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.

Advertisements

Thoughts at work: Mr Bean

So about a week back a friend comes into the bar I work at – the girl who taught me how to sling drinks properly in fact – for a sneaky bellini (in Vancouver that means an alcoholic peach slushy) and a quick chat. We hadn’t been able to talk much since she’d had to leave the restaurant (hospitality industry leads to some fucked up hours) so it was nice to catch up. Anyway, she told me a story a few stories about her recent adventures cat-sitting. Nothing crazy, mostly “I told my [family member] not to pay me so she filled the fridge with gourmet food that I have to eat before it goes bad” and the like, but one thing made me laugh.

My friend had been shopping (groceries) and had some other things that she needed to bring up to her [family member’s] apartment. Not wanting to make more than one trip (because no one ever wants to make more than one trip) she’d managed to sling all the bags and such over her shoulders until she resembled a hippopotamus waddling around on its hind legs, only to realise that she’d parked like an asshole (I’m using the North American spelling since she’s Canadian). Still within the lines but close enough to the person on her passenger side would have trouble opening their door. Like an asshole.

Now my mate, who actually tries not to be an asshole when she can, decides to move her car little to the side. Good on her. What she doesn’t want to do is put all the stuff she’s carrying down though. It took ages to load herself up and she doesn’t want to go through packing her shoulders and arms up all over again. So my friend does the only thing that makes sense at the same time. She swings the door open as wide as she can and stands half outside the car while she moves it. One hand, one foot inside the vehicle, the other foot on the street and the other hand sticking up into the air to keep a mess of shopping bags slipping off. And she got the bastard moved.

At this point in the telling of the story I’m watching her demonstrate the manoeuvre in the bar (it’s late and the place is basically empty) and I give her the best possible compliment I can think of.

“That is some Mr Bean shit right there.”

And it was, specifically reminding me of that time he bought a new chair. If you don’t know the one I’m talking about don’t worry. I got you covered.

Excuse me for four and a half minutes while I laugh my arse off (notice the proper spelling there).

Alright, I’m back.

One of the all time great role models, amiright? No, seriously. Mr Bean is great role model. I mean, I’m not gonna start suggesting you tie a sofa chair to the top of a mini and ride it home. Or blow up a paint can in order to rapidly redecorate. Or one of the many other ridiculous things that Rowan Atkinson’s incredible character has done. Seriously, don’t blow up paint cans when you want to redecorate. But if you’re looking for an example of ingenuity, determination, being able to both plan ahead and deal with crises on the fly, and – most importantly to an Aussie like me – practicality, then you can find no better.

So if I ever compare you to Mr Bean, there is a very good chance that it’s unironically one of the nicest things I could think of.

Reviewing the Old School: Collateral (2004)

We all knew that Tom Cruise was crazy back in 2004, yeah? Well y’know, celebrity crazy. Which is still pretty crazy, but it’s entertaining and eccentric instead of the heartbreaking sight of some poor bastard with no family and no real idea when or where they are asking for spare change from the edge of a needle-strewn alleyway… But yeah, we’d started making jokes about Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and arguing about his Thetan levels all the way back in 2004, right?

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I remember that being the reason I didn’t watch Collateral straight away. I mean aside from me being a broke-arse teenage high school student (as opposed to all those high school students in their late twenties – hey look at film and television, it’s a serious problem). Tom Cruise had made a bunch of bad films, he’d broken up with Nicole and married whats-her-face (sorry, just googled that and he married whats-her-face in 2006), and he’d gone crazy. That matters to a kid who reckons they’re a film snob while secretly thinking that Shrek was the greatest masterpiece in cinematic history. I blame my dad. I’ve got less of a problem with that now, and apparently Tom Cruise is just super-lovely. One of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Top bloke. But separating Tom from the characters he was playing, it weren’t easy at the time. It wasn’t until this film came highly recommended by a mate that I sat down and watched it.

And it’s good. Really good. The tale of a relationship that develops between an LA cabbie and his charge as they drive from stop to stop. It just so happens that the customer is a contract killer working for a drug cartel, murdering witnesses before a major indictment. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cabbie in question, the terrified ordinary citizen who desperately wants to get through the night alive but at the same time is smart enough to know how unlikely that is, and does a great job of it. He’s a character that has to constantly push through shock, panic and sheer terror while having a man who’s probably going to murder him also try and befriend him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the private sector murderer without a conscience. His hair is greyed to make him look older but it’s bloody Tom Cruise, you can put him in a clown suit made of daffodils and he’ll still bring a powerful presence to the screen when required.

