Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies Starring Actors Who Died in 2016

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies starring people who died in 2016. 2016 was, unfortunately, a hard year for the business of film making. We lost so many iconic names it's hard to keep track. Some of them were people we didn't even realize were sick, or in some cases I didn't realize were even still alive. There has been a lot of commentary on just how many people we lost last year. In fact as New Years approached I heard a lot of talk about how there was going to be at least one more death before the year ended.

If it's any consolation there was one positive death that happened in 2016. We lost a lot of amazing people and that's unfortunate. But at least amidst all the performers we lost last year, there was one person that we're glad is finally dead: Ramsay Snow. So far he has been quite possibly the most evil character on the show, bad enough that he made Joffrey look okay (that's no easy feat). Say what you will about Joffrey, at least he was too selfish to have much of an impact anywhere outside of King's Landing. Ramsay Snow was like Joffrey but with intelligence to go along with it. And it just so happens that in 2016 he finally met his end at the hands of Sansa Stark. I don't think very many people will be missing him.

Anyway, I have been tasked with listing films that featured actors we lost in 2016. Now I could just pull out any random film that happens to feature someone we lost during the year, but I've decided to do something more meaningful. Here is what I've come up with...

The Producers (1968)

This weird satire of Hollywood's business practices marks a first on two fronts. It was the directorial debut of Mel Brooks, but it also started the career of one of his regular partners: Gene Wilder. The two would go on to work together in a number of films, with Wilder also getting recognition for playing the role of Willy Wonka. In The Producers, Wilder played a bumbling accountant who accidentally figures out a scheme by which theater producer Zero Mostel can make more money from a flop than a hit. Hilarity ensues as the two set off to produce the worst possible play (Springtime for Hitler), only to do such a good job they accidentally turn it into a huge hit. Sadly, Wilder died last year, and he was one of the last remaining members of Brooks' crowd (the director himself seems to be the only survivor now).

Star Wars (1977)

An interesting career path for Carrie Fisher, who both began and ended her acting career with the Star Wars franchise. Her big break came from playing the role of Princess Leia in the film that launched an entire franchise in 1977, and her final acting role will be in December when she returns as Leia for Star Wars: Episode VIII. The role of Leia is somewhat dated today. Her main function in Star Wars is clearly the damsel who gets kidnapped at the beginning and is eventually rescued by a group of white men. 

For the time, on the other hand, Leia was a big deal. She was able to take action, could hold her own in a fight, and managed to resist repeated Imperial Interrogations to protect the Rebel Alliance. She was also established to be a figure of authority (although this could have been shown more often). She also got a few moments to herself in Return of the Jedi, most notably the fact that she single-handedly murders the most powerful crime lord in the galaxy. Naturally, it was great to see her return for The Force Awakens, where she becomes a general for the resistance and a mentor figure of sorts. Incidentally, before she died Carrie Fisher did approve of Leia's brief cameo at the end of Rogue One.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

This was Alan Rickman's last movie, and as far as I'm aware he didn't even live to see its release. In this film, Alan Rickman plays an army officer who becomes one of several people overseeing the surveillance of a terrorist meeting and a possible missile strike. This was an interesting film for showing an aspect of modern warfare that is often overlooked: the use of drones and the ethics that come with it. More specifically, Rickman is one of several people who struggle to deal with the bureaucracy that comes with the moral dilemma involved: weighing the risk of civilian casualties with the possibility of eliminating a group of dangerous terrorists. A variety of different perspectives are offered ranging from ethical to propagandist agendas as everyone tries to figure out the correct course of action in a situation where there doesn't seem to be a right answer.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Evolution of the Serial Format In Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones

Seriality has a long and intricate history spanning a variety of different technologies. The history of seriality can be linked as far back as the novels of Victorian-era authors such as Charles Dickens and Jules Verne. The earliest serial films began to emerge in the second decade of the twentieth century, but reached their height in the 1930’s with productions such as Dick Tracy. Over time, serials moved into comics, radio, and television. Serial programs are still produced today, becoming a popular approach for television shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

While the concept of seriality has existed for a long time, it has evolved with changes in technology and audience. The 1930’s productions made for weekly releases in theaters, such as Dick Tracy, are very different from modern productions made with the expectations of online streaming and recording of episodes. The introduction of streaming services such as Netflix has allowed the production of a variety of new serials, including Jessica Jones.

Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy both follow the same basic premise on a narrative level: a detective trying to outwit a dangerous criminal. Jessica Jones is a Private Eye, while Dick Tracy is a vaguely defined FBI agent or “G-Man.” Dick Tracy’s main opponent is a mysterious criminal leader known only as “The Lame One,” while Jessica Jones is trying to outwit a mysterious psychopath with mind control powers named Kilgrave. In both cases the detectives find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with their nemesis, encountering a variety of challenging obstacles along the way.

The Fire Trap ends with Dick Tracy being tied up and locked on a burning ship, leaving the viewer to return the following week to find out how he escapes

Dick Tracy was released as a serial film in 1937, with episodes being shown in theaters once a week. Jessica Jones was released in its entirety on Netflix in 2015. Although they have a similar premise and explore the same themes, these two productions are drastically different representations of serial format. A discussion of these two in relation to each other allows a means by which to explore the structural, technological, cultural, and economic changes that have affected seriality, and how it has adapted over time.

Changes in the serial structure are largely connected to new business practices. In the 1930’s, serials functioned as a means to encourage audiences to return to the theater on a regular basis. It would have usually screened with several other programs including newsreels, cartoons, and a feature film. Even if the viewer was mainly attending for the feature, they would still be seeing the other programs before it started. Running a serial once a week encouraged audiences to return to the theater and buy tickets to the next episode of their favorite serial adventure.

The introduction of online streaming services allows for a new business model not available to theaters of the 1930’s, specifically one which allows for binge-watching. Netflix is based instead on a monthly subscription, wherein an audience pays a fee once a month and is able to access their entire catalogue. Because the viewer is already paying for the subscription, it becomes irrelevant how many episodes of a show they watch in succession. Netflix no longer has to charge for individual episodes to ensure that audiences retain their subscriptions. Instead, the main draw for viewers is access to an extensive and routinely updated catalogue.

Like Netflix, the old Hollywood serials relied on trying to attract a continuous audience, but changes in technology leave them with different goals. The Old Hollywood serials were made to draw people towards the theater and to encourage viewers to attend on a regular basis. Television did not yet exist as a form of technology, limiting the format to radio and film. Different business models are required in order to adapt to changing technologies, and with them the structures of different serials have to adapt.

Seriality has had to change with variations in technology that have presented different methods of distribution and viewing practices. One of the main reasons why popularity of the repetitive 1930’s film serials eventually began to fade was the introduction of radio programs. Radio was initially seen as a means of appealing to women, who were seen as being domestic and listening to the program while doing household chores. In the 1950’s, seriality moved from radio to television, which resulted in a series of new programs being produced to accommodate the new technology. The later introduction of VCR finally offered some control, as audiences could now record and play back episodes of their favorite shows. Online streaming provides access to an entire series at once.

Serial films of the 1930’s were structured around a distinct formula based on repetition and recycling. Scott Higgins, in his book Matinee Melodrama, argues that each episode of a serial was based on a five part structure: an action sequence which resolves the previous cliffhanger, a short expository sequence to establish any important information, a main action sequence, a second expository sequence, and finally a third action sequence that sets up the cliffhanger. Unlike films of the 1930’s, serials generally favored action over narrative progression, minimizing exposition to short sequences and only establishing whatever information was immediately relevant.

