Friday, 30 December 2016

Never Get Off the Boat

So I've had a lot of free time and I've also been struggling with the usual stresses that come with boxing week. I've had to get out a lot more often and it just so happens that the theater nearby gives me something to do. Earlier this week, I re-watched Rogue One (great film) but I needed to see something else. One film that was playing was Moana, a Disney animated film I didn't know much about beyond a vague idea of the premise. I remembered seeing trailers for it, including the somewhat misleading original teaser that made it look like the titular character was a sidekick to Maui.

It looked like it would be fun and enjoyable so I decided to give it a watch. Some of my family tried to talk me out of it, dismissing it as a "Princess Film" and acting like it being a Disney animated film automatically made it worthless. It's a good thing I didn't take that advice, because it turns out that Moana really is something special. It's hardly a typical Disney animated film, and definitely not one about princesses or true love (at least not in the traditional sense). It is admittedly weird and yes, it is a musical, but it is also a touching nautical odyssey with a balance of emotion and humor.

A long time ago, the goddess Te Fiti was responsible for creating the world until one day when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), resulting in a spread of darkness across the world. Fast forward a few thousand generations later and these events are only remembered as legends. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), the next in line to be Chief of a village on the island of Motunui, finds herself intrigued by the ocean but her father (Temuera Morrison) is convinced that nobody should ever leave. Over the years, Moana grows up to become a prominent figure in her community but still retains a sense of adventure.

Now as a teenager, Moana finds her greatest mentor is her grandmother (Rachel House), who presents her with the long-lost heart of Te Fiti. When Moana discovers that she is the chosen one destined to restore order, she discovers the secret history of her culture and embarks on an epic nautical odyssey as she secretly takes a boat and leaves the island for the first time. Now with only a washed-up (and extremely reluctant) Maui, a cross-eyed chicken, and the ocean itself for company, she must face a series of dangerous challenges which will test her both physically and mentally.

So contrary to what the initial teaser claimed, the film really is about Moana herself and how she develops her strength as a character. In fact, amazingly enough, there isn't even a romantic sub-plot or anything. Maui himself is basically the comic relief for much of the film, and his relationship with Moana is at best one between close friends. That's not to say it isn't an effective one, just not a conventional relationship. There's no real sexual tension between them (probably for the better; there is kind of an age gap) and if anything Moana has to show a lot of support towards Maui.

I loved the character of Moana, which is good because she has to carry most of the film by herself. She is a really strong and independent character, and never felt like she was any kind of damsel. She gets into trouble a few times, but almost every time rescues herself rather than waiting for the bumbling Maui. In fact, a lot of the time whenever things do go wrong, it's Moana who figures out the solution and in some cases has to save her demigod companion. Maui never seems particularly dominant, and at most he and Moana are working as a team. If anything, Moana's most interesting relationship is not with any of the supporting cast at all.

One odd detail in Moana's narrative is the choice to make the sea itself an active character. It never speaks, but it is shown to have an enigmatic personality and a deep-rooted connection to Moana. This emerges in different forms, from brief moments of comic relief (Maui's repeated efforts to kick Moana off the boat, only for her to be thrown back on) to moments of drama. This is admittedly an odd choice for the narrative, but it works. Not only is it used effectively for humor, but it also constructs what may be the most meaningful relationship Moana has. The other detail of note is her brief but touching relationship to her grandmother, who serves as a mentor figure in a role that would normally be filled by a male character.

That said, there is still a great supporting cast for the few other characters that appear in the film. Dwayne Johnson is a lot of fun as the bumbling Maui, but even the other characters who appear are well acted. We get an emotional relationship between Moana and her grandmother, but also her parents are well-voice acted. The only other actor who really gets any major dialogue is Jemaine Clement, who plays a giant treasure-hunting crab who lives under the ocean (literally). Clement is not in the movie very long, but his bizarre action sequence allows for plenty of fun and good jokes, as well as solid moments for both Maui and Moana.

Looking past the film's acting, it is also beautifully animated. The filmmakers went to great lengths to bring each of the different environments Moana visits to life and they delivered. Even the parts where she's in open water have a way of seeming genuine. Moana is a really straight forward but surprisingly well-made story with a good balance of humor and drama. It's a weird fantasy adventure inspired loosely by Polynesian mythology but also a detailed character study which presents a strong female lead. I'll admit, I was hoping it would be fun but I didn't realize just how good it would actually be.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Aliens (Future Warfare)

It is hard to know what the future of warfare will truly look like, but there are patterns and recurring trends. Advancements in weapons will no doubt change the ways in which wars are fought, as will many other political and social factors. It seems to have been a long-standing trend that there are those who try to profit from war. It is becoming more common to see privatized military organizations, mercenary groups, and businesses that thrive on fighting wars for money. The actions of Donald Trump have also opened a door for businesses and corporate interests to begin dominating political and social developments.

These are issues brought to the forefront in Aliens. On the surface, it seems like a straight forward science fiction action film with some strong female characters, but it may have a much deeper significance than most would recognize. It is a movie about the changing nature of war, the introductions of new weapons, the need to adapt, the role of corporate interest in the military, and ultimately asks one very important question: who is the real enemy? In the film, we follow a group of marines on what seems a routine mission, only for everything to go wrong thanks to corporate greed while fighting a war in which conventional tactics do not work.

Even before we are introduced to the marines, Aliens hardly presents an optimistic vision of the future. We are introduced to the main protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), herself a veteran of sorts who has already had one traumatic experience fighting an alien, an extra-terrestrial organism likely bred as a bio-weapon. Upon being found, she is treated very much like a returning soldier. Ripley struggles to adapt to a regular life. She is shown to be dealing with nightmares about her experiences, and it is also suggested that she may have survivor's guilt. The most she can do is try to keep herself occupied by finding the one job that will accept her.

Adding to this is Ripley's apparent "hearing," which is more or less a kangaroo court designed to make her look bad. The film does not offer much information on the political structure of this universe, but it appears to be an environment dominated by business interests. The people questioning Ripley are all company representatives who are obviously covering up her experiences. They keep referring to "unknown reasons" for what happened even when Ripley explains multiple times what really went on.

These themes of a corporation-driven society are largely represented through the introduction of Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser). Burke is introduced at the film's beginning, when he introduces himself to Ripley and claims to be a nice guy. His full agenda is not revealed until late in the film, but there are plenty of small lines of dialogue which show early on that he is only working for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We see this first when he tries to talk Ripley into investigating the colony on LV-426, and quotes his company's advertisements as though he believes them. He later offers what amounts to product placement when discussing the equipment used by the colonists, and refers to financial interests in an effort to keep the colony from being destroyed. When asked about Ripley's experiences with an android, he dismisses it as a "malfunction."

Burke's presence throughout the film sets up the important question of who the real enemy is. Most of the film is spent fighting aliens but are they the real threat? Or is it something much closer and more subtle? The aliens prove to be a danger, but corporate greed may just prove to be a far worse enemy. Ripley herself basically states this when she calls out Burke. "I don't know which species is worse," she mutters, noting that the aliens don't try to screw each other over for profits.

