Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Thursday Movie Picks: Childhood Favorites

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is childhood favorites. This one is a tricky one to select as it's difficult to remember everything I loved as a child. Also a lot of what I was watching was on VHS tapes so there wasn't much of a distinction at the time between "movie" and "VHS compilations of a TV show" back then so it's hard to sort through what definitively counts.

I also remember have some more embarrassing entertainment moments. Here's a fun story: when I was first read the climax of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the part where Harry confronts Quirrel and he turns out to have Voldemort on the back of his head) I was so scared I was probably the only person who didn't want to watch the movie. When my parents took me to see it anyway, I got so panicked at that moment I had to be taken out of the theater until the scene was over. I remember it also took a few years and some gradual adjustments before I was finally able to watch the full movie without having to leave the room as soon as that scene came up.

Still, I've tried to come up with a good list of a few classics.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1958)

I watched this one so many times when I was younger. I was a big Jules Verne fan and found myself captivated by this version (incidentally, this one is in every possible way superior to that insulting 2008 3D version everyone was talking about for a while). It easily became a personal favorite and one I watched over and over again. The other one I loved was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but it wasn't until much later I got a chance to really examine that one in depth.

The Wrong Trousers (1993)

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Wallace and Gromit and owned all three of the original short films on VHS; but The Wrong Trousers was probably my favorite of the three. This one is plain bizarre and hilarious in so many ways. After all, this is the film that literally revolves around the acquisition of electronic pants (come on, tell me you didn't want your own pair of techno trousers as a kid). It then goes on to involve Wallace renting Gromit's room to a penguin who is really a criminal mastermind planning to steal a valuable diamond, and ultimately culminates in an epic train chase worthy of Buster Keaton...on a model train! (see picture) 

What's not to love about this? Just the bizarre gadgets Wallace has on hand are amusing enough (he has an unusually convoluted morning routine, which ends up getting sabotaged), but also the fun uses it finds for model trains (come on, tell me you wouldn't want a train setup like this one). It's also remarkable how complex Gromit can be without making a round (Wallace is the only speaking role).

Real Wheels/There Goes A... (1993-2003)

I guess this technically counts, though I'm not sure if anyone else here will actually remember these old videos. I used to watch them all the time. Basically, it was a series of short documentaries (usually around 45 minutes) hosted by Dave Hood (several them also featured his co-star Becky) which would talk about different types of vehicles. The films combine documentary film-making with slapstick and screwball comedy to educate kids about how different types of vehicles work and different ways they are used.

Most of them tend to focus on Dave, sometimes accompanied by his co-star Becky, as hosts who are allowed to "pretend for the day" that they are in a specific job so they can learn about the vehicle in question. This often leads to a number of sketches where they consult experts and try to perform aspects of their pretend job only to botch it up in humorous ways. That is also intercut with straightforward documentary portions that allow experts to talk about the vehicles or their history in some cases.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Thursday Movie Picks: Just One Day

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is Just One Day, as in films that take place over the course of a single day. I had one or two good choices for this one but unfortunately I've been preoccupied with a lot so a lot of this I've had to throw together at the last minute (almost literally). I had a good first one then never got around to writing much for the others so hopefully I still have some good choices. Keeping up with my blog has been a bit difficult lately but I'm doing what I can.

I do hope to try and keep up with Thursday Movie Picks at least, though I have struggled with some writer's block that's made it hard to come up with good choices for everything.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

This is definitely one of those films you have to watch multiple times to fully appreciate, and admittedly I've only seen it twice. I know at least one blogger who is in many ways far more qualified to discuss Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing than I am, but I'll try my best.

Do the Right Thing is what you might call a very unconventional approach to addressing the issue of racial tensions in a predominantly-black neighborhood. This tension is symbolically shown by the motif of heat- the story takes place on the hottest day of the year. While racial tensions are undoubtedly present, the film encourages its audience to find the right way of overcoming them. The film presents us with people who are right for the wrong reasons (mainly through the excruciatingly annoying character of "Buggin' Out"), and eventually culminates in a big riot that fails to accomplish anything.

