Monday, July 31, 2017

Ice and Fire together

In every story, there comes a time when the conflicts you've set up and become comfortable with have to be resolved. In epics like Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, they're likely going to be resolved in stages, if only to give the audience (and the writers and actors) some opportunity to revel in that resolution. This is the payoff to years of work. Tonight's episode was one step in that progression for a number of storylines. It took years for the Unsullied to come to grips with Westerosi soldiers. The taking of Casterly Rock was one example of why their reputation is as grand as it is. Many people in Westeros and all of the audience has known that Cersei and Jaime have been a bit more than fraternal since the first episode. Now it's common gossip throughout the city and soon beyond. And, of course, everyone has been waiting for the meeting of Jon and Daenerys (nephew and aunt) for quite some time now, although there's still a lot of that story left to tell. As Melisandre said: "I've done my part. I brought ice and fire together."; thus referencing the title that George RR Martin uses for the whole sprawling project, even if HBO has stuck with the single element that drives everything: the game of thrones.

Because there were so many moments that all of us had been waiting for, it was appropriate that Benioff and Weiss were back on the writing duties. I suppose neither of them would have passed up the chance to finally pen the scene where the woman whose life is embodied by the quest for the throne meets the one man who holds a throne and really doesn't want it. Now the question is: Was the wait worth it? A great deal of expectation gets built up over such a long period of time and there were obvious attempts to defuse the grandiloquence of the situation (the comparison of titles, etc.) so that the two of them could engage as the people that they are, rather than the roles that the audience has so long wanted them to fill. As the writer(s), you have to be able to fill those long-desired moments sufficiently, without letting the progression of the story come to a halt. You've indeed reached the payoff point, but the reward is that events keep going to the real resolution. As Sam discovered tonight, there often is no reward for being right. The reward is the work itself and its successful completion.

But, with all of that said, I'm left wondering if the payoff was worth it. I found myself largely uninspired in writing about the show this week. I thought the scene with Dany and Jon ran a bit long. Just how much royal jousting can one do when one participant isn't interested at all? Likewise, for all that the episode proved that Cersei was, once again, two steps ahead of everyone else (most pointedly her brother, Tyrion), the culmination of the some of her plans was less than expected when it came to production.  Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell and one of the oldest structures in Westeros was reduced to a pretty simple matte painting and one plain room where Olenna awaited her fate. The "battle" to take this crucial locale was a couple scenes of Lannister troops marching and then one moment of obvious siege clean-up... except that there was no siege. The Lannisters didn't even have a back door like the Unsullied used to take the Rock. The seat of the house with the largest army in Westeros just went away like an unwanted subplot. Clearly, the discussion between Jaime and Randyll Tarly likely involved the latter keeping that huge army away from Highgarden, but it still seems rather stunningly anti-climactic. We always have to keep in mind production limits, since there's often not room in the budget for the huge battles and sets that we'd like to see. But this season is also only seven episodes. Couldn't something have been spared for one of those seven kingdoms?

I'm not trying to say that the episode was poor, like a couple from season 5 (Dorne!) were. After all, with events like Bran's return to Winterfell. the show remains interesting to watch and it's clear that D&D have found their footing in the post-GRRM world and are steering their ship to its eventual port, regardless of what the books might say in the future. It's also clear that the actors continue to inhabit their characters splendidly; most notably the Lannisters. Tyrion, like Jon, never wanted to be part of the game. He got his first taste while working as Hand for his detestable nephew and has latched on in that same role for the only person that he finds sufficiently ethical to be in a position of power. Even in that turmoil of emotion and responsibility, neither the writers nor Peter Dinklage have lost track of who Tyrion is: a southern lord who makes little jabs at the "dreary" north and a dwarf who knows that he's still considered to be one of the "broken things", no matter which monarch he serves. Similarly, Lena Headey's performance as Cersei has been spectacular from the start, but the end of season 6 and the first three episodes of this season have been remarkable. Just watching her eyes almost literally glow with malice as she described to Ellaria how she was going to watch Tyene suffer, die, and decompose was excellent. Having achieved the lifelong goals of sitting on the throne and semi-publicly acknowledging her love for her twin, Headey is filling every corner of the role with the indulgence that Cersei would be feeling as queen of the realm. How many people get turned on by condemning someone to brutal torture and deprivation? The, uh, satisfaction was obvious.