As a result, serials were based heavily on recycling and repeating ideas while creating the appearance of variety. Many early films, Dick Tracy included, were produced on low-budgets and had to find ways to re-use sets. Character development was also minimized, with psychology being glossed over in favor of stock characters that could be re-used across different narratives. This is very different from the approaches taken in modern serial form.

Modern serials, Jessica Jones included, arguably invert the formula. Action becomes secondary to character development. Whereas the characters of 1930’s serials lacked any depth and mainly served to provide a thin context for action, psychology becomes crucial to the modern serial. Jessica Jones places a strong emphasis on getting to know its strong but emotionally troubled protagonist on a personal level.

Jones’ search for the mysterious Kilgrave (David Tennant) serves as a means of exploring her psychological processes. This is also true of the supporting cast, with a lot of the narrative focusing on Jones’ relationship to her best friend Trish Walker and Lawyer Kate Hogarth (Carrie Ann-Moss), both of whom are faced with psychological challenges of their own. The supporting cast also receives extensive psychological profiling, offering details to their background, relationships, and personal lives.

The first two episodes focus purely on establishing Jones as a character and her background with the story’s main antagonist. Kilgrave himself is reduced to flashbacks, being seen once from behind in the first episode, which visualizes a witness’s account of his relationship with Hope Schlottman; and in the following installment through a series of flashbacks which show his prior efforts to control Jones. These episodes focus purely on exposition and psychology, presenting a stage against which to frame the narrative.

The first episode focuses exclusively on establishing Jones as a detective, with important plot developments delayed to the end or following installments.

Cliffhanger endings are a tool which is used to provide an easy connection between installments and to draw the viewer from one episode to the next. Ordinarily this is structured around an unresolved plot thread which requires the viewer to return to see the outcome. The most famous aspect of the 1930’s serial structure is their constant use of cliffhanger endings. Each episode generally ended with the main character faced with a dangerous situation with the expectation that the viewer would return to the theater the following week hoping for resolution.

These cliffhangers were often contrived and unoriginal, and in many cases recycled. Four of Dick Tracy’s fifteen episodes end with an aerial chase which results in a vehicle crashing. The first instance of this ending, Bridge of Terror, sees Dick Tracy crashing a biplane into a bridge, with the resolution amounting to him and his partner climbing out of the wreck unharmed. The resolutions to the later plane crashes (and zeppelin crash, in The Stratosphere Adventure) mostly involve the characters simply parachuting to safety.

In the last of four aerial chases, The Stratosphere Adventure ends with Dick Tracy unconscious aboard a burning zeppelin

Jessica Jones displays a greater variety of cliffhanger endings, which function differently from those of the 1930’s serials. Instead of ending each episode with Jones facing a life-threatening situation, the endings are often structured around unexpected developments, leaving the viewer with questions, or building anticipation for later plotlines. Hope Schlottman’s unexpected murder of her parents sets up the question of how Jones will prove she was being mind-controlled.

Jessica Jones is also fond of psychological and emotional cliffhangers. Many episodes end with sudden twists or developments that display a sense of anticipation in the viewer, as well as concern for what may happen in the future. Several cliffhangers revolve around developments related to Kilgrave—the collection of photographs he has of Jones, the reveal that he has been getting information from her junkie neighbour, and the reveal that Kilgrave has purchased her childhood home. Each of these set up important psychological developments by showing how obsessed Kilgrave is with Jones. This has the added effect of making the viewer uncomfortable and leaving them wanting immediate resolution. It also provides tension for the viewer by leaving them concerned for what Kilgrave is planning to do to Jones in the next encounter.

Unlike Dick Tracy, these moments function to construct anticipation for long-term narrative developments rather than immediate resolution at the beginning of the next episode. Hope Schlottman’s murder of her parents leaves the viewer to question how Jones will prove that she was being mind-controlled, a plot thread that is not resolved until eight episodes later. When it does reach its resolution, the show plays on the viewer’s expectations through a twist—Jones is unsuccessful in finding any evidence, and Schlottman instead opts to kill herself so that she can no longer be used as leverage against Jones.

This sudden development functions on an emotional level, shocking the viewer who had been set up to expect a more optimistic resolution, but it also creates a sense of anticipation. Until now, Schlottman has been used as leverage to keep Jones from taking action against Kilgrave. With her death, Jones is free to take action against him. Delaying this moment to near the end of the season builds up anticipation of their final confrontation and Jones’ eventual victory over Kilgrave.

The closest instance to a traditional cliffhanger ending occurs when Luke Cage’s bar explodes with him inside. It does set up a crisis to be resolved in the next episode, but unlike Dick Tracy the outcome is less certain. In the 1930’s serials, it was always a guarantee that the hero would escape from their current situation unscathed. No matter how many times Dick Tracy ended up in a plane or boat-related accident the audience knew he would find a way out; the question was how he would escape. To a viewer watching Jessica Jones without the knowledge that Cage later gets his own series, the question becomes whether he will escape at all.

In both Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy, these structures set up anticipation for the next episode and the hope for resolution, but they are very differently produced. Dick Tracy was released in 1937, at a time when it was being screened at movie theaters once a week. A viewer would have to first learn where and when the film was being played, arrive at the theater on the correct day, buy a ticket, and then return the following week to see the next installment. Jessica Jones was produced and distributed through Netflix. The viewer can now watch from home instead of going to a theater, with immediate access to the entire series.

One detail that offers a significant departure from the format of older serials is the need to construct and expand a world. (Williams 2014) Jessica Jones itself is set within the same continuity as The Avengers, which already is building on the stories set up by several different Marvel Films. This idea was taken further a year later, with the release of a spin-off show, Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, a character who played a major role in Jessica Jones, takes on a leading role in the new series, further expanding the world established by Jessica Jones. The only other direct link to the series comes in the form of Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, who had previously made a guest appearance in Jessica Jones’ season finale, and now becomes a regular partner to Cage. The appearances of these characters work to ground the viewer in the world of the story through familiar faces, even though Luke Cage is largely dealing with a new group of characters and different situations.

The low budget of Dick Tracy requires that a few sets be re-used for filming, allowing a few familiar locations to recur such as Dick Tracy’s office and the laboratory in which he works. There is also the abandoned power plant which is introduced as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror and becomes the setting for the final showdown in Brothers United. Beyond this, there is little to establish a consistent or detailed world to be explored and expanded.

The plotlines of Dick Tracy are often disjointed and involve a different situation each week. Aside from the overall narrative involving Tracy’s quest to break up the “Spider Ring,” there is little to connect the plots of individual episodes. The Spider Ring returned each week but their goals always changed, resulting in different plans for Tracy to foil. After immediately resolving the previous episode’s cliffhanger, each episode would move on to a new problem. After identifying the power plant as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror, The Fur Pirates leaves this plotline behind in favor of moving to a harbor where the Spider Ring has suddenly started stealing furs.

This trend continues through the following episodes, with each installment introducing new plotlines only to suddenly abandon them. The Ghost Town Mystery suddenly shows the Spider Ring taking interest in a Gold Mine, which only gets mentioned again in The Trail of the Spider—a recap episode which mainly uses footage from previous installments. These abrupt changes and lack of a clear narrative connection beyond its characters makes it much more difficult to construct a coherent world.