Before Sunrise (1995)

The first installment of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, and also arguably proof that he is the most patient man in the world (how many other directors can stay committed to a series where each installment has a ten-year gap between them, while also filming a boy's aging in real time). This is a fun romance that follows the unlikely bond between two young people who happen to meet by chance on a train in Vienna, trying to make the most of their one night together not being sure if they will ever see each other again. Such as simple but engaging little piece.

Life in a Day (2011)

This was a bizarre experiment by Ridley Scott which took a documentary approach to "Just one Day" in the most broadest possible sense. He literally had people record moments of their life on a single day and submit it. The full movie is a compilation of all those occurrences, events happening around the world which are connected by the fact that they all occur on exactly the same day.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Thursday Movie Picks: Break into Song Scenes (Non-Musical)

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is non-musical films that have a scene where characters break into song. This is certainly an unusual choice for a category. It's hard to think of films that have a musical number without accidentally going back to musicals.

For this list, I have made sure to include images of the musical numbers from each film so that it is clear what I'm referring to.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python has occasionally delighted in enhancing its already bizarre comedy with surreal musical numbers. Monty Python and the Holy Grail does this memorably early on. King Arthur has assembled his knights, and introduces them to Camelot. Cue a bizarre musical number about being Knights of the Round Table. It's not even clear exactly how this classic sequence fits into the diegesis of the world (whatever it is, it's apparently enough to convince Arthur that Camelot is "a silly place" and that his knights should avoid it). This is the only real musical number (other songs featured, such as "Brave Sir Robin," don't have the same flare). The number primarily features singing and dancing knights around different parts of the castle's great hall. They dance around and knock over silverware. At one point a peasant plays a percussion solo by striking several knights with a ladle (and hits a peasant by accident). They even have a prisoner in the dungeon who claps along to the merriment!

The film also makes a joke about musical numbers during its "Tale of Sir Lancelot" segment. This section follows Prince Herbert, who is trapped in an arranged marriage with a princess. Throughout the segment, Herbert keeps trying to break into song only for the music to be abruptly stopped by his father (who is very adamant against him doing a song). This also results in an interesting touch when Herbert manages to start a musical number at the end of the section (to his father's irritation), and we still never hear him actually sing anything

History of the World: Part I

Mel Brooks' bizarre mock-historical drama provides a variety of peculiar sequences depicting outlandish interpretations of famous events, but special mention goes to a very bizarre sequence where we are introduced to the Spanish Inquisition. This infamous organization known for its ruthlessness and cruelty is represented by... an upbeat and extremely cheerful musical performance where Brooks himself plays their musical number. Lots of weird choreography ensues as the Inquisition very cheerfully tries to force its prisoners to convert.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

The third and final installment of the Austin Powers series of James Bond spoofs features a very weird musical number that marks an especially weird moment in what is already a very surreal and nonsensical plot. Professional bad guy Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) has been thrown into prison by the hero (also played by Mike Myers) and tries to devise an escape plan. His plan amounts to getting every other prisoner to start a riot so the guards don't notice when he and his sidekick Mini Me walk out the front gate. To get them motivated, he performs a bizarre hybrid of lip-syncing  "It's a Hard Knock Life" and rap verses.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Narration in the First Person

The concepts of first, second, and third person are often associated with a variety of different media. They are perhaps most commonly associated with literary criticism, in which case the terms are used in relation to how the story is narrated. When a piece of literature is narrated in the first person, this means it is presented as though the story is directly related to the reader by at least one of its characters. More extreme variations might have multiple narrators taking turns, but the point remains that it is a character in the story directly relating its events to the reader.

Third-person meanwhile, implies a story which is presented by an external narrator. The narrator is not a character within the story, nor are they given any real identity. Now there are variations on how third-person can be used which present a number of different sub-types but the same basic concept remains. An easy way to distinguish is to look at what pronouns are used by the prose. First-person narration will make heavy use of the words "I" or "we" while third-person will not use those words outside of quoting dialogue.

We also see these same terms being used in video games, with modified but similar definitions to those in the literary tradition. Typically, a first-person game is designed so that the player experiences most of the action through the eyes of a character. The player character is thus unseen except for parts (usually the arms) directly in front of them. A third-person game on the other hand makes its protagonist clearly visible. The player character is often placed front and center, within view of the player.

