'Assassin's Creed' a Leap of Faith That Looks Right, Falls Flat

Directed by: Justin Kurzel; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: C-

Look, as much as it stings to say so, it might be time to stop anticipating the arrival of that truly great video-game adaptation on the big screen. Assassin's Creed, the long-awaited cinematic take on Ubisoft's continuing franchise, has just about everything going for it to finally get the job done: a promising new director in Justin Kurzel, who delivered a flawed but beautiful adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth; a cast led by several Oscar winners and nominees; and a science-fiction setup that's almost ready-made for a Hollywood blockbuster, one that transports the lead character into virtual-reality journeys throughout invigorating historical events. Coupled with the series' clandestine stealth combat and novel pop-science involving the "memory" of DNA, this one really had the opportunity to scale over the wall that's separated the two mediums for many years. Alas, despite a strong grasp on the game's visual language and credible performance value throughout, storytelling once again delivers a killing blow to this muddled and occasionally sluggish adaptation.

Assassin's Creed doesn't pull directly from any of the games in the series, instead telling a brand-new story set in a tweaked version of Ubisoft's game universe, penned by Macbeth's Michael Lesslie alongside the duo of Bill Collage and Adam Cooper responsible for Allegiant and Exodus: Gods and Kings. The lead character, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), is also newly created for the film, a late-thirties man on death row with a scarring past involving death in his family. Instead of meeting his end, he awakens in the depths of a high-tech facility owned by Abstergo, a science research corporation with a project dedicated to tapping into ancestral memories found within people's DNA, overseen and owned by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Their interest in Callum has to do with his lineage, which becomes clear as he's strapped into an elaborate virtual-reality device, the Animus, and begins to live out the memories of Aguilar, a member of the Order of Assassins who furthered their pursuit of the Apple of Eden -- I know, bear with me -- in late-1400s Spain. It's this Apple of Eden, an ancient relic that manipulates the free will of others, that Abstergo, the corporate face of the Templars, hopes to locate in the modern era.

The juxtaposition of the slate-colored, sharp-angled Abstergo facility and the dusty earthiness of those sequences from historical Spain reveals that director Kurzel and his crew truly grasp how Assassin's Creed should look and feel. Granted, they've made changes to better suit the live-action medium, notably how they've turned the Animus device -- essentially a stationary VR rig in the games -- into a large, funky robotic-armed contraption that tracks Callum's real-time movements during the memories, which actually gives the lead actor something to do in the present era besides just lying down; think The Matrix. When it comes to the transitions from the prison-like facility to the eagle-eye soaring glimpses of the landscapes navigated by Aguilar and his brothers and sisters in arms, and when it comes to the fast-paced chases and combat that occur throughout the buildings and cramped streets of late-1400s Spain, this film truly encapsulates the attitude of the franchise. As with Macbeth, the lived-in textures and architecture are stunningly cohesive with the setting.

When it comes to focusing on the characters, however, I suspect this new take on Assassin's Creed, a largely stone-faced and solemn affair, might have looked to the wrong installment in the game series as a point of reference. The first Assassin's Creed game may have gotten things moving, establishing the historical lore and the science and the assassination aspects, but there are certain elements that were "fixed" in its sequel that transformed the series into something a bit more enduring ... and the big one was introducing a second protagonist with a stronger personality than the first, someone with levity and exuberance. Callum Lynch didn't get that message, and neither did his historical counterpart, Aguilar: despite Michael Fassbender's chiseled, brooding features conveying the actor's signature depth and tragic tone, there aren't any breaks from the dark cloud hovering above him in either the past or the present. Fassbender is reliably solid, but perhaps too solid when surrounded by so much ill-omened conspiracy and death, all taken too seriously.

It doesn't help that Assassin's Creed abruptly hurls the audience into Callum's life, the functions of the enigmatic Order of Assassins, and the workings of the Abstergo facility -- with Kurzel's Lady Macbeth, an enigmatic and polished Marion Cotillard, as the scientist brains behind the project -- while the explanations that do drop into the film are the burdensome info-dump variety. The script suffers an anticipated but unfortunate fate for a video-game adaptation with a big narrative, cramming too much material into a short amount of time while still concentrating on producing an engaging action movie, which leaves the story lagging behind while the time-alternating thrills sprint forward. Director Kurzel takes a valiant stab at sorting out the intentionally jumbled chronology between the past and the present, elevated by the talents of Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Kenneth Williams in roles spread across both the Assassins and the Knights Templar; however, beyond the rudiments of the search for the Apple of Eden and what it accomplishes, the sluggish, perplexing rhythm of the messy exposition undercuts its suspense.