The narrative works primarily with stock characters over individuals with any psychological depth. Members of the cast are mostly reduced to a few easily recognizable roles such as Dick Tracy as the investigator (who shows little depth beyond being concerned about his missing brother) and Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) as the comic relief. None of these characters are given much depth beyond their basic role. There is little room to get to know any of them on a personal level.

Even the closest thing to a psychological conflict in the story—the disappearance of Gordon Tracy (who has been kidnapped and brainwashed to serve the Spider Ring) is often glossed over. Beyond Dick Tracy mentioning occasionally that he is concerned about his brother, the psychological ramifications are overlooked, even after the two confront each other multiple times in action sequences. Almost nothing is established about Tracy’s relationship with his brother prior to his abduction.

This is very different from the narrative structure of Jessica Jones. Over the course of the series, she solves several cases, but as the series moves forward the story becomes primarily about her and Kilgrave, eventually building up to a showdown in the season finale. Unlike the “Lame One”, Kilgrave’s motives and goals are far more consistent throughout the series. Instead of jumping from one task to another each episode, Kilgrave instead sets long-term goals that occur throughout the season, most of them related to an interest in psychologically manipulating Jones. Likewise, Jones’ methods of trying to stop him carry across multiple episodes, as does her psychology and personal life. Developments over the course of the series present long-term psychological effects on Jones.

One of the most important distinctions between Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy is the expectations left for the viewer. The audiences who watched Dick Tracy were very different from those watching Jessica Jones. In the 1930’s, going to the movie theater was more or less the only way most audiences could expect to see anything on screen. It was a luxury for many people living in the middle of the Great Depression who were more conscious of how their money was spent. People who went to see Dick Tracy would barely be able to conceive of modern streaming services such as Netflix. Now a viewer at home could have access to an entire series with complete control over how and when they watch it.

Online streaming has led to a practice known as “binge-watching.” A viewer in the 1930’s would only have been able to watch an episode of their favorite serial if it was playing at a nearby theater. 1930’s audiences lacked any form of control over when the serials played. The more modern practice of “binge-watching” changes everything. A viewer today watching Jessica Jones on Netflix is given total control over their own viewing practices. Episodes can be stopped and started as the audience sees fit, and a viewer can watch multiple episodes in immediate succession.

In theory, there are practices that could be seen as early precursors to binge-watching. Serialized Victorian novels could be compiled together into a complete story. Readers of newspaper comics such as Superman could cut out the strips as they were published and subsequently read through them to produce a continuing story. Some movie theaters would also opt to schedule programs in which multiple episodes of a serial would be shown in succession, especially in the 1960’s when nostalgia could be used as a marketing factor.

A variation on this practice which became popular in the 1950’s is the made-from-TV film, a practice wherein multiple episodes of a TV series were edited and re-released theatrically as a feature film. In theory, this would allow the viewer to watch multiple installments at once and experience a somewhat complete narrative, but the editing practices involved make this different from modern binge-watching. Instead of watching the original series, the viewer is instead seeing re-edited footage from different episodes brought together in order to create the appearance of a contained narrative. In order to fit the program into a feature-length runtime, large portions of each episode could be cut, taking out much of their original contexts.

Ramar of the Jungle, originally released as a TV series in 1952, later saw several "movies" produced by combining several episodes

One of the main reasons why binge watching has become especially popular today is that the audience has complete control over how they watch their shows. Previously, the only way to binge-watch a show was if a theater or television network had programmed multiple episodes together. Even while watching 1930’s serials, a viewer can can start and stop it as they see fit due to re-releases both on DVD and online.

Unlike the made-from-television movie, the viewer is watching the show in its original installments rather than a re-edited short version. Even when watching multiple episodes of a serial in a theater, the viewer could only see what had been programmed. This was a practice that would have been alien to 1930’s audiences, but quickly became an attraction for Netflix. Jessica Jones was a show produced with the intent from the start of being released in its entirety for binge watching.

The 1930’s audience would have been more accustomed to going to the theater. The Great Depression was going on at the time, and a large portion of the viewers were working-class Americans. They lacked control over what they would be seeing when they attended. Theaters of the era usually had only one or two screens, so ordinarily a viewer would only be buying a ticket to whatever was currently programmed, which would often include newsreels, cartoons, a serial, and a feature film.

For viewers interested in following a serial like Dick Tracy, this would have created a much stronger need to attend the theater at the correct moment in order to see what would be happening next. Audiences within the 1930’s were used to lacking control, and likely tried to save some of whatever money they had to attend the theater each week. The introduction of binge-watching makes this redundant for a modern viewer, even one viewing Dick Tracy, who knows they can start the next episode as soon as it is convienient.

A 1930’s-style serial would not work in a modern context. Audiences today have access to a global network, and are able to watch programs from home. The advent of streaming sources such as Netflix and the popularity of binge-watching has made viewers more accustomed to being able to watch shows instantly. Audiences of the 1930’s, who lacked internet access and could only watch movies by going to the theater, would have been more patient. A modern viewer would struggle to wait for a resolution, and today could easily learn what happened before they even see the next episode.

Narratively, serials of the 1930’s would not work as well when run today. The modern audience of Jessica Jones is used to seeing strong psychologically driven protagonists. The use of stock characters would be frustrating and ineffective at compelling viewers to continue watching. The contrived cliffhangers would leave viewers more annoyed, and the choice to delay narrative progression in favor of action would make the films seem even more infuriating especially when episodes are binge-watched.

Seriality has existed in a variety of forms. In the 1930’s, it was presented through a series of weekly installments. Today, people can record episodes of television programs or access an entire series through an online service and watch multiple episodes in succession. Changes in business practices and distribution methods have resulted in access to different audiences with different expectations. Because of this, the serial structure of shows like Dick Tracy has been replaced by Netflix programs such as Jessica Jones.

By comparing Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones, it is clear that they are reflective of differing business practices and technologies available at different times. The disjointed weekly installments of Dick Tracy are structured very differently with different audiences in mind. Where the serials of the 1930’s required a viewer to return weekly to the theater at a pre-designated time, modern services like Netflix allow a viewer to watch an entire series at once from home.

This new structure reflects a change in viewership, which has become accustomed to different technologies. The audiences of Jessica Jones who can watch the entire series lack the patience of the audiences who returned weekly for Dick Tracy. The change in business model from individual theater tickets to a subscription fee has allowed viewers to binge watch, a practice not possible for audiences of the 1930’s.

It is likely that in the future, seriality will continue to evolve with new technological developments and with it so will audiences and business practices. New distribution methods will allow audiences even greater access to different shows and will result in new viewing practices and expectations.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Never Get Off the Boat

So I've had a lot of free time and I've also been struggling with the usual stresses that come with boxing week. I've had to get out a lot more often and it just so happens that the theater nearby gives me something to do. Earlier this week, I re-watched Rogue One (great film) but I needed to see something else. One film that was playing was Moana, a Disney animated film I didn't know much about beyond a vague idea of the premise. I remembered seeing trailers for it, including the somewhat misleading original teaser that made it look like the titular character was a sidekick to Maui.

It looked like it would be fun and enjoyable so I decided to give it a watch. Some of my family tried to talk me out of it, dismissing it as a "Princess Film" and acting like it being a Disney animated film automatically made it worthless. It's a good thing I didn't take that advice, because it turns out that Moana really is something special. It's hardly a typical Disney animated film, and definitely not one about princesses or true love (at least not in the traditional sense). It is admittedly weird and yes, it is a musical, but it is also a touching nautical odyssey with a balance of emotion and humor.

