Old School Reviews: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

I recently found myself reading a book called Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle by Juliet Barker, a fascinating look into King Henry V’s famous victory over an overwhelming force of the French nobility. Great book, really interesting stuff, bloody hard to remember all the Johns, Henrys, Thomases and (delightfully enough) Lancelots. Anyway, it got me in the mood for some knights and chivalry, and I narrowed my choices down to a bit of Shakespeare or 2001’s Heath Ledger-led rock’n’roll-anachronism laden romantic-action-comedy/sports film, A Knight’s Tale. I made a decision, and I believe it was the right one.

As I said, Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a peasant who poses as a noble born in order to compete in that most medieval of sports, jousting. Along the way he and his fellow peasant squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), are joined by blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and Geoffrey fucking Chaucer (Paul Bettany), love interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and mortal enemy the Count of Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). He achieves fame, fortune and a loyal fanbase, including the Black Prince himself (James Purefoy). Gotta love the Medieval name drops.

There is a lot to love about the cast. Perfect fits across the board, fantastic chemistry and even the accents aren’t too bad. Shannyn Sossamon is able to convey so much through a coy smile or an irritated frown, and seems to be having an absolute ball in the role. Paul Bettany is always a delight to watch, a showman playing a showman with a gambling problem and an absolute conviction that his place in history is assured even if no one else can be convinced. Rufus Sewell plays the subtle arsehole like few others, maintaining a keen poker face so that every small display of overt emotion seems far more dangerous. Even smaller roles are well filled. James Purefoy makes for a prince who understands and respects the points and price of chivalry and knighthood. Scott Handy, playing Adhemar’s herald Germaine, is excellent, a little out of his depth compared to the swagger of Chaucer but a professional entertainer nonetheless. You feel quite proud of him when he gives his final introduction of the film. And of course there’s Heath Ledger. We lost a good one there and I will say no more.

The script is excellent. I mean the story is okay but the dialogue, the lines and delivery are brilliant. It’s actually surprising that this film never became one of my go-tos for quotes. I mean, “The pope may be French but Jesus is bloody English!” How fucking good is that? Very good. The answer is very good. And “why don’t I use some variation of that more often?”

The really genius part of this film though is its understanding of the subject matter, as demonstrated by, amongst other things, the music. Y’see, A Knight’s Tale is a sports movie. That’s what it is, dealing with class and privilege while pushing morals such as the joys of ambition, courage, bravery, determination and that good sportsmanship will always triumph over being a dickhead. We hear this in the music, with great rock anthems playing between, during and after the matches just as they do at any arena today. The film starts with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ends with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ plays during a parade and they dance to ‘Golden Years’ at a feast. And it’s fucking brilliant. Not just a fantastic soundtrack but one that forces the viewer to accept the analogy and frame of reference. The familiar absorbs the distant.

Sport is sport is sport. Something that I noticed reading that book I mentioned about Agincourt was that many of these nights and princes were, in fact, the honest to god sports stars of their time. Codes of chivalry and knighthood crossed borders, cultures and religions, and people of all classes held onto stories of epic deeds, duels and jousts. Fashion, sledging, rivalries and WAGs were as much part of the sport then as they are now. It’s honestly just a surprise that no one thought of this before (and no one’s really done it since). At the same time the film never forgets its time frame, the religion, filth and racism, making it all the grander.

If you like a sports film, watch this. It’s more light-hearted than Gladiator and just as quotable.

Good God! Are we getting back onto our regular schedule? We’ll see. We will see. 

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Old School Reviews: Titan A.E. (2000)

It’s funny, there’s a lot of bad things I can say about Titan A.E. Part of that can be blamed on the time it was made and who it was meant to appeal to. Part of it is a feeling of shoddiness that the film never seems to get past.

The tone is caught in a strange space between child-friendly animation and that gritty, grimy place we usually call “young adult” in a rather obvious attempt at pandering to adolescents with disposable income and a desire to be treated like a grown-up. There’s no swearing and the sexual innuendo is no worse than Monsters Inc. but the violence is surprising. We see one alien get comically blasted into goo, eyes and teeth, a number of sentient bat-bird things blown out of the sky, a few bloody wounds, and, at the end someone getting his fucking neck snapped. At the same time the sense of humour, when it occasionally appears, is as childish as a straight-to-DVD Disney movie. Throw in a high-concept sci-fi plot and moral that’ll fly over the heads of most “young adults” and you end up with a tone that, while not messy as such, is too far one way and not far enough another to have the kind of emotional weight that the movie seems to want. Add in the music, safe post-grunge rock that I’m honest to god surprised didn’t include Pearl Jam, and you end up with some late-nineties/early-aughts executive committee’s definition of cool.