As it progresses, Assassin's Creed yearns for the audience to grasp on messages about the balance between order versus chaos, control versus free will, while deciphering all the pieces of the puzzle scattered throughout Justin Kurzel's meticulously-crafted visuals and action. The ambition for this to become something bigger than the run-of-the-mill video-game movie can be clearly observed, yet the film cannot get in sync with that potential, unable to legitimize the preposterous sci-fantasy components enough to achieve that deeper impact. Instead, it delivers cursory entertainment with the tight, well-shot martial arts combat and the cat-and-mouse chases that have come to hallmark the Assassin's Creed franchise, with everything else being just coherent enough to make sense of where the film's ultimately headed and just convoluted enough to stay uninvested in the proceedings. For the pedigree of talent involved, it certainly was permitted to accomplish more than that.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Dispiriting 'Cardboard Boxer' Bludgeons With Grim Drama

Directed by: Knate Gwaltney; Runtime: 88 minutes
Grade: C-

Cardboard Boxer is a relentlessly dour drama about homelessness, and it operates in extremes. In one corner, it depicts the saddening day-to-day activities of people surviving on the streets, who have a decent day when they find chunks of uneaten fast food in the trash and receive a few dollars from passersby. In the other corner, the film's purpose for existing revolves around an exploitative concept that was popularized about a decade prior, where wealthy twenty-something kids go around with cameras and pay homeless people to fight one another. The feature film debut from one of the producers of Jackass, Knate Gwaltney, Cardboard Boxer undermines the honest, always relevant efforts of the former with the tone-shifting jabs of the latter, building into an unpleasant cocktail of the real struggles of those on Skid Row with the degrees that some could debase themselves to have the comfort of shelter, the warmth of companionship, and a flash of notoriety.

Thomas Haden Church plays Willie, a gaunt, wiry bearded man who occupies a box along the streets of an unnamed city. Alongside many of the other denizens of Skid Row, he scrawls messages on sheets of cardboard and hopes for daily donations from the better-off folks along the road, almost vying for attention between them. A poor taxi driver (Terrence Howard) offers intermittent reliefs for the homeless, bringing them food and comforts to the best of his abilities, to which Willie isn't a priority among the driver's closer friends in the community. Things look bad for Willie, but that gets interrupted when a black SUV rolls up and the college-aged kids inside instigate a fight between the homeless men, to which Willie decides to participate for a little cash. After his experience with the taped fighting, Willie gets a taste of comfort in how he spends his money, and that leads him to further engage in the fights whenever the kids roll through.

Lots of saddening development occurs in Cardboard Boxer that's focused on the limbo that Willie copes with on a daily basis, given added bleakness by the things that keep him going and the people with whom he interacts. He develops a one-sided relationship with the passages of a diary he discovers while dumpster-driving, which are the musings of a young girl coping with the death of her mother after an illness, a figure whom he begins to consider a friend despite never meeting her. In his actual surroundings, he maintains a hostile and complicated kinship with Pinky (Boys Holbrook), a legless war veteran, while contemplating the nearby port-a-potties that are a front for cheap prostitution. Knate Gwaltney might have noble intentions by including these side elements, tying Willie's hopelessness to the musings of someone with a roof above their head and shining a light on the mistreatment of disabled veterans, but there isn't enough depth within them to justify how they make an already disheartening depiction even more so.

For a film so concerned with exploring the emotional gravity of life on the streets, however, Cardboard Boxer pulls its punches when it comes to fleshing out Willie as an individual. Granted, part of that appears to be by design: the film reveals hardly anything about Willie's life before he hit the streets, which leaves him in an ambiguous, somewhat faceless state that could apply to any number of homeless individuals wandering the streets right now. This also creates something of a disconnect, though, where the choices he makes and the glimpses we're given at his attitude have no strong foundation to which someone can reference, little motivation beyond what we're intended to decipher in his routine. While there's some dramatic novelty behind these ideas, and Thomas Haden Church's weathered, browbeaten performance communicates a specific kind of morally adaptable and muddled individual, this doesn't work as a sturdy look at who Willie is -- or was -- as a person, but more of a glimpse at nothing more than the ghost lingering in his place.

