold up well throughout the films runtime, including its first reveal outside of water. More important is how grounded the shark is handled during the film, with the creatures reason for being/staying in that area explained in a believable way. Likewise, while the shark is often threatening, it is shown as less of an unstoppable killing machine and more of a dangerous, but still mortal, predator, keeping the battle between it and Nancy an unpredictable one.

Most interestingly enough, the films advertisements show a completely different film then whats presented on screen, which actually works in the films benefit. While trailers showed a high body count and non-stop thrills, The Shallows finds its best moments when it slows down and takes its situation in. As the gorgeous cinematography explores this beautiful, harsh environment, the audience is shown more of the minute to minute threats that arise for Nancy, such as rising/falling tides, hypothermia, and the worsening condition of her initial shark bite. At the same time, we explore more of Nancy’s thoughts on both her life and current predicament, allowing us to grow to like her as a character more, causing the tension and drama to feel that much more heightened, and stick with you long after the film reaches its ending credits.

Unfortunately, the things holding the film back from greatness tend to come right during the films third act. While the back and fourth between Nancy and the shark stays realistic throughout most of the film, her final confrontation with the shark tends to lean more heavily on film tropes then the rest of the film had before, standing out for the worse. While nothing ever feels stupid bout this confrontation, and some genuinely thrilling moments occur throughout, what should be a climactic ending is likely to divide audiences, in terms of its effectiveness. Likewise, a final scene afterwards felt wholly unneeded, serving only to add a hollywood ending to a film in order to appease the casual movie-goer.

While comparisons to Jaws are likely to come up, The Shallows tends to have more in common with 2011’s The Grey, opting to offer audiences a slower, more thoughtful experience, instead of minute to minute action. Were it not for all the details coming together, like Lively’s performance, the spectacular cinematography, and the work clearly done on he shark, it might not have worked. But while there are certainly problems in the third act, the work done throughout the film offers something audiences are likely to enjoy, while simultaneously giving them something they might not expect, making The Shallows stand out as more then your typical summer movie chum.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8 Steven Seagull’s out of 10

“Election Year” Takes One Step Forward, But Two Back

The Purge franchise didn’t start off on the strongest note, with the original wasting a premise with a lot of potential on a typical home invasion flick. But, as many have stated, its sequel Anarchy breathed new life to the franchise, with a new lead in actor Frank Grillo and focusing on the ways the Purge could influence society in this film’s setting. This new direction was a smart place to take the series’s core concept, and exploring this more in Election Year was the right move on the directors part. But by focusing on the politics of the Purge, and less on the actual Purge itself, Election Year finds itself straying too far away from the elements that made the second film a hit.

The most notable flaw of Election Year is its failure to capture any amount of subtlety that that would help ground the films otherwise ludicrous scenario. Where previous films saw levels of brutality displayed through fairly simplistic ways, adding an eerie level of realism to the bloodshed, theres less of an attempt here at going for believability, with homemade booby traps, drones and even guillotines lining streets. While the outfits purgers wore in previous films seemed plausible, the ones in election year seem too extravagant and feel more like something a costume designer would think up, rather than a murdering psychopath. Even the villains are simplified for the worst where in previous films conveyed that there were different levels of bad people in the world of the purge, Election Year‘s villain’s Start their first scene by calling our female protagonist the c-word multiple times. The result ends up with what was subtext in previous films becoming text in this new installment, removing any potential depth to a film trying its hardest to sometimes say something meaningful.

This lack of plausibility and immersion also leads to a number of tonal shifts that tend to derail important scenes of the film. What should be a disturbing entrance for a pair of villains is undercut by the shockingly out of place sound of Miley Cyrus’s Party in the U.S.A., but then immediately expects its audience to be just as afraid as they were before. At several points, newcomer Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from Forest Gump) delivers a line that’s so out of left field, it almost derails the entire film, and delivers a caricature that barely avoids being somewhat racist towards African Americans. Even the action is subdued by the inconsistency at which it handles the horror elements, with shootouts trying to be both fun and scary seemingly at random intervals throughout the film. These flaws don’t add up to much on their own, but combined they hold back the elements of the film that do show the potential inherent within the idea of the Purge Universe.

For starters, returning lead Frank Grillo is as at home with the material as he was in the previous film, delivering a similar performance while still showing some growth to his character through subtle glimpses of hope towards the Senator he has to protect. Speaking of, actress Elizabeth Mitchell shows plenty of chemistry with Grillo, and the scenes where the two characters debate the ramifications of the purge on society tend to be the standout scenes in the film. In a world so full of insanity and pessimism as this, Mitchell’s character brings a refreshing level of optimism concerning the future, and reminds audiences of the inherent good that is still possible in people, despite how crazy and lost the world seems to have gotten. The Supporting cast mostly holds their own, minus Williamson’s Joe Dixon, but none of their performances ever go above being acceptable to get special recognition.

Also helping Election Year is the new approach the film takes in terms of structure. While the original was a sub-standard home invasion film, and Anarchy played out much like a Punisher film might, the new film is eerily reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, with Grillo’s character tasked with protecting a political target that’s targeted for assassination. As the pair explores more of the city, they discover how the Purge affects groups like the homeless, people needing government aid, and many others. This approach helps make the quiet moments in between the action feel more important, as it pulls back to reveal the potential for layers in the Purge Universe that a lesser film might not attempt to look into. Much of the action is enjoyable enough for a summer blockbuster, and smartly places its emphasis on the characters we have grown to enjoy, in a setting that hides enough depth to keep audiences interested.

The Purge: Election Year is not the sequel we should have gotten, at least not entirely. The potential for a truly great film is hidden behind the clutter, and enough talent and commitment has been brought by the actors and writers to suggest something great could be made out of this franchise. As it stands, however, the films’ oversimplification on key elements and lack of anything original to say hold back what could have been a smart horror sequel. While still certainly worth a watch, Election Year is, more often than not, politics as usual.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6 Creative Murder Masks out of 10