The other actors all do a fantastic job as well. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a lawyer for the prosecution, appears briefly at the beginning but leaves such a great impression and has such good chemistry with Jamie Foxx that you aren’t at all surprised (and can’t possibly be displeased) when she appears at the end. Mark Ruffalo looks surprisingly different with facial hair as Detective Fanning. Barry Shabaka Henley talks jazz as Daniel with Vincent and Javier Bardem talks about Black Pedro as Felix with Max. Director Michael Mann knows how to get the best out of his cast, and it is a stella cast (Tom Cruise included). The music, the angles, the closeups which reveal intimacy and the wide shots that show isolation.

But this is a film all about conversation, and writer Stuart Beattie writes some really excellent stuff. It’s not the fast-paced banter you’d expect in a Tarantino or Ritchie film, rather it’s a slow boil deconstruction of a decent man’s soul as that man is on the verge of panic while another man puts a gun to his head and tells him to calm down.

The movie is all about the relationship between Vincent and Max, and it’s funny how well Foxx and Cruise pull it off. There’s not much chemistry between them, and that seems largely intentional. There’s always a distance, at first caused by their relationship as client and cabbie and then by Vincent’s pistol. The weird part is how likeable Vincent is. He actually seems like a pretty good guy aside from being very willing to shoot anybody and everybody he runs into. He helps Max deal with an overbearing boss, buys his mother flowers and encourages him to “call the girl.” It’s weird how he tries (tries so hard) to be a good friend. And that’s the thing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t just shoot Max as soon as the luckless cabbie finds out about Vincent’s career goals. Because he’s so starved for human contact that he’ll spend hours trying to connect with a bloke he’s probably gonna top at dawn.

Good stuff. Great film.

Anyway, point is that you shouldn’t always judge a film by the actor playing in it. Now Tom’s come back and he’s done some great stuff in the past couple of years, so I’m not too worried about people prejudging his stuff. Some real shit as well (Oblivion), but a lot of absolutely fantastic (Live Die Repeat) and fun (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, his cameo in Tropic Thunder) roles in the main. He’s a good actor and a good guy.

But, y’know, don’t judge whatever new Nicolas Cage film comes out before you see it? I guess? No, no. You can prejudge Nicolas Cage all you want.

Reviewing the old school: Die Hard (1988)

So I wanted to do a Christmas movie this week since, y’know, Christmas. Took me a little while to decide which one, since there are quite a few of them (many of them actually pretty shit). Then I remembered I hadn’t watched the original Die Hard in a while, and the choice was made. I procured a copy, ordered a curry and sat back to watch what remains one of my favourite action movies ever.

Released in 1988, the film stars Bruce Willis as John MccLane, an NYPD cop visiting his estranged wife at her work Christmas party (in an incomplete skyscraper in Los Angeles). Then a bunch of mostly European thieves masquerading as terrorists take all the party guests hostage. Hijinks ensue.

But you should already know all this, because you should have already seen this movie by now. In all honesty this should be on that 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list if it isn’t already. It’s a classic action film that holds together incredibly well nearly three decades later (holy shit Die Hard turned 27 this year). The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the set pieces are spectacular and the coincidences never feel as contrived as they do in a lot of other films (including, if I’m being honest, Die Hard 2). The music, as well, is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t really paid much attention to until I rewatched it this week, but it manages to add tension in the necessary scenes and avoids the unnecessary synth-rock that’s left the soundtracks to so many other movies from the 80s so dated. Best of all it manages to keeps a Christmas theme going throughout the film.

It’s little stuff like that which makes this movie so much fun and the it never treats the audience like an idiot. It talks through particular scenes without feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us through Bruce Willis’ conversations with the Hans Gruber (the villain), Al Powell (his lifeline on the outside) and himself (you’re only crazy if there’s someone around to hear you). It also has a surprisingly high opinion of intelligent characters. John MccLane is not an idiot. He’s good at improvising and working through problems. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is witty and charming, very capable of getting his hands dirty, able to think clearly, rationally and keep an eye on the prize throughout. Idiotic behaviour, however, usually results in the death of that idiot, as we see with Ellis and the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Going in guns blazing doesn’t work, and I wish more action movies would take this lesson to heart.