The animation is a similar hodgepodge of traditional (and probably budget friendly) 2D and what was not-even-really-cutting-edge-anymore 3D computer generations. It’s a mix that swings wildly between tolerable and jarring. A few of the 3D models, the individual Drej drones for example, fit into the environments and move about smoothly enough, but more often than not it’s that ugly, undetailed rendering typical of much low budget fare. This get’s even worse when you consider some of the films that were coming out at the same time (the above mentioned Monsters Inc.Shrek, even Fox’s own Ice Age). Meanwhile Titan A.E. can’t even seem to render a pretty cliff. What makes it worse is that the 2D animation, which still makes up a majority of the film’s visuals, is similarly lacking in quality. Movement and outlines are often choppy, sloppy and overall just lacking in a layer of polish. All in all, not as pretty as a film with a 75 million dollar budget should have been. You can’t help but wonder if they had used 2D animation for the whole thing it would have been a much better looking film, and more fondly remembered as a result. But 3D rendering had become the fashion by that point, and so this is what we got.

So yeah, there are problems with this film. But there’s also a lot of good things to say as well. The character designs are excellent, both human and alien, with little details and consistencies that add to each. The alien character Preed for example is voiced by the charming, extravagant and educated Nathan Lane, but his character is ugly badly dressed and battle-worn (one of his ears is missing, replaced by cybernetics in his scalp), showing him to merely a thug pretending at being a gentleman. The alien designs are familiar enough (Stith looks like a kangaroo, Gune looks like turtle) for us to identify them and identify with them while still looking sufficiently unreal, and their voice actors commit to the roles and personalities beautifully. Would have been nice if the asian character Akima had been voiced by an asian actress, but this is the world we live and at least the crew allowed for some multiculturalism. The character development feels as natural and unforced as is possible in 94 minutes, the plot develops quickly enough. The use of lighting and colour is excellent and the script and dialogue is snappy and a pleasure to listen to.

But it is that high-concept sci-fi that I really love about this film. The message about humanity that it is trying to push. Y’see the film starts with the alien antagonists, the Drej, deciding that the human race has become to much of a threat to be allowed to continue to exist, so they come over and blow up Earth. Now, a thousand books, movies and video games that have come before usually fall within the grim’n’gritty themes of humanity probably deserving it a little bit, claiming that our propensity for violence and destruction would shake up any galactic order. But the Titan that the Drej fear so much is not a tool of destruction, it is in fact a tool of unparalleled creation damn near close to magic. To the contrary, it is the Drej who are only capable of destroying, who are incapable of creating, and terrified at what those creators are capable of.

And it is so fucking refreshing for a science fiction plot that’s not “human beings could have such potential if they just stopped killing each other and everything they meet”, and is instead “human beings reached their potential ages ago, it was fucking amazing and now we need to protect it.”

There’s something very hopeful about that. Something very encouraging. And a great lesson to be remembered as science moves forward. It is not the destroyers who wield true power, but the creators. And those that build will ultimately triumph over those that tear down.

The orc’s in the detail: Or why I did not love Warcraft.

So I went and saw Warcraft a couple of days ago. Got really drunk afterwards and had a particularly nasty hangover the next day. Don’t normally get headaches like that. This has nothing to do with the film, of course. I just felt like sharing.

Anyway, I got a pair of mates together and went and saw Warcraft. Both of them had played a fair bit of the games and had a firm grasp of the lore. Me? Never played a Warcraft game in my life. No, wait, I think I tried to play a bit of one campaign mission of Warcraft II or III back in highschool, but didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on so jumped out pretty quick. Soaked in a bit of lore from spending so much time immersed in nerd culture, but it doesn’t really go beyond: Alliance equals humans and dwarves and shit, generally the good guys; and Horde equals orcs and wolves and shit, generally the bad guys. So I went in relatively clean. They went in dirty. What did I think?

