In the brilliant musical 1776 about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as his fellow colonial representatives continue to remove portions of the first draft they deem too derogatory, John Adams, in the extremis of frustration shouts: “This is a revolution, we have to offend SOMEBODY!!!”
Well kudos to Assassin’s Creed. They have managed to OFFEND EVERYBODY!
The story is about Sofia (Cotillard) who “rescues” Cal Lynch/Aguilar (Fassbender) after he is executed for the murder of a pimp (which back story sounded far more interesting than the main story turned out to be). Her plan is to use a machine to get him to access the genetic memories of one of his ancestors, an assassin of the 11th century who she believes knows the location of the Apple of Eden, an unexplained anachronism – a highly technological ball which holds the genetic code to Free Will created around or even before the 11th century……and yes, I know how dumb this sounds, but I didn’t write this, I am only warning you about it.
According to my son, who is far more familiar with the source video games than I am, the first two Assassin’s Creed games explored a relatively straight forward good guys versus bad guys, trying to keep the peace during the time of the Crusades. The third version was a stab at anti-Catholic propaganda which game fell flat on its face. SO, of COURSE THAT’S the one they decided to sink a whooping $125 MILLION dollars into as well as waste the talents of: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and Brendan Gleeson.
I take particular exception to the barbs thrown at Templars. Contrary to this mishmashed script, Templars were NOT lunatic totalitarians who sought to eliminate free will. They were monk-like warrior priests who were sent to protect the Christian pilgrims traveling through the Holy Land from attack by Muslims. The absurdist rewriting of history is both ludicrous and might have been insulting if it were at all effective.
The Catholics were treated, predictably, as megalomaniacs. The Muslims were portrayed as cowards. Capitalists as shallow dictatorial control freaks. And the Templars were led by a woman, played, inexplicably by a CGI enhanced Charlotte Rampling. I was so puzzled by her CGI appearance that I had to check to see if maybe she had died in mid production, but, no, she’s still quite alive. And the age of the “Excellency” did not matter and would have even been enhanced by old age. So — I have no idea why they did that very weird thing.
And apparently no one opened a history book, much less read one, because not only were women NOT Templars, Templars were not even allowed intimacies with women – NOT even their own WIVES! So it’s a cinch that a woman would not be leading the Templars. And  finally, the Assassins were so shallowly drawn they were impossible to care about. Not even when the protagonist had a fighting companion at whom he continually made “goo-goo” eyes.
So, you had your choice between mind controlling totalitarian Templars, or complete anarchist Assassins who chanted that “there is no right or wrong…everything is permitted.” Hmmmm. So WHO are we supposed to be rooting for??!!
Continuing on the hit parade of stupid plot points was that the Templars spent billions of dollars building a machine to help them find the Apple of Eden, in order to eliminate Free Will, when the founder – the character played by Irons, readily admits that he thinks it is a moot point because people are so devoted to consumerism (a dig at capitalism, the other whipping boy of the liberals) that Free Will does not matter to them any more. At which point I wondered – well, then why don’t you just pack up and go home. What are you people still DOING out here!!??
Another dumb plot point is the keeping of the “rejected” assassin conduits in one security moderate facility armed with guards who will rush in single file towards a prison riot using only their batons into a facility FULL of display glass “protected” museum piece WEAPONS!!! What idiot would warehouse a gang of convicted (presumably executed) killers with swords and maces and knife studded gauntlets for crying out loud!!!
Meanwhile, from a purely plot-centric point of view the storyline wandered around aimlessly – from the inexplicable murder of our protagonist’s mother, witnessed by him as a young child, to the idea that there could exist, in the 11th century, a metal ball which could hold, or illuminate, or inhibit the genetic code of Free Will, to the concept that there IS such a gene, that the characters spend so much time fighting each other that you don’t really care who wins. Through most of the fight scenes, which in and of themselves were pretty well choreographed, I ended up just wishing ONE side or the other would kill the other side off so they would STOP JERKING AROUND THE CAMERA!!
I LOVE Jackie Chan movies, swashbuckling fencing matches, war films, super hero movies, and even the Rocky series. So I am no newbie when it comes to parsing out what is going on with quick editing action scenes. But the chase/fight scenes here were made of such short choppy edits that….let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not prone to epilepsy.
The best – read ONLY — good parts of the movie were the interactions of Cotillard with Irons, as daughter and father Rikkins, cutting edge scientists working to locate the Apple of Eden so they can eliminate violence and…. oh who cares. It is the DUMBEST plot device ever. But I could watch Cotillard and Irons read the ingredient label to a box of cereal and they would find a way to make it interesting.
And, for the record, I just GOTTA include a couple more random points:
1.Rikkin tells Cal he is not in a prison but they won’t let him leave and essentially torture him – worst vacation retreat—ever.


