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Non-Review Review: Assassin’s Creed

“What the f%$k is going on?” asks Michael Fassbender about halfway through the film.

It is not the first time that Cal Lynch has asked this question. Earlier on, the character wondered out loud “what’s happening?” after waking up following his state-sanctioned execution and being hooked up to a gigantic robotic claw that yanking him into the air mid-sentence. The audience is probably asking the same questions as Assassin’s Creed bounces across time and space with mountains of exposition (occasionally helpfully subtitled) about rival societies conspiring to find an artefact that can harness (and eliminate) mankind’s free will.

The Fass and the Furious.

The Fass and the Furious.

To be fair, incoherence is not the real problem with this disjointed video game adaptation. In fact, there is a certain weird charm to watching the amazing cast and the game director react to the crazed concepts that they have been dealt. For the first hour or so, the sheer weirdness of the film proves compelling, drawing in audience members willing to resist the tonal whiplash and laboured exposition as the film rockets along. What ultimately kills Assassin’s Creed is not its lack of sense, but the stubborn insistence that it must make sense.

Assassin’s Creed would be a stronger film were it willing to revel in its incoherence instead of trying to impose order upon it. The gonzo plotting and zany high concepts give the film a strange texture, but the problems do not really kick in until Assassin’s Creed starts awkwardly and painfully trying to construct a rational framework around this bizarre cavalcade. The result is to wed a visually hyper-kinetic and tonally unruly film to an incredibly tired generic plot that winds transforming the film into a plodding mess.

He's so hot right now.

He’s so hot right now.

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Non-Review Review: Macbeth

Justin Kurzel understands Macbeth.

A lot of Shakespeare’s work is viewed through the lens of cultural importance, and quite rightly. His plays codified a phenomenal amount of the English language in use today, incorporation and amalgamating words and phrases that people use without even thinking. Shakespeare codified drama and storytelling in the English language, to the point where any number of his plays can be cited as the defining example of particular styles of dramaturgy. There is no other figure who can cast such a shadow over English-language culture.

A Field in Scotland...

A Field in Scotland…

However, the tendency to treat Shakespeare’s works as priceless artefacts – an attitude engrained by the (rightful) reverence they receive and the way that they are taught in schools – is to miss the vitality and excitement of his work. Shakespeare might have endured as the defining wordsmith of the English-language, but before that he was just a really popular writer with an incredibly populist touch. His plays existed as spectacle before they became holy relics. The jokes played to the galleries packed with punters wanting both high and low culture.

As much as Macbeth might be a searing and insightful exploration of the relationship between violence and masculine identity, it was also pure unadulterated pulp. Justin Kurzel plays up this pulpy spectacle, crafting a version of Macbeth that anchors apocalyptic horror in two amazing central performances. Macbeth is a joyous and horrific piece of cinema, brutal and beautiful in a way that befits its source material.

Oh I just can't wait to be king...

Oh I just can’t wait to be king…

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Non-Review Review: Slow West

There is a reason that the western has fallen from popularity after its cinematic heyday.

For decades, it seemed like Hollywood punctuated its release of western films with sampling for other genre, returning time and again to the story of the men who shaped America from the ground up. Over the years, the familiar tropes have been deconstructed and reconstructed and deconstructed again. They have been mashed up and knocked down and spun around. They have been torn apart and thrown back together with reckless abandon. With all of that going on, it often seems like anything that the genre has to say has been said and repeated time and again.

Life is peaceful there...

Life is peaceful there…

There are probably still things to be said about the myth of the Old West, even if the genre seems as explored and catalogued as the American continent itself. There are little hidden pockets and eccentric spaces that might hold a surprise or several. Slow West doesn’t necessarily have anything new or revelatory to say about the western. It seems unlikely to shatter any illusions or break any preconceptions. A lot of the ground covered by Jay Cavendish and Silas Selleck on their trek westward will be familiar to anybody with a passing knowledge of the genre.

