Assassin’s Creed (Review)

I’m a fan of the prolific Assassin’s Creed video game series (I’ve played about five-and-a-half out of the nine games so far), but I wasn’t all that excited about the announced film adaptation, not least because video game properties translated into films have an unfortunate – and seemingly unbreakable – pattern of being utter shit, bar maybe the first Silent Hill.

There’s also the problem that the Creed games’ primary narrative quirk – that whatever historical time period we’re playing in is being experienced as a genetic memory by a character in the modern world delving into their ancestors’ assassin history in order to unlock clues and find macguffins left to us by an ancient, technologically advanced race of god-like beings, while fighting off their sworn enemies, the evil Templars, and try reading that aloud without taking a breath or giggling – is both ridiculous, and works more as a franchise-perpetuating plot device than an engaging narrative catalyst. This kind of thing works in a video game because we’re so engaged in Renaissance Italy or Colonial America or Victorian London that we don’t have to dwell on what got us there, or the vapid modern interludes (more on that later).

But then they hired Aussie Justin Kurzel to direct, Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake, Snowtown, Macbeth) as Directory of Photography, the director’s brother Jed Kurzel as composer, and a cast that included Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K Williams and Brendan Gleeson, and suddenly, on the strength of all this unflappable talent, here was a film I couldn’t wait to see.

Kurzel’s debut, Snowtown, based on the real-life Snowtown (aka bodies-in-the-barrels) murders in South Australia, is one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve seen in the last decade. His follow-up, a grimy period piece adaptation of Macbeth that, like Snowtown, is equal parts dark, violent, and just incredible to look at, ranks as one of the better cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare to date. So it stands to reason that his take on the popular video game franchise (which borrowed Macbeth’s lead couple in Fassbender and Cotillard) would also be pretty damn good, right?

…Right?

Well, maybe not.

It’s not an infuriating, offensive, Suicide Squad-level disaster by any means, but it’s a bit of a flop considering the talent involved.

Assassin’s Creed takes an interesting tangent from the video game series by giving us both a new historical setting and a new assassin character: 15th century Spain, and Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender), respectively. As the film opens, Aguilar is initiated into the Brotherhood of Assassins and their fight against the Templars during, in this case, the Spanish Inquisition. The problem is, we learn virtually nothing about Aguilar as a person, his motivations or reasons for becoming an assassin, even the hint of a backstory. He just runs around a lot and stabs/fights the bad guys.

One of the criticisms levelled at the games is that some of them spent too much unnecessary time in the present day, particularly the earlier games, up until Assassin’s Creed III, which featured boring assassin-descended Desmond Miles going through the motions of a boring story you want to get through as fast as possible in order to return to the real fun, which is the stabby, parkour-happy ancestor. Later games dialled back on these annoying interludes, but for some reason, writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage decided to let the present day story dominate the film’s screenplay. Fassbender’s Callum Lynch, a death row inmate (but a good one because the guy he’s in jail for killing was a nasty pimp, okay!) whose execution is faked by the shady Jeremy Irons-run Abstergo Industries so they can exploit his genetic memories, is a much more fleshed out character than the rather dull Aguilar, but with only three sections dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition, there’s not exactly much for the latter to do. Besides, this really misses the point of the games, as well as the fun of them.

I can see why the writers chose the structure that they did, with a focus on the modern day character, but either the script needed a lot more work, or there was a lot of post-production cutting going on, or maybe even both. Either way, both parts of the story don’t quite work, and the film’s pacing is all over the place. Both the action and the quieter moments drag on for too long, and the editing needs a lot of work.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to Assassin’s Creed that’s either good or at least not shit. The action’s not exactly mindblowing but it’s competent enough for the most part, and the reliance on practical effects/stunts results in a handful of great set-pieces, including a record breaking leap of faith performed by an actual stunt man. From what I could make out, the costumes, props and sets are all particularly well done. Jed Kurzel’s score is one of the best parts of the film, both haunting and truly intense, and helps bandage over some of those pacing problems. The acting its mostly engaging, too, aside from poor Marion Cotillard being dumped with so much insipid expository dialogue. For some unfathomable reason, though, the filmmakers decided to wash all the colour out with some hideous monotone filter that made me think I’d developed cataracts in the cinema. It’s all dull and grainy and makes what otherwise seems to be a very good-looking film, incredibly ugly.