There are flaws, of course. Holly Gennaro, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has little to do aside from being someone for John MccLane to save. Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sergeant Al Powell tells a story about shooting an unarmed 13 year old boy, meant to garner sympathy for the cops, comes off a little sour given recent events (and probably should have given contemporary events as well). Some guns never seem to run out of bullets until it suddenly ‘matters’. The territorial police commissioner trope, furious about property damage and glass, is a little overdone. As is the henchman who just will not fucking die.

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws. Especially ’cause this movie gave us Alan Rickman. I mean, yeah, Bruce Willis was also a fairly fresh face known for his TV and commercial work propelled to Hollywood fame by this film, but he didn’t play Severus fucking Snape in the Harry Potter films. Without Die Hard Rickman may have remained a relative or complete unknown. And that would have been tragic.

So, yeah, watch this film if you haven’t already. But I expect just about everyone likely to read this already has, so, watch it again I guess? Yeah, watch it again.

Have a Happy Christmas (or Chanukah or Winter Solstice or just a grand public holiday for the many people who don’t celebrate it). Let’s see if I can think of a good New Year movie for next time.

Try harder, or why I’m loving Bitch Planet

There’s a really excellent comic series running right now by the name of Bitch Planet. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Valentine De Landro it takes place in a future in which ‘non-compliant’ women are sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, nicknamed (you guessed it) Bitch Planet. It’s a clever feminist satire of 70s exploitation films. The art style and colours (done by the excellent Cris Peter) are deeply reminiscent of grainy film and a tacky science fiction aesthetic, cleverly placing the female cast in positions where they are sexualised in the context of the world without sexualising them for the readers. The characters are likeable and real, representing not just a cross-section of race, body-types and sexualities, but also personalities and motivations, coming together for an opportunity to strike back at the patriarchy that governs their world. And man, fuck the patriarchy that governs their world. With a brick. Sideways.

What really exemplifies this series for me, however, is how fucking disgusted with myself I feel after I read them. Just really goddamn gross. And yeah, that is a good thing.

The scary part of this particular dystopian future (like many great dystopian futures) is just how familiar it feels. Body-shaming, slut-shaming, sexuality-shaming, racism, stereotypes, pseudo-scientific explanations for why man is superior to woman, a belief that the sole purpose of females is to serve men perpetuated by the media and popular culture instilling little doubt in the younger generations about this ‘truth’. This is the world we live in now. The world of Bitch Planet simply codifies it into law and makes non-compliance (being fat, gay or promiscuous) punishable with prison sentences and even death (shit, it’s not even hard to think of countries where this is actually a reality). The villains of the piece, Father and the other old men who rule, are unpleasant caricatures scarily reminiscent of the good old boys who fill governments and governing boards the world over. And good god how I wish for the protagonists, the bitches of Bitch Planet, to punch their smug, misogynist faces in. The part that gets to me, however, is that they might not.

Right from Issue #1 it was made clear that any victory would be bitter-sweet and failure was the more likely outcome. That undercurrent of failure being more than possible has continued through the series all the way to this weeks Issue #5 and doesn’t look like it’ll be ending soon. You feel like no matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, those above will simply change the rules to keep themselves there and there is nothing that these heroic women will be able to do to stop it.

Just like it often feels in the real world. The real world where women are blamed for being the victims of sexual assault, harassment and violence, then punished with more of the same. The real world where a woman has to work twice as hard to be in the same position as a man and still earn less pay. The real world where a woman’s reproductive rights (and their universal rights to bodily integrity) are constantly under attack by backwards moralists and their pocket legislators. The real world that I am a part of. And part of the problem.

I’m a big believer in the old saw that art mirrors life and society, and when I read Bitch Planet I see a pretty ugly reflection. I can’t read this and not feel like I’m not doing enough to change this reality. Change this reflection. I’m not doing enough to make this world we live in a better place for my sisters, my cousins, my daughters if I ever have them, my friends. Shit I’m not even sure what I should be doing, just that I’m not currently or not doing well enough. Not trying hard enough.

That’s what’s great about Bitch Planet. It’s a simple reminder to try harder. And that’s what I’ll do. It’s what we should all do. Because the world of Bitch Planet is not a great place to be.