The first introduction to the marines consists of Burke introducing them in what amounts to a flimsy attempt at propaganda (one which Ripley sees through). He introduces Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), a man who looks impressive in his uniform and seems at first like a capable soldier. Both Gorman and Burke speak at length of the marines' apparent capabilities. Burke claims that nothing can stop them. Gorman maintains that Ripley will be safe accompanying him, that it will be impossible for her to face any danger at all. Ripley still refuses, seeing through the obvious attempts. She only agrees in the hopes of destroying the aliens (or at least making sure nobody tries to bring any back).

From here, we move into the spaceship carrying the military for the operation. The film quickly establishes the time that has passed through a series of brief shots of empty rooms. The places remain quiet, fittingly as like all wars, this one requires a lot of waiting. So much, in fact, that the entire crew is in hibernation during the trip. All we get to see are the dim corridors and unused facilities before finally being shown the cry pods with the crew aboard. It is here that we are introduced to most of the cast and start to see the problems with this military expedition.

When the crew awake, we are introduced to several of the marines. Yet for people as tough as Gorman claimed, they start off feeling sick as they are woken. Matters are not made easier by the orders shouted by the ruthless Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). This is followed by a scene taking place in the mess hall which quickly breaks the cast up into two main groups by placing different members of the cast at different tables. One small table is used for the "brass" which includes Gorman along with Ripley and Burke.

This is contrasted with the much larger and busier table containing the "grunts," as the cast likes to call them. The grunts' table is shown to be much livelier than that of the brass, with the marines talking and joking among themselves. This includes a moment when the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) performs a stunt that involves swinging a knife between the fingers of a nervous Private Hudson (Bill Paxton). Paxton's reaction to the knife swinging is also important, as it sets up the direction his character will take later on in the film.

This division between the two groups is reinforced when the marines board the dropship to investigate the colonies. Inside, the cast is once again arranged according to their apparent group. Gorman, Ripley, and Burke are seated near the front with space of their own. Meanwhile, the "grunts" are all crowded together in the back. At the same time, we also see contrasting reactions to the turbulence that is affecting the dropship. Gorman, for all the confidence he displayed in his introduction, struggles to adjust. The grunts are more or less unaffected. Hudson spends the whole time bragging about killing aliens, and in an amusing touch Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) actually falls asleep.

We see this division come up once again upon landing, this time by isolating the different groups into different locations. The marines are shown to be the ones doing the dirty work, actually getting out and sweeping the different buildings while Gorman, Burke, and Ripley remain in an armored vehicle watching the whole thing on a screen. The apparent protection of the armored vehicle contrasts the exposed marines, who are more exposed as they sweep the tunnels. This becomes crucial. This act of dividing the cast provides an early clue to the problems in the operation: disorganization. It is only as the different groups come together, and the established hierarchy is dissolved, that anything can be accomplished.

Much as Gorman likes to brag in his first appearance, he is quickly shown to be ineffective in dealing with this type of mission. Upon landing, he orders a quick sweep of one building, and declares it to be clear even after Ripley questions his instructions. This becomes especially evident when the marines enter their second sweep. Gorman obviously lacks any understanding of the environment, as his instructions completely fail to take into account the potential danger to firing under a reactor. Even when Gorman finally gives the order, the marines show an extreme reluctance to follow orders. Drake and Vazquez (Jeanette Goldstein) outright defy orders and smuggle ammo back into their guns. Adding to this is Gorman's refusal to withdraw after being instructed to do so by Ripley.

When the aliens do show up, the marines end up being ineffective at dealing with them. Earlier in the film, Burke claimed that nothing could touch the marines, but they are insufficiently equipped to deal with the aliens. The first to attack does so through camouflage before ambushing Corporal Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott). She is followed immediately after by Apone, taking away their command. The result is total chaos in what becomes a struggle to survive. Amidst all the confusion, half the division is wiped out and at least one person is accidentally set on fire by a fellow marine.

During this sequence, Gorman remains unable to take any action or show any leadership. It is only because Ripley kicks him out the driver's seat that any of the marines are able to get out. Even then, their weapons prove to have limited effect on the aliens, especially up close. Gorman's ineffectiveness is finally reinforced when he is knocked unconscious in the middle of the action, and remains out of action until near the end. By the time it is all over, a large portion of the marines have been killed. The loss of both Apone and Gorman throw the structure of command out of balance. Hicks, previously a "grunt," ends up taking charge. By the time Gorman regains consciousness, he is practically useless and reduced to a background role until he dies, ironically, trying to save one of his grunts.

It is this development, as well as the failed attempt to nuke the planet from orbit, that forces what is left of the cast to rethink their strategies. Standard military protocol has proven ineffective for dealing with creatures like the aliens, and the marines have proven themselves unable to fight them. It is likely that most of them, if they had any combat experience at all, were accustomed to fighting other humans and unaccustomed to the changes presented by the aliens. The only person who ends up being qualified to lead is Ripley, who has actual experience dealing with the aliens.

The two groups that had previously been established are slowly coming together. This is visually conveyed when Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl who survived the colony massacre, is shown wearing marine headgear, as well as Hicks taking the time to show Ripley how to use a grenade launcher. With the team broken down and military protocol out the window, the mission becomes one of survival. This, unfortunately, proves difficult with the aliens, a species that proves good at adapting. The sentry guns the marines try to provide are quickly rendered useless.

It is fitting therefore that it is Ripley, not any of the marines, who finally confronts the Alien queen. She is the one member of the team not bound by protocol and of all the cast the best at adapting. The aliens are a weapon the marines are not used to facing and lack the sufficient equipment to deal with. Ripley's solution is ultimately to construct new weapons in an effort to deal with the queen. We see this first when she duct-tapes a flamethrower to a shotgun, and later when she manages to find re-purpose a docking loader, a machine designed for lifting crates, as a means of fighting off the queen and throwing it out the airlock.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Hyena Road (Modern Warfare)

After the release of his 2008 war film Passchendaele, Canadian director and star Paul Gross was presented with an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and photograph the war as it was going on. Gross met and talked to actual Canadian soldiers in the field and learned a lot about the life of a soldier in the context of modern warfare. War has changed. There are no longer any front lines, and advancements in weapons allow for more destruction than ever before. Tactics have also had to adapt, with the enemy often being harder to recognize and one that could be anywhere. And on top of that, there is just a lot of waiting for something to happen. Some soldiers can finish an entire tour of duty without ever seeing combat.

As Gross filmed the war in Afghanistan, he began to develop ideas for an original story. Drawing on what he witnessed and accounts from other soldiers, he constructed a script that is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most realistic depictions of the War in Afghanistan available today. This script would eventually be filmed and released in 2015 under the title Hyena Road. Unlike Passchendaele, Hyena Road brings us into the context of Modern Warfare and explores the everyday life of Canadian soldiers. But Gross is more interested in the moral intricacies of war. Hyena Road places a heavy emphasis on moral questions, and presents the war as a complex string of difficult choices. Often there is no clear moral decision, and whatever call is finally made will have consequences one way or the other.

