Patron Request: ‘Synecdoche, New York’

Of Synecdoche, New York, Roger Ebert said, “Think about it a little and, my god, it’s about you. Whoever you are.” You used to hear this sentiment often on films with characters like Caden Cotard, straight white guys tragically beset with unplaceable ennui and dread and extremely placeable horniness. Characters like this are treated as a sort of human default state, a canvas on which a full picture of humanity can be painted. When the critical establishment looks so much like Caden Cotard, of course their takeaway would be that Synecdoche, New York is a film about humanity at large, about everyone. The film’s ideas about the human condition are, in actuality, quite narrow. This is a movie with a very specific worldview about a very specific kind of person. I didn’t quite hate it. But I’m not included in its “everyone.”

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, to be clear. I’m not upset by the notion of making a film about any one kind of person. What rankles is pretending that such a film speaks to the entirety of humanity. This film didn’t speak to me, even as it toyed with thoughts of gendered performance near the end. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a film for someone else, something I wasn’t meant to be watching at all.

One thing I did like more than a bit about the film is its editing. This was probably the only “meta” aspect of its design that worked for me. The film plays with the purpose of a cut to collapse time by not letting its main character in on the trick. Cuts disguise years-long jumps without Caden seeming aware that any time has passed at all. Our understanding of object permanence means that a film implies the existence of its characters even when they aren’t on screen. Not so here. Caden seems to pop out of being when he’s not in the frame, and pops back in just as suddenly. It’s one of the few page tricks of Kaufman’s that he’s able to translate perfectly to the screen.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t say the same for so much of the rest of the film. While I don’t love all the work of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, they undeniably have a touch as directors that Kaufman simply doesn’t. His compositions are rather blase, rarely serving to heighten the world’s absurdity or even, in its worst moments, so much as illustrate it. Where is the silliness, the surrealism, besides on the page? Kaufman simply shoots his script, letting himself down tremendously.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, is the film’s big bright shining star. There wasn’t a film he acted in where this wasn’t the case. He grants such depth to Caden’s wandering emotional state, knowing exactly when to get capital-B Big and when to shrink away. For a film entirely about artificiality in performance, there’s none to be found here. I think this more than anything else is what keeps the film from completely falling apart. Although I would have been curious to see a version of Synecdoche that went all-in on fakery and obviousness in acting, I appreciate what Hoffman does to ground such a fanciful work in something that feels true.

I can also appreciate what people see in this film that I just don’t. As I said, I don’t think it’s terrible. There’s plenty to like here. But I struggle to get on board with a film that seems, outside of its lead performance, so lifeless and aimless. It has little to say about the human condition that’s of interest to me. What I like about it is in its meager formal invention and its unsurprisingly titanic lead performance. It’s just not the sort of film I like very much, even if I can easily see why others do.

Patron Request: ‘Happy Hour’

I wanted to come out of Happy Hour prepared to talk about something other than its runtime. But at nearly five-and-a-half hours, it’s hard not to center your takeaway around its length. As someone with an attention deficit disorder, films with runtime of more than two hours are always going to be a challenge for me. Breaking them up into multiple viewing sessions makes it hard for me to stay on track. It’s just never going to be easy for me to approach films at this time-scale.

With that being said, I found Happy Hour a pleasant sit. Its pacing is so languid and relaxed that it’s easy to lose yourself in it. It hardly feels like so much time has passed when scenes go on for upwards of 30 minutes. Films of this length sometimes can’t help feeling episodic. Some are deliberately structured that way to maintain a pace that’s easy to follow. Happy Hour is structured like a film of more than half its runtime, just with scenes that last much longer than they otherwise would. The film’s many dinner table conversations play out in real time, with a flow so natural and friendly you hardly notice how much time has elapsed. The film is absorbing in its simplicity, never alienating in its scope. In other words, despite how long Happy Hour is, it’s an easy film to watch.