A simple contrast of first and third-person perspectives
Images taken from Far Cry: Primal (first-person) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (third-person)

The reason I bring this up is not to valorize or discredit one such mode as better or worse. Both are legitimate methods of presenting their story and first and third-person have both been used to create some excellent games. These two methods are also far from mutually exclusive. Some games opt to allow the player to choose between first and third person with the push of a button (as in the case of Skyrim). Alternatively, some games will use both as in the case of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, where Edward Kenway's story is played in the third person but the modern-day sections are seen in the first.

My main interest with this article is to discuss the format of first-person narration specifically, and its changing role over time. For the purposes of this article, we will take as our definition of first person that we are seeing the action through the eyes of a character in the story. But I am also interested in where it works and where it has not. One might note for instance that first-person movies are hard to come by, yet its become such a popular format for video games that entire genres have been created around it.

Experiments in first-person, or "subjective" narration as it was known a the time, have been seen on a number of occasions in film. One of the most recent attempts was the action blockbuster Hardcore Henry, but the style goes back farther. One early example of this same idea being attempted is the 1947 film noir Lady of the Lake. This particular film was the culmination of a period of experiments on subjectivity within Hollywood films, and was presented as though the audience is seeing through the eyes of its protagonist, Phillip Marlowe. The film was advertised with the idea that the audience is the detective, and that they are the ones solving the mystery.

Lady of the Lake (1947|) is shown entirely through the eyes of its protagonist, Phillip Marlowe. 
He is only visible whenever he sees a reflection of himself

Orson Welles also attempted to do this an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which would have been seen entirely through the eyes of its protagonist Charles Marlow (said protagonist would have only been seen in silhouette shots that framed the story). This film ended up going significantly over budget before production could begin and was never made. Lady of the Lake wasn't a huge success on release, mainly because it had nothing going for it beyond a single gimmick that wore thin quickly. Likewise, Hardcore Henry also received a very mixed reception for its first-person aspects.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, a point-of-view film is nothing more than a cheap gimmick. It's not worth it. Viewing the world literally through the eyes of a character ends up doing nothing more than keeping you from viewing the character in question. There doesn't seem to be much  to be gained from it. If anything it is more likely to make the audience feel alienated and confused. After all, in Lady of the Lake the viewer is not actually solving the mystery, they are simply stuck watching someone else solve a mystery through his eyes.

Yet this format does not seem to be wholly invalidated as a means of storytelling.While the first-person feature film does not seem to work, it has found its way into other formats. Video games have become very fond of the first-person format to the point where an entire genre has been created around it. It is not that unusual for video games to take on the approach of being seen through the eyes of a character either pre-designed or customized by the player (or whose identity is even kept entirely ambiguous and open to interpretation).

One of the most iconic video game genres is the first-person shooter, which itself has spawned a variety of sub-genres. Games like Call of Duty, Rainbow Six, and Far Cry all take on this format of placing the player into a difficult situation and challenging them to complete tasks without getting killed in the process. Usually this entails perceiving the world through the eyes of a character, only seeing their hands and weapon in front of them during gameplay.

Some even go to the extreme of carrying this format over to cutscenes. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 forgoes cutscenes entirely to keep the perspective in the first person. The Call of Duty series follows a similar pattern of the game's action being experienced in the first person (though characters do sometimes appear in cutscenes, depending on the game). In Modern Warfare this comes up on several notable occasions.

One early scene has the player taking on the role of Al-Fulani, a politician displaced in a recent coup, as he is kidnapped and executed. Throughout this section, the player is unable to do much with the character beyond turning his head. But through the character's eyes they are able to witness the chaos resulting from the incident. Later in the campaign similar situation occurs when the player witnesses a nuclear explosion through the eyes of Sergeant Paul Jackson, followed by the level "Aftermath" which serves the sole function of allowing the player to experience his last moments.

Early in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player assumes the role of Al-Fulani, 
as he is kidnapped and executed by the game's main antagonists. 

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
during the level "Aftermath" the player controls Jackson 
while he is dying of radiation poisoning.