But Jaime and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau remains the most fascinating of the three. I've seen many comments on Jaime that indicate that people are still often confused about how and why he's acting the way he does. After many were convinced that he was a "good guy" following his lengthy sojourn with Brienne, they were roundly disenchanted when he began acting like a Lannister again upon his return to Cersei and King's Landing. One still sees elements of that morality when he's confronted with the more outlandish of Cersei's actions or even when he's brooding on his role in the game and she comes in to the room trying to get some after torturing an enemy. Where before he was the one acting out of passion, now he's the one pulling away because he can't hide from the truth: this isn't what he wanted. From Tywin Lannister's perspective, Jaime lacks the one thing that all successful rulers have: ambition. Neither of his sons had it, although both are willing to embrace their roles out of necessity. His daughter has it in spades. That became one of her prime frustrations, when her father failed to see that she was the one who could lead the family when he was gone. Jaime never matured in that manner, despite being a capable commander and, eventually, a genuinely ethical person in some ways. But why does he follow Cersei's orders and display some of the old Lannister ruthlessness whenever he's interacting with the outside world? Because he knows it's a game of survival now. Cersei wants to wipe out all of their enemies to show how strong she is. Jaime wants to do so because he knows if they're left in power and the Lannisters somehow lose the struggle, he and Cersei are dead. At this point, it's simply a matter of getting them before they get him. In the meantime, he finds that he still loves the woman that he fears and is repelled by and he still loves swinging a sword, even though he's a long way from what he used to be in that respect, as well. Coster-Waldau has many fine lines to wobble off of and then find a way to return to, like any good tightrope walker, and that's what has made Jaime the most fascinating character to watch for some time, even when the plot becomes a little pro forma.

Similarly, Sansa has been left in a role that requires her to use the knowledge and awareness that life in King's Landing and with Littlefinger have groomed her for. She excels at that until long lost brother Bran finally returns to Winterfell. His inability to be human any longer becomes the element that reveals her continuing to be all too human, which is a vulnerability that Littlefinger can continue to exploit, even when (or especially when) Jon returns. It's that struggle which may turn out to be more interesting than all of the rest.

Technical stuff:

The production limits are really showing. Again, the "battle" for Highgarden was a real disappointment. The Tyrells have always been a bit of a McGuffin in the story, but when you keep lauding them as the house with the most food, now the most money, and as a consequence of both, the largest army, and then see the hereditary seat wiped out as an afterthought, it's pretty disappointing. By the same token, even though they've glossed over the question of how Euron could find both lumber and men to create the other Iron Fleet (i.e. the one that Asha and Theon didn't have), they now have Euron jetting from one side of the continent to the other in minutes to be the lever by which Cersei keeps her plans rolling two steps ahead of everyone else's. Time compression is a thing in a story this large and sometimes you just have to deal with that, but he's treading (floating) a lot closer to a deus ex machina device than I'd like to see.

Similarly, Olenna Tyrell had been floating around like a ghost, standing in for the Tyrells wherever they were needed in order to hold their place in the story. Why wasn't she meeting with her most powerful bannerman, Randyll Tarly and putting their army in the field on behalf of the Dragon Queen? Again, the reduction to seven episodes this season is having a real impact in some respects and I think this is one of them. Thankfully, Dianna Rigg got one last chance to twist the knife in the way she has since she entered the series, even if it was to reveal something that most of us already knew.

There's a certain amount of resignation in the acknowledgement that, when it comes to wars, the real winners are usually the bankers. The crown is out of money. The Lannisters are out of money. Now the Tyrells are out of money. So the Seven Kingdoms will have been laid waste and the Iron Bank will be richer than ever.

One wonders how D&D decided to handle the Dany and Jon scene from the perspective of revealing the "real" war that's coming. After all, this is a woman who rides dragons and walks through infernos unhurt. Is it really that difficult to believe in an army of zombies led by ice aliens? Certainly, there's relatively recent historical precedent for the presence of dragons, since the Targaryens conquered Westeros with some only 300 years before and no one has seen the Others in thousands of years. One can also understand a dismissal of something one has never seen, either. After all, the dragons are right outside and she's lived through the fact that fire doesn't hurt her. But she's also lived through the effects of the clear sorcery of people like Pyat Pree in Qarth. Having seen that kind of power, again, is it really that difficult to believe that there might be something just as "not normal" and threatening that a 700-foot tall wall was built to keep it out? Certainly, the threat of Cersei is both real and present and that's going to occupy one's mind more than tales from the far off North, which is why Tyrion convinces her with "Give him something by giving him nothing."

Lines of the week:

"It's been a long road, but we're both still here." True 'dat.

"A sham marriage. And unconsummated."
"I didn't ask."
"Well, it was. Wasn't. Whatever."
How to say "I didn't sleep with your sister." in Westerosi noblespeak.

"I am the last Targaryen." she says to the other last Targaryen.

"Does she like it gentle or rough? Or with a finger in the bum? Not now. We'll talk later."
There are moments when the essential chauvinism of Westerosi society breaks through. Jaime losing his hand essentially makes him a eunuch among those that fill the role of warrior and it's been interesting seeing him struggle with that.

"Sometimes tragedies are necessary to restore order." Spoken like a true fasci-, uh, banker.

"You must allow them their flights of fancy. It's dreary in the north." Tyrion being Tyrion.

"Don't know anything about that. I just started feeling better." I got better!

"Give me ten good men and I'll impregnate the bitch." Bronn, season 1, episode 3. He forgot to mention the climbing spikes, though.

"He enjoys talking."
"We all enjoy what we're good at."
"I don't."
That's Jon.

"She's a disease. I regret my role in spreading it. You will, too." Olenna with one last turn of the knife.