2. If Cal was a descendant of this Assassin – who was the mom? Assassin Cal/Aguilar’s only girlfriend died and I really don’t see him stopping to fight long enough to even breed.
3. When (SPOILER) Iron’s character is killed – how does he die? There is no blood when Cal “slits” his throat OVER Rikkin’s shirt collar. The collar is not cut, mussed or soaked in blood. Did he die by bow-tie-being-untied?
3. At one point we see Cal’s assassin ancestor leap off a tall building – Cotillard’s character even tells him “jump” but we never see how he survives this enormous fall but we do surmise he dies much later from an arrow wound.
5. And how DID he make it to a ship to give the apple to (wait for it) Christopher Columbus with an arrow in his side?
6. Why did the Rikkins think their search was over just because they saw Aguilar hand it over to Columbus. Columbus was an EXPLORER – he could have put it anywhere in half of the world…or dropped it over the side into the ocean?
6. How did they successfully conclude it was in Columbus’ grave? I mean Aguilar did tell Columbus to take it to his grave, but….literally??!!

As a side note —- Is there a REASON WHY Irons keeps doing these kinds of movies??!! Eragon, Dungeons and Dragons, now this. I must assume his answer would have to be the same one Michael Caine gave when asked why he made Jaws 3 in the SAME year he made the Oscar winning Hannah and Her Sisters —- “Because I had a mortgage to pay.”
The writer to this garage sale quality puzzle-with-missing-pieces spent so much time trying to dis the Catholic Church and send a message praising anarchy that they forgot to actually come up with an understandable plot. Perhaps they should have followed the advice attributed to Sam Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”.
Ironically (a pun in and of itself given who plays Daddy Rikkin) Assassin’s Creed manages to bump ITSELF off.


Every year our family puts up a live Christmas tree. No matter how much trouble to go out and gather as many of the family members as are available for the traditional choosing and purchase, no matter how cold the night, no matter how much mess it makes dropping needles bringing it into the house, no matter how much care it takes to add water, and how much we get stabbed by the real needles, it is worth it for the individual beauty and the familiar smell of a real tree. The combination of the familiar and the unique newness of each tree every year is irresistible. While every Christmas tree is a tall green pine, each will have its own personality, its own positive and negative features – different bare spots, different sway to the trunk, different shade of green – and each will afford a different way to put up the lights and a different set of decorations from the pool of family ornaments. Yet each will be familiar in a reliable way wherein all the favorite ornaments can be hung, the lights brighten the room, and the angel on the top of the tree leads your eye to the completed picture. Each will be unique but each will provide that same element of Christmas delight to our home.
And so it is with any remake of a classic old movie. While you know what the basic structure should look like there’s a fine line between simply being a poor shadow of the classic and being so anxious to put one’s individual stamp on a great concept that you go too far out on a limb and lose what made it a classic to begin with. It is the sweet spot in the middle which can establish a new worthy sapling from that original tree.

Happily I think the new The Magnificent Seven achieves that balance. Both films’, old and new, plots are driven by the efforts of a desperate small town terrorized by bandits, to find the help of a champion. One of the greatest lines in the original was uttered by Chris (Yul Brenner) when the peasants offer him a small bag of gold which they explain is “everything they have”. Chris replies: “I have been offered a lot for my work but never everything.”