In the Call of Duty games, the player is usually thrown into the middle of a war zone and given a gun. They assume the role of a soldier in a squad, and are given instructions required for the purposes of a mission. The player then has to figure out how to carry out their orders without getting themselves killed (which is often easier said than done). Tasks can range form securing or clearing important locations to just trying to survive within a particular time limit. The campaign story lines are often built around themes of camaraderie, with the player working alongside a familiar group of soldiers for much of the story and being treated as part of the team.

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player is contributing to a team 
and performing tasks that get their teammates closer to completing their mission

It should be noted that while it might be the most obvious example of video games using the first-person format, it is hardly restricted to the first-person shooter (incidentally, it is easy to forget that there actually are such things as third-person shooters). A good example of this is the Dishonored series of video games. In each game (there have been three so far) the player assumes the role of a character in a steampunk fantasy world. In these games, nearly the entire story is experienced in the first-person, through the eyes of its player character. In these games, the structure is based on a combination of stealth, puzzle-solving, and sword fighting (gunplay is optional).

The Dishonored series has players assume the roles of different characters. 
Often they can make choices which affect how the story plays out.

Evidently, there is a key variable that affects how the first-person format can be used across different media. Why is it that this style does not work so well in film, yet it has become an integral part of video game culture? What does Dishonored or Call of Duty have that Lady of the Lake and Hardcore Henry do not? It is a fair question. The answer lies in the audience's relationship to the medium in question. In a literary format, first-person narration works because it is presented as a character in the story relating it to the reader. This does not translate as effectively to filmmaking.

Lady of the Lake was advertised with the gimmick that the viewer is the detective. That they will be the one solving the mystery, as opposed to simply watching a detective piece together the clues. This description sounds a lot like some contemporary video games, such as L.A. Noire or the Adventures of the Sherlock Holmes Series (both of which have the player controlling a detective and investigating crime scenes). Unfortunately, this gimmick was not possible with the technology of 1947. Contrary to its advertising, the audience watching Lady of the Lake was not in fact solving a mystery, only looking through someone else's eyes as they pieced together the clues.

This is the key difference between film and video games. When watching Lady of the Lake, the viewer is not detective Phillip Marlowe. They are not controlling him or figuring out the mystery for themselves, they merely watch him make observations and interact with the world around him. The viewers are passive observers. In a game like Call of Duty, the player themselves is incorporated as a character in the story. It is the ability to control the character and to directly interact with the world around the player that makes the first-person mode so appealing.

Even when the protagonist is pre-designed and given an extensive backstory as in the case of the four playable characters across the Dishonored series, the point still stands. The first-person format allows the player to immerse themselves in the character. They can become Corvo, Daud, Emily, or Bille. They are not a passive observer but an active participant. In Dishonored this means making difficult decisions that ultimately determine how the story plays out and whether it ends on a light or dark note. In Call of Duty this is completing tasks to ensure your squad can complete their mission.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Story Within a Story

I haven't done one of these in a while, but I'm thinking it might be a good idea to start working on this again.

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is story within a story. Now this isn't always an easy topic to define. The simplest example I can give of a Story Within a Story is a framing narrative through which another story is related through flashback. In that sense, there are two stories. You have one narrative that sets up the film (though usually a secondary story) and another narrative that is relayed through the framing story.

Usually, this ties into the idea of plot and story, which are actually two separate if closely connected ideas. Of course, academics love to over-complicate everything and prefer to use the more confusing terms "fabula" and "syuzhet"(which originate from a Russian folklorist who was trying to study fairy tales), but they still have the same basic meaning. I love to use Citizen Kane as my example here.

The story is simply a linear timeline of events. This includes everything, right down to moments that we can infer happen (i.e. characters using the bathroom). The plot is how that story is presented to the viewer. To continue the Citizen Kane example, the story begins when Kane is taken away from his childhood home and ends when his sled is burned. The plot opens with Kane's death (an event that happens very late in the story) and uses a journalist's investigation to reveal the story of Kane's life through flashback.

To tie this back into the theme of Thursday Movie Picks, the story-within-a-story format is usually based on a plot which relies on one story to tell another. For instance, using the story of a journalist trying to understand Kane's last words to tell the story of Kane himself. The most straight forward way to do this is to have the modern plot relate past events through flashback.