Honestly, it was a bit shit.

I mean, not especially shit. Not terrible. But a bit shit. Unimpressive. Not particularly good. And that’s a bit of a shame. Everytime we get a film adaptation of a video game franchise (and they’re always franchises) there’s a bit of hope around. I’m not entirely sure what we’re hoping for anymore. We’ve got mainstream acceptance (every man and his grandmum are playing some video game or another) and we’ve pretty well established that games are an artistic medium (or at least the people that fought against this are either dead or proven to not have a clue what they’re talking about). Maybe it’s because a film adaptation has always been the benchmark of success for an intellectual property, vindication for fans of the book or comic or cartoon or boardgame. A statement that, yes, this thing you love is worth spending two hundred million dollars on and a theatrical release. Maybe we just hope that this movie about something we love won’t be shit.

Maybe that was why I didn’t love this film. I’m not a fan of the Warcraft games. The two blokes I went with, they’re fans of the Warcraft games. They enjoyed it more than me. My mate Jordan (one of the gismos over at Evade Gismo) absolutely loved it, to his great surprise. He did not want to see it ’til I told him I convinced him, told him that if it succeeded I wanted to see it work and if it failed I wanted to see the trainwreck. I was curious, I think he was concerned about them butchering the source material. He thought it was excellent. Loved it. I thought it was a bit shit.

It wasn’t trainwreck bad, and I could see why my mates really enjoyed it. There’s the bones of a pretty awesome, epic film experience. And the orcs look fuckin’ amazing. Really great. Like, I was expecting some proper uncanny valley shit but these guys and girls fit into the world so well and so easily. But the movie still fails to deliver, for big and small reasons.

Too many characters with too many names that are bloody hard to keep track of with pretty bloody atrocious characterisation. I mean, yeah, Duracell the orc is noble and all that. I couldn’t remember his name by the end of it, and his scenes are full of grand sacrifice for no discernable cause or consequence. Seriously the guy goes and {probably a massive spoiler} and nothing changes. Not a fucking thing. Orc Gamora makes no fucking sense. She’s loyal to the orcs. No, she’s loyal to the humans. No she’s loyal to both. But she’s killing orcs right now. But she’ll kill humans later. But she’ll be sad about it. Why the fuck is she hell was she loyal to the orcs at all though? They were the ones who chained her up and have been treating her like shit her whole life ’cause she’s got smaller teeth or something. I think they’re trying to push the whole this is just orc culture and society and what she’s used to, but she sure is happy to push all of that aside as soon as Queen Only-Other-Lady-With-A-Speaking-Role gives her a blanket. Then there’s that Aussie actor who plays Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings playing Ragnar Lothbrok right down to the way he stands. I wonder it it’s because there was so little characterisation in the script and directions that he had no choice but to pull out a bit of Ragnar, because the director is a big Ragnar fan so put that characterisation into the script and directions or because he just really likes playing Ragnar so is bringing it to his other roles. Probably a mixture of the three.

You’ll notice at this point I’m not using the actual character names. That is because I’m struggling to remember most of them and I cannot be arsed to look them up.

I’m not even sure if the king of the humans gets a name. He just seems to be called “the king,” or the more familial “our king.” Awful hair though. Seriously, he’s got the kind of stupid fucking hair you’d see in period pieces or medieval fantasy around the seventies and eighties, along with electro-synth soundtracks. Because kids love electro-synth. The orc leader Goldan (I think that might actually be his real name) is pretty cool. Spends the film all hunched and menacing and evil wizardy until near the end when he goes all King Bumi on us. Cauldron the mage get’s some of the worst lines in the film and he hams them up pretty bad. Medieve doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially given how bloody obvious it is that he’s {probably another spoiler}.

And those are just my issues with the characters. I mean, there’s nothing really terrible about them. I don’t hate anyone. But, they’re just a bit shit. And so you just don’t care about any of their noble sacrifices and meaningless deaths. ‘Cause yeah, some of them die.

