Thursday, 28 July 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: World War I

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is World War I, or The Great War as it was called at the time (seeing as World War II hadn't happened yet). There are plenty of stories regarding the men who died in the trenches, with casualties numbering well into the millions on all sides. While the groundwork for World War I had been laid down over the previous decade, mainly in the form of different countries attempting to build empires, it is usually said to have started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and concluded in 1918 with the treaty of Versailles. Those four years saw a new kind of war. Technological advancements produced new weapons. Tanks and airplanes were used for the first time.

The most insulting part of the war, however, was that nobody learned from it. After "winning" (if you can call it that), World War I concluded with the Treaty of Versailles, in which all participants were on the same side. The negotiations were a joke, and in the end they concluded that Germany was to blame, and that it should be punished. Over the following years, the German economy was destroyed (though it did manage to run a successful film industry), Anti-Semitism overpowered rational thought, and there was a strong desire for a leader who could restore the country. Not surprisingly, this created the perfect opportunity for Adolf Hitler to take over and begin a global military campaign. In other words, World War I was directly responsible for World War II.

Now unsurprisingly, this is an area I have plenty of experience in, having studied World War I and many of those who fought in it. In fact, the Canadian Ace Billy Bishop was something of an idol to me in Middle School. I've also seen a lot of war films. As far as Hollywood is concerned, World War I has been greatly overshadowed by World War II, and it is harder to find a good selection of films. Still, there have been some beautifully made films dealing with World War I, and I am here to share three of them.

Paths of Glory (1957)

There are few movies that manage to so effectively capture the pointlessness and futility of war like Stanley Kubrick's fourth feature film. When it first premiered, it sparked such a huge controversy it's amazing Kubrick even managed to find work afterwards. It sparked a huge backlash and was banned in both France and Germany. While the plot is straight forward enough, it is executed so effectively to stir every possible emotion. The battle scenes alone are beautifully shot, and that's not even getting into the court-case that drives most of the narrative (which is also very effective in showing the ways in which people die for nothing). In watching a film like this, one is forced to ask a lot of questions, especially what exactly it means to be a "coward."

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Okay, so I'm cheating with this one. However, that does not stop Monty Python from presenting a very... unusual interpretation of World War I, while still emphasizing the futility of the whole conflict through the use of dark humor. In this case, the focus is on a small group of soldiers who try to with their Sergeant a Happy Birthday while under fire, going as far as to make him a cake and present him with gifts. Of course, as the sketch goes on, shots fly, and members of the squad fall. Eventually, the situation becomes so hopeless that the Sergeant finally decides to try to ignore the enemy's attack and enjoy what he can while he's still standing.

Passchendaele (2005)

As should be clear from the title, Paul Gross's directorial debut gives us one of the most devastating and tragic battles of the war. Like much of World War I, thousands of Canadian and German soldiers were killing each other over land. What made this battle different was the terrain. The Canadian soldiers fighting here didn't even have the cover of trenches, and had to traverse deep mud in order to survive. Gross's film shows the brutality of World War I at this moment as seen through the eyes of three protagonists: two soldiers and an army nurse. While some have criticized the romantic aspect of the story, few can deny the visual impact once the film reaches its climax.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Ideas for All-Female Reboots

There's a lot of talk these days regarding the release of the all-female Ghostbusters. I can understand the reasoning behind doing this. The original film wasn't exactly known for its strong female characters. The lack of female ghostbusters aside, the only two women were Dana (who serves as a love interest and damsel in distress) and Janine (who was kind of irritating and really contributed nothing to the story when you think about it). I mean you get Sigourney Weaver (you know, Ellen Ripley, who is widely considered one of the strongest female characters in the history of film) to sign onto your film and the best role you can get for her is the damsel in distress who has to be rescued by a bunch of men. There are also the obvious implications of the fact that they chose to make her the love interest for the one member of the team who was an obvious pervert. The real bizarre choice was to respond to people's criticisms by also making an all-male version (even though that already happened, it was the original Ghostbusters).

Anyway, this appears to be a new trend, with some strange talk of an all-female Ocean's Eleven, which was a somewhat more surprising decision. It definitely would not have been my first choice, as I was under the impression there actually were important female characters in that movie. Still, from what I have read, the actual heist is conducted mostly if not entirely by men so this might not be totally unjustified; though it would probably be easier to just make an original film. Maybe instead, someone could draw inspiration from Ocean's Eleven in order to write a new all-female heist film. I don't know, maybe I should actually see Ocean's Eleven before I comment on this one. There was also talk of an all-female Expendables (though I still don't understand why they couldn't have had a mixed-gender team from the beginning).

Now, I haven't seen the all-female Ghostbusters yet. In fact, I haven't even found time to look at any reviews. As a result, I can't exactly comment one way or another on the quality of the film. However, what I can do is have some fun with the new trend that appears to forming, and I don't see any sign of it stopping soon. It looks like Hollywood is interested in all-female reboots of iconic movie franchises. Why don't we give them some more ideas...

Dirty Harry

There actually was a female Dirty Harry. Her name was Megan Turner, and she was the star of Kathryn Bigelow's underrated film Blue Steel, but that's not what we're going for here. Dirty Harry had next to no female characters (and nearly all of the few who did appear were murder victims) so perhaps we should flip that around. We could get perhaps Natalie Portman to appear as the iconic anti-hero who refuses to play by the rules. Then we could find someone known for playing more heroic roles, like Anne Hathaway, to take on the role of the killer Scorpio who is killing men while demanding money. For added measure, we could throw in Mary Elizabeth Mastriantonio as the police chief, and perhaps Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Harry's partner Gonzales.

Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino's breakthrough film already has enough of a fanbase to guarantee the financial success of a reboot, though admittedly it would be hard to perfectly replicate the mounting tension that makes it so effective. In the right hands, though, an all-female version could still be interesting to see attempted. Perhaps Sigourney Weaver could play Joe Cabot, then we'd need a few actresses who could cut their hair. Jennifer Connelly could play Ms. White, with Rachel McAdams co-starring as the unfortunate Ms. Orange, and Marion Cotillard as the psychotic Ms. Blonde.