I found it interesting how director Ryusuke Hamaguchi refuses to approach the film with the formal matter-of-fact-ness one might expect from such a lengthy depiction of rather down-to-earth subject matter. It’s not stylistically bare-bones the way recent Clint Eastwood films ar, but it’s far from a hyper-stylized melodrama either. Hamaguchi is an unadorning but engaged artist, finding a happy medium between basic naturalism and a full display of his inventive filmmaking skill. I think about the moment when he shoots two men standing opposite each other from behind the back of the first man, whose body obscures the second. Then he cuts to what can only be the first man’s POV, a six-inch shift forward for the camera that makes the first man disappear entirely, radically changing the image with only the slightest movement. Then again, the film is so linear in its editing that I almost gasped when the first instance of intercutting occurred nearly four hours in. The film’s simplicity and understated tone never belies Hamaguchi’s sharpness as a film artist.

I watched Happy Hour on a plane ride home from vacation, completely free of distraction. Had I watched it anywhere else, I would have undoubtedly found it harder to pay attention to. It’s just the way my brain works (or doesn’t work) and I wish it wasn’t. I was so thrilled that I had the experience with Happy Hour that I did, and that I was able to give it its proper due. Hamaguchi’s new film Asako I & II is one I’m really excited to see this year. Maybe its runtime is a bit more manageable.

Patron Request: ‘Swiss Army Man’

I love my patrons, each and every one. I can’t thank you all enough for choosing to support me and the work that I do. I wish I could show you how much I appreciate what you do for me. I especially wish I could show it by loving every single film you request that I write about. But sadly, that isn’t always going to be the case. I really did not like Swiss Army Man. I didn’t despise it, and I have no desire to tear it down. But it really, really did not work for me.

A big part of it is that it reminds me of a time in my life when it would have played like gangbusters for me. I think about myself in high school and college, depressed and lonely and positive no one could ever love me. I was exactly the sort of person this movie would have spoken to, with its attempts at profundity and calculatedly heart-lifting score. Paul Dano’s cross-dressing in particular would have spoken to me, for obvious reasons. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think I’m mature enough now to look at a film like this and not hate it for being insufferably twee and insipid. I’m happy that other people get something out of Swiss Army Man. It’s just not for me anymore.

The other part of it, the part I find less easy to shrug off and more subtly insidious, is the Weepy Horny Bearded Guy of it all. Though it purports to be a film about the oddities and complexities of life, really it’s a film about being a man. An isolated, depressed, self-loathing man, but ultimately a straight guy. I love plenty of movies about straight guys, so I don’t just object on principle. What bothers me is the way Swiss Army Man confuses a creepy one-sided attachment on a woman for some sort of profound expression of love. Dano’s character, Hank, uses a creepshot of a woman he sees on the bus as his phone background, and much of the film concerns him explaining to his corpse friend Manny the proper way to woo her. His admittance that he’s actually unskilled in talking to women is meant to make him seem more innocent, more endearing. But I’ve known too many guys like this for it to play as anything more than unsettling.

I wish there had been a moment where Hank realized that his attachment to this woman (played in a truly pathetic bit of misuse by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was false and inappropriate, but that his bond with Manny meant that finding love was not an impossibility for him. That should be the lesson for a character like this. Instead, the film is about Hank learning that being weird is actually cool, a great lesson that’s been covered by every children’s TV show for the past half-century. It’s wild to think that the praise for this film was all about how original and unique it was. The elevator pitch is unusual, sure, but it’s not saying anything new.

I’ll say again that I don’t find Swiss Army Man so detestable that it’s worth really ripping into. It’s not completely harmless, but it’s more or less inert. It’s just not a film that was ever going to work for me at this point in my life. It doesn’t have the things that excite and inspire me about cinema, and it misfires in some unavoidable ways. Also, when I get right down to it, I just have never found fart jokes funny. Maybe that’s the most important thing.

