Monday, 28 November 2016

The Flawed Evolution of a Detective


Dick Tracy is a name not heard very often anymore, but there was a time when his name was everywhere, and I mean everywhere. The popularity of the character may have unwittingly done itself in, sadly, with one flawed attempt to capitalize on nostalgia for the characters' origins, something largely forgotten by its audiences. This came in the form of Dick Tracy, an attempt by Warren Beatty to capture the essence of the comics, with some influence from film noir thrown in. Before I can get into the details of why his efforts proved unsuccessful, I will need to provide some background information.

The character of Dick Tracy originated as a series of comic strips in the early 1930's written by Chester Gould. Much like other comics of the time, such as Batman and Superman, the stories would have been presented in a serial-ish format, with one line of panels appearing in newspapers that displayed a roughly linear progression of events that ran indefinitely. The character was a police detective who relied on various gadgets to fight crime (there was also an odd period where he ended up in space in an effort to compete with Flash Gordon). These comics proved to be a huge hit, with Gould continuing to write them well into the 70's (and some authors still writing today).


The influence of Dick Tracy can still be seen today. His popularity was a likely influence on the later success of hardboiled fiction in the 1940's, which brought about the classic private detectives like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. By extension, his influence could also be traced to the later detectives who homage those of classical noir, such as Cole Phelps and Jessica Jones. Tracy himself would make the transition to classical film noir with a 1945 film adaptation. Before that version, the character had been depicted in several different forms.

Tracy first made the transition to radio, where he became the star of a serial beginning in 1934. Three years later, he made his screen debut in a 1937 film serial in which he was played by Ralph Byrd. This particular incarnation of the character functioned mainly to cash in on the strip's popularity, with a story that was largely unrelated outside of its lead character. Instead of a police detective, Tracy was instead depicted as an FBI agent (referred to only as a by the vague slang term of "g-man") trying to outwit a dangerous criminal organization known as the "Spider Ring." Tracy himself and his assistant Junior were the only characters brought in from the comics, with the rest of the cast being new to the story.


This being a 1930's serial, the plot was hardly anything fancy. In fact, if anything it was disjointed and not very coherent. Unlike the feature films produced by Hollywood, serials generally favored action over narrative progression and character development, with the recurring gimmick that every installment ends in a cliffhanger (forcing the viewer to return for resolution). Exposition was generally rushed, quickly providing the essential information before moving into a series of extremely contrived chases and brawls.

Every episode the Spider Ring had a different scheme to be foiled by Tracy, and he would always end up in some kind of trouble that would be resolved anti-climatically (the ending of The Fur Pirates would later be imitated by Steven Spielberg in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). This is because serials were often intentionally stretched out as long as possible, and plotlines were often recycled and re-used to continue the story. As a result, cliffhangers were often unoriginal and displayed very unsatisfying resolutions, with stock characters relied on to progress the action.

Four of Dick Tracy's fifteen episodes end with an aerial chase culminating in someone being trapped while their vehicle is going down (of these, one is resolved by the characters simply walking away from the wreckage, the others all see more or less the same resolution of parachuting to safety). More bizarrely is the choice of cliffhanger for the tenth episode The Gold Ship, in which Tracy is left in danger of being crushed by a falling steel plate when he can easily roll out of the way. Over the course of the serial, Tracy goes on to face a variety of obstacles, repeatedly getting into car, boat, and plane chases with no real psychological depth for anyone.

Warren Beatty's attempt to direct and star in a film adaptation of Dick Tracy functioned in many ways as an attempt to capture a sense of nostalgia for the old character of Dick Tracy. The movie relies primarily on the comics as a source of inspiration (though some influence from the 1937 serial and classical film noir is also present). The original goal was to revive the Dick Tracy franchise, much like Tim Burton had done with his re-imagining of Batman. Unfortunately, the final product was a mess, and Dick Tracy flopped at the box office.

