The Assassin: On Second Thought Thursday

People will be clamoring for strong female characters, but will dismiss films like The Assassin

AT FIRST, I WAS LIKE: To be quite honest, I don’t remember anything that happened when I first saw it. I saw the Blu-Ray at Best Buy and I thought the cover looked cool. I was under the impression that this was going to be a Wuxia film like Crouching Tiger or Hero so I bought the Blu-Ray under that pretense. I start watching it, and the long shots and lack of action had me blacking out. You ever get blackout drunk and wake up the next day on the side of the street with nothing but your underwear wondering how you got there? Well, that’s how I felt watching The Assassin; I got to the ending but I couldn’t tell how we got there. Don’t hold that against me though, I was a young and naive cinephile and a movie like this was just too much for me to appreciate at the time.

BUT NOW, I’M LIKE: It’s been six years since I’ve seen The Assassin and y’know what they say: second time’s a charm! The things I didn’t like the first time became the best parts about The Assassin. Wuxia films are some of the prettiest looking films ever made and The Assassin is no different. There are a lot of striking colors all shot with some terrific cinematography. Speaking of the cinematography, we need to call Berlin because the cinematography took my breath away! It’s full of these long and lingering shots that might turn off some viewers but if you pay attention to what the camera’s actually doing, you’ll get a lot of insight into the characters. While the cinematography was a banger, I was still having a hard time getting into the actual plot of the film. Too many different characters with difficult names made it hard for me to invest. Also, I couldn’t tell who was who because of how similar most of them looked. Maybe it’s just my lack of brain cells but I was confused. At least the visuals helped hold my attention.

IN THE END, I’M JUST LIKE: The Assassin is definitely not for everyone and if you want something with a bit more energy with a dash of well-choreographed action, then you’re gonna have to look somewhere else. If, however, you don’t mind a slower pace, then The Assassin might be the film for you. I really can’t praise the cinematography and editing enough. The opening sequence is shot entirely in black and white and sets up the world, the story, and the characters with little dialogue. All the information you need on Shu Qi’s assassin is given in those opening sequences. This second viewing was a very rewarding experience for me and I’m looking forward to giving this another watch a few years down the line.

A Quiet Place: Part II

A Quiet Place: Part II further supports my stance that children ruin everything.

REPPED: John Krasinski makes for a promising genre director because of his ability to create and hold tension for the right amount of time until it reaches its breaking point; for this reason, Krasinski seems like the obvious successor to Steven Spielberg. For further proof, look no further than the opening prologue for Part II which makes great use of tension by showing the events of the first day of the invasion while also serving as a reintroduction to the world set up in the first film. What’s so effective about that prologue is that we already know how it’s going to play out, but Krasinski and friends assume it’s going to be a normal day at the ballpark. It feels reminiscent to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds where an ordinary day slowly starts to become anything but normal. I like that Krasinski still manages to capture what made the first film so enjoyable while also allowing the world and characters to expand in a way that feels honest and organic to what was set up during the first. We still have Emily Blunt dazzling up the screen, but she’s now more of a side character while Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe are put front and center. Both characters go their separate ways for the sequel and while both have their own separate stories, their narratives ultimately culminate in a final act that drives home the main theme of the film. That final shot is such a powerful ending and makes for a solid crowd pleaser.

NEGGED: It’s not as emotionally gripping as the first film. The characters are still well-written and the performances are still as strong as my right arm, but the first film still feels like it had the stronger premise. Movies like Andy Muschietti’s It do this trope particularly well; if you want good drama, just kill a child during the opening sequence. Part I is about a family dealing with the loss of a child and for all the fun that Part II has, I think it lacks a bit of that drama that was present in the first film. Cillian Murphy’s character had potential to be the one with the most effective story arcs in the film but his backstory happens offscreen. It’s a small grievance but it deserved to be addressed.

FINAL VERDICT: It’s a coming-of-age tale about moving on and carrying on the legacy of your predecessors. A Quiet Place: Part II effectively expands the world that was created in Part I, but the main characters still manage to stay grounded and relatable despite the expansion. Krasinski still has a strong grasp on tension and while the novelty of the first film has worn off, John Krasinski still manages to craft a sequel that’s just as enjoyable as the first even if it wasn’t as dramatically resonant as the first film.

The Dark Knight: Nolan’s Breakout

Nolan gives us another character super good at his job, this time, it just happens to be the villain.

