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 rips 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.