Tag Archives: michael fassbender

Alien: Covenant and the Ascent into Hell

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Paradise Lost, Book 1, Lines 258-263 (John Milton)

What if the Devil could create?

Lucifer’s greatest punishment is that though he aspires to God’s place, he cannot create like God does. He can react to, he can corrupt, he can bring God’s creation into his fold and warp it in his image. But it’s just that. It’s tailoring and resizing what already exists. The Devil can never be a father, a creator.

Increasingly, these are the matters with which Ridley Scott has concerned himself. While humans play various factors, Scott is returning to the well of Blade Runner, of asking the fundamental questions of humanity and what it means to be human and interacting with the natural world while becoming increasingly less concerned with the actual particulars of human behaviors, and of the characters themselves.

It’s a damned shame that he has to do that thinking in a blockbuster mode that is so often judged on the basis of its characters, and that is so constrained by the demands of its franchise. While not bad in its claustrophobic horror, Alien: Convenant, a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien, is at its best in its most unconventional and idiosyncratic, where it’s a Gothic Horror Sci-Fi resembling a holy fusion of Paradise Lost and Blade Runner.

Alien: Covenant introduces us to the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed to a new world to spread humanity throughout the stars. A freak Neutrino burst rocks the ship, killing the captain (James Franco) and waking up all the other members of the crew, including the Captain’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) who is now second-in-command, the new Captain Chris (Billy Crudup), the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and a whole bunch of other people who don’t really matter but one of them is played by Demian Bichir so you do care. Already awake was their synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).

In an effort to cut the trip short and avoid going back into the Hypersleep pods that malfunctioned in the incident, the crew of the Covenant take a stop on a heretofore unknown planet. From there, you pretty much expect what’s going to happen to them, though what you may not expect is who’s waiting there.

I don’t know what’s considered a spoiler for this film, and this fact is given away extremely early. But, if you must go in with no prior knowledge, go see this and then come back. Otherwise, feel free to barrel forward.

On that planet, they find David (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from the crew of the lost ship Prometheus, who has terraformed the planet and taken up residency among the dead civilization. But all is not as it appears.

The reason I mark that you should only consider that a spoiler is if you must go in with absolutely no prior knowledge is that to talk about Alien: Covenant is to talk about Walter and David, Michael Fassbender’s dual performance in this movie. All of its most fascinating parts, its thematic meditations and most impressive visuals (frankly) rest in that performance and what leads to it.

I want to discuss the visual aspect first. Scott has always been one of our greatest visual thinkers in cinema, so few have had such influence on the way generations of cinema have ended up looking like Scott. While Alien: Covenant is no great innovator, it’s still a remarkable visual work, and I think particularly of the residence that David has taken up.

Alien: Covenant feels heavily influenced by Hammer Horror films, and perhaps nowhere does that show through more than in David’s Necropolis, an imposing and dark place castle built entirely on the remains of a now-dead civilization. It’s perhaps one of the best sets I’ve seen in a film in some time, gorgeous and frightening and immersed in atmosphere. Introduced soaked in rain by a cloaked David, there’s perhaps no place that more immediately puts a film on its A-game, that immerses the audience in the mood so quickly.

It’s here that the film snaps most readily into place. Here, our Xenomorphs and their predecessors become ghosts, twisted Lovecraftian visages reaching through this darkened place. Our relationships become strained, immersed in a quiet hell. And no more does David more seem like the Devil, sitting on his throne in a place only he resides, a creation that he had to twist.

I’ve danced around it long enough so let’s just state it. Michael Fassbender’s performance isn’t just the best part of this film, it’s one of the best of the year so far. I count myself as a fan, and this is a performance that rivals Shame as his best.

It isn’t just the pyrotechnics of a dual performance, but the shading he gives each. Despite the fact that each is such a big character, he wears such subtleties in what should be very difficult roles. He has legitimate chemistry playing off of himself (leading to some…charged moments) and manages to so orient the gravity of the film around himself that it’s a shame when he’s not on screen.

Fassbender plays like a Blade Runner remake entirely oriented around Roy Beatty, driving the film and the thematic concerns almost fully around what he’s pulling off as a performer. It’s to the point where the movie feels unfocused solely by the act of having him off screen. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but I’m just grateful we have that Fassbender performance.

It’s also that everyone else just isn’t at that level. It’s not that our main characters are bad. Waterston is consistently a ton of fun to watch (reminding me that she should have been the lead of Fantastic Beasts) and I’m always up for more Danny McBride. But they’re largely just too thin to carry the dramatic meat of the film.

To be fair, they’re not supposed to. Scott doesn’t much care for humans, and they’re disposable on his tale of Luciferian creation. The humans and their stupidity is part of it, that flawed humanity can and will be replaced or molded into something better.