REPPED: Calm down, literates, now’s not the time for Ledger praise. That comes later! Instead, I wanted to highlight Wally Pfister’s brilliant cinematography. Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan are the power couple of the film world; the Brangelina for cinephiles, if you will. With Pfister’s work in The Dark Knight, he effectively conveys the characters’ feelings to the audience while also establishing the mood of each sequence. My favorite sequence is between The Joker and Rachel where he tells the story about his scars. The way the camera circles around both characters perfectly captures Rachel’s feelings of dread and unease. I don’t know about you, but this is probably how I’d feel if a clown came up to me at knifepoint. As I’ve been trekking my way through Nolan’s filmography I’ve learned that he loves push-in shots. I’ve noticed it since Batman Begins but it’s used quite a bit for The Dark Knight. The best push-in shot is definitely during the dinner sequence with Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. As Dent’s giving his “die a hero” monologue, the camera pushes into Bruce and it drives home the idea that Bruce believes that Harvey could be the man to make Gotham great again (MGGA). I also see it as Bruce hoping that Harvey could be Bruce’s way out of his responsibilities as Batman. The creative and purposeful use of camera movement in The Dark Knight makes it one of the most uniquely shot films in the superhero genre.

NEGGED: The only problem with setting Batman in our world is that you risk making Gotham look like a generic Metropolitan city. If there’s one thing Batman Begins does better it’s that it creates a Gotham City that feels tonally consistent with the Gotham City of the comics while walking the line just enough to where it feels like it could exist in our world. I’m not a comic book purist and I never have been so I can understand the choice to depict Gotham City the way it is in The Dark Knight. On this rewatch, it’s obvious that The Dark Knight is a story about Gotham City so why not play up that theme and give Gotham a bit more of a personality? Anyway, it’s a small grievance.

FINAL VERDICT: It’s not fair to call this a good Batman movie or even a good superhero movie. Nolan’s aspirations are larger than simply delivering another solid superhero film. Through his use of score, cinematography, and performance, Nolan ended up making a near-perfect film that just happens to have Batman in it. I think it’s time to talk about the Ledger performance because this is a performance that will transcend the ages. What do you say when everything’s already been said? It’s terrifying, it’s engrossing, and it’s funny. This feels like the performance Ledger was born to play and it will forever be a moment immortalized through time. The Dark Knight is a crime epic set in a world where superheroes exist and taking these larger-than-life icons and placing them in real world situations with real world consequences is what continues to make The Dark Knight ahead of the curve.

Saint Maud: God’s Plan?

Maud just needed a hug…and a lot of therapy.

REPPED: Morfydd Clark’s performance as Maud is equal parts chilling as it is tragic. The character is a powerful allegory for religious zealotry and the dark paths it can lead you to. It’s uncomfortable watching Maud interact with other people because of how awkward and unaware she is but it also makes for some darkly comedic moments and Clark does a great job of delivering a grounded and sincere performance while also acknowledging how loony and unwell Maud really is. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle seems like the biggest influence for Maud with her occasional voiceovers and apparent savior complex. The events of Saint Maud are told from the perspective of Maud herself, so the film romanticizes her actions and presents them as an act of God’s will. However, director Rose Glass smartly manages to pull us back to the reality of Maud’s delusions which in turn delivers one of the most chilling endings to a horror movie I’ve ever seen.

NEGGED: The relationship between Maud and Amanda seems like an afterthought during the middle portion of the film. Maud is assigned as Amanda’s caretaker who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and their interactions together are very good because of how different their personalities are. Maud is repressed and devout in her religion whereas Amanda is promiscuous and uninterested in religion or salvation. In a mocking fashion, Amanda calls Maud her “little savior,” unknowingly sparking Maud’s self-imposed crusade to save Amanda’s soul. This is what the film’s first act is about but once we reach the second act, Amanda is never present until the climax which is a strong conclusion for both characters, but it works because of how strong the setup during the first act was.

FINAL VERDICT: The terror of Saint Maud doesn’t come from its jump scares or demonic imagery, but from what it says about guilt and the things we turn to in order to cope with our shame. Of course, Saint Maud isn’t opposed to these horror tropes of jump scares and frightening imagery but they’re strategically used during moments when the characters are at their lowest and when the tension is at its highest. Saint Maud’s use of atmosphere and score is effective in building dread and putting us into the mental state of Maud which is the most important ingredient to making this film work. Ultimately, Saint Maud is a tragic character study of a woman seeking penitence and enlightenment but her journey ultimately leads her down a burning path of destruction.