The story suffers because it tries to take too much from the video games. Or is too much like a video game. Or takes the wrong things from video games. Like, there’s this opening scene where a dwarf gives Ragnar a flintlock pistol. Ragnar’s all “WTF’s this?” and the dwarf is like “This is the tits. We call it boom stick (title’s a work in progress)” and then a messenger arrives to tell Ragnar to get back to Stormwind. This is all to set up a fucking joke, where Ragnar shoots an orc and is surprised by how powerful his new toy is. That’s fucking all. The same effect could have been achieved by showing Ragnar tucking a musket into his belt before going to kill some orcs. Bam. Done. I just made a two hour goddamn movie a few precious minutes shorter. Because here’s the thing, shit like that is necessary in video games. It’s a tutorial level. Here’s your new weapon, here’s how it works, here’s a training level where you can try it out. But this does not translate well to film. It’s unnecessary and it breaks the flow of the film. Some shit needs to be explained. “Soldier knows how to use a boomstick” does not.

Fuck, I can go on and on. How do I explain this a little more simply?

Alright, you know how I said the orcs look amazing? All the CGI does. Real spectacular, lots of detail, the horde looks like it’s made up of individuals and the magic looks great. Real awesome job Visual FX guys and gals. But the practical effects? The practical effects look like shit. Stone walls look like painted wood and I’ve seen swords and armour homemade by cosplayers that looked better than half the costumes and props being used. Apparently the whole budget went into the computer animation, while the practical designers were given twenty bucks and told to make do.

What this film does right, it does really well. Like the orcs. But what it does wrong? I can spend a long time going through all it does wrong. Too long. Ask me later if you really want me to through all of it.

Couple of suggestions though for if you’re planning on making your own epic fantasy story (based on a video game or otherwise).

First, diversity matters. If there’s no reason for a character to not be a female, there’s no reason for a character to not be female. Now, I’m not talking about turning Ragnar or Cauldron into a lady. Nobody needs the hate mail that’d come from that. But there’s these two other Stormwind commanders, black clean-shaven guy and white bearded guy, who get basically no lines and are just there because even Ragnar can’t kill the entire hoard himself. There’s no reason why these both need to be dudes. One of them could very easily have been a lady. It doesn’t affect the story at all, and earns you a tonne of goodwill. Fuck, it might earn you a lot more money and positive social media attention as well. There’s little that Tumblr loves more than supporting female characters, and suddenly this random background lady becomes the star of a thousand AUs, theories and in depth character discussions.

Second, maybe think about where you start your story. Maybe start with something more personal rather than epic. I mean, yeah, epic is great and all, but Lord of the Rings waited until midway through the second film before expanding the scope from “these nine guys against fifty” to “a few thousand versus a lot more thousand.” Establish your world, establish your characters, tell a more personal story. Then threaten the end of the world.

I didn’t hate this film. It’s not terrible. It’s just a bit shit.

And I’m just throwing it out there: Ragnar is the brother of the Queen. A white guy with a Northern European accent is the brother of black woman who speaks the Queen’s English. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, I am saying the exact opposite in fact. They obviously had an interesting (possibly heartbreaking) family life, and went from a small village on the borders of the kingdom (if I recall the film correctly, which I’ve already acknowledged I probably don’t) to become the commander of the King’s armies and the mother of his children respectively. That sounds like some Game of Thrones level shit right there. I would watch that. I would watch the hell out of that.

Geopolitics and character development: Some thoughts from CA:CW

Captain America Mission Accomplished - Edited 30:5:16Alright, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best analogies for Bush-era post 9/11 American geopolitics I’ve seen in pop-culture in a long time. Seriously mate, it’s so good that I can’t help but wonder if it’s intentional. I mean, not whether the analogies to the great questions facing American and NATO foreign policy over the last fifteen years were intentional or not. They obviously are. But how good it is, well, have you ever met Yanks who are that self-aware? Nah mate, even the smart ones have got blind spots in certain areas. Not they’re fault, it just comes with being the biggest, toughest kid on the playground for so long, helped along by constantly telling yourself about how righteous your causes are. Like Captain America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the simple analogies. The Avengers as a group are NATO (and its close affiliates) and Captain America is, as you might’ve guessed, the United States of America.