Because of the theme of this week, I have chosen three films that feature stories-within-stories, and for convenience have made sure to include images of the secondary story for each one.

Citizen Kane (1942)

Orson Welles' famous pseudo-biopic inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst follows two parallel narratives at different points in time. The primary storyline is the rise and fall of newspaper-owner Charles Foster Kane, but the film actually opens with his death. Kane's dying words are "Rosebud" which leaves many people confused about what it could have meant. It then follows a journalist named Thompson who interviews people that knew Kane in the hopes of finding a clue as to what "Rosebud" is, and hoping that finding the answer will unlock some intriguing secret about Kane. This quest is ultimately unsuccessful, and in fact the secondary plot ends up leaves the viewer to speculate about its main story.

The Princess Bride 1987

This one is arguably a somewhat more literal variation of story within a story in that its actually presented as a man reading a book. Yes, the main story (the one most people usually watch it for) concerns the love story between Wesley and Buttercup and their various misadventures that introduce a variety of eccentric characters. But it both begins and ends with a very different story. We are introduced to an unnamed kid who is stuck in bed because of a cold. Peter Falk shows up as his grandfather and decides to read him a book that has a history of being read to members of the family when they were sick. That book is of course The Princess Bride. The storyline regularly gets interrupted by one or the other, resulting in commentary on the narrative as it progresses.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

This one takes the concept of "Story within a Story" to multiple levels, as it is arguably a story within a story within a story. The main story concerns the unlikely relationship between Ralph Fiennes' Monsieur Gustave, a Basil Faulty-eque hotel manager; and Zero Moustafa, his lobby boy. The two become unlikely friends and share a series of convoluted misadventures surrounding a conspiracy linking back to a recently deceased patient just before the start of World War II. However, that is also framed within a story surrounding the writer played by Jude Law, who visits the hotel several decades later and describes his relationship with an older Zero. And then that is also framed as a girl reading said author's book in the present day.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Star Wars Female Characters Ranked

So I've been over this before, the Star Wars franchise has had a long and complicated history when it comes to the subject of diversity. It's a difficult subject to discuss and has a few different lenses one can examine it through.

The cast of A New Hope is made up almost exclusively of white men (the exceptions include a single woman whose role is overshadowed by said men, two robots also played by white men, and a walking carpet who was also played by a white man). It wasn't until very late into the next film The Empire Strikes Back that we get even a single non-Caucasian joining the main cast. Then in Return of the Jedi the roles of female Rebel pilots were actively censored by George Lucas himself. Not a great reputation. One could technically say that the old Ewoks and Droids cartoons had more diversity than the original films.

This is also not exclusive to the original trilogy. The prequels added three new films and only one significant female character- Padme. The Clone Wars also had a lot of the same problems. Even though it boasted a large cast and tried to develop characters not given much focus in the films, it was weirdly averse to showing female Jedi. We'd constantly get plotlines concerning Mace Windu, Obi-Wan, or Kit Fisto, yet female Jedi like Aayla Secura and Shaak Tii would get one story to themselves then spend the rest of the show reduced to background non-speaking roles.

On the other hand, as many are quick to refute, Princess Leia was a huge deal when the trilogy came out. She was a woman with authority and both physical and mental strength (even if it's not as visible in A New Hope). The expanded universe in both timelines has also added its share of strong female characters, though this often occurred in projects where George Lucas wasn't directly involved.

One notable detail that seems to have come from George Lucas leaving Star Wars is a greater effort at diversifying the cast. Among the things that started to win me back into Star Wars fandom was the efforts to rectify those problems. The most recent films have depicted mixed race and mixed-gendered groups of heroes (and mixed-species in some cases). The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi also depict their antagonistic faction, the First Order, as mixed-gender (though members given primary focus have been male).

We've even had some writers go back and retroactively depict the Empire (depicted as exclusively male in the original trilogy) as having female officers and Stormtroopers. This one actually turned out to be pretty easy, because how would one tell the difference between a male and female Stormtrooper? The only indicator seems to be slight differences in voice, but they barely speak in the original trilogy as it is, so doing the math it is entirely possible for female Stormtroopers.