At the same time, there is a lyrical beauty to Slow West. The film is a haunting and evocative trip through a landscape that most viewers know better than their own locality. Slow West might not say anything particularly earth-shattering, but it does articulate itself clearly and elegantly. It is a meticulously crafted film, finely constructed and sumptuously filmed. It might be a tourist trip over well-travelled group, but it takes the most scenic route imaginable.

Saddle up!

Saddle up!

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Non-Review Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing and moving piece of cinema. The most profound and cutting of the recent studio films to explore slavery in America, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is almost relentless in its probing explorations of the systems an structures that allowed and reinforced that slavery – it’s hard to watch at points, providing a deeply unsettling glimpse at the suffering that man is capable of inflicting upon his fellow man.

12yearsaslave9

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Non-Review Review: The Counsellor

There are two ways of looking at The Counsellor, both handily articulated by the movie itself.

At one point, two characters engage in an abstract conversation about grief. They speak on the phone about what it means to lose something that is irreplaceable, and what that does to a person. They speak in metaphors and lyrical turns of phrase, dancing around the issue at hand. One participant in the conversation recounts the story of Spanish poet Machido, who managed to channel his grief into beautiful and moving poetry. Poetry woven from misery and suffering, beautiful and yet torturous. Much like The Counsellor itself, a story about corruption and consequences and greed and wraith, articulated with thoughtful elegance.

There's a lot going on under the hood...

There’s a lot going on under the hood…

At another point, one character regales another with a tale of his strange sexual misadventures. Awkward metaphors are used to describe exactly what went down, as the other character (and the audience) watch on in a state of awkward disbelief. Using surprisingly elegant language – never at a loss for words to describe a truly surreal turn of events – the storyteller crafts a stunning portrait of a bizarre encounter. Trying to make sense of it all, the listener articulates the thought running through the mind of most of the audience. “Why did you feel the need to tell me that?”

The Counsellor straddles both extremes almost recklessly, veering from a sophisticated and thoughtful moral tale into something grotesquely indulgent and almost distractingly oblique. During one conversation, the seductive Malkina asks her lover Renier how he sees things playing out. He can’t help but imagine two contrasting extremes. With just a hint of self-awareness, Malkina point out that there’s a middle that Renier just isn’t seeing.

Deal or no deal?

Deal or no deal?

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Watch! First Twelve Years a Slave Trailer!

Shame was one of the best movies of 2012. So it stands to reason that I’m looking forward to the next collaboration between Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Twelve Years a Slave looks to be a decidedly larger-scale affair than either of the duo’s past collaborations, based on the epic and heart-wretching true story of Solomon Northup, a man born free and then sold into slavery. The cast is also a lot more impressive, with well-respected character actors (like Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor) standing alongside Brad Pitt. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out, even if it does look a bit more like conventional Oscar-bait than Shame or Hunger.

Of course, that could simply be a stylistic decision made when cutting up the trailer, given the success of other slavery-themed epics (Lincoln and Django Unchained) at this year’s Oscars. Either way, UK and Irish audiences won’t know until 24th January 2013.

Check out the trailer below.

My 12 for ’12: Shame & Silence

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #2

Addiction stories are very tough to do right. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the melodrama of the cycle – the excess, the withdrawal, the relapse, the epiphany. It’s tempting to wallow in each of those stages, to structure them as acts in a drama. It’s hard to resist the urge to heighten absolutely everything, to dwell on the heat of obsession and desperation that surrounds any addiction.

Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender do a sensational job with Shame, avoiding these potential problems, offering a portrayal of addiction and personal collapse that is strangely understated and introverted rather than overwhelming or excessive. Indeed, the fact that the movie is about sex addiction might lead some potential viewers to worry. If ever an addiction lent itself to trashy and tasteless excess, one might imagine that sex would be that personal demon.

Instead, McQueen shows admirable restraint in tackling the topic. While he never blushes in presenting the depths of his lead’s degradation, he never sensationalises it. Instead, much like Brandon’s addiction, Shame is cold and clinical – and all the more powerful for it.

shame2

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