So I’d definitely give it a recommend giving it a read. It’s fun, exciting, horrifying and tragic all at the same time. Most importantly it’s a reminder to keep trying harder.

Parental guidance, or why I loved Mad Max: Fury Road

Max and Furiosa, sketch

As always, heads up that there are some spoilers ahead. Y’know what? Go see the movie first. Go see it. It’s brilliant.

There’s a scene around the middle of the Mad Max: Fury Road that I think sums up what makes the film so great. The appropriately named War Rig (a jury-rigged armed, armoured and supercharged oil tanker), carrying (the also appropriately named) Furiosa, Wives, a changed Nux and a less reluctant Max, has become bogged down in the wet soil and sand of what we might assume is a desolate former swamp. Behind them the war lord in charge of the Bullet Farm (an ally of primary antagonist Immortan Joe) and only one in possession of a vehicle with the treads necessary for traversing the treacherous terrain quickly, is closing in. Bullet Farm. It’s a clever name that draws upon an offhanded remark by one of the wives, the Capable I think it was, that one of her relatives used to call bullets “antiseeds. Plant one and watch something die.”

The sun set some time before, casting the world in a blue filter that marks a striking contrast against the reds and yellows of the wasteland during the daytime and forcing the (again, appropriately named) Bullet Farmer to probe the darkness with a bright white spotlight (and randomly directed shots from his enormous arsenal). Planning to slow down the progress of their pursuer Max kneels down with a scoped rifle, takes aim at the spotlight, fires, misses. Again, he takes aim, fires, misses. Is informed that he only has two shots left for that rifle. For a third time, he takes aim, fires. For a third time he misses. One shot left.

Before he can take it, before he can hit or miss, Furiosa comes up behind him. Max glances at her, back down the scope, then hands her the rifle. We, the audience, already know she’s a brilliant shot with this weapon. We saw her using it to pluck motorcyclists out of the air like clay pigeons as they jumped over the War Rig, then use it to pick off an approaching straggler well in the distance. What makes this scene something special, why it is such a fantastic demonstration of the evolved relationship between the characters and their combined strength is that Max doesn’t get up. He remains kneeling, allowing Furiosa to rest the stock of the rifle on his shoulder as she takes aim at the approaching spotlight. He doesn’t need to be told, he just does, and while he’s obviously not entirely pleased by the thought of having a gun fire right next to his ear, when Furiosa says “Don’t breath,” he doesn’t. She pulls the trigger. The spotlight shatters into the face of the Bullet Farmer. The ambient noise of the film is replaced by the high-pitched whine of Max’s dying ear cells (there’s a reason you might not be happy about someone firing a gun right next to your ear). He doesn’t complain, just gives his head a shake.

A lesser character in a lesser film, with a lesser writer or director, would have felt the need for their male title to try and reassert some dominance and masculinity after being used as a prop by the female lead. Maybe with an offhanded remark about how he “was just about to do that” himself, maybe claim that some blunt force trauma to his head which occurred in an earlier fight (while saving the lady’s arse, of course) had thrown off his aim. Not Max though, and not Fury Road. He doesn’t say much at all. Just gets up and joins the others in getting the War Rig moving again. Cause we’re not watching Max’s story, we’re watching Furiosa’s story from Max’s perspective. It is Furiosa’s ambition, strength and desire that propel the story forward and drives the action. Max’s role is to support her in this, keep her moving forward, and at the end point her in the right direction to achieve those ambitions.

It reminded me of my parents. The supporting relationship, I mean, not the gun play. Both of them have their own plans, dreams and ambitions. When one needs to do something to achieve their goals, the other is there to provide the moral and physical support necessary to do it. Of course a big part of those ambitions was raising me and my siblings right. Making sure we achieve what we want to achieve.