Patron Request: ‘The Killer’

One of my favorite genres of movie is “two men who are rivals who nonetheless feel a powerful homoerotic connection to each other.” Michael Mann is the reigning champ in this area. I don’t think Heat is ever going to be topped. But John Woo offers some stiff competition with The Killer. This movie really blew my hair back.

The De Niro role here is Chow Yun-Fat as Ah-Jong, a classic killer with a heart of gold. Ah-Jong accidentally blinds an innocent woman during a shootout, and means to make it right by taking one last job to help pay for her cornea transplant. The Pacino is Danny Lee as Li Ying, an icy young detective who becomes instantly enamored with Ah-Jong’s combination of sincere empathy and exacting murder skill. He talks with dreamy longing of the passion he saw in Ah-Jong’s eyes. He’s drawn to this man across the boundary of the law, for reasons he can’t quite explain to himself.

This is what we talk about when we talk about “homoeroticism” in films like this. It’s that ineffable attraction between masculine attributes, the confusing question of “do I want him to do I want to be him?” It’s why Pacino and De Niro hold hands as the latter bleeds out. They want so badly to be together, but they can’t be. One is a cop, one is a criminal. The law dynamic obfuscates the subtextual obstacle here: both of them are men.

So it was a delight to see The Killer take a different road. The two men here actually do team up by the end, forced by circumstance into a partnership neither would openly admit they’d pined for. The smiles on their faces as they headed guns-blazing into the fray together warmed my heart. Who doesn’t love a good pair of murder boyfriends?

The action, of course, is phenomenal. Does it even need to be said? I love Woo’s idea of gunplay, with its focus on constant movement and trigger-pulling. It’s a far cry from the precision and specificity of action in something like John Wick. These guys blast away with reckless abandon, shooting enough bullets to kill their target by law of averages. There’s barely a headshot to be found in the whole film. I especially like the way some actors thrust their arms out as they fire, as if they’re wizards casting a spell rather than shooting a pistol. The whole thing feels heightened and slightly fantastical. It also goes to the more melodramatic tone. These guys don’t just want to kill each other, they want to blast each other to bits. The final kill isn’t a cold point-blank execution, but several chest-shots resulting from a frustrated fury. It’s gunfighting not as a stop along the road to emotional beats, but as the direct expression of those emotions. That’s what truly great action filmmaking looks like.

I adored The Killer. It hits so many buttons for me, from the Mann-ish man love to the expressionistic fighting to one brief moment of Obayashi-style green screen abstraction. It’s a great, great movie. I hope that Woo’s upcoming American remake starring Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t cast a man opposite her. A lesbian version of this movie is like something out of my dream journal.

Patron Request: ‘The Terminator’

It’s weird to get twenty minutes into what you believe to be a rewatch and realize, “Wait, I’ve never seen this movie before.” It’s existed in your head for so long as this false memory, and now you’re discovering what it actually is for the first time. The idea of The Terminator I’d been carrying with me for all this time was quite a ways off from what the film actually is. I think it’s been mischaracterized in recent years as the developing franchise has cemented its identity.

People like to draw a line between The Terminator and its sequel in much the same way we do with Alien and Aliens (the latter of which, of course, was also directed by James Cameron). In the popular imagination, the first film in both series is a lowkey horror-thriller, and the second film is a large-scale action blockbuster. This dichotomy describes the Alien films quite well, which led me to believe the same must be true of the Terminator films. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is absolutely an action film of massive scope, after all.

But The Terminator isn’t the subdued thriller I’ve seen it characterized as for so long. This is a pretty straightforward action movie, albeit one more focused on ratcheting tension than explosive catharsis. There are multiple combination shootouts and car chases. A huge fuel tanker explodes in a Fury Road-esque fireball. A dozen cops get massacred. And it’s not like it’s some low-budget creeper, either. There’s a lot of incredible effects work in this film.