 Die Hard

For this one, we could have Uma Thurman star as NYPD cop Joan McClane, who is visiting her estranged husband only to get mixed up in what appears to be a terrorist operation (that is actually a cleverly disguised heist). The terrorists would of course be led by Hanna Gruber, perhaps played by Emma Watson, with Noomi Rapace as her psychotic henchwoman Kay. Also co-starring would be Rosario Dawson as Alice, Joan's friend on the force with whom she communicates by radio. Then for good measure we could find an older actress to make an appearance as Deputy Chief Diane T. Robinson, I was thinking someone like Jane Fonda would be good.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Sergio Leone wasn't always the most effective when it came to female roles, though that didn't stop him from making some amazing westerns. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was already remade once in the form of the strange Korean film The Good, the Bad, the Weird, though to be fair A Fistful of Dollars was already a remake of Yojimbo, so technically remaking The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly wouldn't be that huge of a stretch. For the most part, there wouldn't even need to be anything changed regarding the roles of each of the main characters if they were to be gender-swapped. For Blondie ("the Good"), we'd need someone who can really capture that sense of the honorable anti-hero, I'm thinking Jessica Chastain would be a good choice. Sharon Stone already proved she can play the cold gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead, making her an ideal choice for Angel Eyes ("The Bad"). Finally, we'd need someone who can play comic relief to fill out the role of Tuco. ("the Ugly") Perhaps this time we could cast an actual Mexican in the role, someone like Salma Hayek.

The Magnificent Seven

This classic western has indeed been imitated far too many times to count, and it was itself a remake of Seven Samurai, so it's not like seeing it redone again would hurt. This time, of course, we'd have a team of female gunslingers from different backgrounds being pulled together to protect a Mexican town from a vicious outlaw and her gang of killers, although I would probably try to place some focus on the people other than Chris, Vin, and Chico (who I found were really the only ones who got any particular depth of character). We'd need a solid team of actresses to fill this role. I'm thinking we could have Sandra Bullock filling the shoes of Yul Brynner, with Angelina Jolie taking on Steve McQueen's drifter and Hailee Steinfeld as the young gunslinger trying to prove herself. Then for good measure, perhaps Kiera Knightley to take on the role of the vicious outlaw.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Star Wars Canon in Relation to the Upcoming Films

The internet is full of talk related to the upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, the latest installment of what has become the third wave of Star Wars films; the first two of course being the classic trilogy beginning in 1977, and the prequel trilogy starting in 2001. In between waves, there has been a lot of Star Wars-related material in the form of the expanded universe. It is easy, for instance, to forget that George Lucas was also involved in several television productions between films. These included the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, The Ewok Adventure, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, the Ewoks and Droids cartoon shows, and both Clone Wars animated series. Aside from the work of Lucas himself, there was an abundance of novels, video games, comics, and at least one TV series (Star Wars: Rebels) which have aimed to expand on the Star Wars universe.

One of the few negative reactions toward the release of The Force Awakens was that the expanded universe was no longer official canon. This would arguably have been a practical choice on the part of J.J. Abrams, as it allowed greater creative freedom, although it does present a very different account of what happened after the films.The various novels set after Return of the Jedi placed a heavy emphasis on the New Jedi Order formed by Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia have twins: Jacen and Jaina, who both grow up to become Jedi knights (though the former somehow becomes evil) alongside Chewbacca's son Lowbacca, and a few original characters, while Luke goes on to be romantically involved with an Imperial Defector named Mara Jade. There was also an invasion by a race of aliens known as the Yuuzhan Vong from another galaxy.

This is of course very different from what was shown in The Force Awakens, in which Han and Leia are only identified as having a son, Ben (in the expanded universe, Ben was the name of Luke's son). However, they never say if Ben was their only child, which leaves open the possibility that we may learn of others in later films. One possible outcome could be that Rey is their daughter, perhaps even Ben's twin if Abrams wanted to parallel the original trilogy.

More annoying is that the expanded universe generally contained favored heterosexual relationships. While there was often an extraordinary effort to improve representations of both women and non-caucasians compared to the classic and prequel trilogy, there is next to nothing when it comes to sexual diversity. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, among the countless books, video games, comics, spin-off shows, and other material with stories that offered a detailed history of the Star Wars Universe (which spans several thousand years both before and after Lucas's trilogies), there has been a grand total of one openly gay character: Juhani in Knights of the Old Republic.

Even then, her sexuality was mostly implied through innuendo and the romance she can engage in with a female player was generally ignored (for some stupid reason, it was decided that the "official" version of events was that Revan was a man who engaged in a heterosexual relationship). This is also very ironic given that BioWare had no problem depicting homosexual relationships in its later games, most famously the Mass Effect series which (at least in its later installments) offered both homosexual and heterosexual options for romance, leaving the player to determine Shepard's sexual orientation.

Of course, this is something that J.J. Abrams hopes to rectify. Already popular is the idea of Finn and Poe Dameron becoming a romantic couple. It's also not impossible that Rey could be a lesbian, seeing as she shows no sexual interest in any of the cast (her most intimate moment arguably being a hug from Leia at the film's end) and makes the very specific remark of "none of your business" in response to being asked if she has a boyfriend. Even more interestingly, while it was probably not the original intention of George Lucas, these developments have given room for speculation on the sexuality of Luke Skywalker himself.

While Mark Hamill has generally refrained from providing a clear answer (preferring that audiences draw their own conclusions), he does seem to have no trouble with the idea of Luke being gay or bisexual, and it is plausible within the canon. After all, Luke has virtually no romance in the original films. Leia is obviously intended to be his love interest in A New Hope, at least until it turns out in Return of the Jedi that she's his sister, at which point any sexual tension between them disappears.

There is a large number of characters for whom this same reasoning could be theoretically be applied, leaving a fairly large cast of people whose sexuality could retroactively be detailed. In fact, if one disregards the novels set after Return of the Jedi (which is no longer official canon anyway), then there are only four people across the entire saga who are explicitly straight: Anakin, Padme, Leia, and Han (although this does not automatically rule out the possibility that any of them could in fact be bisexual).

There was still a large assortment of other members of the cast for whom this approach could theoretically be used. For instance, it could theoretically be applied to almost any of the Jedi who appeared across the films (Anakin being the only exception, unless we're assuming he's really bisexual). Obi-Wan has no romantic entanglements over the course of the saga (although some expanded universe material alludes to prior affairs), so who's to say he can't be gay. Same arguably for Mace Windu or Yoda, or really any Jedi who appears across the prequel trilogy (the fact that the Order is supposed to avoid personal attachments arguably makes this even easier, as it has kept a lot of official material from detailing their sex lives).

This line of reasoning may not be as useful to the classic trilogy, although it could be applied to Luke. The other major role who for whom it could possibly work is Lando Calrissian. In fact, Lando may be even more likely. After all, we did see Luke briefly engaging in a romantic relationship (even if he had to break it off because he found out he was in love with his sister). The only clue to Lando's sexuality is a few off-hand remarks he directs toward Leia when she arrives at Cloud City. However, after this point, Lando shows virtually no sexual interest towards Leia, even working with her in Return of the Jedi as nothing more than a friend. Assuming Lando didn't admit outright to it, his remarks could be interpreted as mere products of his own repressed sexuality.