A long time ago, the goddess Te Fiti was responsible for creating the world until one day when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), resulting in a spread of darkness across the world. Fast forward a few thousand generations later and these events are only remembered as legends. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), the next in line to be Chief of a village on the island of Motunui, finds herself intrigued by the ocean but her father (Temuera Morrison) is convinced that nobody should ever leave. Over the years, Moana grows up to become a prominent figure in her community but still retains a sense of adventure.

Now as a teenager, Moana finds her greatest mentor is her grandmother (Rachel House), who presents her with the long-lost heart of Te Fiti. When Moana discovers that she is the chosen one destined to restore order, she discovers the secret history of her culture and embarks on an epic nautical odyssey as she secretly takes a boat and leaves the island for the first time. Now with only a washed-up (and extremely reluctant) Maui, a cross-eyed chicken, and the ocean itself for company, she must face a series of dangerous challenges which will test her both physically and mentally.

So contrary to what the initial teaser claimed, the film really is about Moana herself and how she develops her strength as a character. In fact, amazingly enough, there isn't even a romantic sub-plot or anything. Maui himself is basically the comic relief for much of the film, and his relationship with Moana is at best one between close friends. That's not to say it isn't an effective one, just not a conventional relationship. There's no real sexual tension between them (probably for the better; there is kind of an age gap) and if anything Moana has to show a lot of support towards Maui.

I loved the character of Moana, which is good because she has to carry most of the film by herself. She is a really strong and independent character, and never felt like she was any kind of damsel. She gets into trouble a few times, but almost every time rescues herself rather than waiting for the bumbling Maui. In fact, a lot of the time whenever things do go wrong, it's Moana who figures out the solution and in some cases has to save her demigod companion. Maui never seems particularly dominant, and at most he and Moana are working as a team. If anything, Moana's most interesting relationship is not with any of the supporting cast at all.

One odd detail in Moana's narrative is the choice to make the sea itself an active character. It never speaks, but it is shown to have an enigmatic personality and a deep-rooted connection to Moana. This emerges in different forms, from brief moments of comic relief (Maui's repeated efforts to kick Moana off the boat, only for her to be thrown back on) to moments of drama. This is admittedly an odd choice for the narrative, but it works. Not only is it used effectively for humor, but it also constructs what may be the most meaningful relationship Moana has. The other detail of note is her brief but touching relationship to her grandmother, who serves as a mentor figure in a role that would normally be filled by a male character.

That said, there is still a great supporting cast for the few other characters that appear in the film. Dwayne Johnson is a lot of fun as the bumbling Maui, but even the other characters who appear are well acted. We get an emotional relationship between Moana and her grandmother, but also her parents are well-voice acted. The only other actor who really gets any major dialogue is Jemaine Clement, who plays a giant treasure-hunting crab who lives under the ocean (literally). Clement is not in the movie very long, but his bizarre action sequence allows for plenty of fun and good jokes, as well as solid moments for both Maui and Moana.

Looking past the film's acting, it is also beautifully animated. The filmmakers went to great lengths to bring each of the different environments Moana visits to life and they delivered. Even the parts where she's in open water have a way of seeming genuine. Moana is a really straight forward but surprisingly well-made story with a good balance of humor and drama. It's a weird fantasy adventure inspired loosely by Polynesian mythology but also a detailed character study which presents a strong female lead. I'll admit, I was hoping it would be fun but I didn't realize just how good it would actually be.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Aliens (Future Warfare)

It is hard to know what the future of warfare will truly look like, but there are patterns and recurring trends. Advancements in weapons will no doubt change the ways in which wars are fought, as will many other political and social factors. It seems to have been a long-standing trend that there are those who try to profit from war. It is becoming more common to see privatized military organizations, mercenary groups, and businesses that thrive on fighting wars for money. The actions of Donald Trump have also opened a door for businesses and corporate interests to begin dominating political and social developments.

These are issues brought to the forefront in Aliens. On the surface, it seems like a straight forward science fiction action film with some strong female characters, but it may have a much deeper significance than most would recognize. It is a movie about the changing nature of war, the introductions of new weapons, the need to adapt, the role of corporate interest in the military, and ultimately asks one very important question: who is the real enemy? In the film, we follow a group of marines on what seems a routine mission, only for everything to go wrong thanks to corporate greed while fighting a war in which conventional tactics do not work.

Even before we are introduced to the marines, Aliens hardly presents an optimistic vision of the future. We are introduced to the main protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), herself a veteran of sorts who has already had one traumatic experience fighting an alien, an extra-terrestrial organism likely bred as a bio-weapon. Upon being found, she is treated very much like a returning soldier. Ripley struggles to adapt to a regular life. She is shown to be dealing with nightmares about her experiences, and it is also suggested that she may have survivor's guilt. The most she can do is try to keep herself occupied by finding the one job that will accept her.

Adding to this is Ripley's apparent "hearing," which is more or less a kangaroo court designed to make her look bad. The film does not offer much information on the political structure of this universe, but it appears to be an environment dominated by business interests. The people questioning Ripley are all company representatives who are obviously covering up her experiences. They keep referring to "unknown reasons" for what happened even when Ripley explains multiple times what really went on.

These themes of a corporation-driven society are largely represented through the introduction of Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser). Burke is introduced at the film's beginning, when he introduces himself to Ripley and claims to be a nice guy. His full agenda is not revealed until late in the film, but there are plenty of small lines of dialogue which show early on that he is only working for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We see this first when he tries to talk Ripley into investigating the colony on LV-426, and quotes his company's advertisements as though he believes them. He later offers what amounts to product placement when discussing the equipment used by the colonists, and refers to financial interests in an effort to keep the colony from being destroyed. When asked about Ripley's experiences with an android, he dismisses it as a "malfunction."

Burke's presence throughout the film sets up the important question of who the real enemy is. Most of the film is spent fighting aliens but are they the real threat? Or is it something much closer and more subtle? The aliens prove to be a danger, but corporate greed may just prove to be a far worse enemy. Ripley herself basically states this when she calls out Burke. "I don't know which species is worse," she mutters, noting that the aliens don't try to screw each other over for profits.

The first introduction to the marines consists of Burke introducing them in what amounts to a flimsy attempt at propaganda (one which Ripley sees through). He introduces Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), a man who looks impressive in his uniform and seems at first like a capable soldier. Both Gorman and Burke speak at length of the marines' apparent capabilities. Burke claims that nothing can stop them. Gorman maintains that Ripley will be safe accompanying him, that it will be impossible for her to face any danger at all. Ripley still refuses, seeing through the obvious attempts. She only agrees in the hopes of destroying the aliens (or at least making sure nobody tries to bring any back).

From here, we move into the spaceship carrying the military for the operation. The film quickly establishes the time that has passed through a series of brief shots of empty rooms. The places remain quiet, fittingly as like all wars, this one requires a lot of waiting. So much, in fact, that the entire crew is in hibernation during the trip. All we get to see are the dim corridors and unused facilities before finally being shown the cry pods with the crew aboard. It is here that we are introduced to most of the cast and start to see the problems with this military expedition.

When the crew awake, we are introduced to several of the marines. Yet for people as tough as Gorman claimed, they start off feeling sick as they are woken. Matters are not made easier by the orders shouted by the ruthless Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). This is followed by a scene taking place in the mess hall which quickly breaks the cast up into two main groups by placing different members of the cast at different tables. One small table is used for the "brass" which includes Gorman along with Ripley and Burke.