Also, special mention goes to one very recent project, Forces of Destiny, an animated web series and toyline which focuses specifically on highlighting strong women of the Star Wars universe. The cartoons so far have generally focused on the adventures of several different women from across different eras of Star Wars canon in between moments from the films. Many of them include big action scenes where said girls get to save the day.

Anyway, enough of my tangent. I got to thinking it would be interesting to try and rank the various strong female characters we have seen across the Star Wars Saga.

I've had to set a few perimeters for this list. First off, I have chosen to stick strictly to the new canon. The legends timeline had some excellent female characters in its own right, but I list all of them I'm going to be here all day. For one thing to break down every great female character in Knights of the Old Republic (and for the record, Revan is and always will be female!) would take up a lot of space, to say nothing of the countless novels, video games, and other material I would need to cover. I am also covering ones who were given a particularly prominent or significant role, as opposed to ones who were just part of the background before someone else gave them a backstory.

I am also sticking to official canon for this. I have written some very good fanfiction stories of my own: The Merchant of JakkuRogue One: Scarif, and Shadows of the Past, all of which try to feature strong female characters. Unfortunately, these are not presently considered official canon so I will not be including any of my original characters on the list. The same is also true for non-canon projects such as The Freemaker Adventures.

That said, I have tried to keep the list as varied as possible. One trap I have fallen into before when discussing female characters in Star Wars is to focus only on the light-side characters, when the series does have some strong female antagonists as well. Admittedly, the various antagonistic groups have a tendency to be predominantly male (though this has started to change) but I've still tried to recognize strong women where I can.

I'm also not touching The Clone Wars right now because that show wasn't great and Rebels is a thousand times better. It also didn't have as much in the way of strong female characters, frustratingly.

15. Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo

Okay, I need to ask, why the purple hair? It makes sense on some characters but there is never really anything about her personality that clearly warrants such a wardrobe choice. It looks really weird. What were you thinking?

Anyway, questionable wardrobe aside, Amilyn's role was somewhat inconsistent and I'm not sure exactly what we were intended to think of her. She is abruptly introduced in The Last Jedi as the new commander of the Resistance (might have been a good idea to establish her role earlier, perhaps even in the previous film) and is depicted for the most part as an ineffective and bureaucratic commander more likely to get her subordinates killed than anything else.

It is even treated as a positive outcome when our heroes openly perform a mutiny, yet she also ends up staying behind and sacrificing herself to save the Resistance. I'm not really sure what we were intended to think of her. She's set up as a leader but generally seems to be treated in a negative light only to have that view reversed near the end. Who is this character anyway and why is she so abruptly introduced out of nowhere when the Resistance already had authority figures who could have filled the role instead?

14. Rose Tico

Ultimately, I never found much to get invested in with Rose. She didn't have that much going for her beyond a (far more interesting) sister who dies at the very beginning. She accompanies Finn through much of the plot, but what exactly does she really add to it? One could probably cut her out entirely without changing much, if anything. Plus, she also ruined the long-anticipated Finn/Poe romance that was supposed to happen, before abruptly kissing Finn at the film's end. Star Wars was so close to introducing its first LGBT couple (come on, Star Trek's beaten you to this one now as well- get your act together).

13. Padme Amidala

Padme is a somewhat difficult character to judge. How well she was developed seems to vary depending on which source you turn to. One of the better parts of The Clone Wars was the decision to actually focus her episodes on her political career, and to emphasize Padme's wit and self-reliance when placed in a tight situation. In the prequel trilogy, on the other hand, her character deteriorates. She goes from a tough Queen in The Phantom Menace who leads a full-scale assault on her own castle just to free her subjects, to sitting around brushing her hair in Revenge of the Sith

Over the course of the trilogy, her entire role becomes increasingly about her relationship (and secret marriage) with Anakin. By Revenge of the Sith, it's more or less the only real character trait that gets any focus. Then there's that whole "Lost the Will to Live" thing. After being betrayed by her husband, I could understand her having every right to be upset, even traumatized (he did nearly strangle her to death) but losing the will to live seems a tad extreme. How about dying for the early Rebellion, or something more interesting?