And the winner:

"I know it's a good question. I'm looking for an answer." I think that would be "42".

Monday, July 24, 2017

The nature of the thing

Li'l swipe from Ralph Waldo on the title. Follow the greats, yo.
Bryan Cogman was the writer for this episode and that strikes me as singularly appropriate, because he has a very good grasp of the essential nature of many of these characters. Cogman started as an assistant to Benioff and Weiss and, human nature being what it is, had enough conversations with them about characters and screenplay ideas that they eventually signed him on as a regular writer. It's not what you know, but who you know, etc. But in this case, it's also what you know, as Cogman had been a reader and fan of the books long before D&D made their pitch to GRRM and HBO. And it's that identification of many of these characters' essential nature that forms the underlying theme for this episode.

We get that from the very beginning on Dragonstone, when Daenerys lays out the basic truth about Varys and his ever-malleable loyalties. Varys responds with what is largely the same truth he relayed to Kevan Lannister (while killing him) in A Dance with Dragons: Varys doesn't care about any regime. The only thing he really cares about is the people suffering under all of them, just as he did as a child, subject to the whims of others. Despite his ruthless application of the knowledge provided by his little birds in the name of whichever king he's been serving, his basic goal has been to try to serve the public weal.

Hey! You're my dog! Wait. No.
But that was a confrontation in which the essential nature of a character that we all basically understood was merely confirmed by his own admission. There were a couple more instances in which that realization was more of a surprise or revelation to the person in question, even if we'd understood it for a while. One of the most heartfelt to many fans, I'm sure, was the long-awaited reunion between Arya and Nymeria. While I initially arched an eyebrow at Arya's decision to (temporarily?) abandon her vengeance and head north to find her family again, I realized after a couple minutes that it provides even more of an interesting story angle because that impending reunion brings into question the person that Arya has become. The meeting with Nymeria only confirms that: Arya is a loner. She always was as a child, never doing what the other girls (especially Sansa) were doing, and has become the ultimate loner as an almost-Faceless Man; not even connected to the tiny cult whose powers she now wields. When she sees her long lost pet and tries to reconnect on the level they once shared, her realization emerges in her own words: "That's not you." Nymeria, at root, is not a pet, anymore than the other wolves were or Ghost is (since he's more of an occasional companion, rather than a pet.) By the same token, Arya is not one to have or maintain attachments, despite Hot Pie's earnest attempts to reassure her that she has some.

You guys and your book-learnin'! What good are ya?!
Similarly, Sam's essential nature is that of hope (and stubbornness.) He refuses to believe in the impossible, confident that with enough determination, all things can be overcome. He was the one who pushed Jon to take the leadership role that was naturally his. He was the one who rescued a daughter of Craster from beyond the Wall, brought that woman and her child to Castle Black where they're forbidden, brought her again to the Citadel in Oldtown where they're also forbidden, and now is intent on rescuing Jorah Mormont from an "incurable" disease. This is the story of Sam played out again and again, in which he risks his own well-being and overrides his own trepidity in order to aid others. Here we have the complexities of what, indeed, makes up any human. Is Sam brave or a coward? Both? One more than the other? This is the hallmark of great writing and excellent acting to back it up, because one of the other aspects to Sam's character is his honesty. I think the pinnacle moment of his character in the series to date is the point where Jorah asks him if he's done this treatment before and Sam simply says: "No." The archmaester, attempting to urge Sam into the role of many adherents to their discipline, that of observer and recorder, unwittingly(?) pushes Sam in the direction he wants to go when he tells him: "This is your moment. Use it wisely."

Heroic death or wasting away on a log in the Narrow Sea?
But perhaps the most interesting contrast in this thematic approach was that between Theon and Grey Worm. In the case of the former, we have a confrontation that purports to expose Theon's basic nature as not a warrior (Tangent: I hesitate to use the word "coward" here, since there's a solid argument that genuine bravery is often defined by the willingness to not resort to violence, but I think that moves us a bit far afield from what I'm trying to write here, so I'll just resort to the clumsier "not a warrior.") An easy response could be that it's the mutilation and abuse by Ramsay that changed the basic premise of the man. Where before he was willing to swing a sword at anything and slaughter innocents to achieve the glory he felt should be his (or, at least, that he felt his father thought should be his), now he's no longer willing to do so when confronted with someone obviously stronger than he is. But when one looks back on Theon's actions, they often revealed the approach of the bully. As we've seen throughout history (and many of our childhoods), most bullies are insecure about their own character and use violence and a mien of toughness to hide that and protect themselves. That's "not a warrior", either, so I'd argue that Ramsay's treatments simply forced Theon to accept his essential being. We saw a hint of Theon's acknowledgment of the warrior role not being the be-all and end-all back in season 1:

Believe me, you need this.
That's the opposite of the situation with Grey Worm, whose mutilation and rigorous training could be seen as removing the basic aspect of humanity that is sexuality. After all, not being able to engage in what most people consider "sex" and having been trained as a small child to treat all such impulses as "weakness", as he refers to Missandei, one could conceivably label Grey Worm and all the Unsullied as "asexual." But sexuality takes many forms, as do the actions that accompany that basic impulse. Missandei pushes him into lying with her and tries to break him down to his fundamentals (We put the "fun" in fundamentalism!) She knows the drive is in there. She knows that he desires her. It becomes a matter of getting him to acknowledge that a shell has been built up that doesn't allow him to acknowledge himself as a sexual being. This isn't simply an essential nature of Grey Worm, but that of all humans and I hope it isn't dismissed too easily by the audience as a moment of titillation or sappiness. Most of Game of Thrones is about war and ruthlessness. That moment was about love, no matter what form it takes.