Denzel Washington stars in Columbia Pictures’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

That same poetry of purpose and honor purveys the new Magnificent Seven. Just as in the original, Chisholm (Denzel Washington) seeks out men who have special talents: whether it is skill with guns – Robichaux (Ethan Hawke), knives – Billy (Byung-hun Lee), explosives – Faraday (Chris Pratt), bow and arrow – Red Harvest (Mark Sensemeier) and Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) or just raw courage and honor –

Vincent D’Onofrio stars in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Jack (Vincent D’Onofrio). Together they inspire the townsmen to take up arms to defend themselves and take on a small army led by the evil Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). The original bad guys were clearly and literally banditos, here I did take exception to an industrialist being painted as the evildoer. However, I must admit that capitalism taken to an extreme and without a moral compass can be as evil as Communism or any other totalitarian philosophy.

Both films follow a similar story line in the same way that all Christmas trees are evergreens. But like a new Christmas tree the decorations and lights are rearranged and enhanced, giving this 2016 Magnificent Seven its own individual but familiar heart and soul. The dynamics of the relationships are different, as are the motives which bring these disparate group of men together. And the techniques they use to hold the wolves at bay are clever and believable. But the core of the movie is the same.
I grew up with the Yul Brenner version and will always love it but the new one affords a deeper dimension. The original story was basically a variation on David versus Goliath. The 2016 film weaves the additional thread that even men with checkered pasts can be enticed into a second chance when it is for the glory of taking up Jesus’ challenge to offer one’s life for a friend…or an innocent stranger. That the good thief can find salvation in sacrificing himself for another. And this religious under tone is provided by the constant presence of the church as it: holds the townspeople, is desecrated by Bogue, manages to remain standing even after being burned and is the site of the final climactic confrontation. And if that is not enough there is Jack (D’Onofrio) a devout peculiar man reminiscent of a John the Baptist in his rough naturalistic attire and gentle bear of a man demeanor, who reminds us often of the presence of God and the need for prayer. D’Onofrio’s bigger than life character of Jack steals the show whenever he is featured in a scene.
That’s not to take away anything from the other performers. All are excellent and should be proud of the work they have done in this honorable homage retelling of a movie I would not have thought possible to successfully rework. But I should have known that such a reimagining was possible ………. I buy a new Christmas tree every year.


collateral_beauty_background1[1]Wow. There are some filmed stories that are not so much “movies” as they are works of art. Thus it is with Collateral Beauty, a film written by Allan Loeb and directed by David Frankel.


The story emerges about Howard (Will Smith) who has retreated so far into himself after the death of his 6 year old daughter that his competency in the major advertising firm he has built with his friends is put in question. On the verge of a make or break deal, his partners, having tried everything from grief counseling to interventions, are in a precarious situation. Without either Howard’s active involvement or his retreat from the firm the FIRM and everything they have worked for will die. And Howard will not engage with any of them long enough to even discuss the issues. He just doesn’t care any more. All he will do is show up to work and make domino bridges (which you will find is a brilliant piece of cinematic analogy – that one event can begin a chain reaction).


Whit (Ed Norton) has a chance encounter with Amy/Love (Keira Knightly) an aspiring actress with a three-man underground acting troupe, the other two being

collateralbeauty3[1]Brigitte/Death (Helen Mirren) and Raffi/Time (Jacob Latimore). Desperate, Whit comes up with a plan which should succeed either in getting Howard engaged in the world again or subject to a declaration of incompetency. See, Howard has written letters to Time, Love and Death, seeking answers as to why he lost his daughter. Whit decides to call Howard’s bluff and hires the out of work actors to play the personifications of the concepts for Howard’s benefit.


The writing of Collateral Beauty is excellent, the plot both whimsical and practical, covering all the alternatives and reasons for the different twists and turns with grace. I always hate it when something peculiar is not pondered. For example, WHY would they go to such extremes? It is covered in one brainstorming session among the partners. How do they get the letters? Sensibly explained. How shall they proceed with the charade? It’s written as though we, the audience, were in on the entire situation and the actors speak for us.


So it is with the actors who portray Death, Time and Love. They speak for those concepts in the way the actors speak for us. And this simple technique draws us in to the landscape, making the story personal.Collateral-Beauty-review[1]

Unlike many stories about death of a loved one, there is no “dread” moment. The death has already happened and is gradually eased in to. It is a very gentle movie and yet, at the same time, it will hit you like an emotional truck. But afterwards you will feel not destroyed but soothed.