The other notable change is that, like in the expanded universe, Luke does attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order... except it gets destroyed all over again when Kylo Ren joins the First Order, with Luke and presumably anyone else who survived going into hiding, along with (presumably) anyone who survived Order 66. The New Republic, a crucial driving force in the expanded universe novels, is only shown briefly and quickly destroyed, leaving only the resistance to stand against the First Order (which itself is original to the film).

Of course, this is hardly to say the expanded universe was ever perfect. There were plenty of contradictions, errors, changes in characters, and other details that can be expected from so many writers being involved. When making the Clone Wars cartoon, there was a decision to introduce a new female character: Anakin's padawan Ahsoka Tano. While Tano may have worked as a strong character, her status as Anakin's student does contradict the events of Revenge of the Sith, in which not only was there no sign that this padawan existed, Anakin was explicitly refused a promotion to "master," which would make it seem unlikely that he could have had an apprentice between films.

Several video games were based on branching storylines. Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel (which both went on to become a huge influence on many later RPGs, such as Mass Effect and Fallout) were structured in a way that presented a different experience for different players. The game begins with the player customizing their protagonist, complete with the option to choose sex. The overall story was then designed so that it would be affected by the player's choices, which in turn determined whether they ended up on the light or dark side.

Doing the math, a game like Knights of the Old Republic would have at least four different endings, not to mention the details of the story may also vary depending on the players' choices at different stages of the game, such as the romances (which may not even appear at all). Yet, it was still found necessary to construct a "canon" version of events. Someone was apparently allowed t
o arbitrarily decide which version of the story was correct.

It was then chosen that Revan (the player character) was a light-sided male who was romantically involved with Bastilla, much to the frustration of anyone who played the game as a female Revan, turned to the dark side, and/or avoided the romances entirely (or opted for the homoerotic relationship with Juhani). In short, they took a game that was designed to present different experiences, and said that anyone who did it differently from them was wrong.

Another frequent problem is that sometimes multiple works depict the same events. Now this is not always an issue. The period between Episodes III and IV has been addressed in at least two different animated series: the short-lived cartoon Star Wars: Droids and, more recently, Rebels. Rebels is still considered canon, while Droids isn't officially part of the Star Wars timeline. The shows themselves are very different in structure, with Rebels focusing more directly on the fight against the Empire (though it is indirectly featured in a few episodes Droids, most notably towards the end when the Empire becomes a recurring antagonist).

The ambiguous status of Droids is strange as it may in fact be possible to connect it to Rebels if one examines the timeline. Assuming that the "official" explanation to reconcile the ending of Revenge of the Sith with the events of Droids prior to the redesigned canon (that Bail Organa lost the droids and later found them again) is correct, there is a very easy timeline that connects the story of Droids directly to the Rebels episode Droids in Distress. It goes something like this:

  • Revenge of the Sith- Bail Organa is entrusted with C-3PO and R2-D2.
  • At some point, something happens that results in R2 and C-3PO getting "lost." 
  • After losing Bail Organa, R2 and C-3PO end up in the hands of a smuggler, one who ditches them when they are forced to dump their cargo, thus starting the first episode of Droids.
  • the Droids cartoon happens, with R2 and C-3PO experiencing their various adventures. Towards the end, they have several run-ins with Imperial Forces
  • Sometime after the final episode of the cartoon, C-3PO and R2-D2 are captured for their role in thwarting the Empire during the events of Droids. C-3PO is reprogrammed for Imperial service.
  • This in turn sets up the Rebels episode Droids in Distress, in which Hera and her crew manage to rescue the two droids and return them to Bail Organa, which in turn allows them to be present at the beginning of A New Hope.
However, not every discrepancy can be resolved so easily. The upcoming spin-off Rogue One promises to show the theft of the Death Star plans between episodes III and IV. However, before Rogue One, there were at least nine different accounts of how it happened, many of which conflicted with one another. The Star Wars games X-Wing, Dark Forces, Battlefront II, Empire at War, Lethal Alliance, and The Force Unleashed all provide conflicting accounts of how the plans were actually stolen. Dark Forces claims it was the work of Kyle Katarn, while Lethal Alliance shows that his only role in the operation was hiring Twi'lek mercenary Rianna Saren (who was actually responsible for stealing the plans). Both those games treat it as a heist, while Battlefront II claims they were actually stolen during a prison break.

Understandably, this causes some confusion regarding what actually happened. The "official" explanation was that the various operations only recovered parts of the Death Star plans, and that the schematics depicted in A New Hope were formed by combining several different pieces. However, this explanation is hardly supported by any of the conflicting stories it is attempting to reconcile, most of which imply that each operative recovered all the blueprints rather than pieces of one. The production of Rogue One will arguably bring an end to this confusion, as it will present a definitive "official" version of what happened.

Now with the new movies, it is true that the expanded universe is no longer official canon, being labelled as "legends." This has the advantage that audiences can now be selective in determining what is canon. For instance, I can say that female Revan is 100% canon and nobody can stop me. No doubt that some attempts will still be made to reconcile old and new canon (such as the above-mentioned link between Droids and Rebels), especially now that the only "official" canon is made up of the seven movies, Rogue One, The Clone Wars, and Rebels, with everything else being open to interpretation.

This is not to say, of course, that there is anything wrong with the new timeline. The Force Awakens displays a very strong effort to fix the issues of representation displayed in the films produced by George Lucas (which are very much dominated by heterosexual white men; even in the prequel trilogy most of the women are either background or supporting roles). This is merely taking note of the ways in which things have changed over time.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Love, Friendship, and Incoherence

Okay, so what's our role in this film again?

A few of my friends decided to go see a movie, and we put it to a vote to see which one. We tried to find what was playing and came up with a list of several films. We quickly ruled out Warcraft and a few others, and somehow we ended up settling on Love and Friendship. It was something of an odd choice seeing as there was a grand total of one person in the group who seemed interested in seeing it. At that point, I didn't know much else beyond the title. Apparently it's based on an unpublished Jane Austin novel from early in her career.

Of course, I didn't know that until it was explained to me, seeing as I know very little of Austin's writing. While it is admirable that a woman managed to run a fairly successful writing career during the Victorian Era, her work never seemed that interesting to me, most if not all of it being made up of tragic romances set against the backdrop of Victorian aristocracy. Of course, I'm not here to criticize an author I've never read. I'm here to look at one particular film adaptation. Unfortunately, while it does make an attempt at an unusual structure and to avoid coming off as a film made to win Oscars, there are a few things to be said regarding its narrative, as I will explain below.

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is an American "exile" who delights in manipulating everyone around her. This being set in the regency, she has developed skills in discreetly controlling others in her life in order to gain power. She also has a daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) who she is purportedly caring for even though she's really interested in exploiting her. One day, they are visited by a bumbling aristocrat named Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a well-intentioned idiot who wants to marry Frederica. She is reluctant to become engaged so quickly, so Susan begins trying to bring them together and later marries him herself. Some stuff happens, a few questionable remarks related to women are shared, and an assortment of relationships are formed and destroyed.