12. Bo-Katan Kryze

Bo-Katan first appeared in The Clone Wars initially as a supporting antagonist but later changed sides after a bizarre and convoluted story arc involving Darth Maul performing a coup on Mandalore (yeah, that happened). She later returned for Rebels where she got a chance at redemption that proved valuable. Here, she was given the chance to step up as a new leader of the Mandalorians, and lead them through the fight against the Empire.

11. Captain Phasma

Phasma was an interesting addition to the cast, but unfortunately she's not a character that leaves much room for investment, mainly because we know nothing about her. To an extent, that works in her favor, as it makes her feel more like a typical Stormtrooper, but as far as depth of characterization we don't have a lot to discuss. Phasma is a commander who seems to be devoted to the First Order and firmly upholds their regulations.

That said, this is not entirely a bad thing. In fact in some ways Phasma can easily be argued to be a fairly progressive character. She just doesn't have as much to make her as memorable as some of the other characters on this list.

10. Seventh Sister

Of all the inquisitors that appeared on the show, Seventh Sister was probably the most intimidating and the most effective. Her partner (referred to as "Fifth Brother") was generally based on brute strength, but Seventh Sister had the brains. She proved almost more devastatingly effective than her season 1 predecessor. Every time she showed up, it was clear that our heroes were in serious trouble.

In fact, none of them were ever really able to defeat her (she ended up being killed instead by Maul, an even more powerful ex-Sith who could be described as morally gray at best). One never got the sense that any of the Rebels would have a chance at defeating her and often it was an immense victory just to be able to escape from one of her traps in one piece. She was therefore arguably the most worthy opponent of the Rebels compared to her (less memorable) male colleagues.

9. Governor Arihnda Pryce

Rebels managed to introduce a few female Imperials during its run, but Governor Pryce stands out as one of the most devastatingly effective, though one kinda has to be when they're second in command to one of the galaxy's smartest tacticians. Grand Admiral Thrawn is bad enough, but Pryce is often the one carrying out his orders.

8. Iden Versio

At first, seemingly an effort to retroactively suggest the Empire wasn't as misogynistic as the original trilogy claims, Iden Versio has a fairly complex story over the course of Battlefront II's campaign. She begins as a member of Imperial Special Forces and is depicted as a devoted member of the Imperial Military. This is someone who genuinely believes in the Empire's might and it's potential benefits, yet isn't afraid to speak her mind at the same time. 

In fact, while she does end up defecting to the Rebellion, it's not exactly a simple case of moral issues. If anything her partner Del Meeko begins questioning the Empire long before she does, and they only end up with the Rebellion out of necessity. This is a character who grew up thinking she was doing the right thing only to be betrayed by the very people on whom her existence depends. 

7. Ursa Wren

Season 3 of Rebels gave us Ursa Wren, the mother of one of the show's regular characters, and she turns out to be quite the character. When we first meet her, Ursa turns out to be a powerful woman. She runs the Mandalorian Clan Wren more or less single-handedly and shows an impressive skill for combat. She can be ruthless, but at the same time we do get a kind of noble side to her as well. Underneath her harsh exterior are strong maternal instincts and once she realizes the danger posed by the Empire she doesn't give up in fighting them.

6. Ahsoka Tano

Okay, I freely admit that I preferred Ahsoka in her Rebels incarnation than Clone Wars, but Ahsoka has some interesting qualities. Somewhat ironically an extremely flawed and problematic story of The Clone Wars involving her being betrayed by her best friend out of nowhere led to an interesting plot thread concerning her as a gray Jedi that brings out her more interesting quirks in Rebels. She is a former member of the Jedi Order who trained under Anakin, but over the course of the Clone Wars she begins to question the wisdom of the Jedi Knights and eventually chooses to leave them all together.

But this isn't a simple case of her turning to the dark side. Ahsoka instead ends up using her newfound freedom to assist in building up the early Rebel Alliance and develops her skills in finding new ways to protect the galaxy. Her story notably came to an abrupt (and still unresolved) conclusion when she entered a fight with Darth Vader, her former teacher. This resulted in an epic duel (come on, not many people can say they were able to hold their own in a fight against Darth Vader). Although it still has not been confirmed one way or the other if she survived, Ahsoka was able to pummel the living daylights out of one of the most powerful Sith Lords the canon has to offer. Even Luke couldn't do the level of damage Ahsoka did.