This is contrasted with the much larger and busier table containing the "grunts," as the cast likes to call them. The grunts' table is shown to be much livelier than that of the brass, with the marines talking and joking among themselves. This includes a moment when the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) performs a stunt that involves swinging a knife between the fingers of a nervous Private Hudson (Bill Paxton). Paxton's reaction to the knife swinging is also important, as it sets up the direction his character will take later on in the film.

This division between the two groups is reinforced when the marines board the dropship to investigate the colonies. Inside, the cast is once again arranged according to their apparent group. Gorman, Ripley, and Burke are seated near the front with space of their own. Meanwhile, the "grunts" are all crowded together in the back. At the same time, we also see contrasting reactions to the turbulence that is affecting the dropship. Gorman, for all the confidence he displayed in his introduction, struggles to adjust. The grunts are more or less unaffected. Hudson spends the whole time bragging about killing aliens, and in an amusing touch Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) actually falls asleep.

We see this division come up once again upon landing, this time by isolating the different groups into different locations. The marines are shown to be the ones doing the dirty work, actually getting out and sweeping the different buildings while Gorman, Burke, and Ripley remain in an armored vehicle watching the whole thing on a screen. The apparent protection of the armored vehicle contrasts the exposed marines, who are more exposed as they sweep the tunnels. This becomes crucial. This act of dividing the cast provides an early clue to the problems in the operation: disorganization. It is only as the different groups come together, and the established hierarchy is dissolved, that anything can be accomplished.

Much as Gorman likes to brag in his first appearance, he is quickly shown to be ineffective in dealing with this type of mission. Upon landing, he orders a quick sweep of one building, and declares it to be clear even after Ripley questions his instructions. This becomes especially evident when the marines enter their second sweep. Gorman obviously lacks any understanding of the environment, as his instructions completely fail to take into account the potential danger to firing under a reactor. Even when Gorman finally gives the order, the marines show an extreme reluctance to follow orders. Drake and Vazquez (Jeanette Goldstein) outright defy orders and smuggle ammo back into their guns. Adding to this is Gorman's refusal to withdraw after being instructed to do so by Ripley.

When the aliens do show up, the marines end up being ineffective at dealing with them. Earlier in the film, Burke claimed that nothing could touch the marines, but they are insufficiently equipped to deal with the aliens. The first to attack does so through camouflage before ambushing Corporal Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott). She is followed immediately after by Apone, taking away their command. The result is total chaos in what becomes a struggle to survive. Amidst all the confusion, half the division is wiped out and at least one person is accidentally set on fire by a fellow marine.

During this sequence, Gorman remains unable to take any action or show any leadership. It is only because Ripley kicks him out the driver's seat that any of the marines are able to get out. Even then, their weapons prove to have limited effect on the aliens, especially up close. Gorman's ineffectiveness is finally reinforced when he is knocked unconscious in the middle of the action, and remains out of action until near the end. By the time it is all over, a large portion of the marines have been killed. The loss of both Apone and Gorman throw the structure of command out of balance. Hicks, previously a "grunt," ends up taking charge. By the time Gorman regains consciousness, he is practically useless and reduced to a background role until he dies, ironically, trying to save one of his grunts.

It is this development, as well as the failed attempt to nuke the planet from orbit, that forces what is left of the cast to rethink their strategies. Standard military protocol has proven ineffective for dealing with creatures like the aliens, and the marines have proven themselves unable to fight them. It is likely that most of them, if they had any combat experience at all, were accustomed to fighting other humans and unaccustomed to the changes presented by the aliens. The only person who ends up being qualified to lead is Ripley, who has actual experience dealing with the aliens.

The two groups that had previously been established are slowly coming together. This is visually conveyed when Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl who survived the colony massacre, is shown wearing marine headgear, as well as Hicks taking the time to show Ripley how to use a grenade launcher. With the team broken down and military protocol out the window, the mission becomes one of survival. This, unfortunately, proves difficult with the aliens, a species that proves good at adapting. The sentry guns the marines try to provide are quickly rendered useless.

It is fitting therefore that it is Ripley, not any of the marines, who finally confronts the Alien queen. She is the one member of the team not bound by protocol and of all the cast the best at adapting. The aliens are a weapon the marines are not used to facing and lack the sufficient equipment to deal with. Ripley's solution is ultimately to construct new weapons in an effort to deal with the queen. We see this first when she duct-tapes a flamethrower to a shotgun, and later when she manages to find re-purpose a docking loader, a machine designed for lifting crates, as a means of fighting off the queen and throwing it out the airlock.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Hyena Road (Modern Warfare)

After the release of his 2008 war film Passchendaele, Canadian director and star Paul Gross was presented with an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and photograph the war as it was going on. Gross met and talked to actual Canadian soldiers in the field and learned a lot about the life of a soldier in the context of modern warfare. War has changed. There are no longer any front lines, and advancements in weapons allow for more destruction than ever before. Tactics have also had to adapt, with the enemy often being harder to recognize and one that could be anywhere. And on top of that, there is just a lot of waiting for something to happen. Some soldiers can finish an entire tour of duty without ever seeing combat.

As Gross filmed the war in Afghanistan, he began to develop ideas for an original story. Drawing on what he witnessed and accounts from other soldiers, he constructed a script that is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most realistic depictions of the War in Afghanistan available today. This script would eventually be filmed and released in 2015 under the title Hyena Road. Unlike Passchendaele, Hyena Road brings us into the context of Modern Warfare and explores the everyday life of Canadian soldiers. But Gross is more interested in the moral intricacies of war. Hyena Road places a heavy emphasis on moral questions, and presents the war as a complex string of difficult choices. Often there is no clear moral decision, and whatever call is finally made will have consequences one way or the other.

Gross works to capture the essence of the War in Afghanistan by presenting the country itself as a kind of character, and treats it as a very difficult place for outsiders fight a war. This comes up in his narration which refers to Alexander the Great's struggle to conquer Afghanistan. Gross describes a correspondence in which Alexander allegedly told his mother "even the dirt is hostile." At the film's conclusion, Alexander is once again mentioned, where it is stated that he became mentally unbalanced after spending three years trying to crush a rebellion in Afghanistan, his condition getting worse after he accidentally killed a close friend, before finally dying shortly after. Gross also tells a story about an Afghan warrior known as "The Ghost" who became a huge problem for the Soviet army.

Naturally, the life of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is hardly an easy one. It largely consists of a mix of long-stretches of boredom with brief moments of life-or-death struggles. At the beginning of the film, we hear narration from Captain Pete Mitchell (Gross) who describes life in Kandahar, which states that two thirds of the people stationed here never even see combat. The narration is accompanied by a montage of different shots illustrating everyday chores both on-duty (planes coming and going) and off (going to the latrine). Much of the film is peppered with brief moments showing soldiers taking part in everyday chores and recreation.

Naturally, with the theme of waiting being so prominent, it is fitting that the main focus of Hyena Road is on a sniper team. By its very definition, it takes a lot of patience to be a good sniper. In the case of Afghanistan, this can involve waiting for hours in hot weather with minimal movement. This is also why snipers have to work as a team; they can take turns. One of the first things shown in the movie is one such period. Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is in charge of the team, but most of their job amounts to waiting on a high ledge and trying to keep themselves occupied.

Yet the quiet is broken very suddenly and without warning when they discover mines on the road and suddenly discover that they've been seen. It is only one very sudden POV shot that reveals a man staring at the camera with binoculars which allows us (and the sniper team) to realize that they have been noticed, and it is also that exact moment when shots are fired. The team quickly gets swarmed with enemies that a moment ago they didn't even realize existed. This also becomes a huge disadvantage, as snipers work best when they are unseen. It is only total luck that they even manage to survive at all when they get rescued by a local elder (Neamat Arghandabi).