Gross works to capture the essence of the War in Afghanistan by presenting the country itself as a kind of character, and treats it as a very difficult place for outsiders fight a war. This comes up in his narration which refers to Alexander the Great's struggle to conquer Afghanistan. Gross describes a correspondence in which Alexander allegedly told his mother "even the dirt is hostile." At the film's conclusion, Alexander is once again mentioned, where it is stated that he became mentally unbalanced after spending three years trying to crush a rebellion in Afghanistan, his condition getting worse after he accidentally killed a close friend, before finally dying shortly after. Gross also tells a story about an Afghan warrior known as "The Ghost" who became a huge problem for the Soviet army.

Naturally, the life of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is hardly an easy one. It largely consists of a mix of long-stretches of boredom with brief moments of life-or-death struggles. At the beginning of the film, we hear narration from Captain Pete Mitchell (Gross) who describes life in Kandahar, which states that two thirds of the people stationed here never even see combat. The narration is accompanied by a montage of different shots illustrating everyday chores both on-duty (planes coming and going) and off (going to the latrine). Much of the film is peppered with brief moments showing soldiers taking part in everyday chores and recreation.

Naturally, with the theme of waiting being so prominent, it is fitting that the main focus of Hyena Road is on a sniper team. By its very definition, it takes a lot of patience to be a good sniper. In the case of Afghanistan, this can involve waiting for hours in hot weather with minimal movement. This is also why snipers have to work as a team; they can take turns. One of the first things shown in the movie is one such period. Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is in charge of the team, but most of their job amounts to waiting on a high ledge and trying to keep themselves occupied.

Yet the quiet is broken very suddenly and without warning when they discover mines on the road and suddenly discover that they've been seen. It is only one very sudden POV shot that reveals a man staring at the camera with binoculars which allows us (and the sniper team) to realize that they have been noticed, and it is also that exact moment when shots are fired. The team quickly gets swarmed with enemies that a moment ago they didn't even realize existed. This also becomes a huge disadvantage, as snipers work best when they are unseen. It is only total luck that they even manage to survive at all when they get rescued by a local elder (Neamat Arghandabi).

This sequence only makes up the first ten minutes of the film, and yet already we are starting to see both side of the war: the brutality that comes when the shots are fired, and the long waiting in between. Just before we are introduced to the sniper team, we get a brief expository sequence that sets up the difficulties Canada is facing (tying into Mitchell's stories of Alexander and the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan). We are informed that Brigadier General Rilman (Clark Johnson) is overseeing construction of the titular road, but he is having trouble getting it built because civilian construction workers keep getting killed by IEDs, and so far all efforts to locate the people involved have failed.

As the film progresses, we start to learn more about the different characters. We learn that Sanders is in a relationship with base commander Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) and Mitchell suspects that the Elder who saved them is in fact the "Lion of the Desert," also known as the "Ghost" (according to Gross this was based on an actual person, though he has refrained from giving a name). It is these small developments that set much of the film's themes of complex choices and moral ambiguity into motion. Mitchell becomes convinced that the Ghost can be a valuable asset and tries to think long-term, while Sanders thinks mainly in short-term.

We already saw this happening at the beginning when Rilman is seen resorts to hiring known criminals BDK (Fazal Hakimi) and his son Karim, in an effort to provide extra security. As we later discover, BDK is crooked and in fact profiting from the mass killings that are occurring on the road. Worse still, he has connections to the CIA and legally speaking is immune to any form of prosecution. Adding to that, Sanders has an opportunity to kill BDK but is unable to do so because of the rules of engagement. Suddenly there is a question of where military protocol ends and justice begins.

Throughout the film, different characters are shown to make difficult decisions. We see this occurring on a small scale when Bowman tries to break up with Sanders (and later when she persuades an army doctor to keep quiet about her pregnancy), but we also see it on a much larger scale, particularly when Sanders witnesses BDK's criminal operations. This particular sequence sees tension mount between ethics and protocol. Mitchell tries to keep Sanders from taking the shot as doing so would violate the rules of engagement, while Sanders wants to take the shot in order to stop BDK from abducting children. From there, we see Bowman stuck in the middle, wanting to agree with Sanders but bound by military procedure. In the end, Sanders doesn't take the shot, an act which he argues is immoral.

As we later learn, Mitchell's motives are more complex, and his only way to deal with BDK is through the Ghost (who is not restricted by the same laws). But the Ghost turns out to be quite ruthless in his own right. He kidnaps and decapitates BDK's son. The sniper sequence is paralleled near the film's conclusion when, once again, Sanders has orders to stand down but refuses to listen. He opens fire and kills BDK. Meanwhile his choice is debated both by Mitchell and Bowman, the latter of whom vocally tries to encourage Sanders to take the shot.

Unfortunately, this final action has dangerous consequences and it turns out there were a few good reasons not to shoot. BDK is shot in front of multiple Taliban witnesses who presumably call for backup. When backup arrives, the Sniper team is ambushed and quickly overpowered before they can reach their extraction point. The nearest chopper is not at a sufficient distance to reach them on time, and one by one the team gets killed until only Sanders and the Ghost remain. Sanders' only viable course of action ends up being to order a missile strike knowing he will be unable to escape.

This whole massacre could have been averted if Sanders had not fired, in which case the sniper team could have left undetected. But because the shot was fired, he alerted the Taliban to his presence.Yet, perhaps their deaths were not entirely in vain. The next sequence depicts a Canadian strike team rescuing a large number of captured children likely connected to BDK (who was shown earlier kidnapping children and mentioned to sell them as prostitutes). The kids are rescued and reunited with their parents, which seems like an optimistic outcome. 

But then there's the question: did the sniper team have to die for this to happen? It can be hard to say for sure. Regardless, this is only one small victory in a complex war, a war in which one sometimes isn't even sure who they are fighting. Still, while they may have succeeded in taking down a ruthless criminal and building the road, this is far from winning the war. What does it mean to win a war? Perhaps, as Mitchell himself states: "there is no winning. Only an endstate."

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Assassin's Creed: The Movie

So I've recently become kinda a big fan of the Assassin's Creed video games. As of this writing I have currently played four different installments: Brotherhood, III, Liberation, and Black Flag. The games can be weird but they have some great storytelling and often are extremely addictive (okay, III wasn't as great, but the others were all extremely compelling). They often have great characters, intriguing storylines, and good gameplay often set against the backdrop of various historical time periods. 

Naturally, with my interest in the games, it seemed like I had an obligation of sorts to offer my thoughts on the Assassin's Creed movie. I tried to remain optimistic and avoided reviews as best I could (easier said than done when I was trying to get images from the film) so that I would be able to develop a perspective of my own. It also seemed appropriate because, while this isn't my first time watching a movie based on a video game, it is the first time I actually played the game (or games, in this case) before seeing the movie. 