You guys aren't gonna like this. Again. But...
And then there's Jon, who in some ways embodies all of the above: the loner, constantly hopeful, willing to lead with his emotions, never willing to shy away from the truth, and aware that violence is rarely the best answer. His long term vision for solving the problems of the North have little to do with being the heroic king that so many think is necessary. After all, he didn't want the job and still doubts his ability to do it (many would call that wisdom...) By the same token, he may not only be fulfilling his desire to handle things directly when he knows that many will doubt the things that he's seen, but he also gives the opportunity to solve the frustration that he may know that Sansa is feeling. He's ignored her counsel and implicitly questioned her judgment yet again, but done so by handing the North to her and giving her the opportunity to be the leader that he thinks she can be, and which she has slowly understood herself to have become, as well.

Side notes:

Of course, Varys protecting Dany and Viserys as children didn't stop him from following through on Robert's order to hire the Sorrowful Men to try to kill her. We can always have the ends justify the means, but if you'd like to claim that Varys was protecting his own ass by following through on a direct order, we have to remember that Varys was looking for a replacement for Robert because he considered him (accurately) to be incompetent as a king. Would he really have known that Varys didn't follow through? Unlikely. Plot/character hole? Maybe. But this stuff gets complicated.

But it's huge, man. Really.
The technological variation in the show is occasionally hilarious. You can just imagine the scene with Qyburn being something like: "My queen: the greatest invention of all time and the answer to dragons... a ballista!" (i.e. a giant crossbow.) Seriously? I mean, not even something with counterweights like a trebuchet? When you think of the complex engineering present in many of the other scenes. suggesting that the answer to the legendary terror of dragons is a basic siege weapon is a little odd.

Cersei doing the "loyalty out of fear" thing with the Tyrell bannermen was mildly hilarious in an obvious-parallel-to-modern-politics kind of way. "You see all those people from the east with their weird religions and dark skins and flying, firebreathing behemoths!" [well, OK, that last one is fair] "If you don't line up with me, they're all coming to get you!" The obvious response here is: "Well, no, they're all coming to get YOU. If we work with them, we'll be fine." But it's easy to give into base emotions because fear of change and the unknown and being herded like sheep is another prominent part of human nature. (Oh, hai, Mr. President!)

The costumes that Grey Worm and Missandei had on (for a while) in their scene were remarkably dull. I mean, I get that what the Unsullied walk around in when not in their armor is purely functional, but to have both of them in what looked like placeholders for their actual wardrobe was kinda weird.

I'm rarely affected by gruesome depictions on the screen, but I'm betting there wasn't a single person in the audience who wasn't cringing even a little as Sam began the treatment on Jorah. Everyone has peeled a scab off too early at some point in their lives. Now imagine doing that over half your body.

As with most of Jaime's scenes, the conversation with Randyll Tarly has huge implications on a number of levels. On the one hand, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of the Tyrells' most powerful bannerman deciding to stick with them or go with the Lannisters. OTOH, it's also fascinating to see the interplay that that conversation let loose. Here's the supreme stuffed shirt of Westeros, Randyll Tarly of Hightower, being encouraged to break his oath of allegiance to Highgarden in order to follow his oath of allegiance to the Iron Throne. On top of that, he's being encouraged to do so by the man he reviles (as so many do) as the Oathbreaker, Jaime Lannister, who assassinated his king as a member of the Kingsguard. But part of Jaime's argument is that House Tyrell is essentially gone, since the only remaining member of the bloodline is the elderly Olenna Tyrell, while House Tarly still has heirs (one of them standing next to him) and could replace Tyrell as the Wardens of the South. Like I said, this stuff gets complicated, but that's an excellent character conflict that can be chewed on for a while.

You guys are so dead!
Farewell, Asha (yes; not "Yara"), we barely knew thee. And we also missed out on the scene that was impending between you and Ellaria, who is clearly the "great gift" that Euron plans to deliver to Cersei. On the one hand, it's interesting to see more of the pieces moving across the board and know that Dorne is one of them. OTOH, the almost complete dismissal of Dorne as anything other than a name on the map still irritates me. (And, again, the name of the city is "Sunspear", not "Dorne.") All of the scenes in Sunspear were an exercise in irrelevance except as a device leading to the death of Myrcella. Similarly, Ellaria is now a plot device and little more. It's really disappointing that such short shrift was given to that whole aspect of the books, but you have to make cuts somewhere, I guess.