The Prestige: No Happy Endings Here

My girlfriend thought that Drunk Jackman was a different actor.

REPPED: A bit of hyperbole here, but Borden is undoubtedly Bale’s best performance. Bale’s reputation as a method actor is well-documented and while he’s never been a bad actor, the method acting usually seems to overshadow the actual performances he gives. With The Prestige, however, there’s no prosthetics or weight change; this is simply Bale delivering a straightforward performance. In The Prestige, Bale’s Borden is subtle and reserved which is a great contrast to Jackman’s Angier who has a natural charisma and showmanship. On first viewing, you might label this as “Boring Bale,” but upon future viewings, there’s so much going on with this performance that you’d only notice upon a second viewing. Borden can be unlikable in one scene but can be charming and sympathetic in another and Bale never takes it to either extreme. A character as nuanced and complicated as Borden deserves to be in the Nolan Hall of Fame!

NEGGED: What negative can I give to one of my all-time favorite films? I have no idea, but if we want to reach here, I’d say Scarlett Johansson’s performance is lacking. In fact, the two females in the movie (Johansson and Rebecca Hall) are simply props for Bale and Jackman. Of the two, Rebecca Hall is the one who gives the stronger performance. She’s the emotional center for Christian Bale’s character, but she’s nothing more than the longsuffering housewife. It’s consistent with other Nolan films to have weak female leads but Johansson might be the most out of place. Her accent is distracting and she’s propped up to be the object of affection for both protagonists but she walks out of the film without leaving much of an impression.

FINAL VERDICT: The Prestige is a tragedy about the dark side of ambition and obsession. There’s a clear protagonist and antagonist in The Prestige but Bale and Jackman are so obsessed with beating the other that they destroy the lives of those around them and it ultimately leaves you conflicted on whether either one is truly the hero or villain. This is the middle ground where Nolan is starting to play around with higher concepts but unlike his proceeding films, the characters are the draw and not the concept itself. Nolan’s greatest magic trick is revealing his trick from the start, but like Angier, we refuse to accept it because of how simple and obvious it is and once the revelation comes, you’re left just as surprised as Angier with how the trick was in front of you all along. Nolan’s pedigree continues to grow from here on out, but The Prestige still manages to be his ultimate masterpiece.

Army of the Dead: The Ugliest Looking Snyder Movie

ENCARNACIOOOONNNN!!!!!!

REPPED: If Dwayne Johnson is Rocky Balboa at the start of Rocky III, then Dave Bautista is Mr. T working his way to the title. Bautista is the thinking man’s meathead and while Army of the Dead might not be the best use of his talents, Bautista still manages to carry this film on his broad ass shoulders. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel something when I saw Bautista’s Scott Ward flipping burgers at some rundown diner. The film’s prologue has Scott saving people during the initial zombie invasion which could have been its own movie but then we come to the present and we see the reward for his heroism and it’s not much. Where you have Dwayne Johnson and his constant need to show how badass he is, Bautista isn’t afraid to show some vulnerability and it’s refreshing to see some range with these physically imposing actors. Of course, this is still a Zack Snyder zombie movie so you’re gonna need the action and Bautista brings it! For all its problems, the one shining moment was seeing Bautista going full berserker and slamming zombies! Army of the Dead’s greatest sin was never having Bautista square off one-on-one with the Alpha Zombie. The fight we end up getting in the film is super lame and I was really hoping for a wrestling match between Ward and the Alpha.

NEGGED: I ABHOR Netflix-produced content because of how digital and lifeless it looks and Army of the Dead has to be one of the biggest offenders of this. I’ve seen The Irishman and despite being a Netflix film, it looks better than Army of the Dead, so what was going on here? Well, it appears as if Zack Snyder was also the cinematographer and it’s apparent that he can’t hold a camera properly. It’s almost unfathomable that this was shot by Zack Snyder because he’s always been a visually stimulating director; say what you want about his other films, but you can’t say he’s ever directed an ugly film, that is, until now. Visually, Army of the Dead seems like his most uninspired work.

FINAL VERDICT: Army of the Dead is about as bloated as I get after eating a bag of French Fries, and I do get very bloated! You’d think that with such a long runtime Snyder would take advantage and fully flesh out his impressive ensemble of characters but for all the talent he managed to bring aboard this project, no one has any real personality. They fall victim to the “Boba Fett Syndrome” where they would make for cool action figures but they have nothing going on underneath the surface. It’s a heist film in title only and lacks any sort of character or tension. From the concept to the characters to its Las Vegas setting, Army of the Dead hardly utilizes any of it to good effect and the result is a film that feels as lifeless as the undead themselves.