Now there are different approaches to looking at Assassin's Creed. and I can say I have mixed feelings in different areas. But overall my reaction to the film was a fairly positive one. It's not a perfect film by any means, and there are definitely areas that could have been better (and probably would be good to look into if any more films should be made). That said, it does do surprisingly well in making the transition from video game to movie, being able to homage and mimic elements of the games while simultaneously adapting them to meet different requirements. I would say it works as an entertaining action movie, although it is more effective if you are familiar with the source material (which makes it easier to pick up Easter eggs and inside jokes).

Before I go into too much detail, I should probably give some background regarding the source material. The most straight forward explanation of the games' premise is that there are two secret societies locked in a seemingly endless war that has spanned hundreds of years. One faction is known as the Templars, which are kind of like Hydra. The Templars believe in the philosophy of order at the cost of freedom and want total control over everyone. The second faction is the Assassins, an order of... well... assassins who fight for free will. 

The conflict between these two organizations is what drives the franchise, with the player usually fighting for the Assassins (Rogue provides an exception to the rule, with the player instead being a Templar). The individual games take place across different time periods and generations, with the recurring theme that the growing conflict shapes major historical events, often with appearances by historical figures. The Assassin "Brotherhood" (the term being used loosely; there have been plenty of female assassins) has included among others Niccolò Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus (former Templar), Samuel Adams, Blackbeard, and Mary Read (these are just from the games I've played). Meanwhile the Templars have included the Borgia family, Charles Lee, and Laureano de Torres y Ayala. 

This is arguably the most straight forward explanation I can provide of Assassin's Creed, and I haven't even gone into the more confusing elements of the games. The important thing to understand to have any context is the two basic factions and their motives. It's probably best if I don't confuse anyone who hasn't played the games any further by trying to explain, for instance, the part about the ancient alien civilization which left behind artifacts that the two groups are often fighting over. 

The one other thing I can note is that the games are ordinarily structured around a present-day framing device which usually relies on a machine called the Animus. Basically, it is a kind of window into the past based on genetics. The idea is that the Animus can track a person's genealogical history and through some complex DNA analysis unlock memories from their ancestors. Once the memories are extracted from the person's DNA, the Animus can then allow the person to experience those memories as if it were their own. To provide a more basic explanation, the Animus is a device uses a person's DNA to recover memories from previous generations and can allow a person to see through the eyes of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years.

The Assassin's Creed movie includes these elements but presents an original story with new characters. This is probably for the better. I feel like it would not have worked as well to try to link the story directly to Ezio, Edward Kenway, Avaline, or any of the other protagonists in the games. Plus the games move around so much that having the basic elements is sufficient for it to be recognizable as part of the series. In their defense, I would say that this was a good step in making the transition from game to film, as it allows the filmmakers an entirely new base to work with. 

Unlike the games, the story places more emphasis on the modern-day portions. The Animus sequences are set during the Spanish Inquisition, an era which has yet to be covered in the games (the closest I am aware of the series getting to this was Renaissance-era Italy). The Animus itself has gone through a huge redesign. To be fair, the machine already went through several different models in the games, and I actually found the new look of the Animus to be an interesting new twist. It looks strange when it is first shown, but it actually does make sense as it allows the person to act out the memory. This also works better with the fact that we are watching a film instead of playing a video game.

left: Animus in Brotherhood; right: Animus in the movie

Naturally, there are lots of moments that mimic aspects of the gameplay. Anyone familiar with the series will probably spot brief moments alluding to different mechanics from the games (such as the "leap of faith," where an Assassin could jump off a high ledge and land safely in something soft). There is a big chase scene that could easily have been in the games, but also adapted for use in film. One frequent recurring moment in the games is that there are often short portions when the player completes a mission and then has to make their getaway. 

Normally in the games, this is a short but challenging task, where the player often gets chased by enemy guards and then he/she has to lose them. Usually this involves fighting off any who get too close, climbing on buildings, traversing rooftops, and finding good hiding places. The movie contains its own answer to that situation, but instead reworks it into an action scene. Instead of having the characters simply hide until the guards give up, we get a much more extended chase which makes use of different buildings and weapons. It is moments like these that make the transition work, being able to simultaneously replicate elements of the games while also adapting them.

There is, unfortunately, one criticism I would have of this movie. While it is otherwise a fairly well-made adventure film, I feel like there could have been a much stronger effort at gender representation. Most of the video games generally included a strong array of female characters. Two of the games so far, Liberation and Syndicate, even have female protagonists. Even the male-dominated installments usually like to have at least one or two strong women in supporting roles. Across the franchise there have been a number of female assassins both in lead and supporting roles. There have also been a few female Templars across different games.

Aveline de Grandpré, Assassin's Creed's first female protagonist

The Assassin's Creed movie does make an attempt to replicate the strong female characters of the games, but unfortunately it is not as effective as it could be. Much of the film is so heavily focused on Callum Lynch/Aguilar de Nerha that we don't really get to know very much of the supporting cast. It was probably intended for Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cottillard) to be a strong character. But she lacks any real motivation and fails to do much of anything. The other character who seemed promising was a female assassin in the animus sequences named Maria (Ariane Labed). 

She was set up as a competent assassin but the only problem was that while she got a few brief moments to show her skill, the film kept using her as a damsel who had to be saved by Aguilar. There were some brief moments during the chase scene but I would have wanted to get to know her more as a character, and they really should have played up her strengths better. Perhaps a good start would be if she rescued herself from the stake (like Aguilar did) instead of waiting for the male protagonist. From there, they should have given us more time to get to know her as a character.

My final verdict would be that, if you have played the games, Assassins' Creed works alright as a fun, if imperfect, homage to the series that provides an okay model for how to adapt a game to screen (perhaps if it becomes successful it will make way for something better). For everyone else, it is an okay action adventure with some fun ideas and a reasonably straight forward narrative.

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Platoon (Vietnam)

Vietnam may be one of history's most controversial wars. Beginning as a Civil War between the North and South Vietnamese armies, the American Government saw a potential threat to democracy and felt the need to shove their noses into a war that had nothing to do with them. Officially it was a "police action" designed to resolve the conflict quickly but in the end, it only made things much worse than they needed to be. As thousands tried to protest back home, more and more Americans were drafted into service and sent oversees to live in the cold jungles of Vietnam in a hopeless fight against the Viet Cong. One such veteran of this infamous moment of American history was director Oliver Stone, who would try to capture his experiences through his movie Platoon.

Platoon tells the story of a young man named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), ironically a volunteer who enlisted out of a sense of patriotism. But from the beginning it becomes clear they aren't really fighting for anything. The first thing Taylor sees upon arriving is a row of body bags, along with various tired soldiers mockingly welcoming him to "the 'Nam." He hasn't been in the field and already we are getting a sense of what the conflict has in store. Once he gets into the field, the movie shifts focus to the mundane life of a soldier. Before we even see any combat, there is the difficult day-to-day routine of trudging through the jungle, cutting aside vines, and digging foxholes.