Again, the emphasis on women having assumed control of the overall situation continues to be prominent. The strategy meeting was between Dany, ruler of House Targaryen; Olenna, ruler of House Tyrell; Ellaria, ruler of House Dorne; and Asha, kinda ruler of House Greyjoy. Combine that with Cersei ruling House Lannister and King's Landing and Sansa assuming command of the North by the end of the episode and the transfer of power is just about complete.

Lines of the week:

"You're not here to be Queen of the Ashes." Yeah? Maybe it depends on whose ashes?

"All your spies, your little birds, did they tell you Viserys was cruel, stupid, and weak?" Layin' down the truth.

"I know how you wage war. We don't poison little girls here." No, but: Crucifixion? Good. Out of the door. Line on the left. One cross each.

Just to get a pic of the Hand of the Queen in somewhere.
"I like Jon Snow and I am an excellent judge of character." And continuing to be so.

"If they can be wounded, they can be killed." Predator reference.

"The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You're a dragon. Be a dragon." I'm really going to miss Dianna Rigg when the show is over.

"Friends don't pay." Hot Pie, showing how it's done.

"If you want people to read your histories, you need a bit of style." Every writer in the world waiting to be recognized winces like someone's peeling greyscale.

And the winner:

Don't ever leave the inn. Seriously.
"Heard she blew up the great sept. That must've been something to see. Can't believe someone would do that."
"Cersei would do that." Can't argue.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Modern war

There's a generational divide in movie audiences. Pre-Deer Hunter, war movies typically focused on the heroism inherent to soldiering and not the impact that it often had on the soldiers themselves. Despite the catastrophic human cost, including those killed and the survivors, war was usually still presented with a pre-WW1 lens, where marching off to battle was a big party and, after some requisite tension, the heroes would win out and everyone would stroll out of the theater with a sense of satisfaction. Post-Deer Hunter and, for American audiences, post-Vietnam in general, war movies have tended to focus on the psychological impact, both on the people doing the shooting and the people living around them after they return. Society has gradually come to grips with the fact that, as William Sherman once noted, war is hell and although there may be moments of genuine heroism, no one emerges unscathed, even through glorious victory.

That's why it's perhaps singularly appropriate for Christopher Nolan to have presented Dunkirk as his first film stepping away from science fiction premises in quite some time, but still carrying the themes prevalent in his storytelling. Most of Nolan's films deal with psychology in some form or another. Memento, the Batman series, Inception, Interstellar; all of them deal with either extreme choices and the consequent impact of those choices or the essence of making those choices in the first place. Most good screenplays spend some time analyzing the personality of their protagonists (and often their antagonists; see: the Joker.) but Nolan's tend to step beyond that and confront the viewers with a series of if/thens that quite feasibly could have led the story in a number of different directions and leave different parts of the audience sympathizing with the different possibilities. Dunkirk does that well.

First and foremost, Dunkirk was not a success. As Nolan takes pains to point out via Churchill's speech on the subject, no one celebrates a defeat, despite the extreme bravery inherent to the RAF pilots over that week and the private citizens who enabled the rescue to be as successful as it was. So while there was heroism, it was heroic action in the name of defeat, not victory. Nolan highlights this from the opening moments of the film, when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) are shown attempting to get ahead of the thousands of soldiers already on the beach by pretending to be Red Cross workers transporting the wounded. These are not heroic soldiers. These are guys attempting to cut the line, as it were, to save their own skins instead of those similarly stranded. In many war movies, these guys would be portrayed as cowards for fleeing the battle. But the battle was already over and like the old man handing out blankets at the end says: "Sometimes, surivin' is enough." This is especially true in the era of "total war" which became prominent again during World War II, where the pre-Enlightenment practice of slaughtering the fleeing enemy, rather than simply routing them from the field or capturing them, once again rose to the fore.

But I think Nolan's point was to show the desperation and panic that are as inherent to combat as heroism often is. These guys were the unwitting pawns in someone else's war, like the Lannister soldiers of this season's first episode, and all they wanted to do was get home in one piece. It was, of course, not common knowledge as to what the German regime had become and how "someone else's war" could be seen as a war by humanity against inhumanity. But that engages my frequent bias against WW2-era films. That conflict is frequently mentioned as the last "good war" that everyone can get behind, as if it somehow lacked political or economic motives. But war is war. There are very rarely good motives for it and almost always pernicious ones that tend to detract from the heroic angle if one looks too closely. Most pre-Vietnam war films didn't bother to do that. Almost all of them do that now and Nolan has gone one step further in making a film about defeat and desperation, rather than saving the day.