The movie is a master-class in ‘show, don’t tell‘ and it’s what makes this film such an absolute joy of stoic characters and insane action. One of those important things is the relationship between Max and Furiosa. It is Furiosa’s desires and ambitions that are ultimately achieved, but I believe she could not have achieved them without Max’s help. Right here I want to be very clear that this is not a statement against Furiosa. Some would call her the best female action hero since Ripley in Alien and Aliens. I would call her better. She’s smart, fierce and amazingly capable. As I said, she drives the action, the plot and the motivations of the other characters. Furiosa is the knight errant rescuing the princesses from the tower, but Max is her squire. An important part of a more important character’s story, providing an extra pair of hands to maintain their steed, an extra fighter when she’s driving, a driver when she’s fighting, the hardened reinforcement to keep moving forward when she desperately wants to turn around but knows it would be folly (you know the scene if you’ve seen the film… “under the wheels”) and in the very end the herald announcing the end of her quest and displaying the trophy of her victory. In return for helping the hero on her journey Max receives the things he lacked travelling alone through the wasteland. Respect. Companionship. Hope. A cause worth fighting for beyond survival. Identity. Someone to witness who he was, who’d also understand what he was. Empathy. The Wives.

Fuckin’ hell, I cannot stress just how important the wives are to both Furiosa and Max. I’d call those two each other’s moral compasses, but it is the Wives who are the north that both end up trying to reach. A few commentators and reviews of Furiosa have missed the fact that in her first face-to-face meetings with both Max and Nux she tries to put them both down. Unsurprising, considering the context in which she meets them (threatening her and the women she is protecting with a shotgun and sneaking through the Rig to kill her, respectively). In both cases, it is the Wives that influence her actions during and afterward. It is the fact that Max, a feral dog after years in the wasteland with only his hallucinations for company, only bares his teeth (and nicks their ride, admittedly) even after Furiosa presses that shotgun against his head and pulls the trigger. He doesn’t harm the girls beyond what could easily be argued was necessary for his own survival, and so she sees the potential in trusting him to protect the Wives in the next scene. Between this she is ready to gut Nux but the Wives stop her. They call him a confused boy and his death as unnecessary. After this, it is the empathy of one of these wives that sees a scared, lonely and confused Nux (who knows he cannot possibly rejoin the society that was his whole identity, his whole existence) change sides and fight to protect the women who showed him compassion. In the end he does not desire to ride through Valhalla, shiny and chrome, he wants to be remembered by someone who genuinely cared about him.

As for Max, well, by the end of the movie he may not be sane but his experience with the Wives has reacquainted him with a sense of justice that he thought was dead at the beginning of the story. He sees Furiosa, who wants to do more than protect them, and grows from that. She wants to give the girls a chance to grow, live, make their own decisions, be more than just property, live up to their true potential. Is it Maternalism? Maybe. Probably. It certainly contrasts pretty sharply against the toxic paternalism and patriarchy of Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine death cult. But isn’t that what all good parents want regardless of gender? For their children to live, thrive, and reach their own potential? To be happy? I bloody think so.

That’s what I think this movie is about. Two parents helping, learning from and supporting each other to give their adopted children a chance that they never had (or in Max’s case, was never able to give to his biological child… if we assume this is the Max from the original). A victory of Parentalism over Paternalism and Patriarchy. That is wonderful.

It also has a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar on the back of a giant doof wagon. That is also wonderful.

Go see Mad Max: Fury Road. It is wonderful.

Where’s she at then?

Assassin male and female blank Edit

I scribbled this out last year, just before Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out, when Ubisoft was taking flak for failing to include playable female characters in the co-op because it was too hard and expensive to animate them. Made one of my sisters chuckle, flew right over the head of my brother. He’s 14, god bless him, and just doesn’t quite yet have the best grasp of sarcasm and irony. He’ll get there though. Anyway. Fortunately for Ubisoft, the controversy (in my experience at least) died down a fair bit once the game itself was released. Unfortunately for Ubisoft that was because Unity turned out to be glitchy nightmare fuel (which sidelined women in plenty of other ways). Apparently animating male characters is hard and expensive too.

But it’s a new year, a new Assassin’s Creed has been announced and low and behold Syndicate (set in Victorian era London, at the height and centre of the Industrial Revolution) will star not just a mutton-chop and top-hat sporting male playable protagonist, but a female playable protagonist as well! We’ll be playing as twin sibling assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they battle to free London from the oppressive yoke of Templar rule by murdering them and their mates. Good stuff. They’re saying we’ll be able to play through most of the game as either character, aside from a few specific missions for each where they get their own character development. Great stuff. And hell, by the looks of it the gangs of London that will make up both the player’s and the antagonist’s armies of underworld gangs will be equal opportunity employers, meaning we’ll have contextually appropriate female opposition to stab. Fantastic stuff. Wait… yes, that’s still good. People are rightfully excited. Yet, after checking out the first few trailers, pictures and gameplay video I can’t help but think, “So, where the flying fuck is she?”