The Avengers exist as an organisation to defend and retaliate against existential threats, both defined (Loki and his army in the first film) and undefined (whatever the fuck Hydra became after Winter Soldier). And let me be very clear, they are happy to retaliate. Tony Stark makes that very clear when he has a chat with Loki The Avengers (“because if we can’t protect the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it!”) Their intervention in Sokovia at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron seems more like a preemptive strike. While we learn in The Avengers that the ‘Avengers Initiative’ was initially scrapped before the events of the film because of the unreliability of some of the proposed members (*cough*Iron Man*cough*), but its founding members are brought together to fight a powerful foreign threat. Once the enemy is defeated, they more or less go their separate ways. Without having a specific threat that requires a unified front, they drift off and deal with their own problems in their own theatres (huh!) of interest. Awfully similar to NATO when you think about it.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded largely to deal with the existential threat posed by the USSR (which maintained an edge in conventional weapons even if it was outgunned nuclear-wise) that no single member could have handled alone. The fall of the Soviet Union at the turn of the nineties saw the Alliance’s continued role in international affairs come into question (and it still does). NATO members have come together over the two and a half decades since to do the odd bit of dirty work (an air campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia) but even then they’ve often been flying their own individual banners, flying the banners of some other international institution (the UN) or working bilaterally. You could argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was a NATO affair, but you could also argue it wasn’t just as easily. NATO has, however, seen something of a renewed raison d’etre as the world tries to deal with cross-border terrorism, the continued consequences of the Arab Spring, a resurgent Russia and ascendant China. Like the Avengers getting back together to clean up Hydra after the events of CA: The Winter Soldier.

Now, it’s not an exact parallel. I’m not even all that keen on calling it a close parallel. But it is the most easily digestible one, it being the only big, well-known military alliance still floating around. And while memberships comparisons aren’t perfect (because of the number of Avengers and that some are more better compared to countries outside the NATO alliance), it’s still the easiest matchup. Particularly Iron Man and Captain America.

Iron Man is plagued by guilt. Understandably so, but still. Someone give the guy a hug and help him deal with the PTSD. I’m looking at you Sam Wilson. And Pepper. And, y’know what? Tony’s not that big of an arsehole. He’s dealing with some serious emotional baggage and none of you are helping. Anyway, Tony Stark is plagued by PTSD from barely surviving as he saved New York city from the kneejerk reaction of our own leaders and the alien invasion that caused it (forget almost getting stuck in space, Loki threw him out a fucking window). In his desire to protect people he builds Ultron, the killer robot that wants to wipe out humanity, which gets a bunch more people killed in Sokovia. He’s able to see the full consequences of his sins and is continually reminded of them, alongside his own mortality.

A similar… let’s call it a zeitgeist… a similar zeitgeist can be seen in the politics of France, Germany and a part of the UK. That feeling that they barely survived two world wars, and the trauma of what happened during those wars. That guilt that comes from seeing the continued repercussions or colonial ambitions and imperial carelessness. Consider Tony’s guilt over Ultron and then think about Anglo-French guild over Sykes-Picot, English guilt about the partition of India and Germany’s guilt over the Second World War. Both Tony and old Europe then put their faith in higher institutions. Tony’s faith in his own judgement was shaken in Iron Man 2 where his commitment to Randian self belief (seriously America, why is Ayn Rand still a thing?) almost ends in disaster and the death of the person he cares about most, and it’s broken into a million bloody pieces during Age of Ultron when he, y’know, builds the bloke that almost ends the world. What we see with Tony in Civil War is him making a fairly mature, considered and diplomatic choice. Deciding to put his support behind international laws, regulations, institutions and, most importantly, oversight. And this has been a big part of European politics for the past few decades. Franco-German political faith and muscle has been put behind the European Union and United Nations Security Council. They’ve been all about establishing institutions that set boundaries on their own power and that of others, creating an international order and following it. Or at least claiming they do. This is international politics after all. All’s fair and all that. But for the sake of argument let’s claim they always practice what they preach. Point is Tony sees institutional oversight as the best answer to avoid causing collateral damage, same way that France, Germany and the UK do.

Captain America, on the other hand, fears being tied down by UN oversight and their shifting agendas. He sees a threat, he takes it out. Done and dusted. And honestly, who better to do it than Steve Rogers? It’s an interesting case because Captain America in the films (and comic books, but we’re discussing the films here) is not a parallel to what the United States is, but the changing way it’s viewed itself.