That was the extent of the plot I managed to draw from Love and Friendship. This brings me to the largest problem with the film: it makes no sense. While I can't speak for the five or six other people we shared the theater with, I can say that this impression was shared among my friends. We had an interesting discussion while leaving the theater, in which we found that none of us could agree on what the actual story was. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and as the film went on, we generally got totally lost and had trouble telling who was who. In fact, it was hard even to keep track of which people any of us meant to refer to when trying to make sense of the film's incoherent narrative.

To make matters worse, the relationships among the large cast proved integral to the narrative. That seemed like a very bad sign when none of us could even figure out what the relations were between everyone. There are several romantic sub-plots and family-related stories, only it is impossible to keep track of who is engaged with who. There is an especially confusing sub-plot in which a teenager is upset because her husband is apparently having an affair, only I couldn't figure out who was supposed to be the husband (talking to my friends after, he apparently remained entirely off-screen). Then of course there are sudden changes in character that make the timeline of events especially confusing.

The movie also proved to be confusing in terms of what it was. It felt like it was generally trying to be a period piece, only there were the really strange comedic moments that seemed to go against this (particularly whenever the over-the-top Lord James enters). Some of the audience was laughing, and it seemed confusing whether the film was trying to be funny or serious. Was this supposed to be a drama or a comedy? Whatever it was, I would say the dramatic and funny moments don't go very well together, and as amusing as Lord James could get, his strange personality was really out of place in the otherwise grounded environment.

Love and Friendship is one you can avoid at the theater. It remains nothing more than an incoherent mess which is impossible to follow. Unless you want to be totally confused, or spend the time afterward with your friends trying hopelessly to figure out what the actual plot of the movie is, it's not worth your time. After watching this movie, I found I came out not even understanding what the actual narrative was supposed to be. In fact, while we tried desperately to explain the relationships between the film's large cast we found that no one seemed to know (one admitted to have "given up the story entirely") what actually happened.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Modern Warfare and the Media

War has changed a lot over the years, and with it, so has its representations in the media. Media has long been used as a tool by which to promote views, both positive and negative, of the military and its involvement in various conflicts. As early as World War I, there were propaganda films encouraging men to join the army and go find glory in destroying the alleged German menace. World War II saw several different forms of propaganda films around the world. Hollywood's entry into the war resulted in not only a wide variety of feature films (most notably the combat film), but also serials (Why We Fight) and animated shorts from Walt Disney (An Education for Death), all of which aimed to provide incentive for the general public to enlist. On the opposite side, the Nazis produced a variety of their own propaganda films, most famously Triumph of the Will, which tried to promote their cause.

However, somewhere around Vietnam, things started to change. There were very few films made during the war, and only one true propaganda film (The Green Berets). Nearly every film that has been made afterwards has depicted Vietnam in a negative light, often drawing attention to the high casualties, miserable living conditions faced by American soldiers, and generally treating it as a futile war which the U.S. should never have entered to begin with. This pattern has continued, and while propaganda still exists, it mostly remains in advertisements. This has not, however, prevented the media from taking an interest in modern wars, and the ways in which war has changed as a result of new developments.

The subject of modern warfare has been tackled in a variety of films including, though not limited to, Jarhead, Black Hawk DownCourage Under Fire, G.I. JaneHome of the Brave, The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, and Eye in the Sky. It has also been shown in several TV shows, such as Combat Hospital. Several video games have also taken an interest, such as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and Operation: Flashpoint. The exact treatment of war and its accuracy varies across different stories, although most do try to avoid glamorizing it. Even Call of Duty likes to place an emphasis on the high casualties, sometimes going as far as to have the player be among them.

Accurately representing modern warfare has been another matter entirely. To the best of my knowledge, Paul Gross's Hyena Road remains one of the most accurate attempts to dramatize a modern conflict (unsurprising, as Gross himself actually visited Afghanistan and accompanied soldiers in the field). With other films, it is harder to say. When The Hurt Locker was released, it sparked a wave of controversy in terms of its depiction of EOD activities in Iraq. Some were quick to dismiss the film as unrealistic, usually pointing to the actions of its protagonist, while others claimed it was fairly true to real life.

On the other hand, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is not in fact an accurate representation. Although the game is called Modern Warfare, the series refrains from using any real conflicts; instead focusing on a non-existant Civil War in Russia that somehow escalates into a full-scale invasion of the United States at the start of Modern Warfare 3. In short, the narrative is structured in a manner more closely resembling World War II than any actual modern conflict. This in itself isn't surprising, seeing as Call of Duty started out focusing on various campaigns of World War II before trying something new with Modern Warfare and moving into science fiction with Black Ops and the upcoming Infinite Warfare.

There are a lot of details ignored in the games. One notable example is that real-life modern warfare hardly consists of the level of action featured in Call of Duty. Across all three games, the player is quickly thrown into a series of dangerous situations. Usually, they move from one battlefield to the next, taking out several enemies along the way and never getting much of a break. In reality, the actual situations of combat would be isolated moments, with large stretches of time in between. It's actually not that unusual now for some soldiers to go through an entire tour without ever once leaving their base.

If Call of Duty wanted to accurately represent modern warfare, most of the game would instead be focused on the player being stationed at an army camp and waiting for something to happen, receiving short missions once in a while, and then returning. It would be more reminiscent of Jarhead than Black Hawk Down. The former provides a solid illustration of the tediousness that often comes with modern warfare. Much of it involves basically waiting for something to happen. Swofford never gets his assignment, something surprisingly true of many soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when he starts to get anywhere near the action at the film's end, it's only a series of short moments in between long and tedious sessions at the camp.

In this sense, The Hurt Locker comes much closer to showing modern warfare realistically than Call of Duty. While the danger is always present, it isn't as straight forward as taking out the enemy. We see this in the tensions between the three protagonists James (Jeremy Renner), Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The biggest threat in most of the film is the possibility of hidden bombs, rather than enemy soldiers that can be taken out. In fact, for much of the film, the "terrorists" remain unseen, only appearing when they are visible to James and his partners (and even then, the viewer is often denied a clear view of them).

There are very few scenes in which James has to deal with any enemies. In one notable instance, he and Sanborn have to outwit a sniper, though this is hardly the chaos one would see in Call of Duty. Instead of aiming and taking the shot, the film draws out the sniper duel, emphasizing the slow waiting that is required to make a precise hit. Only one shot is ever fired at a time, and they all occur in between drawn-out shots of Sanborn and James trying to aim the rifle.