The storyline revolved around Tracy's efforts to outwit a local mob organization led by an overacting Al Pacino, with additional sub-plots concerning his relationship with adopted son Junior and his girlfriend. What the film got wrong was in its questionable decision to take an approach reminiscent of the 1960's Batman TV show and present the film as a living comic book. Overt makeup was used to make half the cast look like they walked out of a badly drawn comic, with a city that looked like it was drawn and colored in. With such an aesthetic, it almost makes one question why Beatty even bothered to have the film be live-action, instead of producing an animated film.


This of course, is the main problem with the film. I wanted to like it when I went in, but the whole film was a disaster. The cartoonish look makes it hard to take any of the story seriously, which is especially odd given there is no obvious indication that this is meant to be a comedy. There was obviously an effort to make the characters look like they could have been drawn in the original comics, but that's very much part of the problem. Beatty fails to recognize the changes that are required with the transition from a hand-drawn comic to a live-action film.

Now, as an interesting thought expriment, I could try to imagine what I may do differently if I were to make my own Dick Tracy film (the original comics at least should be public domain). Unlike Beatty, I would have to consider the fact that I am moving from comic to film, and recognize that some changes will have to be made. I would imagine a good Dick Tracy film as being much grittier, with perhaps more moral ambiguity. I would definitely try to do it as a serious drama, with an attention to period detail. It would also be important to focus on developing Tracy as a person, someone who the audience can get to know and relate to on a much deeper level.

In fact, perhaps it would be better to make the story about him as a character and to use the mystery as a background. I would also want to develop the role of his girlfriend and Junior into much stronger characters. The women in Beatty's film have little to do, and it is not the most progressive from a gender standpoint. Having a strong woman to work alongside Beatty would be a welcome touch (especially if they could do it without forcing in a romance). The trick would be making a believable and interesting character, something that withstands the transition to film.

Beatty's effort, however, has proven flawed. As far as detectives go, there are far more interesting cases to be explored. It is unfortunate, because there still has yet to be a worthwhile interpretation of the Dick Tracy character. Between the cash-ins that came with his serial films and Beatty's efforts at revival, there is not much of the character to be appreciated by a modern audience. A proper film adaptation should be made, and it could bring the character into a whole new light.


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas



Introduction


So last year, I decided to run War Movie Week, which turned out to be a huge hit! The idea was basically that each day was broken into different eras, and I would randomly choose a film each day based on an overarching theme (World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Modern Warfare, Future Warfare). Because it was such a hit last time, I naturally thought it could be worth exploring again, and I started experimenting with ideas for new categories to explore, and what better way to take a step further than inviting other bloggers to join in.

Yes, I'm making this a mini blogathon! The idea is straight forward enough: the week is broken up so that each day focuses on a different topic related to an overarching theme. In this case, the theme is war, and each day focuses on a different conflict. For added effect, why not make this into a sort of advent calendar counting down the days until Christmas?

Before I can get into any details, I should probably take the time to note that I can't take full credit for this idea. I mean, yes, it was my idea to put this thing together and set it into motion, but recently I seem to have found myself turning a lot towards Wendell Ottley of Dell on Movies for advice. I'd just like to thank him for assisting me in coming up with the different topics.

Instructions

No prior registration is required and you are under no obligation to post every day within the timeframe, so if you're only reading this on the 23, you still have time to enter. As long as you submit something on the appropriate day, it counts.

If you would like to join in, this is all you need to do...

  1. For each day that you wish to participate, choose a war film based on the designated era. See below for a full schedule.
  2. Watch your chosen war film and try to write something. It doesn't really matter what you write. You could just review a movie or provide a detailed analysis, or you could just write down some things you found interesting. As long as you have something, it is valid.
  3. Post what you wrote on the appropriate day, and send me a link. I'll include it at the end of my post.


And that's it. Once I've got my post together for each day, I can add in links to other participants. Feel free to comment on each other's posts or exchange recommendations. I'd be happy to hear any recommendations you have for films to look into, though I can't promise I'll be able to watch them for this particular event.