I should stop talking around it and actually talk about the film itself. It’s great! Cameron, even this early in his career, had a strong command of camerawork. The precision with which the camera will sweep down to meet a fleeing character or speeding car is so exciting to watch. There aren’t any rough edges on this film. It’s exactingly shot and paced. It never feels too stiff, though. It’s methodical, but not overly engineered. It’s a bit like the T-800, I suppose — quite lifelike in appearance, but with the calculated ferocity of a machine.

Speaking of the man himself, has Arnold Schwarzenegger ever been used better since? The 90s recasting of him as slapstick straight man is as tragic a miscalculation as an actor has ever suffered. Even the T2 version of him that learns human emotion feels a bit contrived in the face of his Terminator performance. Any actor can conjure charisma, but it takes something special to make yourself a void of it. That’s what Schwarzenegger does here. He’s a bit like the Xenomorph, actually, in his towering stature and terrifying lack of humanity. Later films turned “I’ll be back” into a heroic catchphrase. Here, it stands out for its bluntness and lack of subtext. Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator with the absence of personality, and that’s what makes him so compelling a villain.

Having now (finally) seen both, I feel comfortable saying that I prefer The Terminator to its sequel. There’s fun to be had with the bombast of T2, but it’s missing the formal precision of the original. And certainly none of the subsequent terrible sequels come close to matching it. Somehow I doubt the man behind Deadpool is going to show the same innate talent for moviemaking that James Cameron did with only his second feature. However you feel about the some of his films’ more troubling elements, there’s no denying that Cameron has got the goods as a director. He’s just one of those wunderkind guys who can pick up a camera and make something perfect. It’s a real shame he’s stuck in Avatar-land for the foreseeable future.

Patron Request: ‘Romancing in Thin Air’

Ah, straight romance. The bedrock of so many art forms. Speaking as a big-time queer, I sometimes have to swallow my bile and appreciate a film like Romancing in Thin Air for what it is rather than, let’s say, what I’d prefer it to be. This is an undeniably sweet movie, with the tenderest of hearts. I still felt at a remove from it, though, at least until the ending.

The problem, by the way, is not a lack of romantic inclination on my end. I’m a swooner. I’ve been known to melt at the slightest show of affection. I love loving and being loved. But part of me found the relationship here too rote to really feel. The lovelorn movie star who escapes the press in a rural motel, the closed-off widow who pines for her long-missing husband, the latter’s frozen heart to be warmed by the former. Of course the woman was one of the man’s original fan club members. Of course the man is an alcoholic and must be nursed back to sobriety. It all just struck me as too pat, too by-the-numbers. They’re archetypes more than they’re real people. They just felt too engineered.

Things do start to come together by the end. The plasticity of the central characters is recontextualized when the actor, Michael Liu, makes a film about the tragic story of the woman, Sue, and her late husband. In his version, Sue’s husband survives his ordeal and reconciles with her as Michael looks on bittersweetly. Suddenly the plasticine nature of these characters makes more sense. We’re meant to take this as not just a story but a direct emotional provocation, just as Michael’s film is meant as a direct message to Sue. It feels like the film confessing its intent to emotionally manipulate. That’s all well and good, but it’s not like romantic dramas have to be so cynical. Plenty are genuinely moving without such a manufactured air.

It’s a shame, because I think Johnnie To does really good work here. The scenes near the end of Sue’s silhouette against the fictionalized version of herself projected on the movie screen are so powerful that they made me wish I liked the entire movie more. Sue’s friends Teeny and Beauty, superfans of Michael, are delightful to watch. And the romantic motorcycle rides made me think of His Motorbike, Her Island, and whenever that’s happening you know something’s going right. I wanted to like Romancing in Thin Air. But every time I thought I found something to latch onto, the film slipped away from me. I don’t think it’s a bad film. I just didn’t really care for it.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Mysterious Skin’

About halfway through Mysterious Skin, the nervy, tender Brian Lackey (who believes himself the victim of alien abduction as a child) meets fellow abductee Avalyn. Avalyn tells Brian that for abductees like them, everything they do and think and feel is informed by that experience. It all comes down to that one moment of victimization. She means it as reassurance, a comforting thought in a confusing world. The idea that all your pain and anguish can be explained so simply is a tempting one. Brian isn’t assuaged, but he is encouraged to continue digging into his memories to uncover the truth of what happened to him.