Later in the same film, James is investigating a bombing at a gas station, and correctly deduces roughly where the insurgents responsible would have been operating from. In Call of Duty, this would have been a whole level, in which the player would be responsible for tracking down the terrorists. Instead, Sanborn and Eldridge rightly point out that chasing them is reckless and irresponsible, and James' attempt to do what could easily have happened in Call of Duty results in Eldridge being shot.

One of the biggest issues affecting media depicting modern warfare is representation, especially towards women. We are living in an era where women are becoming integrated into the military and becoming an active role, yet there are few stories that actually show women in the field. Hyena Road and Eye in the Sky remain exceptions to the rule, although the former is still male-dominated. According to Gross himself, he actually struggled to find a way to fit a female character into his film while being realistic (although it's legal, no women have yet managed to enter the Canadian sniper corps). He eventually resolved this by having a female base commander and having female officers appear in small supporting roles.

Meanwhile, the degree to which this has been present in other films has varied. American Sniper does show men and women working together, though the female soldiers depicted serve as nothing more than extras, with a lot of the film focusing on the all-male Navy SEAL team. Zero Dark Thirty also depicts an all-male team of Navy SEALs, though it addresses the issue by having a woman gather the intelligence that allows their mission to happen. G.I. Jane serves as a notable exception, as the plot hinges on a woman proving her worth as a U.S. Navy SEAL (something which was supposed to happen this year, still no word on that).

This is not even getting into the misogyny of films like Alien Outpost, a Battle: Los Angeles-esque invasion film which lacks even one actress playing so much as an extra. This is even though it is set in a near future where having female soldiers would make sense. There is no logical reason why this film had to be an all-male cast. If anything, given its subject matter, having a few female characters could have made it more effective. Even though the trailer's narration refers to "everyone" becoming a soldier, the director apparently could not be bothered to cast one woman in his film. Alien Outpost provides a perfect example of how bad this issue has gotten.

Battle: Los Angeles has a strange way of getting around this problem: it begins focusing on an all-male platoon of marines, before introducing Tech Sgt. Elena Santos part-way through. Even though the film quickly accepts her as one of the marines, it still insists on explaining that she is a stranded member of the Air Force who runs into them, rather than allowing her to be a marine from the start. Courage Under Fire also attempts to address the issue by having a female chopper pilot who takes action in the field... only to have her die before the film even begins and have the story instead focus on an all-male cast describing her actions.

Although it claims to be dealing with Modern Warfare, there is not one female soldier to be seen in those Call of Duty games, nor in Ghosts, even though in all of them it would make complete sense. This is especially ironic when one considers that they actually did have a female playable character, Tanya Pavelovna, in Call of Duty: Finest Hour, which takes place during World War II, and yet when they moved into a more modern setting it took twelve games before the developers even allowed the player to choose their character's sex in multiplayer mode, let alone feature female soldiers in the actual campaign.

Three games purporting to be on "modern warfare" and they couldn't so much as allow the player to choose their character's sex. This is also annoying as one easy way of fixing this problem would be to take advantage of the first-person interface and have the player be gender-neutral. It would be easy enough to do: the majority of player characters in Call of Duty are never seen and don't speak. Call of Duty; Modern Warfare almost manages to pull this off, too. Most of the game sees the player controlling a figure known as "Soap" MacTavish, whose face is never shown and whose voice is never heard.

Theoretically, one could play the entirety of Modern Warfare imagining Soap as a woman (and as it happens I did, even going as far as to try to share my vision in a short fanfiction)... if only they'd made a few small changes to the dialogue. All it would have taken to make the character gender-neutral would be to write the script to avoid any gender-specific pronouns. Furthermore, it would have done good if Soap hadn't been given a first name and a face in the later games, ruining whatever image a player of the first Modern Warfare may have come up with. To make matters worse, the later games appear to go out of their way to ensure the player understands their character is male, even though all it would take is an androgynous name and to write the script to avoid gender-specific pronouns.

It has become apparent that for all the efforts to depict modern warfare, the media still has a long way to go. It seems to be hard to find films that truly capture the changing nature of modern warfare: Hyena Road and The Hurt Locker being notable exceptions. We are failing to recognize the changing nature of the military. Would it really have hurt the developers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Operation Flashpoint to show female soldiers, or for the developers of Medal of Honor: Warfighter to allow players to choose the sex of their characters? Would it really have hurt the director of Alien Outpost to cast a woman in one of the leading roles? These all seem like questions worth addressing. If the media is going to try to show modern warfare, than they should start to do it right.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: Astronauts

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is astronauts. This is an area I'm very prolific in, being an experienced science fiction writer and having a long history with the genre. That seems simple enough. The only problem is deciding which three to select for this theme. I've got so many to choose from. It's hard to narrow it down to three, but I've got to find something.

Destination Moon (1951)

If we're going to be discussing astronauts, what better place to start than to look at the original astronaut film. George Pal's Destination Moon is often labelled as the film which really launched the science fiction film. By today's standards, it might not seem like that great a film. The story is pretty thin, and serves mainly as an excuse to provide what amounts to an hour and a half lecture about space travel. However, in its day, this was radical. Pal was one of the first to realize that audiences were interested in the possibilities of space travel and science. They even brought in then-acclaimed author Robert Heinlein to ensure the film was realistic (the effects are a bit dated, but most of the science holds up pretty well). Also worth noting is that Destination Moon was made almost twenty years before the actual moon landing, and they fact that they came as close as they did to predicting what would actually happen is quite impressive.

The Right Stuff (1983)

To continue the theme I set in motion with Destination Moon, it seemed appropriate to also include a movie about some of the first astronauts. Okay, technically this film is about the first American astronauts (the first person in space was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who entered orbit in 1961) but it does deal with the beginnings of space exploration. There is a lot of ground covered in this film, which begins with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and ends just before the start of the Apollo Missions.

Gravity (2013)

This may seem like an obvious choice, but it is a very well-made film. It obviously draws on a lot of older science fiction movies, with plenty of references, homages, and inside jokes (fun fact: look in the background when Ryan is on the ISS; at one point you can see a picture of the famous shot from A Trip to the Moon). It is definitely a tense film, but also one that reflects a very different view of space travel. Unlike the more adventurous tones of Destination Moon or The Right Stuff, Gravity puts heavy emphasis on the less glamorous side of working as an astronaut. From the opening moments we see that working in space can be dull and tedious, but it also shows the dangers of the profession as well.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Space Week: Contact (1997)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously included an entry which tried to describe the vastness of the universe: "Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space." From its opening moments, Contact brings that idea to the forefront. Before its protagonist is even introduced, the audience is treated to an extended zoom out which begins above the Earth with music playing overtop.