I don’t want to give much more away as the audience should let this unfold in the way the cast and crew intended, like a blossoming flower you should appreciate, one layer at a time.


I will say to pay attention though. Everything everyone says means something – either conceptually or aiding the plot, every connection one character makes to another is meaningful. For example (without revealing too much) Raffi/Time connects with Claire (Kate Winslet) who is feeling tragically that her time to have children has passed her by. Amy/Love befriends Whit who comes to the realization that in the disastrous aftermath of his messy divorce he has lost the love of his daughter. Geddit?


Collateral Beauty is part It’s a Wonderful Life, part Christmas Carol, part Fisher King (odd quirky Terry “Monty Python” Gilliam movie about a man who loses his mind after a tragedy), part Shadowlands (love story in the midst of mortality) and yet is unique unto itself.

It’s the most understated performance by Will Smith of his career and while he probably doesn’t say more than three hundred words during the entire film, this is his most effecting, voluble, heart wrenching and loudest work. His character doesn’t speak of his grief – he personifies it in much the same way Mirren does Death or Knightly does Love.


The beauty in this film is in the details – from the red in all of Amy/Love’s clothes to the care with which the dialogue plays out.99[1]

To use a quote from the film: “Just be sure to notice the Collateral Beauty,” for which you must listen and watch carefully or you might miss something important.

Dr. Strange and G.K. Chesterton

doctor-strange-11I went to see Dr Strange expecting a brainless sci fi shoot ‘em up adventure. And while it is all that, I should have known there would be more to it, since Cumberbatch stars. He IS the modern Sherlock, images10instilled a demonic but compelling personality to the animated Smaug, cumbersmaug-1476201and did a stage Hamlet 16-benedict-cumberbatch-hamlet-in-hamlet-at-the-barbican-theatre-photo-credit-johan-persson_jpg_1003x0_crop_q851different and still wonderful from the dozen I’ve seen before.

Without giving away too much I would encourage you, before you go see the movie, to read just a little teeny bit of GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse. sylkfro1 220px-g-_k-_chesterton1White Horse is an epic poem (arguably the last written in the English language) published in 1911 and written by GK Chesterton, the lesser known friend and Christian docent of the famous CS “Narnia” Lewis. The poem is about the legendary exploits of Saxon king Alfred the Great as he expels the Viking Danes from England in the 9th century. But you don’t have to read the whole thing. The portion that will exploit a deeper appreciation of Dr Strange is a 4 line stanza in Book III titled “The Harp of Alfred”, lines 339 through 342. You can even get it online. The lines begin:

“Though all lance’s split….”

You won’t know why that is important until you get to the right moment and then you’ll instantly understand.

Dr Strange is beautifully filmed and CGI’ed. While I’m not a big 3D fan, the effects in this were quite good. They did NOT look like they had been shoe-horned in to be SURE you noticed them, as they did in the old ‘50’s “house of horror” type movies serveimage11or in the first few movies that restarted the trend. Movies like 47 Ronin and Avatar seemed to have some scenes filmed for the EXPRESS purpose of showing off the 3D techniques. Use or AB-use of said technology always reminded me of the old SCTV routine – “3D House of Beef”images2xbzu2f8 – where John Candy would shove a plate of pancakes towards the camera to demonstrate the “3D” effect – which, of course, didn’t exist because it was a Canadian parody skit ABOUT such things shown on the television – which gives you an idea of how much I generally respect 3D.

BUT the 3D in Dr Strange was done well. doctorstrange-benedictcumberbatch-space1

I actually FORGOT it was “3D” until something appropriate and unexpected sort of wafted or flew my way. Good job Scott Derrickson (director) and Ben Davis (cinematographer).

It’s also the first film I’ve ever seen Tilda Swinton in, in which she did not give me the creeps. She has played disturbing (White Witch in Narnia)smoke3-1024x6651  REALLY disturbing (incestuous vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive) RZ6A2886.JPGand funny, as twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker in the brilliant Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar!

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But she normally gives me a creepy crawly feeling. This uneasy quality she manages to normally spray like a firehose is toned done to a slight flavoring, blending into a beautiful performance as the Sinead O’Connor-“coiffed” mentor extraordinaire, The Ancient One.