This is the core idea of Mysterious Skin. This is the root of the film’s understanding of trauma. There is no getting past it, there is no living with it. It is you. It controls everything about you. You are who you are because of it. How many stories have we seen where a victim’s past can be “overcome” in touching victory? How many times have we seen people win a battle against their memory? There is no triumph in Mysterious Skin. There is only the catharsis of knowing, once and for all, your truth. There’s no solace in that act. The only solace is in the arms of someone who went through the same thing — the cold comfort that, despite everything, you’re both still here.

I think this is what truly disturbs so many about Mysterious Skin, beyond its unblinking depiction of child sexual abuse. This isn’t a film about a fight. There’s no struggle to be had against trauma here, and not even the finality of a battle lost. The film’s final shot — of two victims cradling each other as they are engulfed by the black void of the film’s end — suggests a lack of closure that persists past the conclusion of the narrative. We aren’t shown what happens to these kids next. As far as the movie is concerned, they stay on that couch in their rapist’s old house forever. They aren’t given the satisfaction of leaving the way they came in.

What pops out at me most about Mysterious Skin is how Gregg Araki depicts memory, or more specifically the act of remembering. No other director not named Nobuhiko Obayashi does it in such a compelling way. An evolution of sorts of his film Nowhere, where every single second of the film has a song playing, Araki associates certain remembered thoughts and images with music. He then abruptly cuts the sound as the rememberer snaps back to the present. It’s as though memory is another world unto itself, a metaphysical place to which you can be transported.

Brian’s memory is altered as a defense mechanism. Over the course of the film the images in his mind gain more concrete detail, and shed their fantastical elements. Neil’s memory, on the other hand, is crystal clear from the beginning. He remembers the smallest gestures and features with exacting detail. This is how he reckons with what happened to him, by taking ownership of every facet of his memory. Brian tries in vain to bury the reality of it under an incomprehensible fiction, because of course the abuse itself was so incomprehensible to him. Neil’s memory is all extreme close-ups; Brian’s feels more at a remove. It’s a subtle but effective distinction.

Mysterious Skin is as hard a film to write about as it is to watch. It takes a lot out of you to probe a work so upsetting. I trembled with rage and fear for these boys, and when the credits rolled a part of me wished I could leave it at that. This isn’t a film I see myself revisiting. But it’s one I’m glad to have seen, from a filmmaker I’m excited to discover more from.

Patron Request: ‘Smiley Face’

There’s something so charming about a stoner comedy done right, and something equally insufferable about a stoner comedy done wrong. It’s a fine line to walk, mostly because being stoned out of your gourd is always a more interesting experience when you’re the one having it. A lot of stoner films fail to capture that feeling, and end up being more like the experience of hanging out with a stoned person when you’re sober. Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face succeeds on the back of an aesthetic recreation of what it’s like to be high, rather than being around someone who’s high.

The film’s editing is its MVP. Director Gregg Araki edited the film himself, and he does a fantastic job of imitating the brainwave rhythms of stoned protagonist Jane F. The film floats aimlessly between ideas and events, down a stream of consciousness without a paddle. Intentions and characters are introduced and forgotten and picked up again at the slightest external stimulus. A single half-remembered line of dialogue instigates a total change of direction for Jane. Sometimes she just forgets that she’s supposed to be doing anything and stares into space for a while. Other times her brain concots sprawling fantasies that quickly spin-off into obscurity and nonsense. This is what I mean when I say that Smiley Face does a good job of cinematically approximating what it’s like to be stoned. You’re forced to live inside these editing beats, sharing Jane’s headspace. It makes a journey that may otherwise have been frustrating actually watchable and fun.