Over the following moments, it gets farther away, and the soundtrack begins to change, shifting to older and older radio transmissions as it gets further through the solar system, and moves on to other stars. Before long, the soundtrack begins to fade, until it reaches a point where it disappears entirely. This one zoom takes the audience from their home planet to other stars, and eventually shows their own galaxy, before zooming further to reveal the local group and local supercluster. This one moment, presented through computer generated images and one shot, serves to show the viewer just how little is known and understood about the universe at large.

Ironically, for a film whose plot revolves around making contact, it is really a story about humanity and the search for knowledge. Historically, science has often been an uphill battle. The quest to understand the universe is not a linear path, but one blocked by human flaws of bias, profit, and fear. When in the early renaissance Giordano Bruno proposed that Earth revolved around the sun (rather than, as was widely believed at the time, the other way around), he was punished by society. Later Galileo Galilei was accused of treason when he presented evidence supporting Bruno's earlier claims, forced to publicly recant his theories, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Contact is, in many ways, based on the idea that history repeats itself. The above accounts of early studies of orbital mechanics are just one of many ways in which scientists trying to find answers were faced with a mountain of obstacles and easily made enemies who either wanted to suppress, reject, or exploit their discoveries for their own ends. For obvious reasons, Charles Darwin's initial writings on evolution were met with huge public backlash. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was mocked for decades even by his fellow scientists until Marie Tharp discovered evidence that not only supported his theory, but also expanded it.

Contact has very much the same situation. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a scientist whose main interest is in her research. She is shown to be smart and always asking questions, and remains passionate about her work for SETI. The only problem is that she has to deal with society at large. At the beginning of the film, very few people take her work seriously. Even her boss, Dr. Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) dismisses her work as a waste of time and money. Drumlin himself is very much an example of the types of people Ellie has to deal with. He is built up as a respected scientist, but every other moment he is selling out, taking credit for Ellie's work, stealing attention away from her, or dismissing her. He may be officially a scientist, but Drumlin is only interested in working for profit.

When contact is finally made, it results in a sharp divide in humanity, all of whom are influenced by biases, agendas, assumptions, and beaurocracy. The discovery that the transmission contains a coded video of Hitler immediately sparks a panic, even after Drumlin and Arroway both try to explain that this is not evidence the aliens are Nazis (more likely, they sent it back as a means of acknowledging it unaware of how it would be received). In one notable scene, Arroway is just trying to get to the observatory when she finds herself having to drive by a crowd of people outside, which includes religious protestors, scientologists, Neo-Nazis, UFO conspiracy theorists offering extreme misrepresentations of what is happening, and others who may just be trying to make money.

However, the focus is mainly placed on three main perspectives: the scientific, religious, and political. Arroway herself serves to represent the purely scientific view, but also important is the political agenda displayed by Security Advisor Kitz (James Woods). While Arroway is objective, trying to examine the facts and showing no problem with sharing information, Kitz spends most of the film interfering with her research and making assumptions. At the movie's end, he proceeds to perform what amounts to a witch trial against Arroway, not unlike that faced by Galileo. He places her at the forefront, intentionally suppresses evidence supporting her claims, and forces her to publicly recant all of her research.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Introducing Space Week!

Back in January, I decided to try and get back into action by establishing a "theme week." The idea was pretty straight forward: it was based on finding a theme in advance and then scheduling it so that
I would have to watch one film each day and find something to write about it. The first of these was War Movie Week, where I set it up so that I was covering a different war each day; beginning with Paths of Glory (World War I) and ending with Edge of Tomorrow (future warfare). A week later, I also managed to do a similar project related to crime films, this time covering a series of very different movies each based on a different type of crime.

Both themes turned out to be remarkable successes, in that they were well-received by my readers and I managed to find lots of interesting things to say about the individual movies. So with the huge success of both War Movie Week and Crime Week, it should hardly be surprising that I was interested in revisiting the idea in the future. My original plan was to run this during Reading Week back in Feburary, but unfortunately a few things got in the way and I ended up postponing it. Fortunately, today happens to mark my last exam of the year before I get into that difficult period when you're initially relieved to have finished all your exams only to then get stuck when you realize you now don't have much to do.

This time, I've decided to move away from the previous themes and try something entirely different. This time, we're going to shift focus to exploration. As you are no doubt already aware, one area I'm extremely well-versed in is science fiction, plus I've studied basic astronomy (you'd be amazed how useful that can be to film analysis) so that would make sense for a theme. Now I had a few ideas for how to organize this, but I'm going to break up this activity into stages. My initial idea was to do one film for each of the planets in our Solar System, but finding movies for specific planets (other than Mars) is tricky, so I have instead broken up the adventure into stages, each one focused on a different step in space exploration. Similar to before, I will be doing one randomly picked movie each day between Tuesday and Friday based on the established themes and trying to write about each.

Choosing the themes was a bit difficult. My original idea was to have Thursday be "exploring the galaxy" and Friday "Beyond the Infinite" but in order to better fit the week I've had to change it. So now the focus will mainly be on our own Solar System, with the possibility open of a bonus on Saturday if everything goes okay.

Now with that out of the way, here is the official schedule for the week:


Tuesday: Looking Out

Wednesday: Entering Orbit

Thursday: The Inner Worlds

Friday: Jovian Bodies


As usual, feel free to leave recommendations for each of these categories in the comments.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: So-Bad-It's-Good

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is so-bad-it's-good. We all know these films. These are the movies that are really, really bad... except that ends up somehow having the reverse effect, becoming entertaining because of how ridiculous they are. I've seen a few of those, so now I just have to put together a list of options.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

I'm not sure how much I have to explain here. It is a movie that literally revolves around Martians kidnapping Santa Claus because their children like our television programs. It is hard to get more ridiculous than that. Part of the fun, I found, however, is that the film almost seemed to be aware of its status as a b-movie. The filmmakers probably went into this knowing there was no way they could ever make a good movie, so they just worked to make it as ridiculous as possible. Between the terrible special effects  such as the "polar bear" and the odd developments in the narrative, this is not exactly a film one should expect to find any deep interest in. The funny thing is that as bad as the rest of the movie is, they actually found a really good actor to play Santa Claus.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Out of the Indiana Jones films, The Temple of Doom is definitely the weakest as far as story goes. It is also the strangest in just how much it departs from the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The overall tone is actually ridiculous and over the top, even for Indiana Jones. As soon as you see the infamous dinner sequence, you can pretty much forget about taking the rest of the film seriously. (this is after all the film with a literal mine cart chase) Normally I would object to a character like Willie, but her distressed damsel qualities are so overdone it almost feels more like a parody of the archetype (even Indy gets frustrated with it). Then of course there's Short Round (Indy's "old friend" who is never seen or mentioned again after this film) whose acting is not up to standard either. The funny thing is that the film's problems almost become its greatest strengths, because it's hard not to laugh at just the insane directions the story manages to go.