The lack of definition to the lead character's identity further burdens the fight scenes in Cardboard Boxer, making brawls between homeless individuals even more unenjoyable than they already would be. There's no sport to be found in the grimy, unseasoned brutality, no engaging attraction to the blows landed or the footwork of dodging punches, accentuated by obnoxious chatter from wealthy twenty-somethings. Powered by jittery and intentionally sloppy camerawork, the fights are all built upon the dramatic overtones in how these already destitute individuals are lured into "gladiatorial" barbarity, strictly for the $50 that'll go towards a meal, a sexual rendezvous, or a hotel room for a night of normal human existence. Knate Gwaltney ensures, because of this, that the right messages are telegraphed about self-worth and the toxic swaying power of money amongst the truly impoverished, but one can't help but feel like Cardboard Boxer surrounds Willie with depressing, nihilistic elements just so we can observe the damage they inflict upon him.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Dismal 'Phantom of the Theatre' Doesn't Secretly Possess You

Directed by: Raymond Yip; Runtime: 103 minutes
Grade: D

The influences of Phantom of the Theatre are there, inside the mind. It's difficult to overlook the similarities that Raymond Yip's production share in common with Gaston Leroux's novel, and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical: a cloaked, masked figure looms in the haunted hallways of a ornately-adorned theatre, turning his attention to a young female performer brought to the venue for her talents. Unofficial riffs on classic stories like this can work if the things it does differently have enough substance, either in the look and feel of the setting or the actual dramatic mechanisms that the deviations put in place. Alas, Phantom of the Theatre never pulls back the curtain to reveal enough unique traits to justify the production's uncanny resemblances: while it switches out the opera for filmmaking and stumbles down the route of a poltergeist thriller, neither its chills nor romantic inclinations strike a distinctive -- let alone effective -- chord.

More like the introduction to the latest episode of a supernatural mystery TV show than a lead-in to a motion picture, Phantom of the Theatre tosses the audience into the focal theatre -- and back about a half-century -- with little rhyme or reason, illustrating the extensive, lethal dangers of the ghosts, actors who perished years ago, that loom within. The fact that it's haunted becomes the reason why upcoming director Gu Wingban (Tony Yan) chooses to shoot his latest picture there, which stars rising celebrity Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin) in a sort of supernatural romance. At first shrugging off the theatre's history as manageable superstition, peculiar events and accidents start to happen amid production, while the presence of a shadowy figure slips throughout its dark corners. The film hinges on how the cast and crew members keep the production together, how the director's father (Simon Yam) discourages and interrupts the process, and how romances become shakier in the process.

Phantom of the Theatre gets off on the wrong foot long before the movie crew even reaches the theatre itself, dragged down by iffy computer-generated imagery of the building's specters and weak development of the main characters. A goofy awards ceremony doling out "Most Photogenic" consolation awards generates a peculiar and superfluous tone while establishing Meng SiFan's character, which isn't helped by the clumsiness involved in framing Gu Wingban into an unseasoned director, the type who stereotypically scrambles for pages of his script while snooty actresses waltz by. These coexist with overly colorful, unscary effects in the film's introduction, building into a tone not unlike the general feel of the recent Ghostbusters remake, one without scares or terribly credible characters. Of course, the problem comes in the fact that Raymond Yip desires for all this to be taken seriously, and that's hard to do after such a rickety beginning.

Unfortunately, Phantom of the Theatre doesn't really improve once the activity reaches the theatre. Sure, the set decoration has moments of vivid appeal, where we're allowed to gaze out upon a unique small-scale theatre, throughout its dimly-lit dressing rooms and hallways, and upon the set design crafted for Gu Wingban's supernaturalromance film. Cheesy lighting and visual effects are too bold and incohesive to sell any kind of illusion, though, instead forming into a garish haunted house type of atmosphere ... only without any strong thrills or jump-scares. A few inventive touches involving rotating mirrors and stretched fabric underneath sleeping bodies add doses of visual flair to the ghostly activities, yet there's very little curiosity behind what's actually causing these events to happen, hardly any mystery or investment into the theatre's storied history to delve deeper into the ambience or the characters' psychological shifts. Without, say, Theater of Blood's dark humor or Stage Fright's gory terror, the film's low-burning fire continuously gets smaller.

That's because Phantom of the Theatre fancies itself to be a romantic endeavor alongside the paranormal thrills, to a point where those soapy dramatic inclinations overtake whatever spookiness it hoped to achieve. Overwrought performances struggle alongside bluntly emotive music in the criss-crossing of infatuations, propositions, and desires, all of which become even tougher to appreciate whenever the film's movie-within-a-movie takes center stage, attempting to make connections between the theatre's oddities and the movie's scripting. Even with the presence of Simon Yam as an authoritative military man busting his director son's chops, there's little in the chemistry between the actors and the characterization they're supposed to exude to grab one's attention. Phantom of the Theatre reaches an operatic conclusion with profound personal stakes and melancholy revelations, yet the spirits that stir in the building fail to possess those watching before doing so.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]