And you can’t discount the impact of Anna Faris’ performance in that. A lot of actors are too buttoned-up to play stoned as anything but parody. Faris is doing heightened work, to be sure, but in a way that plays as authentic. For as big as this performance is, you never really feel her capital-A Acting. She’s also just hysterically funny. The look of genuine horror on her face as she wildly imagines a scenario where her creepy roommate has sex with skulls slew me, as did her reaction to seeing an “I Heart LAPD” sticker on a casting agent’s filing cabinet. Every expression and gesticulation feels unrehearsed and unrefined, like she really is just making it up as she goes along. I don’t think Faris gets enough credit for her ability to do that. A lot of actors, even great ones, just can’t get that loose.

The politics of Smiley Face are delightfully inscrutable. There’s a running thread about a first-edition copy of the Communist Manifesto, which Jane imagines selling online for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a cheeky bit of commentary on the way communism as an ideology can be absorbed and repackaged for sale by capitalism, even out of necessity by the people living in it. By the film’s end, the book is “redistributed,” so to speak. While things don’t end well for Jane, there’s a victory in removing the Manifesto from a realm where only the wealthy can access it and giving it back to the people. Araki shows some skepticism about communism, too. In one of my favorite scenes, Jane imagines herself giving a stirring speech about the rights of the humble laborer and the need for revolution. When she’s done, Araki replays the moment to show what actually happened: Jane rambling through unfinished, meaningless sentences and being thrown out of the butcher’s warehouse where she was making her “stand.” Maybe Araki is more concerned with people who make their politics their sole personality trait. 12 years later, you can hardly blame him for it.

I got a kick out of Smiley Face. It’s a far cry from the avant-garde queer apocalypse in Nowhere, the only other Araki film I’ve seen (though it does directly reference that film’s opening shot). But as stoner comedies go, I’ve seen few that do a better job of letting you in on the experience of getting zooted to the freaking moon. Also, please cast Anna Faris in more movies. It’s insane that she hasn’t had a lead role this entire decade.

Patron Request: ‘Personal Shopper’

The other day, preeminent trans film critic Willow Maclay wrote a great piece regarding a definitional understanding of trans cinema. In it, she argues that what makes the growing trans cinema canon so exciting is that there is no hard and fast definition — what we call trans films resonate with trans people on an individual level, and for deeply personal reasons. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve written two pieces this year, on Alita: Battle Angel and Phoenix, which reckon with films that are not explicitly about trans people, yet still depict a close approximation of my experience of being a trans woman. These are trans films because I say they are, because I see myself in them even if I’m not meant to.

Personal Shopper, I was delighted to discover, joins the list of films that have done that to me. It’s not quite about dysphoria in the way Alita and Phoenix are, but it tackles areas of trans living that those films don’t. This is a film about the vague fixations and dissatisfactions that (at least for me) precede a gender revelation. It’s about wanting to be someone else, but not knowing who that person is. It’s about being drawn to things you’re not supposed to be, for reasons you can’t explain.

The always stellar Kristen Stewart brings her trademark mumbling monotone to the role of Maureen, a shiftless young woman who juggles a search for the ghost of her twin brother with her job as a personal shopper for a supermodel named Kyra. She begins to receive texts from a mysterious harasser who may or may not be a ghost. The anonymous texter challenges her with personal questions, drawing out of her admissions that she would not otherwise make, perhaps even to herself . At one point, they ask if she wants to be someone else, and she says yes, but she doesn’t know who. The texter tells her that they can’t figure it out for her. In my Phoenix piece, I talked a lot about the closeted desire for someone else to recognize transness in you, to tell you who you’re supposed to be so you can stop agonizing over a decision that is only yours to make. I feel the same turmoil in Personal Shopper.

Later, the texter forces her to admit that she wants to try on Kyra’s dresses. “Because it is forbidden?” they ask. She puts down her phone.

