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Friday, September 21, 2018

Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation opened in theaters today, and most reviews, positive or negative, seem to mention a single-take sequence of one kind or another, often mentioning Brian De Palma, and sometimes mentioning Gaspar Noé. So, here we go:

Armond White, National Review

Levinson surveys social and political controversies such as narcissism, waterboarding, and 4Chan extortion as sick jokes, but he fails to provide comic relief. A feminist gag about remaking Straw Dogs bombs: “Instead of Susan George being raped, it’s Dustin Hoffman.” “Hasn’t Nancy Meyers already done that?” It’s self-congratulatory and presumes Millennials’ unlikely cultural savvy. Through Levinson’s own cultural arrogance, the middle-class double standards look just like the banal American Beauty, and his vision of political turmoil turns into The Purge. Anarchists and lynch mobs wear masks atop masks, leading to the siege of a black family’s home staged in laughably blood-spattered imitation of De Palma’s Scarface. The capper is Lily’s declaration against hypocrisy: “Don’t take your hate out on me; I just got here!”

Rob Thomas, The Capital Times
Eventually, and unconvincingly, they focus on Lily, and the second half of “Assassination Nation” becomes straight-on horror as Lily and her friends try to escape the vigilante mob and, eventually, turn the tables on them. Levinson shoots the violence with a lot of style and energy — there’s a brilliantly staged single-take shot of a house under siege, the camera panning from one window to another, that seems a clear homage to Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out.”

But under the style there’s not much to “Assassination Nation,” and the film’s attempts at making some larger point about mob mentality or the destructive power of social media — usually a speech by one character with an American flag strategically placed in the background — feel forced. Like in the “Purge” movies, “Nation” is a commentary on how horrible other people are, while reassuring the audience that we’re not anything like that.

The film’s attempts to tie its mayhem to the #MeToo movement at the end feel about as heartfelt as Kendall Jenner joining the protesters in that Pepsi commercial. Oh, and if you don’t know who Kendall Jenner is, “Assassination Nation” is definitely not for you.

Nick Schager, Film Journal International
Masked men are soon forming posses and hunting for fresh meat—female, in particular, which shifts Assassination Nation’s focus away from pricking modern online paradigms and toward cultural misogyny. Lily, Sarah, Em and Bex (who’s transgender) are cast as prey and, afterwards, as noble avenging feminist angels. Alas, their persecution at the hands of Charlottesville-esque white psychos (highlighted by a sub-Brian De Palma-style sequence shot from outside a home’s windows) might have had more bite had Levinson not first spent so much time depicting his heroines as thoroughly awful. As with an upside-down image of a bat-wielding girl standing on the American flag while stalking cheerleaders practicing an eroticized routine in a darkened gym, everything here is laughably underlined in a vain attempt to Say Something Meaningful about contemporary teenagerdom and America. The only thing conveyed by this wildly moralizing, exhaustingly edgy film, however, is its own shock-tactic self-love.

Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope
The red, white and blue split-screen that showcases the horny, house-partying girls of Assassination Nation is the first—and maybe best—bit of neo-Godardian gamesmanship in Sam (son of Barry) Levinson’s state-of-the-union horror comedy. Suffice it to say that there are more plausible candidates to make satire great again than the guy who directed The Wizard of Lies, to say nothing of the fact that this ostensibly anti-misogynist plunge into distaff objectification and abjection, with incessant sexual violence (and jokes about rape jokes!) is written and directed by a white dude—a well-meaning one, to be sure, one who has read his Arthur Miller and duly reduced its essence to emoji-style bullet points.

So, sad face: after half the population of the city of Salem has its data hacked by an Anonymous-style e-terrorist, the men turn on the hot, horny high-school girls who’ve so shamelessly inflamed their desires via their Instagrammed existences. It’s a clever set-up, permitting the ticking of various politically correct boxes while exalting in all kinds of wretched excess, hence the entirely smug “trigger warnings” that frame the proceedings (an conceit worthy of Gaspar Noé, and all that that implies). But the more that Assassination Nation tries to be about everything—hysteria, hypocrisy, media hypnosis and, of course, Donald Trump—it sacrifices precious specificities of character and context. Plus, casting Joel McHale as the Purge-masked face of toxic masculinity isn’t as effective as, say, unleashing James Franco in Spring Breakers (yet another film that Levinson is chasing without quite catching up to). Everything you need to know about this film is contained in its most self-consciously bravura sequence, an extended, single-take home invasion that’s at once accomplished, self-impressed, sadistic, and redundant.

Jordan Raup (from Sundance last January), The Film Stage
Throughout the scattered build-up and visceral release, Levinson has plenty of ostentatious touches, some of which work better than others. During a party, he breaks down the frame into a triptych in a perceptive comment on how what should be an intimate experience is distilled into vertically-oriented, social media-ready clips apt for public digital consumption. Less effective is a single take which floats around the house as the town zeroes in on their victims. By the fifth or sixth minute, it’s clear more tension would have been felt if this was simply a well-executed series of shots inside the home.

And finally, the hosts of Build Weekend Watch end up their discussion of Levinson's film with an off-the-cuff discussion of De Palma, in which each one picks their favorite De Palma film-- and between the three of them, they manage to pick my three favorite ones... although Camilleri needs to go back and look at the pointed police station exposition scene in Raising Cain again, for sure...
Ethan Alter: There is one scene that sort of summarizes the movie, to me, and what it does well and what it mostly doesn't, is there's a long set-piece, with a bunch of Purge-like points (where everything's broken down), the townspeople are attacking the teenage girls who are running. And they're attacked at their house-- the scene is done sort of halfway between Brian De Palma and Gaspar Noé, with a lot of upside down camerawork, trying to do all-in-one-shot Steadicam where you can sort of see where they cut, but they're trying to create the impression of it all being a single-take. It should be, again, a three-minute sequence. They drag it out for eight minutes. And at that point, at about the five-minute mark, you're like, oh, okay, they're just showing off.

Ricky Camilleri: Sounds like Brian De Palma.

Ethan Alter: Yeah, there is truth in that.

Karen Han: I love him, though!

Ricky Camilleri: I love Brian De Palma, but there is definitely a sense, of, you know... Raising Cain is a movie where there are some one-shot wonders in there. Like, this is about nine minutes of just floating through a police station for literally no reason, but... God love ya, keep it up, man.

Ethan Alter: Yeah.

Ricky Camilleri: And the thing with Gaspar Noé, I love Gaspar Noé, and I love the upside down camerawork, and I love when he shocks. Because I feel like all of the things that he is doing, is, he's not putting anything on, he's just naturally who he is, and he can't help it. Love him or hate him, that's what he's going to do. It's not like he walked into a room and said, "Oh, I'm gonna be like this director." Whereas this director seems like he may have done that, and said, "Gaspar Noé." Want to move onto the next movie, guys? What do you think? Got more about Assassination Nation? We good? You wanna just talk about Brian De Palma for a little while?

Ethan Alter: Yeah, we could do that.

Ricky Camilleri: What's your favorite Brian De Palma movie?

Karen Han: Phantom Of The Paradise. Absolutely.

Ethan Alter: Oooh, good choice. Good choice.

Ricky Camilleri: Okay, we'll throw some rocks right now. What's your favorite De Palma?

Ethan Alter: It's cliché, but Carrie. Carrie is just, proto-Stephen King, proto-seventies horror, it's great. It still plays well.

Ricky Camilleri: I'd go Blow Out. The fireworks sequence in Blow Out, with the camera going around, is incredibly beautiful. I saw it for the first time on the big screen and it blew my mind.

Posted by Geoff at 10:35 PM CDT
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