Schedule


To set things in motion, and to set a tone for what will be coming over the month, I thought it made sense to go back to the beginning, to the first war ever fought by humanity. It is hard to verify exactly what the first war was, mainly because historical records do not go back to the birth of humanity, and it is hard to gain that type of information from fossils. Fortunately, I managed to get a camera crew and a time machine, so we went back and filmed the entire thing. Here is the official, definitive, irrefutable documentation of humanity's first war...



Now, here is the official schedule. It was difficult to come up with a good selection of choices, and I looked at several different versions of how to do this. I even considered doing this over the course of a month (which turned out not to be as feasible as I'd hoped). I talked to both my mom and Wendell about this and we came up with a bunch of different categories that didn't make the final list. Among other things, we talked about films dealing with different aspects of war, different branches of the military, and even a few different aspects of World War II. The final version I think is the cleanest, given the overlap that would have come with the original list, but here are the honorable mentions that didn't make the cut...

  • Spies
  • On the Homefront (war films not about combat, suggested by Wendell)
  • Foreign Warfare
  • Navy SEALs
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Snipers
  • In the Navy
  • Air Force
  • Black Ops
  • Counter Terrorism
  • World War II- Espionage
  • World War II- Pacific Theater
  • World War II- Atlantic Theater
  • World War II- the Resistance
  • Korean War (suggested by Wendell)

There was also a bunch of different time periods that were considered but ultimately abandoned due to a shortage of movies on the topic, mostly because of difficulty in finding appropriate movies on them, or at least movies I knew for sure I could get. These included the Hundred Years War, The English Civil War, the Renaissance (lots of dramas, not a lot of war films), the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Crimean War, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the October Crisis. I also originally had the last two categories as "Advanced Warfare" and "Infinite Warfare" (both names referencing Call of Duty) but I figured it would be too confusing so I merged them into one. 

Still, I think I came up with a good final selection. It wasn't easy to cut everything down and a lot of this was based on practicality, but here is the official list for December 13-24. If you'd like to recommend any good movies for these categories, I am open to suggestion though I can't make any promises.

December 13: Ancient Warfare


December 14: Colonialism


December 15: Napoleonic Era


December 16: American Civil War


December 17: American Indian War



December 18: British Imperialism 


December 19: World War I


December 20: World War II


December 21: Cold War


December 22: Vietnam


December 23: Modern Warfare


December 24: Future Warfare


For reference, I have taken the liberty of putting together some lists of films dealing with some of the above themes. I should make it clear you are under no obligation to stick to these lists. I am merely including them as a possible source of inspiration. I currently have lists for Ancient WarfareAmerican Civil War, British ImperialismWorld War IWorld War II, Cold WarVietnam, Modern Warfare, and Future Warfare.

Monday, 21 November 2016

8 Video Game Supporting Characters Who Deserve Their Own Game


So I find that in the video games I play, I usually love a good story, and with a good story I also like good characters. That said, I occasionally run into the situation where I find I enjoy the supporting cast more than the actual protagonist. Even when there is a great protagonist (or protagonists, in some cases) that doesn't occasionally stop me from being interested in the storylines of supporting cast members. So I thought I'd make a list of ten supporting characters I have encountered in video games who I would want to see take a starring role.

Now admittedly, my knowledge of gaming is not without its limits. I can only go on games I've actually played, which makes it harder to decide. I've also never been good at ranking, so I decided instead to sort these roles alphabetically. So here are ten video game supporting characters I'd be open to seeing take a starring role in their own game.

Claudia Auditore (Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood)


The Assassin's Creed games have generally had a very diverse array of female characters, even if most of them only filled supporting roles. The series has even managed to have two female protagonists so far, the first of which was also black (and possibly lesbian or bisexual, given the subtext between her and √Člise). However, special mention goes to Claudia, whose story ended at a point where it was getting really interesting. She proves herself to be a strong woman throughout Brotherhood, first running a small town, later taking charge of a brothel, single-handedly killing several guards, and finally becoming an assassin in her own right.