They’re here as tools of David’s plan, and as prey for the more perfect organism, the Xenomorph. It’s the Xenomorph, oddly enough, that feels most out of place here. Thematically it works, David twisting humanity into a creation befitting of his eye.

Narratively and cinematically, it’s when the movie shifts away from what it’s best at. It’s not bad at all. Scott still has a major penchant for framing these scares and he knows the weight the Xenomorph’s image carries. I’m not a huge fan of the CGI Xenomorph in motion, but the images of it lurking work fairly well.

It’s just convention creeping into something legitimately different and unnerving. The price Scott had to pay for a meditation on Satan and on the nature of man that shows sympathy for the Devil. This is such a singular and exciting movie for so much of it, that it’s a shame he’s forced to do anything else.

Grade: B+

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Song to Song and My Frustration with Third Wave Terrence Malick

I kept thinking of a friend that I used to have. Brilliant, but grew increasingly and chronically unable to ever focus that talent into something that could be completed. Constantly half-finished, constantly not even starting. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as talent that seemingly goes unrealized.

That rememberance brings us to Terry Malick through what seems to hopefully be the apotheosis of his third wave of films. The trilogy comprised of To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song are all marked by an Emmanuel Lubzeki-led dreamy camera formlessness, a interchangable set of meditations on all manner of modern day topics in modern places, and a releases pace that is markedly faster for the legendary recluse. Two decades between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line has given way to these three feature length films in 5 years (as well as a fourth documentary feature released last year).

Far be it from me to speculate why his pace has so rapidly quickened, and far be it from me to draw connections between that and why this wave has felt so formless and meaningless (barring the fact that I earnestly do like To The Wonder). I especially cannot do so as I find Tree of Life his most potent work, and that’s the ur-text of all of the Third Wave trilogy. So, I’m going to take a bit of a journey here, and I hope you hold with me. I’m going to take the review to actually figure out what so bothers me about this set of Malick movies.

Song to Song is a much more close-to-home work for Malick, as it’s set in his hometown of Austin, Texas in and around the Austin music scene. Faye (Rooney Mara) is a struggling songwriter who falls in love with BV (Ryan Gosling), another struggling songwriter. Faye is also caught up in a bad romance with Cook (Michael Fassbender), a record exec/producer. Cook is also tangled up with a waitress named Rhonda (Portman), a small-town religious girl who Cook brings into a darker world.

Perhaps the first thing that strikes me about Song to Song is how ultimately bloodless the whole endeavor feels. There’s a certain excitement to Malick taking on the indie music scene, there’s a necessity of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into grinding through life as a young musician that could have been a much needed injection after the formless wandering of Knight of Cups.

But it’s just not there. Music feels the same as screenwriting feels the same as rural life. There’s no life, no vitality, Malick’s interest seems more in privilege than in the work. He’s caught up in grand spires, not plunking out the same notes over and over again to make it work.

We can’t slight an artist his interests, nor can we fully deny that’s the point here. Song to Song is a film about people who’ve lost their way. Filming every one of them in slow documentary drags of the camera, focusing on longing looks and wandering movements is just the text of the film.

But artistic intent must meet artistic execution and Song to Song never lets the two meet. His desire to show wandering is not met by a film that envelops you, that brings you on the emotional journey. Malick’s famous willingness to follow his muse slams up against an inability to bring the audience along with him. I’m not demanding to have my hand held, but I’m expecting the director to seem interested in what he’s trying to convey, not pulling so deeply into his own head.

Malick seems like with this and Knight of Cups, he’s throwing up a wall between us and the audience. It may be a deeply important experience to craft, but it feels as though it’s drained the life out of the film. It’s for him, not for us.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that during the frankly rampant sex in this movie. I did not come here to kinkshame Terry Malick (boy, if you thought that was a sentence you were ever gonna type, you’re wrong), but Song to Song‘s portrayal of sex (as in Knight of Cups) feels so singular to Malick and so similar to the problem he has with the music world.

Sex is repetitive in this film. A lot of tumbling and kissing tummies and that occasional thing where you kiss someone and hold their hands above their head and then once or twice there’s some sex that turns into more tumbling. There’s no heat or passion, it’s all flattened out into the same motions as everything else. Sex is music is screenwriting is rural life.

Maybe that’s what’s so bothered me about Third Wave Malick. There’s a sense of differentiation that’s been lost. It’s filmmaking interchangeable parts, it feels formless and capable of slotting into any other part of this work with no problem. He’s removed anything new in service of his style, he’s almost literally removed the substance in each movie. Cate Blanchett is in this and Knight of Cups and yet I would be hard pressed to tell you the difference in her performance between two different movies in two different places at two different times.