On the film itself, it has Nolan's hallmarks all over it, in terms of the quick cuts between closeups and broad shots to create context for the subject's reactions, and in terms of the long focus on certain characters as they process what's in front of them with visage, rather than verbs. Nolan apparently wrote the screenplay specifically with minimal dialogue, attempting to emphasize the visual medium. I don't know if that's what led him and Hans Zimmer, the composer, to try to inject tension with music tempo deliberately, rather than as an added element, but I have to say that I think they overdid it. Perhaps it was just an artifact of the theater I was sitting in having the volume too high, as we were getting a lot of reverb that often drowned out said minimal dialogue, but the pounding bass line accompanying moments of high tension became rather annoying. If your story and direction are already providing that stress, why do you think vibrating every seat in the theater is going to make it better? People ducking on the mole while bombs drop around them and the howl of Stukas ripping overhead is plenty of visual and aural excitement already. I don't think Zimmer's efforts really helped and probably detracted from my focus on the scene, as I remember shaking my head at the accompanying noise.

Most of the performances were solid. Whitehead, Barnard, Harry Styles, and Nolan-favorite Cilian Murphy all did well at conveying the strain that their characters were under without becoming too emotive. There's a fine line between what most perceive as wooden and obvious dolor and shellshock and I think most of them hit it. Kenneth Branagh was Branagh and Tom Hardy was Hardy; both filling their roles appropriately, although I think Branagh's scenes rode a little high on the sentimental angle and I kind of yearn for the day when Hardy will have another role that allows him to do something other than look grim and intense. He was brilliant in The Revenant and I still think he should have won the Oscar for that role.

However, the man who beat him for the trophy had the best performance of this film: Mark Rylance. His redoubtable Mr. Dawson was easily the most magnetic character of the story. Every moment of his face, digesting the circumstances and then deciding on a course of action, spoke volumes. This was the pinnacle for those who would view war films as an example of the good and right succeeding over the non-, as every instance displayed his determination to do what he felt was the right thing. That character was the soul of the Dunkirk effort on the part of the regular citizens and Rylance played it brilliantly. Apparently, he initiated a ton of improv between takes and I think it paid off.

And it's worth noting here that Nolan certainly doesn't shy away from mentioning that, although the British government was making efforts to rescue their stranded soldiers  (and maybe even their French and Dutch compatriots), they were also preserving resources (mostly ships) for the impending defense of the home country, too. So the pawns were still pawns, ready to be sacrificed for the king or queen (almost literally) and Dunkirk remains a modern war film, in that respect. Overall, I enjoyed it and I remain a fan of his work. I'm not quite on the "best film of 2017!" level that many critics (and many of my friends) seem to be, but it's certainly a great effort and worth seeing on the big screen, as opposed to waiting for the small one.

Monday, July 17, 2017

In other news, somewhere on the timestream

I'm not a Dr. Who fan. For some reason, it just never sold me. My SF experience as a kid began with Saturday morning cartoons which have few barriers when it comes to special effects and, of course, exploded in 1977 with the release of the original Star Wars. At that point, I decided that anything that couldn't blow me away visually probably wasn't worth my time. In that respect, the foppish doctor and the phone box and the clumsy Daleks were just never going to work. I could see "old" stuff like Planet of the Apes and Space: 1999 that was more entertaining than that. Of course, a few months later while reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, I realized just how wrong I was in wanting everything to be served to me on the screen. Still, the good doctor and his exploits in time just never seemed to work for me. But I know enough about the franchise to find yesterday's announcement of the person taking over as the 13th Dr. Who far more entertaining than the show has ever been.

Jodie Whittaker will be Dr. Who. For those of you not in the know, this will be the first time a woman has assumed the role. This, of course, has generated the usual tirade from the neo-Gamergate crowd about their personal worlds being shattered at the thought that a man will no longer be the protector of the timestream. Because, you know, women can't protect anything.

Or be strong.

Or smart.

Or determined.

Or heroic.

Did any of these guys forget about how they felt about their mothers when they were growing up? Do any of them not feel that about their mothers now?

Some of the best responses have been even more overtly sexist; as in, talking about the act itself, since Victoria Tennant, being an attractive woman, could make some of the straight male nerd crowd apparently forget themselves:

Because, you know, somehow only straight male fans of Dr. Who exist. Or is it that they just feel like their wants are the only ones that matter? This came to a head last month when a few theaters across the country decided to do women-only screenings of Wonder Woman. One guy was so incensed that he wrote the mayor of Austin, TX, threatening to boycott the city for allowing such perfidy to take place. Horrors. The mayor's response was spectacular but his communications director, John Stanford, had a salient point: "Furthermore, 99 percent of all the screenings in Austin are dude-friendly. It's almost like the whole world is set up for us."

And that's true because it essentially is. A lot of people don't like change and if things have always been the way they are, then why change them? Well, because change is often good. Or interesting. Or fun. Or needed. Or all of those things. The charge that many of the outraged are wielding is that the producers are bowing to the "PC crowd." So, let's think about that.

If the producers are literate and capable of dressing themselves in the morning, they're probably aware that the reaction to a female Dr. Who would generate a substantial amount of uproar (not that that's always a bad thing; any publicity good, etc.) With that in mind, is it more likely that they wanted to serve the "PC crowd", most of whom would have remained slavishly devoted to the franchise if another man was chosen, or that they just wanted to do something different? Creative types often need to branch out. You can't keep telling somebody to recycle Dragonriders of Pern and expect that they're going to produce stuff of the same quality. Sometimes you have to try new things. You'd think that all those fans looking toward the future (and, OK, the past, too /timestream things) would understand that.