Every story element here works on its own to some extent – Cal’s Daddy issues and his struggle with the regressions, Aguilar’s sections, the father-daughter tension between Irons’ and Cotillard’s characters, the secondary characters in both timelines, who all seem much more interesting than the protagonist, particularly the charming Michael K Williams and Ariane Labed – but nothing’s ever really fleshed out and, worst of all, there’s no synchronicity (pun not intended) to the film as a whole, no rhythm that might make its other flaws that much more forgivable.

Some of the post-production choices made here, particularly characters who seemed like they should have had much more screen time, seem to stack up to studio interference/cutting – which appears to be the depressing trend with blockbusters lately – and others are just plain bizarre. I feel like if they’d just removed the grainy filter and given the story and characters some room to breathe, this could have been so much better. Assassin’s Creed seems like a good film hiding behind a script in need of editing and an awful colour filter; it’s not exactly a disaster, but it’s just not fun.

Lovemurder – Saul Black (Review)

By now, it’s common knowledge that crime writer Saul Black is actually literary chameleon Glen Duncan, author of a delightful variety of novels including Death of an Ordinary Man and I, Lucifer. He’s been edging slowly from literary novels into more “mainstream” fair, and after his more recent foray into genre territory with his werewolf/vampire trilogy (The Last Werewolf, Talulla Rising, and By Blood We Live), Duncan tried his hand at the crime thriller in 2015, adopting a pseudonym for The Killing Lessons, an as-always elegantly written serial killer novel that elevated the genre to new heights. Its protagonist, homicide detective Valerie Hart, was unique without falling into that weird/special/gifted cop cliché toilet, and the prose was mesmerising, rhythmic and simply beautiful to read, something Duncan/Black can pretty much achieve in his sleep by this point.

The next Valerie Hart novel, of which I hope/assume there will be more, is Lovemurder. Six years ago, the beautiful Katherine Glass was sent to death row for the prolonged torture and murder of several women. The man with whom she committed these crimes, and who was never caught, has now resurfaced and drawn Valerie into a complex but typical cat-and-mouse “figure out the riddle before I kill the next victim” game. These riddles and ciphers are so obscure that the best chance the cops have of cracking them is with the help of – of course – the bored, incarcerated Katherine.

It must be hard for crime writers to ever come up with anything new, or, as must be more common, to either recombine existing tropes in new ways or present them somehow from a previously unconsidered angle. To keep the blood fresh. In this way Lovemurder is full of the familiar. There’s the Hannibal Lecter-esque set-up of an intelligent, charming serial killer assisting the lead detective from prison. There’s the riddles, the antagonist’s love of art and literature, the tight, world-condensing focus between serial killer and lead cop.

Where Duncan/Black really excels though, and what elevates his work above so many writers’, is his observations of human society, culture, psyche, interaction. Lovemurder is peppered with these, some of them merely passing comments and some taking root in the deeper vein of the narrative. His characters often transcend the cliché you think they’re going to embody, either by self-awareness of some fallible element that makes them all the more human. The way Duncan/Black writes, it feels like you’re the one making these discoveries about human nature, the way things work, the everyday philosophies of love and death and everything in between. He’s not telling you about these things – you’re learning them, noticing them organically.

In his earlier work he seemed to rely a little too heavily on this kind of pseudo-philosophising, and, tethered to something like I, Lucifer’s relentless amused wit and lack of narrative momentum, it had a tendency to exhaust as much as enlighten. Here though, he’s perfected it, shearing off most of the “literary” fat in favour of a pacing and tone which, even in the slower, more overtly philosophical moments, never feels slow. This is obviously in part due to the nature of the genre in which he’s currently writing, but it’s still an admirable feat; for all its intense action, Lovemurder is a surprisingly, almost deceptively introspective book, but it never felt that way when I was reading it. I devoured the whole thing in a couple of breathless, exhilarating chunks, falling into that “couldn’t put it down” cliché in a way I haven’t done for a long time.