In this first act, we are introduced to the three main characters: Taylor, Barnes (Tom Berenger), and Elias (Willem Dafoe), and it is the relationship between these three that drives much of the film. Barnes is quickly established to be a hard commander, known for insulting his soldiers and issuing threats toward anyone who fails to do their job correctly. Elias is slightly less awful, as he is reckless but also tries to do the right thing in a war where that may just be impossible. These two men, with Taylor in the middle, represent the themes of division that drive much of the film. As Taylor notes in the film's conclusion "we didn't fight the enemy. We fought amongst ourselves."

By contrast, the glimpses the film offers of the Viet Cong create the impression that they are organized. Where Elias and Barnes construct what amounts to a Civil War in the platoon, the Viet Cong are shown to be united. They work together seamlessly, coordinating a complex strategy and, if anything, taking advantage of the divisiveness among the Americans. As a result, the VC are able to routinely overpower the Americans in nearly every encounter and inflict heavy casualties. Even when they are finally repelled at the film's conclusion, it is only a temporary victory in a losing war (and still most of the platoon is dead or wounded).

The division in the army becomes especially clear in one sequence when the men approach a small village on a "patrol." They claim to be looking for VC, but their methods make it clear that they are hardly the good guys in this conflict. Their first approach is to interrogate civilians, an act which involves the automatic assumption that they are guilty and trying to beat information out of them ( which proves futile as the civillians in question have no information and don't speak English). This includes charging into people's homes and using their apparent lack of cooperation as an excuse to physically abuse them.

When that fails, Barnes receives orders to destroy the whole village. In doing so, the soldiers go above and beyond, not only shooting civilians but also joking about it. Not only do they set fire to the buildings, but they also make a point of destroying the local food supply and killing livestock. All this because they refused to believe one man's testimony that they were forced into working with the VC. Even worse is the implication that the incident is being covered up. A lieutenant promises an investigation, but reveals privately to Barnes that he will probably get off, and after learning that Elias tried to stop the massacre claims he is a "troublemaker."

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Trumbo (Cold War)

The Cold War was an unusual conflict, both in its day and now. One could debate on whether an actual war happened, as no shots were ever fired (although the Cold War did play a major role in starting the Korean and Vietnam Wars). The "war" was mainly a conflict between ideologies and weapons. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were competing to construct more advanced nuclear weapons. It was also one about different ideologies and paranoia. This was especially true when the Cold War began in 1945. During this time, the American Government was hijacked by a party of right-wing fanatics, not unlike what is currently happening today.

Many of these consertavies Joseph McCarthy being among the most infamous, promoted the idea that communism was a threat to "American values," resulting in a wave of anti-communist propaganda describing non-existent conspiracies and creating a desire to root out communists in America. Men like McCarthy and J. Parnell Thomas began running a series of communist witch-trials in which people were accused of "contempt of congress" without sufficient evidence. Anyone who tried to protest against these so-called trials was automatically labelled a traitor, and the men involved were known to twist the words of defendants to make them sound guilty. Worse still, the only way to get out of being accused was to give other names, people who would in turn be accused of communism.

It is true that there were communists in America at the time, but McCarthy's stories of spies infiltrating America and destroying it from the inside were a fantasy at best. Most communists working at the time would have only supported the ideas of communism (specifically the part about rights for workers) rather than what had actually occurred as a result of Joseph Stalin's actions in Russia.But one did not even have to have the slightest interest in communism to be affected.

During this time, film studios were making deals with a "union" known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) which made backroom deals to keep workers from striking. After several tricks were used to weed representatives from the Conference of Studio Unions (a union which actually supported workers' rights), their leader Herb Sorrell was accused of alleged communist ties which were then used to force out its remaining members. Additionally, being against antisemitism was also equated with being communist, resulting in problems for writers who had made films about the subject.

The Hollywood Ten, screenwriters blacklisted by Hollywood

The result was unemployment, imprisonment, deportation, and in some cases suicide for thousands of Americans. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, actors, writers, directors were blacklisted as communists. This is where one screenwriter by the name of Dalton Trumbo enters the picture. Today, Trumbo is arguably best known as the writer of Roman Holiday and Spartacus, but these were only brief moments in a lengthy and dangerous career. Trumbo was a member of the American Communist Party, as well as an advocate for the rights of workers before he was blacklisted. But he would not only fight the blacklist, he went on to defy and challenge it.

It is this complex story that makes up the biopic Trumbo, a story about the blacklist with a particular emphasis on its role in Hollywood but relating it to a much larger issue. Here we see the question of what it means to be patriotic and what it means to be a traitor? How far can one go to defend their rights? And where does security end and oppression begin? These are all questions the viewer is left to face as they are forced to navigate the confusing crossfire of Cold War politics. Throughout, we are left to question who the real threats are.

From the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Trumbo's work as a screenwriter, complete with a strange motif that recurs throughout- his unusual choice to work in a bathtub. Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) is more or less a normal person working as a writer in Hollywood and trying to do his best for his family. Unfortunately, his communist ties quickly draw unwanted attention in the aftermath of World War II. The role of communist paranoia is mainly symbolized by real-life actress-turned right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who becomes the face of the imaginary conspiracies she promotes.

But Hedda is not alone in her quest to stamp out the imaginary threat of communism. She also has support from actor John Wayne, as well as the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), the government organization which would over see the anti-communist trials that would soon be coming. Hedda is quickly shown to be a bully when she begins using her press connections to promote anti-communist sentiment. We see Trumbo trying to enjoy himself at a movie theater, only to see a newsreel accusing several actors of communist ties in addition to himself. Afterwards, he finds himself greeted by a mean viewer who pours a drink on him and calls him a "traitor."

Trumbo is hardly a man to take this lightly. As annoying as the accusations are, he still continues to fight and devises a plan to work through the different levels of congress, hoping he can eventually reach a liberal majority who will listen. He tries to promote HUAC's actions as anti-American, appealing to the First Amendment (freedom of speech) but this proves unsuccessful. Not only do Wayne and Hopper work hard to make him look bad, but the studio executives are more interested in the seemingly more profitable government agendas.

At this point, Trumbo is facing problems along with several other screenwriters. Among the others is Arlen Heard (Louis C.K.), who struggles with being accused while also dealing with lung cancer. This is only a small sample of the people who would face blacklisting, and what we see here is only the beginning. Eventually, Trumbo receives a note saying that he is to answer to HUAC, leading to a montage of sequences depicting the hearings. All of these are shot in black and white, mimicking actual footage of HUAC trials, even replicating some of the same camera angles. As we move specifically into Trumbo's session, the scene fades into colour, but it is hopeless.

Trumbo tries to answer the questions, but still finds himself labelled a traitor. This is after he notes several reasons why the trial is unconstitutional, including a lack of evidence (as well as the prosecutor's refusal to present any) and noting that J. Parnell Thomas (James Dumont) has used his power to place family members in position of authority, none of whom are paying taxes. Ironically, Thomas is later convicted for tax evasion and sent to the same prison as Trumbo, and yet his initial ruling stays in place. As Trumbo notes, Thomas was the one who actually committed a crime. This is hardly any comfort, with Trumbo being ostracized by many of the prisoners and only able to find work the delivery service.