This sequence only makes up the first ten minutes of the film, and yet already we are starting to see both side of the war: the brutality that comes when the shots are fired, and the long waiting in between. Just before we are introduced to the sniper team, we get a brief expository sequence that sets up the difficulties Canada is facing (tying into Mitchell's stories of Alexander and the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan). We are informed that Brigadier General Rilman (Clark Johnson) is overseeing construction of the titular road, but he is having trouble getting it built because civilian construction workers keep getting killed by IEDs, and so far all efforts to locate the people involved have failed.

As the film progresses, we start to learn more about the different characters. We learn that Sanders is in a relationship with base commander Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) and Mitchell suspects that the Elder who saved them is in fact the "Lion of the Desert," also known as the "Ghost" (according to Gross this was based on an actual person, though he has refrained from giving a name). It is these small developments that set much of the film's themes of complex choices and moral ambiguity into motion. Mitchell becomes convinced that the Ghost can be a valuable asset and tries to think long-term, while Sanders thinks mainly in short-term.

We already saw this happening at the beginning when Rilman is seen resorts to hiring known criminals BDK (Fazal Hakimi) and his son Karim, in an effort to provide extra security. As we later discover, BDK is crooked and in fact profiting from the mass killings that are occurring on the road. Worse still, he has connections to the CIA and legally speaking is immune to any form of prosecution. Adding to that, Sanders has an opportunity to kill BDK but is unable to do so because of the rules of engagement. Suddenly there is a question of where military protocol ends and justice begins.

Throughout the film, different characters are shown to make difficult decisions. We see this occurring on a small scale when Bowman tries to break up with Sanders (and later when she persuades an army doctor to keep quiet about her pregnancy), but we also see it on a much larger scale, particularly when Sanders witnesses BDK's criminal operations. This particular sequence sees tension mount between ethics and protocol. Mitchell tries to keep Sanders from taking the shot as doing so would violate the rules of engagement, while Sanders wants to take the shot in order to stop BDK from abducting children. From there, we see Bowman stuck in the middle, wanting to agree with Sanders but bound by military procedure. In the end, Sanders doesn't take the shot, an act which he argues is immoral.

As we later learn, Mitchell's motives are more complex, and his only way to deal with BDK is through the Ghost (who is not restricted by the same laws). But the Ghost turns out to be quite ruthless in his own right. He kidnaps and decapitates BDK's son. The sniper sequence is paralleled near the film's conclusion when, once again, Sanders has orders to stand down but refuses to listen. He opens fire and kills BDK. Meanwhile his choice is debated both by Mitchell and Bowman, the latter of whom vocally tries to encourage Sanders to take the shot.

Unfortunately, this final action has dangerous consequences and it turns out there were a few good reasons not to shoot. BDK is shot in front of multiple Taliban witnesses who presumably call for backup. When backup arrives, the Sniper team is ambushed and quickly overpowered before they can reach their extraction point. The nearest chopper is not at a sufficient distance to reach them on time, and one by one the team gets killed until only Sanders and the Ghost remain. Sanders' only viable course of action ends up being to order a missile strike knowing he will be unable to escape.

This whole massacre could have been averted if Sanders had not fired, in which case the sniper team could have left undetected. But because the shot was fired, he alerted the Taliban to his presence.Yet, perhaps their deaths were not entirely in vain. The next sequence depicts a Canadian strike team rescuing a large number of captured children likely connected to BDK (who was shown earlier kidnapping children and mentioned to sell them as prostitutes). The kids are rescued and reunited with their parents, which seems like an optimistic outcome. 

But then there's the question: did the sniper team have to die for this to happen? It can be hard to say for sure. Regardless, this is only one small victory in a complex war, a war in which one sometimes isn't even sure who they are fighting. Still, while they may have succeeded in taking down a ruthless criminal and building the road, this is far from winning the war. What does it mean to win a war? Perhaps, as Mitchell himself states: "there is no winning. Only an endstate."

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Assassin's Creed: The Movie

So I've recently become kinda a big fan of the Assassin's Creed video games. As of this writing I have currently played four different installments: Brotherhood, III, Liberation, and Black Flag. The games can be weird but they have some great storytelling and often are extremely addictive (okay, III wasn't as great, but the others were all extremely compelling). They often have great characters, intriguing storylines, and good gameplay often set against the backdrop of various historical time periods. 

Naturally, with my interest in the games, it seemed like I had an obligation of sorts to offer my thoughts on the Assassin's Creed movie. I tried to remain optimistic and avoided reviews as best I could (easier said than done when I was trying to get images from the film) so that I would be able to develop a perspective of my own. It also seemed appropriate because, while this isn't my first time watching a movie based on a video game, it is the first time I actually played the game (or games, in this case) before seeing the movie. 

Now there are different approaches to looking at Assassin's Creed. and I can say I have mixed feelings in different areas. But overall my reaction to the film was a fairly positive one. It's not a perfect film by any means, and there are definitely areas that could have been better (and probably would be good to look into if any more films should be made). That said, it does do surprisingly well in making the transition from video game to movie, being able to homage and mimic elements of the games while simultaneously adapting them to meet different requirements. I would say it works as an entertaining action movie, although it is more effective if you are familiar with the source material (which makes it easier to pick up Easter eggs and inside jokes).

Before I go into too much detail, I should probably give some background regarding the source material. The most straight forward explanation of the games' premise is that there are two secret societies locked in a seemingly endless war that has spanned hundreds of years. One faction is known as the Templars, which are kind of like Hydra. The Templars believe in the philosophy of order at the cost of freedom and want total control over everyone. The second faction is the Assassins, an order of... well... assassins who fight for free will. 

The conflict between these two organizations is what drives the franchise, with the player usually fighting for the Assassins (Rogue provides an exception to the rule, with the player instead being a Templar). The individual games take place across different time periods and generations, with the recurring theme that the growing conflict shapes major historical events, often with appearances by historical figures. The Assassin "Brotherhood" (the term being used loosely; there have been plenty of female assassins) has included among others Niccol√≤ Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus (former Templar), Samuel Adams, Blackbeard, and Mary Read (these are just from the games I've played). Meanwhile the Templars have included the Borgia family, Charles Lee, and Laureano de Torres y Ayala. 

This is arguably the most straight forward explanation I can provide of Assassin's Creed, and I haven't even gone into the more confusing elements of the games. The important thing to understand to have any context is the two basic factions and their motives. It's probably best if I don't confuse anyone who hasn't played the games any further by trying to explain, for instance, the part about the ancient alien civilization which left behind artifacts that the two groups are often fighting over. 

The one other thing I can note is that the games are ordinarily structured around a present-day framing device which usually relies on a machine called the Animus. Basically, it is a kind of window into the past based on genetics. The idea is that the Animus can track a person's genealogical history and through some complex DNA analysis unlock memories from their ancestors. Once the memories are extracted from the person's DNA, the Animus can then allow the person to experience those memories as if it were their own. To provide a more basic explanation, the Animus is a device uses a person's DNA to recover memories from previous generations and can allow a person to see through the eyes of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years.