So much of my enthralment with Lovemurder and its need to be so hastily devoured comes down to Duncan/Black’s prose, which, as always, is mesmerising. It’s not effusive or overly complicated but the syntax, the rhythm and the way he arranges his words is incredibly skilful – and powerful. There’s a subdued poetry to his language that blooms into brightness every few pages with some gorgeous sentence or line of dialogue. The pacing and construction of every moment, from quiet to unbearably tense and brutal, is near-perfect.

All that said, the book isn’t without its lazy or indulgent moments, and the climax is far more conveniently dealt with than I would have liked. I found certain twists a little too easy to spot early on, and he can get a tad repetitive at times. Most of these flaws are forgivable against the overall quality of the writing and the novel’s relentless momentum, but parts of Lovemurder do feel a little too neat, like underneath all the delightful observations Duncan/Black isn’t comfortable taking too many narrative risks. He seems entirely capable of breaking new ground, and often does, but he stays his hand on occasions when you wish he’d been far less merciful to both characters and readers.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt he had a whole lot of fun writing this, and that bleeds through – copiously – to the reading experience. Even when Duncan/Black does generic, he does it with enthusiasm and the kind of skill that would have literary critics whining about his departure – his betrayal – from highbrow fiction and his mucking down in the filthy world of genre fiction and crime thrillers and, no doubt, larger earnings. But there’s nothing wrong with trying out different kinds of stories, whether more or less commercially viable than others. Critics have said disparaging things about David Mitchell’s move into the supernatural, for example, but shouldn’t they be applauding writers like these for venturing out of their comfort zone, for trying different things? But that’s really a subject I could vent about for thousands of words more, which I’ll spare you from today.

Whatever its flaws, Lovemurder is violent, dark, beautiful and engaging as hell; I haven’t read a book this quickly in a long time, nor enjoyed one with such greedy indulgence. I feel like Duncan/Black could make a shopping list into a thrilling read – his work should be applauded not just for its subtext or its keen eye for detail or the way it gets under your skin, but also just for how much fun it is, and you should read it for any and all of those reasons.

Review: ALTAR

ALTAR
ALTAR by Philip Fracassi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What begins as a family trip to the local pool on a warm day quickly turns dark on levels both personal and cosmic, and it’s the juxtaposition of these two elements that Fracassi is so damn good at. The social ecosystem of the public pool and the mundane idiosyncrasies of each characters’ headspace make a fantastic set-piece for the action and horror that unfolds with Fracassi’s elegant rhythm. He manages to fit so much into the space of such a short work, but it never feels overfed. Every scene is precisely measured and delivers the right amount of impact-versus-anticipation before switching to a different character or scenario. The tension builds to breathless, almost painful heights as the story reaches its bleak and fragile peak. This is an absolute sucker-punch of a novella that easily ranks among this year’s best pieces of fiction.

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Review: Grass

Grass
Grass by Anya Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella has everything – including an incredible cover by Jeanne D’Angelo. The story is sharply focused, its brilliant character work underscoring the glorious pulpy erotic horror that forms the bulk of the narrative. This kind of physical horror can often come across a little overcooked, but Martin – who I’ll definitely be reading more of after this – balances every layer perfectly. This is one of those pieces of writing that demands revisiting, with the promise of a new crevice or curve to be appreciated with every encounter. It’s fun and weird, but it’s all so real too, with a dark rhythm that pulses between tragedy and hope, a fever dream’s descent into primordial horror. Or maybe not horror so much as hunger?