That last part, however, only occurs at the very end of the game. We see her acceptance into the Assassin Brotherhood, but I'd love to see more of her actual career as an assassin. If Ubisoft ever wanted to revisit the setting of Renaissance-era Italy, a spin-off featuring Claudia as the star would be a really good idea. We could get to know her on a more personal level, perhaps getting a better sense of her psychology and her methods.

Chloe Frazer (Uncharted)



Okay, let's face it, Chloe was probably the best character in the entire Uncharted series. She's strong, witty, can handle herself in a fight, but also human. I'd be lying if I said I never had moments where I played Uncharted 2 wishing I could be her instead of the actual protagonist (Nate's fun, but I personally found Chloe a more interesting character). Sure, Elena's okay, but Chloe is so much cooler. I loved her role in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and was so excited when she returned for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (then disappointing when she left abruptly partway through). A lot of the best parts of the Uncharted games were the ones where you're working with Chloe.

So if why not give Chloe a spin-off game of her own. After all, getting her point of view would probably allow a chance to explore the character on a level not possible when her whole story is seen through Nate. We could get a much deeper look into her psychology and personal life, as well as her career as a thief (everyone always talks about how she is "the best driver in the business," something that generally goes unseen).

Father Mathias (Tomb Raider)


Okay, this was totally Lara Croft's story and she was an amazing character in the game, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a worthwhile supporting cast as well. Most of them could have their stories explored in future Tomb Raider games, but one story that is only hinted at is that of its main antagonist, Father Mathias. Not much is revealed about him in the game, beyond that he was also a castaway stranded some time before Lara's arrival, and his desperation to leave has led him to the conclusion that he must revive the Sun Queen and started a secret brotherhood that murders outsiders. It could be interesting to explore what happened to Mathias and to get a more detailed look into his mental processes. I could see him being a tragic figure, initially a well-intentioned man who got stuck on the island and gradually turning into the fanatic Lara encounters as he grows more desperate to return home.

Janey Springs (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel)


It's hard not to enjoy Janey's appearance in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, in which she assists the player character over the course of the story as well as providing side quests (usually by assigning overly complicated tasks for the player to accomplish something straight forward). Then there's the less-than-kid-friendly "kids books" she is fond of writing. There could be some fun potential to explore her character in more detail in a spin-off, which could make use of her crazy personality and her tendency to get into bizarre situations (and find equally bizarre and overly-convoluted ways of dealing with them). There would also be room to break ground by introducing an openly gay protagonist, something which to my knowledge has yet to happen (at least not in the form of anything beyond including an option for gay romance).

Dr. Penelope Young (Batman: Arkham Asylum)


Batman: Arkham Asylum is definitely intense. It's amazing how much it can do with so little (although it's also very easy to get stuck for the same reasons). That said, there isn't much to Batman himself, and a lot of the more interesting roles are in the supporting cast. Dr. Young proved a good character and I was disappointed to see her die so early. I think there may still be more material to cover which could be accomplished by giving her a starring role. Dr. Young is depicted as a complex character who can seem cold and calculating but also not without a conscience. Her psychology alone could be worth exploring in more detail, but also her career presents some interesting narrative possibilities.

Placing Young as a tragic hero would allow Gotham to be viewed from a perspective other than Batman's (which would be refreshing), and it could allow an opportunity to see how ordinary people are affected by people like the Joker. It could also open up more room to explore what goes on at Arkham Asylum when Batman isn't there. Sure, making a story that isn't about Batman in which he may only be a supporting role could be seen as a huge gamble, but I think there's some good potential.

Tali'Zorah (Mass Effect Series)



For some reason, everyone seems to think it's Garrus who should have his own spin-off, but I don't think I'd want to play as him. Mass Effect is first and foremost an RPG, but if they wanted to deviate from using a player-customized role, Tali seems like a good choice. She played a crucial role across the Mass Effect trilogy, appearing in all three games and her relationship to Shepard being among the most touching of the various sub-plots the games have to offer.