Shall we begin?

There's a point in most people's lives, perhaps several points, where one confronts the reality of who they are and what they're about. Whether it's a self-realization of something deeply personal that you've been blinding yourself to or a final acceptance of a situation that's too far gone to be acknowledged as anything else but the simple truth of what it is, they're akin to what alcoholics often refer to as a "moment of clarity." They don't always have to be traumatic or wrenching, either. Sometimes it's a matter of good fortune that one stumbles into this realization and is now prepared to take advantage of it. The first episode of season 7 was rife with these moments of confronting reality. In that respect, it was probably appropriate that the show had its first cold open in some time. After all, winter is here.

Probably the most crucial of these experience takes place in the early part of the episode, among the people most exposed to the most important of these realities: the approach of the Others. Jon Snow is attempting to organize his new bannermen, now that he's assumed the mantle of House Stark. Sansa, now firmly in control of her own direction after a long tutelage under Cersei, Ramsay Bolton, and Littlefinger, attempts to educate Jon on the consequences of one's own actions and the importance of loyalty and the need for people to understand the penalties one pays for betrayal. It's not just the way of the hardbitten North. It's the way of The Game. She now knows how it's played and how to be sure that no one crosses the line again.

But Jon has long since passed that moment of self-realization. He knows who he is and he's not the person to turn defenseless people out into the winter because someone else made a bad choice. Blood ties are what protect people, but blood ties can curse them if people decide to let it. He won't and he's more conscious of those blood ties than anyone else in the room. Sansa's cautions about both Rob and Ned Stark are well taken, but Jon's role as a new element (bastard, former Night's Watch, risen from the dead, and, um, Targaryen) is what defines him. This is a confrontation between two people that are sure of what they think; Sansa from lengthy and brutal experience and Jon from a powerful sense of self. He's been betrayed, as well, and still believes that the policy of the open hand will outdo that of the closed fist. Needing literally every warm body to try to stem the tide of the Others only (ahem) crystallizes that perspective.

That kind of long-term thinking is also evident during the autopsy scene at Oldtown. Sam keeps insisting about the magnitude of the threat that he's personally witnessed and which he knows is crashing down on the heads of everyone that he loves, as well as the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. But the archmaester reminds him that these disasters come in cycles and yet civilization has endured through all of them; at least in part because Oldtown and the maesters have endured. Of course, it's the very knowledge stored in Oldtown that the archmaester speaks of so highly that Sam wants to access in order to ensure that their civilization continues. Which one is ignoring reality here: the one who thinks this crisis has to be dealt with directly or the one who thinks that patience and refusing to act rashly will eventually win the day? (And there's one key spoiler from Oldtown in this vein that has been revealed in a tiny scene in the books that hasn't appeared in the show, but I'm pretty sure it will become pertinent as we move along.)

We see the impact of this simple reality in the short scene with Arya and the band of Lannister soldiers, as well. The High Sparrow reactivated the Faith Militant as a direct response to the thousands of common people being caught up in The Game and losing their lives as a consequence. Here, again, was a perfect example of that: These soldiers know they're fighting someone else's war for someone else's benefit and that the only real reward they'll receive is if they come home alive and hopefully not maimed. This is the plight of the common soldier from wars throughout history and I think it was a poignant reminder of the fact that war has all kinds of victims, even when it's those who are seen as part of the machine that creates the violence. The fact that these were Lannister soldiers, among Arya's avowed enemies that she was probably considering killing when she came upon them, just made her awareness of the impact the war has had on far more than just her family that much more obvious.

But the real confrontation with the world around him comes in the presence of my still-favorite character, Sandor Clegane (although Jaime is a close second now and New Sansa is growing on me quickly.) The Hound is the ultimate cynic. He believes in neither gods nor men and detests the social order that elevates him, even as he uses his natural power to take what he wants from others. Given all of that, it's fascinating to see him confront not only the mortal consequences of his actions as he broods over the corpses of the farmer and daughter who took him in and offered what little they have, but also when Thoros gets him to witness the visions in the fire and he realizes that there may, in fact, be greater powers out there that impact him personally. It's a nice carryover from the lessons that the septon (Al Swearingen!) tried to convey to him last season, as the cynic becomes the penitent. I don't want to say that the Hound has found religion, but perhaps that he's discovered that empathy with others is a path toward a deeper understanding of his place in the world, which is exactly the point that Jon was making by suggesting mercy towards the children of the Umbers and Karstarks, rather than continuing to play The Game that has led to nothing but death and misery for everyone. "Be the change you want to be in the world" a very wise man once said. It's been the message of Daenerys since she took control of her own destiny and Jon and Sandor are now making it happen, as well.