The scene where Maureen nervously strips down and, with tentative movement, puts on Kyra’s complex dress just about ripped my heart out. I remembered the mornings I would spend in my room, when everyone else was out of the house, trying on old dresses that had been left in a crawl space. I remembered the rush I got from twirling in place and letting the hem wrap around my legs, and the terror I felt when I heard the garage door coming up. It was a forbidden act, and yet I felt compelled to do it by a voice I didn’t recognize. It was only later that I heard the voice as that of the person I wanted to be, the person I could be.

Personal Shopper wraps up with a moment of such comforting closure that I wish I’d been able to see it back when I was in the darkest days of questioning. Maureen demands to know whether the spirit that’s been haunting her is her late brother, by knocking once for yes and twice for no. The spirit doesn’t answer her. “Is it just me?” she asks. One knock. Fade to white. To be a closeted trans person is to be haunted by yourself, possessed by something that grows steadily more familiar over time. The spirit draws you to things you think you’re not supposed to do or be. Eventually, you realize that the ghost has been you all along.

Patron Request: ‘Assassin’s Creed’

I’ve long been a fan of the Assassin’s Creed games. I say “long” in lieu of the longer explanation of how I fell in and out of love with the series, and then back in again, and the exact points at which those relationship shifts happened. Suffice to say: I loved the early games, took a break, and came back with the most recent entries. There are gaming pressure points the franchise, in its best installments, powerfully hit upon for me. The big one is their open world design. I remember spending hours upon hours just running across Venice rooftops in Assassin’s Creed II, or climbing to the top of the highest point in Constantinople in Revelations and paragliding off the tip over and over again. There’s some magic in the maps of these games, some potent combination of living history and digital playground. For all the Ubisoft bloat surrounding even their best outings, I’ll always love the “running around” of it all.

Assassin’s Creed the film takes place mostly in anonymous grey rooms. The ratio of present-to-past has been flipped from the games; here the minority of the runtime is genetic flashback, rather than the vast majority as it was there. The sinister Abstergo facility where protagonist Callum Lynch finds himself is mostly comprised of featureless walls and glass doors. It’s as though they didn’t finish dressing the set. Absent is the satirically corporate atmosphere from the games (one of which took place in a thinly-veiled recreation of a Ubisoft studio). It’s a film absent a setting.

The recreations of historical cities are digital here, like in the games. But there’s no sense of place in the film, no coherency to their design. They’re just CG backdrops for action scenes. A mid-film parkour chase attempts to approximate the “running around” experience, but the typically 2010s lack of continuity in the editing breaks any potential for recreating that “gamey” immersion. The fun of the games is in the possibility of running straight from one end of the map to the other, a single continuous trip across an unbroken world. This is the one time I might actually have appreciated a cutless tracking shot!

I can see a director like Paul W.S. Anderson doing something interesting with the blatant digital artifice of the setting. Justin Kurzel seems completely oblivious to that potential. Instead, the film regurgitates the most insipid thematic elements from the games. Vague arguments about “free will” take the place of actual ideas. In one hilarious moment, a villainous Templar insists that their goal is to eliminate violence. “Violence kept me alive,” Callum spits back. Our hero, folks! I suppose, if nothing else, this moment makes Assassin’s Creed one of the more honest video game adaptations.

I’m struggling to finish writing this review before this film evaporates entirely from my memory. It’s bizarre how they failed to translate the best elements of the games and failed to make a movie that’s fun on its own terms. They couldn’t even come up with a vaguely charming cardboard cutout for their past-protagonist. Everybody loves the compassionate womanizer Ezio from the games. Aguilar, on the other hand…it would be charitable to describe him as a “character.” I just don’t understand how this happened. Surely at some point someone should have stepped in and said, “Hey how come nothing happens in this movie? How come it’s so unwatchably dour? How come there aren’t any characters?” Assassin’s Creed is one of the better examples in recent years of a film so designed-by-committee that it ultimately fails to appeal to anyone. It saps everything likable about the games and ends up an unidentifiable grey mush. It’s barely a movie. Once I post this, I’ll forget I ever watched it.