When he finally gets out of jail, Trumbo suddenly has to deal with a changing world. He returns home to find his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) who was a little girl when he left is now a teenager, an early visual cue towards the changes that take place. Unfortunately, his reunion is only a small amount of optimism in a cold world. While in prison, we hear a radio broadcast in which HUAC questions the actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), previously loyal friend of Trumbo who now finds himself under pressure to give names. He finds himself unable to resist, and ends up labeling Trumbo as a communist. This only makes things worse when he and his family try to move, only to find their new home vandalized by neighbors.

But this alone is not enough to stop Trumbo, much as Hopper tries to destroy him throughout the film. Before going to prison, Trumbo continues to fight against the blacklist, even if he is unable to do so openly. It is not an easy fight, and it is one that threatens his personal relationships. He finds himself fighting more often with Arlen, and also becomes to have a more strained relationship with his family. We see that as he struggles to confront the blacklist, he becomes more distant from his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and Nikola. It takes a long time for him to realize how far he has gone, and when he does it is a difficult journey to fix it.

Even so, Trumbo has managed to defy the blacklist so far. Before he goes to prison, he devises a plan with screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), which involves the latter taking credit for his script and then sharing the profits, with the film being eventually released as Roman Holiday. After getting out of prison, Trumbo begins setting up an intricate network for ghost writing. He starts by making an arrangement in which he writes under different names for the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), eventually hiring other blacklisted writers to join him. This does take care of his financial problems, but there are still other problems. Trumbo is unable to create anything worthwhile and the need for a constant output of screenplays strains relations with his family.

That is of course, until Trumbo decides to make a daring gamble. He writes a screenplay called The Brave One, which becomes a huge hit and even wins an Oscar. Hopper of course finds out and tries to bring an end to his career, making efforts to force the King Brothers to fire him. Unfortunately for her, HUAC is beginning to lose their power, and she almost gets beaten to death with a baseball bat. As we can see, McCarthyism is nearing its end. And he is not the only one fighting the blacklist either. Near the end of the 1950's, Trumbo finds approached by two big names: Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), both of whom want him to edit a script for them. He is given the task of working on two screenplays: Spartacus and Exodus (both released in 1960).

It is also here that Trumbo is faced with a final daring but ultimately important gamble: revealing himself. Historically, Spartacus and Exodus both gained huge controversies for including Trumbo's name in the credits instead of an alias. Hopper becomes furious when she learns that Trumbo has still been working, and even attempts to orchestrate boycotts for Spartacus which almost get its funding pulled. Still, her power is weakened, and Douglas is able to blackmail the studio executives into finishing the project. When it finally comes out, Trumbo has the honor of seeing his name in the credits for the first time in a decade, and the blacklist finally starts to come to an end when Spartacus receives an endorsement from President John F. Kennedy.

The movie ends with a speech performed by Trumbo in 1970, where he looks back at the Blacklist. He explains that HUAC's actions and the blacklist affected everyone, and different people were forced to react in their own way. Some tried to maintain their values, others felt they had no choice but to protect themselves by giving names. Regardless, Trumbo reminds us that his story is only one of thousands of people affected by the blacklisted it inspired. He may have ultimately recovered, but there were many who never did. The film may focus on Trumbo, but it is really about the thousands of Americans whose lives were forever changed by the Cold War.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Letters From Iwo Jima (World War II)

There are plenty of stories about the actions performed by the Japanese during World War II. There are plenty of stories about their treatment of POWs and their suicidal tactics, but there are very few that manage to show it through their eyes. This made Clint Eastwood's "Iwo Jima" saga a very ambitious project, when he followed Flags of Our Fathers with Letters From Iwo Jima. The two films were made simultaneously, and showed the battle of Iwo Jima from different perspectives.Of these two, Letters From Iwo Jima was the better received film. Although it was directed by an American, it was filmed in Japanese with an entirely Japanese cast.

During World War II, Japan developed a questionable propaganda tactic which involved promoting self-sacrifice. The government tried to invoke the Samurai Codes of Feudal Japan, encouraging soldiers to die for their country. This resulted in a variety of suicidal tactics, such as the infamous kamikaze pilots or the "Banzai charges" which usually involved soldiers performing suicidal moves in the hopes of taking taking a large amount of enemies with them. This was also one of the main reasons why Japanese POW camps were so notoriously horrible; they saw it as punishing the imagined cowardice of the allies for surrendering instead of dying for their country.

This mentality proved very effective at motivating soldiers, but is their really honor to be found in battle? What does it mean to be a coward? What does it meant to be patriotic? Where does sacrifice end and needlessly reckless behavior begin? These are all questions asked in Letters From Iwo Jima. Throughout the film, we hear discussions of honor, dedication, and accusations of being "unpatriotic," but in the end we are left to wonder if there is any merit to all these claims. The film makes a strongly concerted effort to represent the Japanese as human beings, who while obviously affected by the Samurai mentality that has been forced onto them, still have feelings.

The opening sequence of the film gives us a brief glimpse of Iwo Jima in the present day, and we see that there are still echoes of World War II. The film cuts between different shots of burnt-out tanks, abandoned bunkers, and broken machine guns. Eventually, we move into an underground tunnel with a group of archaeologists, presumably interested in studying the Battle of Iwo Jima. From here, it is a quick cut to 1944, and we get introduced to Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young soldier who shows no real sense of duty or honor. In fact, his first line of dialogue is an offhanded remark that the Japanese should just give Iwo Jima to the Americans so he can go home. This remark is not taken well by his commander.

Saigo is generally treated as more or less a normal person stuck in a war he does not fully understand, and he is only doing as instructed. His main interest throughout is merely to return home to his family, not unlike any of the Americans, but for now he is stuck with the stressful day-to-day life of a soldier. When we first arrive in 1944, we begin by seeing the everyday life of the soldiers, beginning with their efforts to dig trenches on the beach, and later moving through various other tasks. The film delays the arrival of the American soldiers in order to better align the viewer with the Japanese.

During this same sequence, we are introduced to the other main character, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a man who is quickly shown to be far more respectable than one normally associates with Japanese officers of the era. Kuribayashi's first act is to stop an officer from whipping Saigo and his friend for "unpatriotic discussion." He does talk about honor, but he also shows concern for his soldiers. During the film's first act, he focuses primarily on planning a defensive strategy, and proves himself a good tactician. The only trouble is that the more reckless attitudes of the other officers make it hard to think rationally, as we see when they repeatedly insist on including beach defenses even after Kuribayashi explains why they will not work (and do not work, once the Americans arrive).

The battle has not even started yet, and already we are seeing two different groups of characters who defy the usual image of the Japanese military. We have one ordinary man doing his job, and another respectable officer trying to do the honorable thing in the face of a hopeless situation (they are unable to retreat or call for support). The members of the cast who do attempt to invoke the Samurai mentality are generally treated as reckless and in some cases more dangerous to their own unit. At one point in the film, Saigo overhears explicit orders to retreat but is instead pressed into a suicide pact by his commander. One by one he watches several soldiers recklessly kill themselves with their own grenades, until only he and one other soldier remain, the latter of whom accuses the former of cowardice.