The Assassin's Creed movie includes these elements but presents an original story with new characters. This is probably for the better. I feel like it would not have worked as well to try to link the story directly to Ezio, Edward Kenway, Avaline, or any of the other protagonists in the games. Plus the games move around so much that having the basic elements is sufficient for it to be recognizable as part of the series. In their defense, I would say that this was a good step in making the transition from game to film, as it allows the filmmakers an entirely new base to work with. 

Unlike the games, the story places more emphasis on the modern-day portions. The Animus sequences are set during the Spanish Inquisition, an era which has yet to be covered in the games (the closest I am aware of the series getting to this was Renaissance-era Italy). The Animus itself has gone through a huge redesign. To be fair, the machine already went through several different models in the games, and I actually found the new look of the Animus to be an interesting new twist. It looks strange when it is first shown, but it actually does make sense as it allows the person to act out the memory. This also works better with the fact that we are watching a film instead of playing a video game.

left: Animus in Brotherhood; right: Animus in the movie

Naturally, there are lots of moments that mimic aspects of the gameplay. Anyone familiar with the series will probably spot brief moments alluding to different mechanics from the games (such as the "leap of faith," where an Assassin could jump off a high ledge and land safely in something soft). There is a big chase scene that could easily have been in the games, but also adapted for use in film. One frequent recurring moment in the games is that there are often short portions when the player completes a mission and then has to make their getaway. 

Normally in the games, this is a short but challenging task, where the player often gets chased by enemy guards and then he/she has to lose them. Usually this involves fighting off any who get too close, climbing on buildings, traversing rooftops, and finding good hiding places. The movie contains its own answer to that situation, but instead reworks it into an action scene. Instead of having the characters simply hide until the guards give up, we get a much more extended chase which makes use of different buildings and weapons. It is moments like these that make the transition work, being able to simultaneously replicate elements of the games while also adapting them.

There is, unfortunately, one criticism I would have of this movie. While it is otherwise a fairly well-made adventure film, I feel like there could have been a much stronger effort at gender representation. Most of the video games generally included a strong array of female characters. Two of the games so far, Liberation and Syndicate, even have female protagonists. Even the male-dominated installments usually like to have at least one or two strong women in supporting roles. Across the franchise there have been a number of female assassins both in lead and supporting roles. There have also been a few female Templars across different games.

Aveline de Grandpré, Assassin's Creed's first female protagonist

The Assassin's Creed movie does make an attempt to replicate the strong female characters of the games, but unfortunately it is not as effective as it could be. Much of the film is so heavily focused on Callum Lynch/Aguilar de Nerha that we don't really get to know very much of the supporting cast. It was probably intended for Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cottillard) to be a strong character. But she lacks any real motivation and fails to do much of anything. The other character who seemed promising was a female assassin in the animus sequences named Maria (Ariane Labed). 

She was set up as a competent assassin but the only problem was that while she got a few brief moments to show her skill, the film kept using her as a damsel who had to be saved by Aguilar. There were some brief moments during the chase scene but I would have wanted to get to know her more as a character, and they really should have played up her strengths better. Perhaps a good start would be if she rescued herself from the stake (like Aguilar did) instead of waiting for the male protagonist. From there, they should have given us more time to get to know her as a character.

My final verdict would be that, if you have played the games, Assassins' Creed works alright as a fun, if imperfect, homage to the series that provides an okay model for how to adapt a game to screen (perhaps if it becomes successful it will make way for something better). For everyone else, it is an okay action adventure with some fun ideas and a reasonably straight forward narrative.

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Platoon (Vietnam)

Vietnam may be one of history's most controversial wars. Beginning as a Civil War between the North and South Vietnamese armies, the American Government saw a potential threat to democracy and felt the need to shove their noses into a war that had nothing to do with them. Officially it was a "police action" designed to resolve the conflict quickly but in the end, it only made things much worse than they needed to be. As thousands tried to protest back home, more and more Americans were drafted into service and sent oversees to live in the cold jungles of Vietnam in a hopeless fight against the Viet Cong. One such veteran of this infamous moment of American history was director Oliver Stone, who would try to capture his experiences through his movie Platoon.

Platoon tells the story of a young man named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), ironically a volunteer who enlisted out of a sense of patriotism. But from the beginning it becomes clear they aren't really fighting for anything. The first thing Taylor sees upon arriving is a row of body bags, along with various tired soldiers mockingly welcoming him to "the 'Nam." He hasn't been in the field and already we are getting a sense of what the conflict has in store. Once he gets into the field, the movie shifts focus to the mundane life of a soldier. Before we even see any combat, there is the difficult day-to-day routine of trudging through the jungle, cutting aside vines, and digging foxholes.

In this first act, we are introduced to the three main characters: Taylor, Barnes (Tom Berenger), and Elias (Willem Dafoe), and it is the relationship between these three that drives much of the film. Barnes is quickly established to be a hard commander, known for insulting his soldiers and issuing threats toward anyone who fails to do their job correctly. Elias is slightly less awful, as he is reckless but also tries to do the right thing in a war where that may just be impossible. These two men, with Taylor in the middle, represent the themes of division that drive much of the film. As Taylor notes in the film's conclusion "we didn't fight the enemy. We fought amongst ourselves."

By contrast, the glimpses the film offers of the Viet Cong create the impression that they are organized. Where Elias and Barnes construct what amounts to a Civil War in the platoon, the Viet Cong are shown to be united. They work together seamlessly, coordinating a complex strategy and, if anything, taking advantage of the divisiveness among the Americans. As a result, the VC are able to routinely overpower the Americans in nearly every encounter and inflict heavy casualties. Even when they are finally repelled at the film's conclusion, it is only a temporary victory in a losing war (and still most of the platoon is dead or wounded).

The division in the army becomes especially clear in one sequence when the men approach a small village on a "patrol." They claim to be looking for VC, but their methods make it clear that they are hardly the good guys in this conflict. Their first approach is to interrogate civilians, an act which involves the automatic assumption that they are guilty and trying to beat information out of them ( which proves futile as the civillians in question have no information and don't speak English). This includes charging into people's homes and using their apparent lack of cooperation as an excuse to physically abuse them.

When that fails, Barnes receives orders to destroy the whole village. In doing so, the soldiers go above and beyond, not only shooting civilians but also joking about it. Not only do they set fire to the buildings, but they also make a point of destroying the local food supply and killing livestock. All this because they refused to believe one man's testimony that they were forced into working with the VC. Even worse is the implication that the incident is being covered up. A lieutenant promises an investigation, but reveals privately to Barnes that he will probably get off, and after learning that Elias tried to stop the massacre claims he is a "troublemaker."

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Trumbo (Cold War)

The Cold War was an unusual conflict, both in its day and now. One could debate on whether an actual war happened, as no shots were ever fired (although the Cold War did play a major role in starting the Korean and Vietnam Wars). The "war" was mainly a conflict between ideologies and weapons. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were competing to construct more advanced nuclear weapons. It was also one about different ideologies and paranoia. This was especially true when the Cold War began in 1945. During this time, the American Government was hijacked by a party of right-wing fanatics, not unlike what is currently happening today.

Many of these consertavies Joseph McCarthy being among the most infamous, promoted the idea that communism was a threat to "American values," resulting in a wave of anti-communist propaganda describing non-existent conspiracies and creating a desire to root out communists in America. Men like McCarthy and J. Parnell Thomas began running a series of communist witch-trials in which people were accused of "contempt of congress" without sufficient evidence. Anyone who tried to protest against these so-called trials was automatically labelled a traitor, and the men involved were known to twist the words of defendants to make them sound guilty. Worse still, the only way to get out of being accused was to give other names, people who would in turn be accused of communism.