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They Don’t Come Home Anymore – T.E. Grau (Review)

they-dont-come-home-anymore

T.E. Grau has already carved himself a dark little niche in the busy hive of contemporary horror and weird fiction with only a debut collection to his name. I reviewed that collection about a month ago (you can read it here), and it’s a knockout, with a wonderful blend of Lovecraftian homage, as well some really original and harrowing tales.

So it’s cause for much excited wailing and gnashing of teeth when a new piece of Grau-crafted fiction is headed our way. This is Horror, an excellent publisher of short works in the genre – as well as being home to an awesome podcast, interviews and reviews – has produced Grau’s latest novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore. The quality on show here is apparent from that eye-catching cover, designed by the author’s wife, Ives Hovanessian, and with artwork by the ridiculously talented Candice Tripp.

The story itself focuses on Hettie, a quiet, odd adolescent girl stranded on the social outskirts, and the ramifications of her friendship with the most popular girl at school, Avery Valancourt.

Other than that, I won’t get too much into plot details because I think it’s best to experience the story without much of an idea of where it’s headed, but this is a wonderful novella about death and obsession and the more frightening and fallible crannies of the human condition. It delves into some really interesting psychological areas, but the story also feels like a study in the decay of the flesh, of all things material, all things human. Grau states at one point that “Death always makes the best stories”, and it’s certainly true in this case.

Grau holds back on key details, teasing out the mystery like the deftest of storytellers. This really feels like a story, too. A story being told, that is, like you’re in the room with the teller even as you lean forward into their tale and forget the real world for a moment. It’s the ease of Grau’s prose that largely accounts for this, making you look past, as the best stories do, its construction. Although there is a moment about halfway through when an apparent coincidence seems like a bit of a leap, it’s soon corralled into a more logical narrative device that re-submerges itself into the story’s flow.

Grau’s story-by-the-fire tone seems to give the novella the texture of a Stephen King, as well as an almost Gaiman-esque charm and whimsy underscored with darkness; a darkness that spreads as the narrative progresses, shedding the dreamlike tone for something more immediate and raw, but no less surreal. Ultimately though, these are just small nods in what is largely Grau’s creature; since his debut collection he has established a voice distinctly his own.

Part of this voice involves a strength for complex, original characters as well as the carefully crafted interplay between them. Grau highlights the little tragedies of human existence, the rough bits and the imperfections. He brings to light the idea that what we want is often what we never get, and everything else that happens falls somewhere on the spectrum between indifference and mortal danger. The character interactions also consistently engage the reader. Sometimes such scenes are silent and one-sided, heavy with unfulfilled expectation and the subsequent emotional blowback, as with Hettie and her “progressive” parents. Sometimes it’s more of a two-way street, the dialogue loaded with confession and braided together with sharp moments of body language.

In Hettie we have a protagonist full of doubts and quirks but also a ferocity, a drive that the author depicts without drama or preamble. It’s just another part of her, and she just… is. She’s very likable, but there’s also that understated darkness to her – which is maybe why we like her so much.

The young loner is a well-worn trope, and in lesser hands would have become an unwelcome one, but Grau brings Hettie to vibrant, fallible life. There’s a lot in this story, in fact, that could have turned out poorly if it had relied more on the traditional foundations of its characters and supernatural elements, but Grau takes every trope and twists it from tired cliché into something magical and new. Or not new, necessarily, but recalibrated. Honest and without frills. He strips everything down to the basics, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness as the words unfold on the page.

And what delightful words they are. His prose is, in a technical sense, as un-accessorised as his narrative, but he manages to give his writing an icebergian sense of depth. Grau peppers his scenes with bright little observations, teasing out the most interesting details of the mundane. Like so many lines in They Don’t Come Home Anymore, this description of a large, manicured lawn evokes both some excellent imagery, and pulls everything back to the often unpleasant intent of human beings: “A green so vibrant it hurt the eyes. No trees to dampen the sun or cast shadows. No flowers. This was a statement to space, and the ownership of it.”