When they arrive at another cave on the island, they are greeted with Lt. Ito's (Shido Nakamura) attempt to execute them for cowardice (one which is only halted when Kuribayashi confirms that he did in fact issue orders to retreat) instead of trying to use them as reinforcements. Ito later goes on to ignore Kuribayashi's orders and lead reckless charges against the enemy, before finally trying to throw himself under a tank. This last one proves an extremely ineffective tactic, as he moves into the field with three mines and tries to lie on the ground. Only problem is that no tanks end up coming anywhere near him, making this action entirely useless.

The subject of patriotism becomes a major theme throughout the movie. Early on, we see Saigo being whipped for "unpatriotic discussion." Later on, the unit is joined by Private Shimuzu (Ryō Kase) who is suspected of being a spy working for the Kempeitai (secret police) looking to arrest any "unpatriotic soldiers." Only later in the film does it turn out that Shimuzu was in fact discharged after an unusual incident in which he was accused of being "unpatriotic" for not shooting a dog that another officer claimed was "interfering with military communications."

The themes of honor and patriotism are further deconstructed once the American soldiers finally arrive. Although none are ever given any particular focus, there is an effort to show that they are also human beings, and that the Americans are not all that much different from the Japanese. We do see at least one American soldier committing a war crime (shooting two Japanese prisoners because he doesn't want to be stuck watching them), showing that they are just as capable of atrocities as the Japanese are. At the same time, we also witness the beatdown and eventual bayoneting of a captured American soldier.

The best example of this aspect of the film comes in a brief but memorable sub-plot related to an American soldier named Sam (Luke Eberl), a wounded American soldier who is recovered by Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Nishi's immediately orders Sam to be treated, which results in tension between him and his fellow officers. One of them tries to argue that the Americans would never treat a Japanese soldier, to which Nishi replies "Have you ever met one?" He has a good point. Aside from Nishi himself, none of them have ever met an American up close. Sam later dies of his injuries, but not before developing a bond with Nishi as the two talk about their experiences in America. This brief moment establishes a connection between both sides. It shows that the Americans are also people.

But in the end, just what does it mean to find honor in battle? It does not take long before it becomes clear that Iwo Jima is lost. According to the Japanese government, the honorable thing to do would be to commit suicide, but is that really the best option? Kuribayashi struggles with this throughout the film, trying to find an optimistic outcome in the face of defeat. He soon realizes that victory is out the question, and the odds of survival are against him. Eventually he decides that the only logical thing he can do is go out like a soldier and at least make it possible for Saigo to return home to his family. This prompts him to lead a final banzai charge, which is eventually overpowered and defeated, bringing the battle of Iwo Jima to an end.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Passchendaele (World War I)

Today, the Great War which would later become known as World War I is often remembered as a futile and pointless war that claimed the lives of thousands of people. So many casualties were faced on all sides it is nearly impossible to gain a reliable number or to keep a record of everyone lost. That view is not an unjustified one. The whole war began because of various bad political decisions and alliances, with everything being set into motion by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. From there, it was only a matter of time as a complex string of alliances led to different European nations entering one by one until most of the continent was at war.

But this is not how the war was perceived in its day, at least not on the homefront. Military propaganda worked hard to suppress the realities of war and tried to make it seem glamorous and heroic. Everyone foolishly believed the war would be short, and advertisements liked to promote the idea that men who enlisted would go out, kill a few Germans, and come home in time for Christmas. Men were rushing to enlist, some below the regulation age, and any who failed to do so were likely to be labelled as cowards, usually by older men who themselves were not fighting and lacked any real understanding of the war.

Few could have anticipated just how much the Great War (as it was then known) would have changed so much. While different nations fought over inches of land, generals trained in Victorian tactics struggled to adapt to the introduction of new war machines. The innovations of already existing technologies such as machine guns, mortars, and grenades combined with the introductions of u-boats, tanks, and airplanes to the battlefield allowed the war to develop on a scale never seen before. Four years men fought and died while living in the miserable conditions of the trenches.

And as if that were not already enough, there was the so-called Treaty of Versailles which finally brought the war to an end. The "negotiation" consisted entirely of nations from the same side, and focused on trying to find someone to punish for starting the war. They eventually decided that Germany was to blame and forced it to pay, and more or less bankrupted its economy. Over the following years, Germany would struggle financially, with things only being made worse by the Great Depression. It was the impoverished state of its people that led to extreme antisemitism and a desire for a strong leader to restore Germany to its perceived former glory. In short, the "treaty" (if you can call it that) which ended World War I ended up being directly responsible for World War II.

Among the various battles that were fought in the war one of the most infamous, especially among Canadians, is the Battle of Passchendaele, fought near a small village in Belgium in 1917. This battle would become one of the most devastating moments of World War I, with casualties so high nobody can even agree on an estimate for how many were lost. The battle lacked even the trenches for cover, with soldiers forced to live in deep mud and foxholes, presenting some of the worst conditions faced by anyone during the War. Given its role in Canadian history, it should be surprising that actor and director Paul Gross would choose this moment as the backdrop when he began production on his World War I drama.

Inspired both by the historical battle and stories from his grandfather (a WWI veteran), Passchendaele is a bleak film about the difficulties faced during the war both by soldiers and civilians. In what has become a rare move for war films, Gross opts to show the Canadian perspective, and breaks the story into two main parts. The first half of the film focuses on the impact of World War I on civilians, with a particular emphasis both on the experiences of returning soldiers and the role of propaganda in shaping perceptions of the conflict. After establishing how the war is imagined by those who have never seen it, that image is shattered in the second half which shows what soldiers in the field actually experienced.

The film's opening scene quickly sets up the major themes of the film, when we are introduced to Michael Dunne (Paul Gross), who is leading a squad in an unidentified ruined town trying to take a German machine gun nest. He is able to succeed, but only after losing most of his squad in the process. Although the film aligns us with the Canadians, Gross also takes measures to ensure the viewer understands that the Germans are human, as we see when they initially respond to Dunn carrying a white flag (they only open fire because one of the few remaining soldiers looked like he was going to throw a grenade).

After finally taking the machine gun nest, it is Dunne, not any of the Germans, who shows himself to be more ruthless. When he arrives at the nest, the lone survivor is a young man, possibly a teenager, who is obviously scared and tries to surrender. Dunne, lost in the chaos of the war, instead finds himself killing the young man with his bayonet. The reasons for this action are not entirely clear. Later on, Dunn admits that even he fails to understand why he acted the way he did. It is this brief moment that sets up the theme which runs throughout the film: the perception of war versus the reality of war.

This theme first gets introduced when Dunne is sent to Calgary for medical care. He meets nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), the two of them being the only ones who have any idea what is really going on. Dunn has been to the front and knows what has been happening, while Sarah has likely seen her share of wounded men. During World War I, it was also not that unusual for nurses to develop close relationships with their patients, sometimes even leading to romance and marriage (in some cases, this was actually encouraged). So the idea of bringing these two together would have been fairly normal.