So – a little homework this time before viewing will make your experience of Dr Strange more effective and satisfying than the average super hero fare. GK Chesterton – Marvel….huh, who would have ever thought?

Allied – a Magician’s Trick

We all know how a magic act works – dazzle the audience with lights and pretty girls while the magician pulls off the most unlikely of actions and makes them, ergo, believable. I mean it MUST have happened the way he presented them because you saw it with your own eyes, right?

Well, Allied is the same way. The cinematography is beautiful (either that or the CGI technology has gotten a bit TOO good. Though they DID film on location in Fuerteventura, which actually does have dunes.) Directed by Robert “Back to the Future” Zemeckis the story is cogent, character driven and artfully told (no Deloreans though folks). The acting is very good. I am not a Brad Pitt fan at all (never even seen Fight Club – *gasp*) but he is well suited to the role of Max, the Allied spy who goes to Casablanca to meet with a woman he has never met but must pretend is his wife, Marianne played by Marion Cotillard.

Gotta digress here – Cotillard is wonderful in every role I’ve seen her in: from the beleaguered singing wife, 55b8e30dc7aebaac472dbb8c002dccb81Luisa, in Nine to the lunatic surprise bad guy, 4a54310bd52dec80eddcb8188121e5c41Miranda, in The Dark Knight Rises to inception-production-still-2-473x315-300x2341Mal in Inception. She’s done a LOT of French films too – makes sense because she is — well, French. I must admit she has never been able in anything I’ve seen to shake that very heavy French accent, but who cares? She could be holding herself out as an IRA member with that heavy French accent and her acting is so good I’d believe it…..which is actually part of the problem.

We are so busy watching the acting and the cinematography and enjoying the artfully constructed story that we do not realize the story is….well…..stupid.

During the course of the movie, and I will TRY to avoid too many spoilers, we are asked to believe:

1. A brilliant accomplished spy could be manipulated into a corner as easily as your average unassuming citizen – James Bond, Bourne, or heck even John McClaine from Die Hard would have found an alternative.maxresdefault1

2. You can escape Vichy France during World War II after an assassination by just turning a corner noting that you were not followed – yeah, well tell that to Victor Lazlo.


3. Any relevant current intel can be obtained from either an alcoholic one armed derelict in a local prison or from a long-term care wounded inmate of a hospital.

4. That a sexual lifestyle appropriate to the musical Caberet would be casually and openly accepted by the extremely straightlaced community of 1940’s London.

5. That a high ranking spy would entrust extremely classified information to his easily compromisable sibling smack dab in the middle of a time sensitive investigation JUST because he is upset.

6. That an accomplished and high ranking spy would host a wild raunchy guests-literally-having-sex-in-the-broom-closet party in his home where he admits that he does not even know who the identity of half of the people there, when sensitive information is IN THE HOUSE along with weapons much less, again, in the middle of a classified internal affairs investigation, or that his ranking officer would approve much less attend such party. THIS one was so dumb that I thought there MUST be a follow up red herring coming, but no.

And the BIGGEST sword which we’re supposed to swallow is that upon discovering a spy in one’s midst one is REQUIRED under pain of DEATH to dispatch them IMMEDIATELY. Do not pass go, do not collect $50 and certainly do not bother to INTERROGATE them or turn them over to the proper authorities or your intelligence superiors for questioning or EVEN POSSIBLY turning them into a double agent!! No, that would make far too much sense.


So while an intriguing movie to watch it, much like getting a peek under the magician’s table cloth, you will be disappointed by reality if you examine it too closely. So watch for fun, watch for the actors, but do not watch it for any logical plot.

NOTES OF CAUTION: There are some raw words, particularly in one meal scene with our two protagonists. While it was NOT anachronistic as the word was in common usage, it seemed gratuitous. Additionally, there are two VERY steamy sex scenes 389fbe3600000578-3799205-impeccable_timing_brad_pitt_and_marion_cotillard_get_hot_and_hea-a-101_14744100202051and a few others not quite so detailed, but nonetheless certainly not appropriate for younger teens much less children. And a good deal of violence, but, after all, it was World War II.