I’m always fascinated with the way people speak in fiction, or more precisely the way writers construct dialogue, and I’m especially a stickler for contractions. Grau explores this in a nice little self-aware way, with characters occasionally commenting on it throughout the story. It’s just one more delightful detail, but also adds to the thread of gleeful, dark humour that runs through some scenes.

Teased with the kind of agonising restraint Grau exhibits in most of his work, the supernatural element, when it finally reveals itself, is a refreshing play on – again – a familiar trope. Grau embeds in it a sense of the cosmic that seems to situate the story within the larger thematic arc of his writing.

At its core, They Don’t Come Home Anymore comes across as the most twisted and startling and tender of love stories. It portrays the loneliness, the bitchiness and the tenderness of high school, and the more general complacency or malignance of human beings. It’s other-than-human elements, reimagined from familiar monsters you wouldn’t think had any blood left in them, are fleeting and sharply drawn. There are so many layers to Grau’s excellent novella, but even on a surface level it’s brilliant and, perhaps most importantly, immense fun.

 

 

 

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Film Review)

You’d think it would be damn near impossible to make a film about magical creatures and wizards in 1920s New York boring. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them marks a return to the big screen of the wizarding world J.K. Rowling made famous with her Harry Potter series. Those eight films, based on seven books, varied in quality but were mostly pretty good for big money-raking studio blockbusters. David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films – and did a great job, I think – returns to helm this first Potter-less expansion of Rowling’s universe. Rowling herself wrote the script here, which is partly based on her fake Hogwarts textbook of the same name and follows that book’s fictional author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he travels to New York with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts. After some lazy tropes result in said beasts escaping into the city, Scamander sets about retrieving them, whilst getting embroiled in America’s wizarding community.

I think the ambition this film occasionally exhibits in terms of its intersecting characters, and the larger plot arcs it seems to hint at are admirable, but there just isn’t enough of this stuff. Instead we get Scamander running around the city, meeting characters much more interesting than himself and recapturing one creature after another in what are mostly pretty dull or poorly executed set pieces (although one towards the end involving a teapot is quite well done).

One of the major problems with Fantastic Beasts is its protagonist. I don’t dislike Eddie Redmayne and he’s not a bad actor by any means. (Earlier in his career he had a fantastic role in 2010’s Black Death, which is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking film.) The problem is with the character he has to play, who’s about as charismatic as a dead fish. He has no motivation or personality besides his humanitarian efforts to help witches and wizards understand magical creatures rather than fearing them – which is a perfectly legitimate motivation to have, but there’s basically nothing else to him, aside from a few awkward tics that are supposed to read as idiosyncrasies but just seem like Rowling pulled them from her handbook of quirky character clichés. This results in a flat, dull character who comes off as a kind of diet Doctor Who.

Helping Redmayne in his quest are disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), her incredibly charming telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Dan Fogler’s sweet, bumbling No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle), Kowalski. There’s a lovely chemistry between Queenie and Kowalski that forms the emotional spine of the film; Sudol and Fogler are two of the best characters here, and will hopefully have a lot more to do in the inevitable sequels. Waterston is fine, but like Redmayne she doesn’t have much to work with. Hopefully Ridley Scott lets her stretch her legs in his upcoming Prometheus sequel.

Ron Perlman shows up briefly in mo-cap as a goblin gangster, and Samantha Morton does her best as the leader of an anti-magic group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Ezra Miller plays one of her foster children, Credence Barebone, who’ll no doubt have a much larger roll to play in the sequels, and hopefully get a better haircut.

Colin Farrell’s Auror Percival Graves is gravelly and menacing as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, but his character doesn’t unfold much beyond this, and is given short shrift with the ending’s spoilerific shenanigans. His character becomes so pointless by this time and really just serves to illustrate the wizarding world’s glaring ineptitude at dealing with the bad guys.

As everybody knows by now, Johnny Depp pops up briefly as dark wizard Grindelwald at the end, sporting weird hair and contacts and a lot of foundation, looking like the old piece of cheese at the back of your fridge. By this point in the film I was just begging for the credits to start rolling, and Depp does little beyond croak out a few lines, although it’s too early to judge how inspired (or not) his casting in the franchise will turn out to be.