Technical stuff:

I realize that a lot of people are going to be thrilled by the cold open that was Arya depopulating the Twins with a Jonestown massacre. I wasn't one of them. That struck me as way too much fan service, in that everyone still hates the Freys even with Walder having been given a second smile last season. It also struck me as remarkably easy in terms of execution. It's a plan that should have taken a lot more time, effort, and luck, none of which would have been appropriate in a ten episode season, of course. But that just makes the shortcut stand out even more. We already know that Arya's deadly. We don't need the casual murder of the entire Frey line to prove that yet again. As always, I realize that some shortcuts are going to be necessary for the sake of story size, pacing, and the medium itself. Benioff and Weiss have been doing it since the series started. But it seems like the number of shortcuts surrounding Arya's storyline has become greater in the last couple seasons. Her tragedy is one of the most powerful messages of the series and it would be great if her more prominent scenes didn't come cheaply, as this one seemed to. Yes, in a show about fire gods, ice zombies, and dragons, I still need some reality to maintain my suspension of disbelief. Sue me.

In complete contrast, it was kind of nice to see them not spend too long on Sam getting access to the restricted area that we all knew he was going to obtain. By the same token, the coincidental nature of him discovering the trove of dragonglass on Dragonstone was a bit too "main character stumbles across key plot element!" for me. It's always difficult to figure out how to introduce those key details without seeming like you're spoon feeding them to the audience. You don't want to drag things out too long to the point where people either lose interest or lose trust with the storyteller (see: The Killing) but you also don't want to make it completely linear, either, especially in a series that's already famed for its complexity.

It was kind of a treat to see the automation for Oldtown in the opening credits for the first time. Given the amount of time spent displaying Dany's return to her birthplace, I'm assuming that they'll have to bring Dragonstone back in the next few episodes. Speaking of which, I've seen a couple notes of irritation about the amount of time spent reintroducing the castle from the beach on up, but I think that scene was played brilliantly. The time it took and the number of long shots really played up both the ancient presence of the fortress and the historical significance of its continued presence. This was the first landing point of Aegon the Conqueror and the base from which he put all of Westeros under his thumb, before moving to Kings Landing. This was the last remnant of old Valyria and the creator of the Iron Throne. This is Danerys's direct ancestor and the reason that she feels entitled to return and stake her claim to that throne.

One side note: Now that we know that the Others are the equivalent of the human nobility, since they all ride horses alongside the (ahem) walking dead, they can't really be called "White Walkers" anymore, can they? D&D created that as a more memorable and menacing label for people unfamiliar with the story, but it seems kinda out of place at this stage.

Cersei repainting the world on the floor of the Red Keep was a pretty deft reference to the later scene in the Dragonstone table room. All rulers like to see the world at their feet (sometimes literally) and both moments were a measure of two women about to come to grips with each other over a vast territory that, of course, will mean absolutely nothing in the face of the encroaching threat from beyond the Wall. It's little things like that that made this screenplay and the direction of it really stand out. This is easily one of the better first episodes of the series.

That scene also continues the steady drumbeat of female empowerment that the series has blossomed into. Dany is the master of a huge fleet, army, and the world's only three dragons. Cersei has finally achieved the pinnacle of power that she's always desired. Arya is the deadliest person walking the kingdoms right now. Sansa, despite being taunted by Littlefinger as a second-ringer behind Jon, is clearly in total control of whatever situation she gets dropped into. The brief confrontation with Baelish on the battlements was a highlight of the episode for me. For a series (both book and TV) that has often been castigated for presumed misogyny, it was great to see that in most of the moments of this episode, the people who truly had command were women. And, of course, Bella Ramsey is still killing it as Lyanna Mormont.

Lines of the week:

"Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe." That's a little too "slippery slope" for me, but I get the intent.

"Looks like we're the Night's Watch now." Tormund is never one to let a cheap shot pass him by.

"Father used to say: Everything before the word 'but' is horseshit." Lessons in communication.

"Everyone who's ever crossed her, she's found a way to murder." Um, so, yeah. About your sister...

"The people I was cutting down were your own kin!" "Place was getting crowded."
"So here I am. With 1000 ships. And two good hands." (That deserves a Kelso.)
"You murdered your own brother." "You should try it some time. It feels glorious."
I wasn't sold on Pilou Asbæk as Euron in any way last season, but his scene in the throne room felt far more like the Euron from the books. He's still missing that air of menace, though (and, of course, the eyepatch.)

"Everyone in the Citadel doubts everything. It's their job." This felt like an appeal for science in these, our times, dominated by a five-year-old as president.

"Mother always told me: Be kind to strangers, strangers'll be kind to you." Yeah, but what about The Stranger? He doesn't care! And what about the Faceless assassin? Oh. I guess she cares.

"If he's so all-powerful, why doesn't he just tell you what the fuck he wants?" This question has bedeviled believers down through the ages.
"It's my fucking luck I end up with a band of fire worshipers." Yeah, it kinda is.

And the winner:

"No need to seize the last word, lord Baelish. I'll assume it was something clever." Smack. Down.