To start with let’s consider Steve and the USA in isolation, away from the Avengers proper. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is the personification of the very best parts of America the superpower. Standing up to bullies, never backing away from a righteous fight, doing the right thing without thinking of the cost, making the greatest sacrifice for the good of the world. This is the America that won World War Two. Or at least won in all those great old movies about World War Two. The Winter Soldier is, in my mind, more of a 9/11 parable than The Avengers was (yes, in other MCU properties they treat the Chitauri invasion of NYC the same way we treat the attacks of September Eleven – “New York changed everything” – but, well, nah). Past sins coming back to roost (America’s involvement in the Middle East/SHIELD’s particularly shady dealings) and a complete failure by the intelligence community to detect the threat (Al Qaeda cells learning how to pilot planes/HYDRA infiltrating every level of SHIELD) sees the personification of the nation betrayed, and a problem that only America and a handful of its most loyal allies can fix (seriously, why does he not give the rest of the Avengers a call?) Which it does, through shock and awe and a complete dismemberment of the failed system for no other reason than “Because Cap says so.” It’s unsurprising that Captain America distrusts the idea of international oversight. In The Avengers the international Council that runs SHIELD decides to launch a nuclear missile at New York and then in Winter Soldier he discovers that HYDRA are the ones running SHIELD, and even if they weren’t are getting into some really shady shit.

But America does not exist in isolation and neither does the good Captain. In this case Steve Rogers is a personification of how America sees itself in the world. You gotta remember that Captain America isn’t actually the most powerful guy on the Avengers. The Hulk is (arguably) more powerful, who just gets stronger the more you try to kill him. Thor is the fucking warrior God of Thunder. Vision can fry people with his mind and swing Thor’s hammer (giving him access to the powers of the fucking warrior God of Thunder). Iron Man built a power generator that ends the need for fossil fuels while a hostage in a cave, and had gone toe to toe in his various suits with everyone in the first Avengers movie except Black Widow. Shit, I reckon if Natasha really wanted to she could kick Steve’s arse. And yet it is Steve Rogers who is given leadership of the Avengers. Why? Because he’s a better leader? Shit, Thor’s been leading his mates for centuries and learnt enough humility in his own first movie that he probably knows how to run a fight. Because he’s a better soldier? That hardly seems like something that Tony Stark would respect, and something that Black Widow would openly laugh at. Hawkeye too if we’re being perfectly honest. So why’s he in command?

Because he’s Captain America of course. He became what he is and does what he does not in pursuit of power, control or vengeance, but because it was the right thing to do and freedom needs protecting. So because everyone else can of course see this righteous initiative they give him command. Sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it? Thing is, I reckon that’s how Americans see themselves. I mean, sure, they’re not afraid to toot their own horns (“we have the most powerful military in the history of the world!” and all that). American exceptionalism is alive and well. But they don’t like to admit that the main reason everybody listens to them is because they’ve got the biggest guns and the biggest purse-strings. They don’t like admitting that they’re an empire (see: Niall Ferguson, Empire). No, the star spangled banner is a universal symbol of free people and free markets and that is why they run any organisation or alliance they choose to be part of.

I mean it’s not, but you can understand why they might think that way, right?

The analogies get cleaner or messier from there. Black Widow is the UK proper (where Iron Man is just parts of the UK), trying to strike some sort of balance between the two sides of the conflict. The United Kingdom has long tried to position itself as the bridge between the EU and the USA (special relationships? More like open relationships! That’s not nearly as funny as I hoped it would be) and in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Her Majesty’s government tried hard to convince the Americans to work within the United Nations, rather than unilaterally. Similarly Natasha tries to convince Steve to sign the Sokovia accords and stay out of the fight. In both instances there are feelings of, well betrayal seems too strong a word. Disappointment. There’s feelings of disappointment from the EU when the UK followed the Americans into Iraq and from Iron Man when she lets the Captain and Bucky escape in the quinjet. Hawkeye is probably Australia. Or maybe Falcon is. Maybe they both are. Someone’s Australia, the one country that’s always following the US into a fight. Black Panther is Africa and, well, I’m not opening that can of worms today. Let’s just say your fave is all sorts of problematic and leave it there for now.