It is true that there were communists in America at the time, but McCarthy's stories of spies infiltrating America and destroying it from the inside were a fantasy at best. Most communists working at the time would have only supported the ideas of communism (specifically the part about rights for workers) rather than what had actually occurred as a result of Joseph Stalin's actions in Russia.But one did not even have to have the slightest interest in communism to be affected.

During this time, film studios were making deals with a "union" known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) which made backroom deals to keep workers from striking. After several tricks were used to weed representatives from the Conference of Studio Unions (a union which actually supported workers' rights), their leader Herb Sorrell was accused of alleged communist ties which were then used to force out its remaining members. Additionally, being against antisemitism was also equated with being communist, resulting in problems for writers who had made films about the subject.

The Hollywood Ten, screenwriters blacklisted by Hollywood

The result was unemployment, imprisonment, deportation, and in some cases suicide for thousands of Americans. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, actors, writers, directors were blacklisted as communists. This is where one screenwriter by the name of Dalton Trumbo enters the picture. Today, Trumbo is arguably best known as the writer of Roman Holiday and Spartacus, but these were only brief moments in a lengthy and dangerous career. Trumbo was a member of the American Communist Party, as well as an advocate for the rights of workers before he was blacklisted. But he would not only fight the blacklist, he went on to defy and challenge it.

It is this complex story that makes up the biopic Trumbo, a story about the blacklist with a particular emphasis on its role in Hollywood but relating it to a much larger issue. Here we see the question of what it means to be patriotic and what it means to be a traitor? How far can one go to defend their rights? And where does security end and oppression begin? These are all questions the viewer is left to face as they are forced to navigate the confusing crossfire of Cold War politics. Throughout, we are left to question who the real threats are.

From the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Trumbo's work as a screenwriter, complete with a strange motif that recurs throughout- his unusual choice to work in a bathtub. Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) is more or less a normal person working as a writer in Hollywood and trying to do his best for his family. Unfortunately, his communist ties quickly draw unwanted attention in the aftermath of World War II. The role of communist paranoia is mainly symbolized by real-life actress-turned right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who becomes the face of the imaginary conspiracies she promotes.

But Hedda is not alone in her quest to stamp out the imaginary threat of communism. She also has support from actor John Wayne, as well as the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), the government organization which would over see the anti-communist trials that would soon be coming. Hedda is quickly shown to be a bully when she begins using her press connections to promote anti-communist sentiment. We see Trumbo trying to enjoy himself at a movie theater, only to see a newsreel accusing several actors of communist ties in addition to himself. Afterwards, he finds himself greeted by a mean viewer who pours a drink on him and calls him a "traitor."

Trumbo is hardly a man to take this lightly. As annoying as the accusations are, he still continues to fight and devises a plan to work through the different levels of congress, hoping he can eventually reach a liberal majority who will listen. He tries to promote HUAC's actions as anti-American, appealing to the First Amendment (freedom of speech) but this proves unsuccessful. Not only do Wayne and Hopper work hard to make him look bad, but the studio executives are more interested in the seemingly more profitable government agendas.

At this point, Trumbo is facing problems along with several other screenwriters. Among the others is Arlen Heard (Louis C.K.), who struggles with being accused while also dealing with lung cancer. This is only a small sample of the people who would face blacklisting, and what we see here is only the beginning. Eventually, Trumbo receives a note saying that he is to answer to HUAC, leading to a montage of sequences depicting the hearings. All of these are shot in black and white, mimicking actual footage of HUAC trials, even replicating some of the same camera angles. As we move specifically into Trumbo's session, the scene fades into colour, but it is hopeless.

Trumbo tries to answer the questions, but still finds himself labelled a traitor. This is after he notes several reasons why the trial is unconstitutional, including a lack of evidence (as well as the prosecutor's refusal to present any) and noting that J. Parnell Thomas (James Dumont) has used his power to place family members in position of authority, none of whom are paying taxes. Ironically, Thomas is later convicted for tax evasion and sent to the same prison as Trumbo, and yet his initial ruling stays in place. As Trumbo notes, Thomas was the one who actually committed a crime. This is hardly any comfort, with Trumbo being ostracized by many of the prisoners and only able to find work the delivery service.

When he finally gets out of jail, Trumbo suddenly has to deal with a changing world. He returns home to find his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) who was a little girl when he left is now a teenager, an early visual cue towards the changes that take place. Unfortunately, his reunion is only a small amount of optimism in a cold world. While in prison, we hear a radio broadcast in which HUAC questions the actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), previously loyal friend of Trumbo who now finds himself under pressure to give names. He finds himself unable to resist, and ends up labeling Trumbo as a communist. This only makes things worse when he and his family try to move, only to find their new home vandalized by neighbors.

But this alone is not enough to stop Trumbo, much as Hopper tries to destroy him throughout the film. Before going to prison, Trumbo continues to fight against the blacklist, even if he is unable to do so openly. It is not an easy fight, and it is one that threatens his personal relationships. He finds himself fighting more often with Arlen, and also becomes to have a more strained relationship with his family. We see that as he struggles to confront the blacklist, he becomes more distant from his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and Nikola. It takes a long time for him to realize how far he has gone, and when he does it is a difficult journey to fix it.

Even so, Trumbo has managed to defy the blacklist so far. Before he goes to prison, he devises a plan with screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), which involves the latter taking credit for his script and then sharing the profits, with the film being eventually released as Roman Holiday. After getting out of prison, Trumbo begins setting up an intricate network for ghost writing. He starts by making an arrangement in which he writes under different names for the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), eventually hiring other blacklisted writers to join him. This does take care of his financial problems, but there are still other problems. Trumbo is unable to create anything worthwhile and the need for a constant output of screenplays strains relations with his family.

That is of course, until Trumbo decides to make a daring gamble. He writes a screenplay called The Brave One, which becomes a huge hit and even wins an Oscar. Hopper of course finds out and tries to bring an end to his career, making efforts to force the King Brothers to fire him. Unfortunately for her, HUAC is beginning to lose their power, and she almost gets beaten to death with a baseball bat. As we can see, McCarthyism is nearing its end. And he is not the only one fighting the blacklist either. Near the end of the 1950's, Trumbo finds approached by two big names: Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), both of whom want him to edit a script for them. He is given the task of working on two screenplays: Spartacus and Exodus (both released in 1960).

It is also here that Trumbo is faced with a final daring but ultimately important gamble: revealing himself. Historically, Spartacus and Exodus both gained huge controversies for including Trumbo's name in the credits instead of an alias. Hopper becomes furious when she learns that Trumbo has still been working, and even attempts to orchestrate boycotts for Spartacus which almost get its funding pulled. Still, her power is weakened, and Douglas is able to blackmail the studio executives into finishing the project. When it finally comes out, Trumbo has the honor of seeing his name in the credits for the first time in a decade, and the blacklist finally starts to come to an end when Spartacus receives an endorsement from President John F. Kennedy.

The movie ends with a speech performed by Trumbo in 1970, where he looks back at the Blacklist. He explains that HUAC's actions and the blacklist affected everyone, and different people were forced to react in their own way. Some tried to maintain their values, others felt they had no choice but to protect themselves by giving names. Regardless, Trumbo reminds us that his story is only one of thousands of people affected by the blacklisted it inspired. He may have ultimately recovered, but there were many who never did. The film may focus on Trumbo, but it is really about the thousands of Americans whose lives were forever changed by the Cold War.