The Room (2003)

Okay, I know this is a more obvious one, but it's hard not to bring up Tommy Wiseau's strange film when we are discussing so-bad-it's good. It is one of those movies where anyone watching it is left to wonder what kind of thought processes went into making it. Aside from strange technical decisions, most of the cast displays some very strange behavior, perhaps most obvious in the infamous sequence where they spontaneously decide to run into an alley and throw a football around while wearing tuxedos. Then of course, there are also the strange sub-plots that come out of nowhere and then get forgotten, such as Claudette's breast cancer or Denny's drug problem (both of which are randomly introduced once and then never mentioned again).

Friday, 1 April 2016

Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon 2

So last year I decided to host the Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, in which I gave out the task of organizing a team of the toughest men and women available into a ragtag group of crack commandos who could rescue the Prime Minister of Canada from Neo-Nazi Communist Hippy Ninjas. Now I'm making a sequel. That means that we're going to up the stakes and introduced some new twists. That naturally has led me to one logical conclusion. Last year, we assembled a co-ed team, but this time things are different, because now it's all about bad girls. So, now that my introduction is out of the way, let's move on to the exciting new story.

Oh no! Donald Trump has done it again! He has recruited a gang of mercenaries, taken over the Canadian Parliament buildings, and stolen their supply of nuclear missiles. Now he is hiding at an unknown location, from which he has broadcast his threat to nuke a random city each week until May 31 unless President Obama agrees to step down and let him win the election, or else he will begin nuking the world. If Trump isn't stopped, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it! We have to find him fast and get those nuclear launch codes before he provokes the world into Nuclear Armageddon.

We have no time to lose. Because Donald Trump is a misogynist and a racist, our best option is to find the toughest women available and organize them into a ragtag force of crack commandos who can locate Donald Trump's secret hideout, gather intelligence on his operation, take out his henchmen, and either kill or capture Trump before he can destroy civilization. You are officially authorized to use any means you deem necessary. We need this team operational as soon as possible, so you'd better get to work right away.

  1. Select a group of 10-15 female characters from action movies, television, or video games. They are not required to be military, but they should be tough enough to look after themselves when things inevitably go wrong.
  2. For each character you choose, include a few words on why you selected her and what skills she has that could contribute to stopping Donald Trump.
  3. While your squad this time around will be all-female, diversity is still encouraged in other areas. Racial, national, and sexual variety is great if possible, as is diversity in their abilities.
  4. There are no restrictions regarding the era in which your chosen characters originated or their nationality. You could in theory assign Vazquez from Aliens with Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles and Isabelle from Predators.
  5. You cannot include two or more characters from the same film.
  6. Include the above banner in your post, unless you wish to design one of your own. If you choose to make your own banner, I would be happy to share it on this page so others can use it.
  7. If you took part in the first Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, you cannot use characters from your previous entry. However, characters from other submissions are still fair game. For instance, I would not be allowed to use Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles (since she was part of my team last year), but another blogger could still choose her if they wished.

So now you've got a job to do. Good luck assembling your team. If all goes well, we should have Trump in custody soon enough. On June 1 I will assemble a list of everyone who contributed to averting nuclear war. Now you'd better get started.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Tough Rider

With the fall of the Hollywood Studio System in the late 1950's and early 1960's, there was a new era beginning in American filmmaking as studios struggled to adapt to a changing world. They started by making big-budget epics like Cleopatra that nearly bankrupted them. The 70's saw the beginning of the "New Hollywood," a brief period in which a series of low-budget films emerged that were noticeably darker in tone than those of the Studio Era, and would ultimately go on to set the stage for the modern blockbuster. One such film in this period was Easy Rider, a film which served to usher in the New Hollywood, despite being an awful film. This was a bad movie, with nothing worth seeing.

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are a pair of bikers who don't really do much other than ride on their motorcycles, have sex, and get high. They have somehow put together some money from buying drugs (which Wyatt very intelligently keeps in his gas tank) and want to go to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras before they retire wealthy. They ride around, get high on marijuana, meet some people once in a while, get high on marijuana, ride around, get high on marijuana, ride around, and get high on marijuana. Did I mention that they spend a lot of the film smoking marijuana? Anyway, they make a few friends but most people apparently hate them so eventually some rednecks show up out of nowhere and fire a shotgun at them.

I really wanted to like Easy Rider. I really did. Unfortunately, this movie is dull and repetitive. Most of it feels more like the "plot" was just an excuse to show off the desert landscapes they filmed in, which I was unable to enjoy because the rest of the film was so boring. There are a variety of far better movies you could be watching if you just want to see that, or you could just use Google to look up photographs of those same landscapes or go there yourself. Most of the film basically amounts to Billy and Wyatt driving on the road while 70's pop music plays over top, with the occasional stop to get high on marijuana. The direction is terrible, the script is weak, and the editing is really, really bad, to the point where it can easily be very difficult to watch.

Wyatt and Billy have absolutely no depth or personality to them worthwhile protagonists. The intention appears to be that they go through some kind of emotional development but their personalities amount to riding, smoking marijuana (and any other drugs they can get their hands on, apparently), and occasionally giving someone a lift. That is literally the extent of everything they do in the film. Apparently there is supposed to be some prejudice involved towards them, but it is hard to relate to that aspect of the film when there is absolutely no emotional link towards them. The rest of the cast is hardly any better. Most of them amount to minor roles who are treated as being important at first but are forgotten about as soon as their role in the story is finished.

So basically, don't bother with Easy Rider. It is a dull and boring film with absolutely nothing worth watching beyond possibly the historical significance of its influence. How did this film make such an impact when it came out? It is an awful and ridiculous film that makes absolutely no sense. As far as biker films go, there are far better options you could be watching. If you want to see desert landscapes, try watching a western instead. This film is a waste of time. It is boring, dull, frustrating, and in general just very poorly thought out.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Intersecting Stories

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is intersecting stories. These films can be very interesting when done right. This would be the types of films where there are multiple stories that all appear unrelated but end up coming together in unexpected ways. There are plenty of great options to choose from, but I've decided to find some less obvious choices. Instead of going for the generally intended meaning of "intersecting story" I've decided to find some strange interpretations of that format. Unfortunately, doing so has made it hard to find three options. I've had to solve this by choosing one that I hate in addition to two great ones.

Lost Highway (1997)

This strange psychological film from David Lynch definitely has a way of messing with your idea of intersecting stories, largely because there are many different ways to interpret what happens and how exactly its narratives are linked. To put it simply, there are two main plotlines. The first half revolves around an estranged couple who receive tapes in the mail which contain footage of the inside of their home. About half-way through, this plot thread is largely left behind (though there actually are connections to it if one looks closely) and the movie instead begins following a mechanic who gets mixed up in an affair with a mobster's girlfriend. Then there is a surreal final act which brings together elements from both plotlines. A weird subjective experience, for sure.