300: On Second Thought Thursday

Dear 300, thank you for giving us Spartacus and Gerard Butler but please, take back CrossFit.

AT FIRST, I WAS LIKE: 300 is a visual treat! Zack Snyder’s biggest strength is making his heroes larger than life and it’s never been more prevalent than in 300. “We Spartans are descended from Hercules himself,” says Dilios. These Spartans aren’t soldiers, they’re gods and every shot establishes them as such. The makeup and costume design is top notch too. On one side, you have the Spartan uniform which is iconic and very vibrant with their simple red capes, and on the other side, you have Xerxes’ army which has a bunch of wild designs. Xerxes and his messengers are all decked out in bling as opposed to the Immortals who are more monstrous and demonic in their designs. I understand where the controversy in depicting the Persians as they are in the film but it never seemed to bother me. Granted, I was a brain dead teenager at the time so I never picked up on the subtext, but even then, it’s tonally consistent with the rest of the movie. How else would you interpret an army of villainous invaders from a foreign land when the heroes themselves are depicted as gods? 300 is a hyperreal depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae where the protagonists are gods and the antagonists are demons so it seems unfair to place criticism on a choice that seems to have been intentional from the start.

BUT NOW, I’M LIKE: There’s one thing that seems to be consistent with Snyder films, and it’s that he’s thematically inconsistent. ” ‘Goodbye, my love.’ He doesn’t say it. There’s no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard, only the strong.” This is what Dilios says in voiceover during King Leonidas’ goodbye to his Queen Gorgo as Leonidas and his men prepare to embark for war. This is the overall tone for the entirety of 300 which glorifies the warrior mentality. However, there’s one sequence involving Captain Artemis following the death of his son Astinos that seems to be a critique on this sort of masculinity. “I had lived my entire life without regret until now. It’s not that my son gave up his life for his country. It’s just that I never told him that I loved him the most. That he stood by me with honor. That he was all that was best in me.” This is about the only time Snyder challenges this idea on what being a man is but it’s only ever surface-level and it never has any sort of payoff at the end. I don’t know if I was looking too much into something that was never really there, but during my rewatch, I couldn’t help but feel as if Snyder’s intent was to deconstruct our notions of masculinity but his message is drowned out with all the glamorous shots of war, shields, and rippling abdominals.

IN THE END, I’M JUST LIKE: It’s amazing how culturally relevant this was back in the day. It was the breakout role for Gerard Butler, it influenced shows like Spartacus, and it’s the go-to Halloween costume for every Zyzz wannabe. This is the most iconic dude-bro movie to ever exist and despite how badly it’s aged in terms of its representation of foreigners and its view of masculinity, this still remains an enjoyable viewing experience for me. If there’s one consistency among the inconsistency, it’s that Snyder shoots action in a way very few can. With the exception of the warehouse sequence in Batman v Superman, this is probably the best action Snyder’s ever shot. It’s epic but never overbearing and for $70 million it looks a lot more expensive than that. Every action trope you can expect from a Zack Snyder movie is present in 300, but unlike Man of Steel’s overuse of destruction porn, 300’s action is exciting rather than draining. Rewatching 300 in context of Snyder’s other films, this fits right in with his work. He’s never been one for humanizing his characters, but he knows how to establish his protagonists as icons and larger than life. In turn, it’s difficult to relate to these characters on a personal level but Snyder’s technical mastery is enough to get his audience involved with the story even if it’s only surface level.

Those Who Wish Me Dead: Not As Sizzlin’ As It Looks

You know you’re watching a Taylor Sheridan film when Jon Bernthal appears onscreen.

REPPED: You wanna know who gives the best performance in the film? It’s not Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, or Jon Bernthal. It’s Medina Senghore as Jon Bernthal’s wife, Allison Sawyer. Who would’ve thought the pregnant housewife would be a more interesting protagonist than Angelina Jolie? The marketing had Angelina Jolie all over it and while she does a fine job, this should have been Senghore’s movie. Right from the start, you assume Senghore would be nothing more than a damsel in distress but Sheridan does a great job of subverting that expectation by making her character an actual badass. She’s not written to be an overpowered killing machine, but as a relatable character who’s able to handle herself. In a lot of ways, you could compare this character to action heroes like Sarah Connor and John McClane who are working class average joes placed in outlandish circumstances. I’m putting a lot of stock in Medina Senghore because I think she has potential to grow into a bigger action star.