Seriously, look at the announcement trailer:

You hear Jacob talking, see Jacob standing in front of a growing army of street thugs, see Jacob leaping about and stabbing people. No noticeable Evie.

Then there’s the first cinematic trailer:

Again, Jacob talking, standing, leading, leaping and stabbing, along with him flying up walls with some sort of grappling hook launcher/retractor… which is actually pretty damn cool. Still. No noticeable Evie.

But wait, there’s the pre-alpha gameplay footage that’s just come out!

And there’s Evie! In the cut scenes! She does bloody exist! Of course, we only get to see her in those cut scenes and at no other time during the entire walkthrough. And even then Jacob takes the centre stage as the driving force of this particular (I suppose you’d call it a) plot point, with all the exciting lines and sense of humour, while Evie is calm and politely apologetic.

Ubisoft have since released a trailer introducing us to Jacob Frye, but seem to think another introducing us to the brand new collectibles is far more important than a trailer introducing us to one of the main playable characters. Shit, even the box art has got Evie crammed to the side while Jacob takes front and centre.

Now, I know it’s early days. I know that at any point the marketing team might flood us with information and images of Evie being the arse-kicking heroine that (I bloody well hope) we all expect her to be. I know that the creators are actually pretty decent at writing diverse and nuanced characters and they have far from the worst reputation when it comes to writing women. I know that they might simply be underplaying their first playable female in a main Assassin’s Creed title, not making a big deal out being able to play as a chick because it really fucking shouldn’t be. I know that the apparent sidelining of Evie in this first round of promotional material may have more to do with the marketing team still being terrified that boys think playing as a girl is ickie than with the game or developer following the same train of thought (I know that this disconnection between marketing teams and developers is still a major problem in Triple A gaming). I know, I know, I know. If you call me anything you call me fair-minded. The problem is that I do not have a reason to trust Ubisoft.

I can’t help but feel that a big part of the reason Evie will be a playable character is Ubisoft reacting to all the flak it took last year. And there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the great things about the video games industry is the way the interaction between player and developer, consumer and creator. It also goes without saying that including a playable female character is a big progressive step forward. But if they end up largely side-lining or stereotyping the character (in the game or the promotional material) than it won’t be nearly big enough, especially since it’s already been shown that including playable female characters in the story and marketing won’t hurt game sales.

Look at Bioware and the advertising for Mass Effect 3, where it reacted to the fans demanding that FemShep be featured in the art and marketing by allowing them to select a default look and then putting her in trailers and artwork, something that the developer carried over to the advertising of Dragon Age: Inquisition, where the narration of trailers was voiced by the actors playing both the male and female Inquisitors, and the main box art featured an ambiguously armoured figure. When Blizzard received complaints that it was using the same (stereotypical) body-shapes for its female characters in upcoming title Overwatch it responded with the (absolutely badass) Zarya. Both companies received a lot of goodwill from their fans for their responses, so there’s no reason for Ubisoft not to follow suit. But I’d argue that both Bioware and Blizzard (even when owned by EA and Activision) have a far better history of positive female representation in their games (not perfect, but definitely better) than Ubisoft’s development studios and the publisher itself do. Shit, when I googled “list of Ubisoft female protagonists” all I got was a bunch of articles about the controversy I mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog, about Ubisoft’s lack of female protagonists.

So when I don’t see the lady in question featuring prominently – or at all – in the first round of announcements and hype beyond “you’ll get to play as her, we swear!” I just can’t bring myself to take their word for it.

Now, I’m probably just being facetious. Evie will probably be a great character with a great story and great development. And god knows I probably won’t have access to a console or PC capable of playing it come Syndicate‘s release. I’ll also mention that the only two Assassin’s Creed games I’ve enjoyed enough to play to the end were Brotherhood and Black Flag, so my opinion probably doesn’t matter all that much.

But still. Ubisoft need to be held accountable. It’s not enough to be able to play as a chick, she needs to be treated with the respect and power that the male characters of your games receive. At the very least, she needs to be given her own trailer before one announcing the fucking pre-order bonuses.