What we also learn is that Dunn has found himself in a difficult position, being accused of desertion after going AWOL when he received a medal. The people questioning him are unable to comprehend his motivations, even after Dunn states that he feels like he received a medal for murdering a young boy. The fact that Dunn's actions were seen as a success present an obvious disconnect between rank, with the soldiers in the field who know what is really going on, and the generals behind the lines who fail to see the full picture.

As the film explores Calgary, Paul Gross wastes no time introducing us to the world of propaganda. One of the first things we see is a banner that refers to the Germans as "Godless Huns." Several similar banners appear throughout the first half, all using the same phrase of "Huns." This was a common tactic in World War I propaganda, taking away the Germans' humanity and making it look like their deaths were necessary. It was promotions like this that led to the idea that the whole war would end by Christmas of 1914 (when in fact it ran until 1918). We also see different tactics used, which include outright making up atrocities performed by the Germans.

But Dunne is not the only one with problems. Sarah is revealed to have a morphine addiction, which developed as a means of coping with the loss of her father at Vimy Ridge. Even worse is her brother David (Joe Dinicol) who serves as an unfortunate victim of wartime propaganda. David is shown to be in a relationship with Cassie Walker (Meredith Bailey), the daughter of a wealthy doctor who thinks David is a coward. David is faced with constant peer pressure, even though he is unable to serve due to asthma. These experiences of constant bullying lead him to become stubbornly determined to enlist, unable to understand the advice of Dunne who tries to tell him what war is really like.

Things only get worse later on, when word gets out that David and Sarah's father was fighting for the Germans. From the moment Dobson-Hughes (Jim Mezon) informs Dunne of the connection, it is clear that a witch-hunt is about to start. We begin seeing shots of Sarah's house being vandalized, with the word "HUNS!" being painted multiple times and rocks being thrown through windows. Dunne even witnesses the gathering of a lynch mob at one point and has to find them a different residence. Dunne is eventually able to get Sarah a room at an apartment (where he also manages to support her through morphine withdrawal) and gets David set up with his friend.

This only manages to work as a temporary solution. David's own insecurity due to the bullying he has faced has left him extremely anti-German. In one scene, he goes to a graveyard where he kicks over gravestones that have German-sounding names written on them. This prejudice is clearly a classic case of the bullied becoming a bully, in that he makes himself feel superior to Germans as a means of coping with the ostracization that has happened due to his family connections. It eventually gets to the point where Cassie's father, a doctor who was seen lecturing about the effects of shrapnel wounds, outright lies about his asthma to get him enlisted.

This sets up the film's second half, which shatters the image of the war presented throughout the first. This section moves the three main characters directly to Passchendaele, three months later. We learn that Sarah has returned to nursing, while Dunne is serving with David and trying to protect him, a task that proves easier said than done. The first mortar strike occurs seemingly out of nowhere, when Dunne is casually talking to a fellow soldier and about to hand him a match, only for the man to suddenly be wounded in what had otherwise been a quiet moment. Even the generals are only relatively safer than the soldiers, as we see first when a stray mortar strikes their dugout and later when a blast accidentally kills Dobson-Hughes.

But most of the fighting is initially delayed, with a focus instead on the living conditions of Passchendaele and the disconnect between the infantry and command. Dunne attends a brief meeting with the generals, during which they attempt to brief him on their tactics, though this is hardly useful. Their efforts to point at a map and give instructions don't seem to mean anything. When Dunne reaches the spot where he was promised a trench, there is none to be found. Dunne and the other soldiers find themselves forced to spend the night in foxholes that have already been flooded with likely freezing water. At least one soldier dies of hypothermia during the night from this, and stays long enough that a rat is able to crawl into his mouth.

When the battle finally begins, the film moves between three different locations: Dunne and David in No Man's Land, Sarah in the hospital nearby, and the dugout where the generals attempt to plan their strategies. The depictions of the first two create a remarkable dissonance with the third. After witnessing heavy casualties with no apparent accomplishment, we hear an officer utter the phrase "so far, so good." They are constantly talking about lines, holding positions, and pushing back, but when we see No Man's Land, this has very little meaning.

The place looks more or less the same all around, with soldiers trying to take cover behind mud piles or from flooded foxholes in what appears a struggle to survive. The boundaries which the officers keep referring to are nowhere to be seen on the battlefield, especially once the Germans get close. The battle is chaos, with soldiers on both sides getting killed left and right. Guns are firing, there is the occasional explosion. Eventually the Germans get in close and the whole thing turns into a disorganized brawl. Adding to that, the weapons they do have prove unreliable, with rifles and machine guns constantly jamming.

Amidst all the chaos, we also see David become too confident in himself, recklessly charging towards the Germans alone and getting struck by another mortar. This one moment gives us a brief glimpse into the humanity of the soldiers, and shows that just because we are following the Canadians does not automatically make Germany the bad guys. It is here that Dunne, trying to keep his promise to bring David home, makes the risky decision to run into the field alone to save him, an act which gets him wounded in the process. But interestingly, there is a ceasefire that occurs, and it is started by the Germans.

As Dunne approaches, the German commander quickly realizes he just wants to rescue his friend, and orders his soldiers to stop shooting. The Canadians take longer, but eventually stop when they realize they are not being fired on. This brief moment brings a calm to the battlefield. Dunne makes eye contact with the German commander, who presents a momentary gesture to state that he is allowing Dunne to recover his friend. Such an act establishes that, at the very least, this commander has a sense of morality and Dunne's early action of killing a surrendering German at the film's opening. Both sides watch as Dunne struggles to carry David across the field, momentarily putting aside their differences. But all it takes is one shot. Another mortar and the fighting starts back up again.

In the end, it is stated that Canada has succeeded in taking Passchendaele, but what exactly does a "victory" mean in this war? As far as Dunne, David, Sarah, and the viewer can tell, the whole thing amounted to a bunch of people killing each other for no clear reason. The Canadians have suffered heavy casualties, including Dunne, but did anything really get accomplished? The officers seem to think so, but no evidence in the film supports the conclusion that there was in fact a winner. If anything, both sides lost. The entire battle accomplished nothing.

This realization is finally brought full circle in the film's epilogue, which gives numbers of how many Canadians were killed, before ending with the statement that the Germans eventually took back Passchendaele. This cold realization leaves the viewer to ask what exactly Dunne and his fellow soldiers died for. The entire battle ended up being pointless, poorly executed, and costly. The film's final scene brings these themes to a conclusion when Dunne's grave is visited by David, Sarah, Cassie, and a few others.

David has finally come to understand the reality of war, as well as the price. Far from heroically killing Germans, David has been left with only one leg, a permanent reminder of his experiences. It also shows that even for those who survived, life would never be the same again. The final shot of the movie zooms out from a shot of Dunne's grave, revealing a massive yard filled with hundreds if not thousands of graves belonging to fallen soldiers. As the camera moves, more become visible, so many that they are impossible to count. This mass graveyard contrasts the one survivor, and reminds the viewer of just how many people have died in the war until now.