NEGGED: Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen are so inept at their job that they’d be perfect for a Home Alone film! These are some terribly written antagonists who are outsmarted at every turn. Both are terrific actors and it’s great seeing Nicholas Hoult taking on more sinister roles, but their menace starts to dissipate the further along the movie goes. Aidan Gillen and Ben Mendelsohn need to be in a movie where they play nice guys because all of their recent film roles have them playing the same type of villain! I’m not looking for a Heath Ledger performance in a film like this, but the villain should be formidable enough to challenge the protagonist as well as to keep the audience on edge. They’re thankless roles but Hoult and Gillen do the best with what they’re given, which isn’t very much.

FINAL VERDICT: In a time when superheroes dominate the filmmaking landscape, we still have directors like Taylor Sheridan who are able to make films like Those Who Wish Me Dead which focus on the working class average joe as opposed to the larger than life beefcake that fills our screens today. Those Who Wish Me Dead is uneven and never seems to have a consistent focus on any particular character, but the thrills are there and it’s nice to see Angelina Jolie star in a film like this before she ventures off with Marvel. If you’re in the mood for an old-school action thriller with a breakout performance from Medina Senghore, then you should absolutely give this one a watch.

Fantasia: An Acid Trip of Epic Proportions

A visual and audio treat in the same way that Fury Road and Dunkirk are.

REPPED: What a lovely blend of music and animation! Since it’s presented as an anthology of short segments, each segment has its own unique style that plays around with different themes and visuals. Some segments are lively and colorful while others are somber and muted and it’s very welcoming to see a Disney film deal with darker material. The Pastoral Symphony and Night on Bald Mountain were my favorites. The Pastoral Symphony has a lot of artwork that reminded me of Disney’s Hercules and Night on Bald Mountain is terrifying but is also a lovely celebration of all things spooky. Fantasia feels like the result of a drug-induced spark of creativity and the way the film balances color with music and sound gives the viewer a feeling of serenity amidst its operatic scale.

NEGGED: I don’t know who Deems Taylor is but having the film jump back to him in between segments was boring. The film has so much energy during the musical sequences that I didn’t want to take a break, I just wanted it to keep going. Deems Taylor does a professional job in presenting, but jumping from animation to live action disrupted the flow of the film. I was also up late at night trying to cram this movie in so the live action scenes added extra time I didn’t need.

FINAL VERDICT: Fantasia is like walking into a strip club: eye candy all around! Fantasia was meant to be a marketing tool for the character of Mickey Mouse, but in my eyes, it ended up being a creative endeavor that celebrates the art of film and its ability to move audiences through its marriage of music and animation.

Batman Begins: The Best BATMAN Movie

Patrick Bateman? More like Patrick BATMAN! Am I right, fellas?!?

REPPED: You can add Christian Bale to the Mount Rushmore of superhero performances because he brings legitimacy and nuance to Batman in a way that hadn’t been fully realized until Batman Begins! Bale has such a reverence for this character and it shows in every facet of his performance. He’s able to balance the playboy billionaire and brooding avenger in seamless fashion and they’re all consistent with the character’s comic book origins. While the bat nipples are long gone, we’ve entered another extreme on the other side of the spectrum: the bat voice. It makes sense for Bruce Wayne to change his voice when putting on the cowl, but it does feel a little goofy at some points. Despite that, Christian Bale’s Batman is menacing but vulnerable, smart but amateur and this still remains the peak live action version of Batman.

NEGGED: Most superhero films, with the exception of a few, have a villain problem and it’s an offense that not even Nolan can escape from. Having a seasoned thespian like Liam Neeson is always a plus and he’s great as the mentor, but he’s not in it enough to make a lasting impression. The character of Ducard is interesting because he’s the inverse of Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne. While Thomas Wayne is rich and benevolent, Ducard is a much gruffer father figure to Bruce and serves as the essential piece to Bruce’s eventual turn as Batman. Of course, every superhero film needs a villain with an evil plan, but introducing the real villain near the end of the second act never makes him a true menace to Batman.

FINAL VERDICT: This isn’t simply a movie about a rich guy becoming a superhero, it’s about a broken man learning to come to terms with his guilt and fear. Batman Begins felt like the first Batman film where Batman was the most compelling part of the film and not the villains. Nolan and Bale tackled this source material with respect for the character and in doing so they created a compelling character drama under the guise of a comic book film. This still remains one of my all time favorite superhero films of all time!