The Weight of Water (2000)

One of the lesser known films to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow (yes, the same Kathryn Bigelow who made The Hurt Locker). This adaptation of Anita Shreve's 1997 novel features two narratives in different time periods connected by one incident. In one, we follow a journalist who is researching an incident in Maine during which two women were killed. In the other, we follow a young Immigrant woman as we learn the backstory leading up to the murders. It is a beautifully made film, though it can be disorienting and hard to follow. It is a bit more of an art film compared to some of Bigelow's more linear projects, but it is an interesting film to see. And because I know you're wondering, yes there is a lesbian sex scene, but in order to see it you'll have to sit through a beautiful two-hours first.

Still Life (2006)

This slow and tedious docudrama about a dying Chinese town is a very good example of how not to do intersecting storylines. In this case, it is because there is virtually nothing linking them. The first act follows a guy trying to find his wife. About a third of the way into the film, he sees a UFO (seriously) which serves as a transition into a second story about a woman, Shen Hong, who searches for her husband. We follow her through the same town with otherwise no real link to the first story. Then once we've finally gotten acquainted with her, the movie decides to forget about her and go back to the first guy. Shen Hong's plot is definitely the stronger of the two storylines, but the movie in general is poorly made, in large part because it fails to make any attempt to actually link these two obviously unrelated narratives.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Hyena Road: A Call to Arms

So it just so happened that there was a screening on Campus of Paul Gross's latest film Hyena Road. Being interested in war films as I am I quickly registered to see it, but it gets better. Not only did I get to see it, but Paul Gross himself showed up to answer questions about it afterward. I even got to talk to him up close and gave him a link to this blog. Now I can say I've met three major directors, and might even have one reading my work. Anyway, Hyena Road made for am interesting experience. A variety of different emotions went through my head as I watched. It was a very intense movie, as well as a bit disorienting and hard to follow at times (though never to the point of where I was lost). It was also a long film, though it was remarkably well-paced. It might be one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really get.

In Afghanistan, the Canadian military is working on building a road going straight into enemy territory. The Taliban do not take kindly to this and a lot of people have been killed as a result. Meanwhile, a Canadian sniper team led by Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is endangered when they are spotted by insurgents and make a run for it. By total luck, they find a village where they are saved by an Elder. Later, Captain Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) becomes interested in learning who saved his team, and begins to think it was a legendary soldier known as "The Ghost" who was able to take down the Red Army. Now believing the Ghost could be a valuable asset to the Canadian Armed Forces he makes efforts to track him down. Meanwhile, tensions begin to mount between Pete and Ryan as they both struggle to deal with ethics, military beaurocracy, and their own emotions.

Upon my initial viewing, I had mixed feelings, though that might be from not knowing what to expect. There are many aspects of this film that are hard not to appreciate. Aside from being quite possibly only the second film ever made to show the Canadian military (after Gross's earlier film Passchendaele), there was an intense amount of research that went into making it. Not only did Gross manage to talk to real soldiers and get support from the army, but he even went as far as to actually travel to Afghanistan to witness the war first-hand. Gross even claimed to have seen more action than most soldiers do (apparently not a lot of people actually leave what he called "The Wire"). The story itself is fictional, but a lot of it comes from stories he had heard (the "Ghost" was a real person) and many of the people depicted were based on soldiers he had met.

The action is also very good. One can see the influences of a variety of earlier war films such as Jarhead, Black Hawk Down (which Gross described as, "a beautifully shot movie"), and The Hurt Locker. While the shaky cam can be  a bit excessive at times, it never reaches the point of making it hard to see. There are some intense battle sequences, reminiscent of moments from Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, but in an interesting move there is also an emphasis on the soldiers' everyday life. In a manner that one might argue more closely resembles Jarhead, there is a lot of focus on what goes on when the soldiers are not fighting. As Gross noted, some of them never leave their base, and even those who do often have to deal with extended and tedious waiting. This is especially true of the sniper team, who are shown on multiple occasions waiting long stretches of time just for something to happen. Of course, that also can add to the tension when it does, most notably when they get into moral conflicts with their superiors back at HQ.

Now, one thing I was somewhat worried about when I watched this film was the fact that, even though this is a film dealing with a modern war and focusing on a country whose military has been integrated for years, there are next to no female characters. I mean, surely it would not have hurt to maybe have one or two women in the sniper team, right? What made things different this time was that I was actually able to ask Paul Gross why he made this decision, and his answer was somewhat surprising. As he noted, he actually did make an effort to put female soldiers into his movie, and it was something he struggled with.

According to Gross, even though the restrictions against women have been lifted, there are still some areas where women have yet to enlist. Most female soldiers are infantry, which is a different area from what is shown in the film. In order to become a sniper, one first has to serve in a recon platoon. Even though it is entirely legal, there have not yet been any women serving in recon, and thus not yet any female snipers (though as Gross also noted, there probably will be in the near future). Ultimately, he eventually decided that showing female snipers would have, at least for now, made the film less authentic. Now one could argue whether this reasoning justifies his actions, but there is a bright side. Not only did Paul Gross make an effort to include female soldiers, but he also appears to have no issues with women serving in the military. It is nice to for once find someone who isn't trying to use outdated pseudoscience to argue that women are inferior to men and thus should be excluded by default.

That said, I do feel like the film could have handled its one female lead, Captain Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) slightly better. To be fair, Christine does manage a solid performance and her character actually does have her moments to be strong. My main issue is that I felt like she could have had a more active role in the story. This might be just me, but I don't think I would have put quite as much focus on her romance with Ryan. Actually, I probably would have cut the romance altogether. The scenes where they get intimate are handled alright, but this romantic interest did sometimes appear to overshadow the stronger aspects of her personality.

I think part of me also hoped to see her get more directly involved with the action, though one could argue that it would have been difficult to incorporate that into the plot short of her actually joining the sniper team. Of course, the moments where Bowman did get to show her strength of character were still great. I guess I would have just liked to see more of them. Still, even though the result might not be perfect, Gross admitted that he struggled to find a way to make it work, which is more than can be said for a lot of modern war films. If nothing else, there is the possibility that being able to make Jennifer as strong as she was may open the door to future depictions of women in the military. In that sense, she handles the film okay.

Hyena Road is definitely an interesting film, and one I would recommend taking a look at. While it may be long and not always easy to follow, it is an intense look at the ethics and morality of war. I would be okay with watching it again now that I have a better idea of what to expect. It is also a rare attempt to show a war from the Canadian perspective, something that almost never seems to happen. If nothing else, it is worth seeing just for the authenticity. Even Kathryn Bigelow was unable to shoot The Hurt Locker in Iraq, while Paul Gross was able to film on location (at least partially, some of it was also shot in Manitoba). It is a very dark war film and definitely a worthwhile experience.