And what’s frustrating about all that is that Song to Song still has rewards. You aren’t as talented as Malick without still finding something worthwhile time to time. There’s a certain freedom, a reality that turns moments here and there into something beautiful. A scene of grieving by BV. The people of Austin, Texas finding freedom in music. Big Freedia shows up and holds a twerking contest and that’s just next level. Malick has an eye that’s unmatched, a way to pull beauty from the world that few others can.

But that keeps feeling lost in his wanderings, in his self-indulgence, in the bloodless ways he keeps portraying things that are full of life. Song to Song is the same as every other one of these movies, something Malick uses to ultimately say nothing. Malick talks a lot, but finds no substance in his Third Wave, and that’s frustrating. Because I know he can do better. I’ve seen it.

Let’s just see how Radegund goes.

Grade: C-

 

Assassin’s Creed is insane nonsense and I think that was the point

I think it might be time to accept that it’s going to be a very long time before a video game movie is going to be actually great. This isn’t the adaptation of one form of narrative art easily transposable to another like say…comic books. Games fundamentally orient themselves around choice and the ability to integrate and interact with the decision making process, any adaptation is going to lose that and the moral weights and thematic choices that come from that.

So, of course, Assassin’s Creed isn’t good. It doesn’t address that failing or attempt to get around it and it’s not exactly working off the best material to make a movie out of. Assassin’s Creed may often feel like insane improvisatory nonsense, but that’s because the story of the games themselves often feel like that.

But you know what? If we can’t reach good yet, then I’m willing to settle for this, a film that is at least interesting. A blockbuster whose failings are that it’s attempting too much to be its own thing, that feels more indebted to the mistakes and desires of the filmmaker and the creative team than the studio who funded it.

For those of you unfamiliar, the lore of this franchise goes thus. For hundreds of years, the Templars, an order dedicated to control of the world, and the Assassins, an order dedicated to its liberation (I’m pretty sure), have been at war in the shadows. The object of their feuding is the Apple of Eden, a magical device that “contains the genetic code to free will” and can eliminate all free thought in the wrong hands.

Look, I know you’ve paid for sillier, just bear with me here.

In 2016, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is executed by the state of Texas. He wakes up two days later in the facilities of Abstergo, a high-tech facility paid by the Templars to try out science as a way to control humanity. The facility is under the control of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) who are under pressure from Templar Elders (Charlotte Rampling, I shit you not) to find the Apple of Eden sooner rather than later. They may have just found their key.

You see, Lynch is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who operated in 15th century Spain and may have been the last to know the location of the Apple of Eden. Abstergo has created a device called the Animus, which allows Lynch to hook into the genetic memory of his ancestor and relive his past, which was apparently a constant series of parkour action sequences. Through that, Abstergo hopes to uncover the location of the Apple before Lynch discovers what he’s helping them do.

So, that is a lot of plot and I’m not even getting into his relationship with his father (Brendan Gleeson) or the other Assassins who are captive at Abstergo (including Michael K. Williams). This is a dense fucker of a movie, so much stuff going on that no one would blame you for difficulty in following any one of the threads.

I also wouldn’t blame you because Assassin’s Creed seems to choose to be deliberately obfuscatory, choosing to lean full into the insane mythology its based on rather than simplify or turn it into its own thing. Which has to be admired. Look, it’s a tangled mess, but it’s never boring, there’s just a whole lot of crazy happening on screen. It knows that there’s a chance that you’re not going to really vibe with it, so why try so hard to please?

Director Justin Kurzel was last seen directing an adaptation of Macbeth (with the same leads as here) and he treats this film with the same deadly seriousness that he treated Shakespeare. Every moment has all the gravity in the world, every scene is covered in swirling smoke like a hazy look into a war, and every actor is really trying to make something out of these nothing characters.

If any part of that approach is a problem, it’s that everything is pitched with so much gravity. This is a grim, gray film where light seems to stream through almost reluctantly. When everything is dark, nothing is.

But you know, I think that was the intention of the movie. Assassin’s Creed absolutely feels like the movie Kurzel and his creative team (including Fassbender, who produces this movie) set out to make and there are times where that shines through. The action sequences in 15th century Spain are often kinetic and exciting, constant motion that keeps things dizzying in the best way. He’s even willing to get weird and hypnotic in the scenes at Abstergo, letting hallucinations and half-thoughts dominate.

This is also a major blockbuster that has half of its extremely rare dialogue take place in Spanish. Kurzel chose to use whispering for Macbeth and here he just seems to avoid using dialogue entirely in service of letting his images and his motion speaks. Kurzel would absolutely be at home making a silent film and I wish that at some point soon he would just do it. But even now it gives the actions a certain propulsive solemnity, that the silence keeps things moving and lets the camera speak.

Rather than being a 100 million dollar movie that lets everything run the same trodden paths, it does feel like its own thing. Now, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Assassin’s Creed is incoherent in its storytelling, has nothing to its characters, and goes on about 40 minutes too long. I don’t know if anyone can explain the chain of events that is the ending. It occasionally seems to treat moving from scene to scene as an afterthought, remembering at random that it must do it meaning that some scenes are too long and some are too short.