A spin-off focused on Tali could deal with her adventures after the events of Mass Effect 3, and how she has been shaped by her experiences. After all, in Mass Effect she started as a teenager trying to figure out what to do with her life, and with Shepard as a mentor she went on to assist in destroying the Reapers and saving the Galaxy. Following Tali would allow the player to explore in greater detail the aftermath of the Reaper invasion (which could be affected differently depending on Shepard's actions in the previous games). Shepard was very much a mentor towards her, so following her new adventures would allow us to see how Tali has grown as a result.

Tess (The Last of Us)


The Last of Us had an assortment of interesting characters and roles, some arguably much more interesting than the actual main character Joel. Special mention goes to Tess, an NPC who accompanies Joel through the first act of the game, only to get killed early on. This is rather unfortunate given she is such a great character and we find out so little about who she is. From what we do see, she is quickly established to be a strong, capable survivor who knows how to handle herself as well as being a fairly effective smuggler. All we really get to know beyond that is that she has apparently been a criminal partner to Joel for some time.

If Naughty Dog ever wanted to produce a follow-up to The Last of Us, it could be worthwhile to try and explore Tess's story in more detail. Who is she? How did she get involved in the world of post-apocalyptic smuggling? How did she and Joel end up working together and why does she start out the game wanting to kill Robert? We don't get much of an opportunity to really explore Tess's mind, and with such a great character so underused in the first game, it would be really nice to see a prequel that can explore her story in more detail.

Whiptail (Heavenly Sword)


Heavenly Sword definitely gives us a very bizarre and over-the-top world. The setting alone (the aesthetic of which can perhaps be most easily described as a mix of Celtic and Ancient Chinese, with elements of various ancient mythologies also thrown in) is odd enough, and then of course there are also the various strange characters we meet over the course of the story. One of the most peculiar individuals we meet is the Medusa-like General Whiptail, a strange fish/snake lady warrior who serves as the game's first boss. Of course, she isn't in the game very long, and dies early in the narrative, but that doesn't mean there aren't aspects of her character still to explore.

Theoretically, this game would have to be a prequel unless they wanted Whiptail to somehow come back to life (which could open up some interesting possibilities with a redemption story, but would probably be harder to pull off convincingly). It could function as a chronicling of the rise to power of the main antagonist, King Bohan as seen through her eyes, and delve more into their relationship as well as showing how she became one of his top generals and such a dangerous warrior. This approach could also have the interesting effect of making Whiptail into a tragic figure, especially if we can get into her psychology.


So those are some of my ideas. This is naturally limited to games I've played, but what video game supporting characters would you like to take control of?

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Middle Eastern Language Movies



So this week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Middle Eastern Language movies. Unfortunately, this is an area where I have zero experience. I haven't exactly seen that many Middle Eastern films and I don't have much to offer in this regard. However, I did take a class in which we spent a week on Post-Revolutionary Iranian Film, and there's been a couple of films referenced on other occasions. I probably won't have the most original or interesting list this week seeing as I'm just choosing from the few I actually know something about.

The Cow (1969)


Okay, so I only saw five minutes of this one, but it still counts. This was from a period of Iranian film that borrowed heavily from the conventions of Italian Neo-Realism in its reliance on documentary methods, use of non-actors, and an emphasis on everyday problems. In this case, the story is about a man's grief after his cow dies, and how he slowly loses himself when the villagers try to cover it up.

Close-Up (1990)


I wasn't a huge fan of this one, but it seems to be one of the most iconic as far as Middle Eastern films go. It's sort of a bizarre film that tries to blur the lines between drama and documentary regarding an incident in which a family was fooled by a man impersonating the director. The film combines documentary modes with re-enactments performed entirely by the actual people involved in the event (including the identity thief) in order to illustrate roughly what happened. Now I personally found it to be slow, not very clear, and boring, but a lot of people seem to like it and the director is supposed to be a big name.


Persepolis (2007)


Okay, I'm cheating slightly but I needed a third movie and this was the closest thing I could find to a film I'd actually watched. It is based on the actual experiences of an Iranian woman growing up in Iran during a very difficult period in its history so it still counts.