Like I said, there are some really interesting ideas and characters in here, particularly Queenie, Kowalski and Ezra Miller’s Credence, but these are buried under the weight of tedium and mediocrity that is the rest of the film. It feels like Rowling’s saving all these bigger and better – and much more interesting – elements for the subsequent planned films in the series, which comes across as lazy and self-indulgent. Why waste so much of this first film doing close to nothing new or exciting?

One element that would have let me forgive a lot of the film’s misfires was the creature design, but even that is dull, uninspired, and overly reliant on a gratuitous use of CGI. They’re all just slight variations on an existing animal, mostly cute or noble or mildly odd, and the one malevolent creature – a parasitic magical anomaly called an Obscurus – is a seething dark mass of who cares. Admittedly, this does look a bit cooler when it comes into play during the film’s climax, but again there’s nothing original or eye-popping in here. I could feel Guillermo del Toro sadly shaking his head at this missed opportunity while I watched the tedium unfold on the screen. For all the money they must have spent on the special effects, there’s very little here that actually feels magical.

Speaking of which, Fantastic Beasts spends far too much time treating the more mundane elements of wizarding life – magically-assisted cooking and the effects of simple spells – like they’re marvels we’re seeing for the first time, forgetting that most of its audience have already sat through – and thoroughly enjoyed, for the most part – all eight of the Harry Potter films. In other words, we know how this world works. Rowling’s universe is not new; its rules have been established and we don’t need every shot or musical cue to focus in on what should, by now, be taken for granted. This was a real opportunity to focus on new elements in a revisited universe, especially given the change in time period and setting. Alas, it’s an opportunity the filmmakers didn’t take, instead playing it safe and sacrificing the movie’s heart.

Like Yates’ previous film, which managed to make a yawn-fest out of Tarzan (fucking Tarzan!), Fantastic Beasts continues the director’s recently acquired talent for turning potentially good, fun ideas into utterly boring movies, although I don’t think the screenwriters of both films should dodge their share of the blame. Ultimately, everything good about Fantastic Beasts feels like a series of unfulfilled promises in what’s mostly a big wet flannel of a film, with a two-hour running time that feels like five. Everyone on board had better get their shit together for the next four planned films, or we’ll have yet another dud blockbuster franchise on our hands.

 

Review: The Darkest Part of the Woods

The Darkest Part of the Woods
The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure how I feel about this book.

On a technical level it’s something close to a masterpiece, the horror’s slow ooze engulfing the reader with glacial deliberation. The prose is a kind of vernacular poetry unto itself; Campbell plays with sentence structure and character interaction in some really clever and illusive ways. This kept me on edge the whole way through, not necessarily because of the narrative’s momentum, but because the prose has this delicate intricacy to it that punishes even the slightest lapse of attention. The way Campbell draws the woods as the novel’s dynamic nucleus and builds the atmosphere is wonderful, and the hints of hallucinatory weirdness are deft and restrained.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how well this all works within the broader context of the book. The whole thing consists of characters talking in this beautiful rhythm to each other. Their world is so tiny, and I get that this insular, almost claustrophobic feel is kind of the point, but what I didn’t so much enjoy was being stuck with this cast of characters, none of whom I ever really came to like or feel close to. Because they all mostly talk the same way, it felt like I was listening to a group of people sharing a private joke: it’s fascinating and I want to know more, but they won’t let me in. I felt held at arm’s length the whole time.

The ending felt like both a letdown and a promise, a missed opportunity that didn’t build the kind of character-breaking tension or stakes to the extent it could have, or even to the extend that just got my blood racing. Having said that, the last few lines are powerful and playful and just awesome, so it redeems itself there for sure.

There’s no doubt I enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Woods. There’s no doubt it’s a well written and crafted book. This was my first Ramsey Campbell, and I’d definitely go back for more after this, but it felt to me like there was some small thing missing here, something flat that needed a little contouring, a jagged edge.

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