Assassin’s Creed‘s principal visual motif, that of the same eagle seemingly flying all over the world in multiple different time periods, feels as head-slappingly obvious yet needlessly convoluted as the film it stitches together. Said film, of course, is in the long-standing tradition of movies based on video games that almost invariably fail to attract critical support (the only probable exceptions are the Resident Evil films by Paul W.S. Anderson and Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney), but this particular incarnation’s failure is more puzzling than usual. Directed by Justin Kurzel, who helmed last year’s lurid but tedious adaptation of Macbeth, and featuring many returning collaborators from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw to lead actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed possesses the talent to become a dynamic and thrilling movie. But it feels hampered by many aspects, neither embracing its video game origins nor providing any sort of compelling reason to exist.
Though the movie essentially takes place two timelines, and most of the physical action is set in 1492, it primarily follows the story of Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a convicted criminal sentenced to death, in present-day Spain. After undergoing a fake execution, he is brought to an organization known as Abstergo Industries and, under the supervision of Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) and her father and CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), is connected to a device called the Animus. The contraption allows Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar, a member of a group of assassins that has continually opposed the Templar Order, so that he may help Abstergo find the Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact that purportedly would allow the owner to control the free will of the entire human race.
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Opening this week at a few screens around town (the Uptown, the Seven Gables, along with the Grand in Tacoma) is the latest high-profile adaptation of a Shakespeare play, with Michael Fassbender as the Scottish usurper and Marion Cotillard as his ambitious wife. Directed by Justin Kurzel, this Macbeth proves a solid entry in what must be considered the Games of Thronesification of the historical film, with an outsized emphasis on the lurid details of medieval warfare. The brooding sense of doom, of course, comes right out of Shakespeare, but where previous adaptations by Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa found shadows and fog in the text, Kurzel finds blood. Whether that is an improvement or not I think depends a great deal on how important you feel verisimilitude is to realism. At its best, the film has some of the hallucinatory power that gives the play an eternal aura of mystery, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychotic Viking epic Valhalla Rising, but with words. At its worst, it’s simply Fassbender looking confused and mumbling incoherently.
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Continuing this week at the SIFF Uptown is the latest from neo-realist Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, their first foray into movie-stardom thanks to an Oscar-nominated performance from Marion Cotillard (The Dardennes themselves have never been nominated for an Academy Award, though they have accomplished the rare feat of twice winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival). Cotillard plays a factory worker (solar panels) who has just recently and barely recovered from the suicidal depression that caused a prolonged work absence, thus proving to her bosses that the factory will run just fine without her. She’s been laid off because her co-workers were made to vote on whether they’d rather she continue to work or they get their annual bonus. It’s an absurdly blunt premise that the Dardennes, whatever its worth, remain firmly committed to with their meticulous direct-cinema style. After talking her way into a revote as the film begins, the bulk of the movie follows Cotillard visiting each of her coworkers in turn over the weekend to beg them to allow her to keep her job. The fact that the Dardennes manage to make such a didactic and schematic premise watchable at all is a credit to their skill, and a testament to the fine performances of their cast. Cotillard first and foremost is a stunner, her portrait of a woman desperately trying to keep it together on the brink of disaster is easily on par with her exceptional work in 2013’s The Immigrant, which she probably should have been Oscar-nominated for as well. The only other recognizable face in the film is the man who plays her husband, Fabrizio Rongione, who also played the architect in 2014’s La Sapienza (look for Eugène Green’s very fine film to get a US release in the coming months, hopefully it’ll make it to Seattle), but all the performances are wonderful, each new co-worker bringing a wonderfully individualized set of hang-ups, guilts and possibilities of hope.
Two Days, One Night plays Friday through Thursday at the Kirkland Parkplace Cinema.