Anyway, what does this all come down to? Long and short of it is, Captain America was wrong. Throughout the movie. He’s wrong.

He should’ve signed the Sokovia accords instead of being all about that personal responsibility. Strong institutions with strong regulations and strong oversight make everyone stronger. Tony recognises it. That’s why he signs the Accords without hesitation. But he also recognises the need for Captain America to be part of that. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth. But I don’t want to see you gone.” As angry as they get with the USA, countries like France and Germany don’t want to see them gone. But they understand the importance of convincing the Americans to work within an established order with (let’s be honest) self-imposed boundaries. They understand what happens when major powers are allowed to get away with whatever the fuck they want.

But Steve doesn’t see this. He distrusts anyone’s judgement but his own, believing “the safest hands are still our own.” Understandable considering that Hydra had found ways of controlling both him and his best friend. Understandable that a country which holds freedom and personal responsibility so highly, that everybody should have control over their own destiny, should try to embody this in the superhero that carries its name. And he’s wrong. Steve loses all credibility when he defends Bucky, and then when a legitimate threat is discovered nobody believes him. And at the end of it all? He still thinks he did the right thing.

America folks.

It’s taken most of the MCU to get here folks, but they did it. We’ve seen Captain America turn from a symbol of for the most idealistic version of what America might and could be, to a personification of what America has been for the last decade and a half.

God I love these films.

Next time, I might get into why the characterisation of Black Panther might be a bit racist.

Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

Reviewing the Old School: The Dish (2000)

This is a movie that’s worth it for the ending, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The third film by Working Dog Productions (second if you don’t count documentaries, and honestly why would you?) and biggest box office success, The Dish was released back in 2000 is a comedy that tells the (‘inspired by true events’) story of the Parkes Observatory (a big bloody radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep farm about twenty kilometres from the town of Parkes) and its quirky Australian technicians in the lead up to the Apollo 11 moonlanding. As well as tracking and relaying signals and communications from the travelling spacecraft enroute to and from the moon, it would also act as the primary receiver of the television signals that allowed the whole world to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps upon its dusty surface.

This is a character comedy first and foremost and the characters are, for the most part, great. Unlike Working Dog’s previous film (and previous review fodder) The Castle, which really only included actors who were notable in Australia (it was Eric Bana’s film debut for Christ’s sake), The Dish‘s leads included notable Kiwi Sam ‘I-was-in-Jurassic-Park’ Neil as Cliff Buxton and American Patrick ‘I-have-one-of-the-most-recognised-voices-in-film-and-television’ Warburton as NASA representative Al Burnett. And they’re good. Neil as Cliff is calm and full of authority, puffing on his pipe, in complete control, trying to keep the peace. It means that on the rare occasion that he does tell someone to quit their bitching or loses his cool there genuine emotional impact. Warburton is quiet but obviously concerned as Al, he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as NASA’s man on site but tries very hard to keep the stress from showing. Tom Long as Glenn is fantastic, playing a socially inept and slow nerd stereotype, but with such sincerity (I use that word way too much in these reviews, but I can’t be bothered grabbing a thesaurus) that you don’t mind. He gets the girl in the end (or at least asks her out) and it’s not some bullshit about her seeing ‘the real him’ behind the shy chitchat (most commonly in movies after the girl breaks up with some jock dickhead and realises that what she really wants is a nice guy who treats her alright). The girl in question, Eliza Szonert as Janine, is obviously attracted from the beginning of the movie to Glenn’s genuine sweetness and kind nature. Roy Billing as Mayor Bob MacIntyre takes the role seriously and has excellent comedic and dramatic timing, as does Genevieve Mooy as his wife. The only main character that I had an issue with was Kevin Harrington as Robert ‘Mitch’ Mitchell. Harrington’s a decent actor, and Mitch decent for the most part, but his character is the one that’s meant to be creating or experiencing conflict with Al, the American outsider, and I just never quite bought it. Lines yelled when they should have been spoken I think. This may have been actor, director, script or some combination of the three, but as a central character conflict I thought it just didn’t work. Having said that Harrington has excellent timing and delivered some of the best lines in the film.