But why should I get hung up on that? This isn’t a good movie, but unlike so many other 2016 franchise stillbirths, this is one I was actually intrigued by and I’d be willing to pay for Assassin’s Creed 2. Like, I know there’s no way we’ll see a sequel and I don’t even think I feel comfortable recommending this one, but I just have to admire a movie this expensive that chooses to care this little about what people ultimately think of it.

Grade: B-

The Light Between Oceans is a bad date; pretty enough to get you there and too boring to make you care.

The Light Between Oceans is the kind of film that’d be the favorite of your grandma if it had come out when she was a child, perhaps as the long-awaited reunion between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s an old-school studio melodrama, the kind of movie they used to make a lot of and “don’t make anymore” It’s certainly a handsome picture, with two folks at its head that have a simmering romance and are so beautiful you can’t look directly at them. But there’s a sense of whiffed work and missed opportunity, a film that didn’t atone the sins of its source material and made a series of wrong decisions bringing them there.

Based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman (which, plot twist, I’ve actually read for once), The Light Between Oceans is the story of the marriage of Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel Sherbourne nee Greysmark (Alicia Vikander). Tom is a WW1 veteran haunted by his memories who takes over the lighthouse on Janus, off the coast of Australia. On visits back, he meets Isabel, a beautiful young woman and the last remaining daughter of the Greysmark family. The two fall in love and he brings her to live on the island with him. Every attempt they make to start a family is met by a traumatic miscarriage.

Until one day, a boat washes up on shore. A dead man holds a live child, a baby girl. Tom and Isabel choose to keep the child and raise her as their own, Lucy. But that decision will have deep ramifications, especially given that her mother Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) is still alive and in the same town.

This is the third film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance, and his first film to really orient mainstream since the devastating Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. From those films, I really do see what appealed to him and what appealed to producers about him for this story. Both of those films excelled at heightened and raw emotion, and especially excelled at creating real and believable screen couples. Remember that Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes are together from The Place Beyond the Pines and Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander met during the filming of this one.

And his skill in that world is still unquestioned. Together with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Macbeth), Cianfrance crafts a truly potent screen romance. These are gorgeous people in a gorgeous world and every bit of their relationship feels real and lived-in. Fassbender and Vikander too are also well-up to the challenge. They play two halves of a whole, Fassbender shoving down every emotion in a tightly wound ball of darkness and Vikander throwing every emotion out on the surface, practically making her exhaustion felt with every frame she appears in.

Part of Cianfrance’s charm up until now has been the raw nerves he crafts in surprisingly clever structural ways. I don’t want to say gimmicky, that sounds negative, but his nontraditional storycraft often serves to really underline the striking emotion that underlines his stories.

The Light Between Oceans doesn’t have that, it’s too excessively mannered, too composed to really get at the raw nerves of emotion underneath. It’s a melodrama, and the instinct when we we look at emotional romances is to call them such. But that was never really Cianfrance’s game, and this feels a little too far out of his depth. The Light Between Oceans is too controlled a narrative, laid out straightforward and really leaning into a few big emotional moments to work earnestly on the strengths it needs to.

It ends up amounting to something that has a whole lot of screaming and crying and meaningful looks but that never really feels able to peer under the surface to find something to say about romance or morality or anything the film touches on. It’s as much of a nice movie as the original book was a book club book. Something that feels meaningful and deep but is too caught up in appearing as those things to actually ever be either.

The fact that this thing has the same problems as the book extends to the narrative decisions made. I’m going to be frank, I don’t think fidelity to plot is necessarily a virtue in adaptation. As long as the feeling is kept, the key and the spirit of a thing, all else can be changed and removed as seen fit.

The Light Between Oceans is a remarkably faithful adaptation plot-wise, which means it has an absolutely dreadful third act. Part of the compelling nature of this story is that it does actually play with some interesting moral questions over whether it’s right to keep the child and whether our couple is or isn’t doing something wrong.

But remember earlier on how I said this was a book club book? That also means this thing is desperate to have a mass appeal, which means that it can’t ultimately rest on an ambiguous nature that the rest of its narrative demands. It forces itself into a neat bow that feels more eye-roll worthy than anything else. It also posits that Fassbender will age like Superman and still look basically the same 40 years later, just with a few more wrinkles, which at least puts it ahead of the X-Men series.

This story just ultimately ends up going nowhere. It’s beautiful, yes. It’s well-acted, yes. And Alexandre Desplat gives a great, if mildly too-assertive score. But it’s ultimately just boring, to amount to a tidy resolution and take over two hours of my time to get there. Cianfrance can do better, but I don’t think this was the story with which he could.

Grade: C