The film has a large cast, possibly a little too large. All due respect to the actor but Billy Mitchell’s character, Cameron the over-zealous army cadet with a crush on the Mayor’s over-zealous (small L) liberal daughter seems superfluous in hindsight. I expect he’d there to represent a view of the Australian military (even with Australia starting to withdraw forces from the Vietnam War), but he doesn’t provide enough laughs to justify as much presence as he has in the film. Yet all the named characters can be justified, and I can’t really think of any that I’d really want culled. It makes for a cluttered cast-page, but doesn’t really make the film any worse for it. Just longer. I also like how they make an effort to give even the minor characters a little depth. Take the above mentioned Janine. She’s not just “girl who drops off lunch that Glenn has a crush on,” she’s also the security guard Rudy’s sister and a really awful driver. It’s not much, but it’s more than a lot of scripts would have given a character like her.

Rob Sitch does a good job directing, and I particularly loved scenes where the titular Dish and the men inside are simply doing their jobs. The choice of music is excellent, using some excellent 60s hits that never distract from what’s going on in the film, but will get you tapping your foot while it’s happening.

The pacing felt a little off. There are two climactic points in the film. The first takes place around the middle when a blackout briefly knocks out the Dish’s power and the backup generators weren’t primed possibly. Because this is the 1960s, this wipes all the data from the computer and for a whole day they ‘lose’ Apollo 11. They then desperately try and figure out where it is, while “bullshitting” NASA (and the American Ambassador who comes to visit). It’s a fun, desperate scene for the various characters but it drains away any tension for the second climax, where high speed winds threaten the broadcast of the actual moonwalk. I’m not sure how this could’ve been improved, but it never really feels like it was quite as dangerous a risk as they say it was.

Is the movie funny? Yes, yes it is. Not in a laugh-your-arse-off kind of way, more like a quiet chuckle and knowing smile. There are some fantastic moments that really sum up the Australian atmosphere of the film, like cricket on the satellite dish, the frequent cups of tea, the omnipresence of sheep and lamb. The Prime Minister (played by Billie Brown and only ever referred to as “Prime Minister” because John Gorton was not our most memorable PM) only appears for a few minutes overall but does a great job of portraying the well-spoken pub-brawl nature of Australian politics for most of the century. (“We’ve got a saying in the party: Don’t fuck up…” “And?” “That’s it.”)

Less of the humour than you’d expect, however, comes from any juxtaposition between the Yanks on site and the local country Aussies. Al is definitely different, is unused to working in professional environments without dress codes, formalities and chains of command, but he’s never anything but polite and is one of the most respectful people in the film. Similarly the US Ambassador, played by John McMartin, is never mocking in his attitude towards the locals and is simply a NASA-enthusiast is just bloody excited to visit Parkes and watch the landing. And that segues nicely into what this film is about.

Y’see, The Dish is not about culture clash, it’s about vindication. There’s the obvious ones. Al’s presence is vindicated in the eyes of Mitch when he helps them bullshit NASA. Mayor Bob McIntyre is vindicated for lobbying to get the Dish built in Parkes in the first place. There’s the less obvious ones. Bob’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) is a teenage feminist spitting out opinions against chauvinism and imperialism without any real idea what she’s talking about (today she’d have a blog on Tumblr), and she’s surprised when Al tells her that it’s been a delight meeting and talking with her. It’s a small thing, but you get the feeling it’s the first time someone has shown any sort of approval for having strong opinions. The second half of The Dish is full of these vindicating moments, culminating right at the end with the moon walk.

The ending is wonderful. Everyone is gathered around television sets watching Neil Armstrong take the first few steps on the moon’s surface. You feel the emotion of the moment, that feeling of witnessing something truly monumental occurring, one of the greatest achievements in human history. The culmination of years of work, expense, stress, terror and hope, broadcast for six hundred million people to see, with that purest of goals: To prove that humanity could do it.

This movie is not perfect. It’s funny and clever, but there’s a list of flaws that I don’t even have time to get into, but it’s worth it for that ending. That feeling of elation and that feeling of achievement. This is a film about the Australian contribution to the television broadcast, not about NASA or the astronauts. The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Space Race are never mentioned in the film. This is a movie not about an American achievement but a human achievement. In that final few minutes it makes you proud to be a human.

So, yeah, it’s worth it for the ending.