5. Rey

Rey seemed like such an amazing character when The Force Awakens came out, though with hindsight I would be tempted to place several more above her. She was also arguably more interesting in The Force Awakens than The Last Jedi. She had an aura of mystique, insofar as we didn't really know who she was or where she came from (questions rather anti-climatically answered in The Last Jedi), but she was also a competent and independent young woman. 

An expert pilot and scavenger who also knew how to protect herself, Rey has a lot of good strong points. It was also definitely a smart move to avoid any unnecessary romantic entanglements (I like that she and Finn are just friends and nothing more). She can work with others but isn't dependent on them. Special mention goes to when she gets captured by the Empire and it set up to be a perfect example of the damsel in distress- then proceeds to outwit her enemies. By the time Finn arrives to "rescue" her, she's already traversed half the base undetected and she has to assist him.

4. Princess Leia Organa

Of course I couldn't omit the most iconic woman of the Star Wars saga. Leia was the lone female character in the original trilogy, and a tricky one to discuss as there are several approaches to take with her. On the one hand, her role in A New Hope basically amounts to being a Maid Marian-esque damsel in distress to be rescued by the (exclusively male) group of heroes. On the other she does spend those moments standing up to the Empire and resisting Imperial Interrogations (it's implied that she was tortured for information and never gave in).

Leia also gets a more prominent role in the later films. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi give her more time to show off her skills. She oversees the Rebel Evacuation of Hoth and participates in the escape from Cloud City. She did have the infamous gold bikini, but I should point out that she also wore that thing while strangling the giant slug who forced it on her. That was then followed by her taking an active role in the Battle of Endor, not to mention securing an alliance with the local Ewoks that ended up being crucial to the Rebels' victory.

Both timelines also established Leia's role in the aftermath of the Empire's defeat, including her involvement in building the New Republic, but Carrie Fisher later reprised the role for The Force Awakens. By this time, Leia has become a general for the Resistance, and takes a more active role in planning and co-ordination (she also managed to rescue herself from the vacuum of space, not an easy feat). 

3. Sabine Wren

I couldn't do a list like this without including the second greatest female character from Rebels (you'll see who the first is soon enough). Sabine Wren is friggin' awesome. She's got both brawn and brains, and she's really good at blowing stuff up. She's also got a skill for machinery and works as an artist in her spare time. What's not to love? Yet they also balance this out with a fairly compassionate side: Sabine constantly struggles to reconcile her Mandalorian upbringing with her Rebel allegiance (and ends up key to bringing both factions together).

2. Jyn Erso

Jyn is the second female protagonist to be featured in one of the main films, and probably one of the best in the series. She's a far more complex character than some of our previous heroes-not as overtly idealistic as Luke yet also not as whiny as Anakin ("whiny" is not a very good description of Jyn Erso). Also a notable departure from the previous films by being a non-Jedi protagonist, instead leading a story essentially about the background characters who would normally be extras in the original trilogy.

Jyn comes from a complex background compared to previous heroes (though she does seem to continue the theme of absent parents that persisted with Luke, Anakin, and Rey). She actually starts off as a criminal who works for the Rebellion more as a temporary means to an end than out of any real interest in their cause. Her entire character arc is based on learning to be part of something greater than herself, unlike Luke (who more or less immediately joins the Rebellion as soon as he has the chance). 

1. Hera Syndulla

When doing a top anything list it is often hard to choose the #1 spot because there are so many great contenders. This time, there was no question. I knew going in who my top choice would be, so counting down was easy. On a list of the best female characters offered in Star Wars canon, how could I add anyone but one of the best female characters Star Wars has to offer? Hera Syndulla is not only one of the best characters in Rebels, but just plain one of the best characters period.

Rebels depicts many of the events leading up to A New Hope, with a particular emphasis on the early years of the Rebel Alliance. Hera Syndulla is one of the key players in organizing that rebellion. She is an expert pilot and mechanic, skills which routinely prove useful (she is already referred to as "Captain" when the show starts, and will become a general by the time Rogue One takes place). In addition to that, she also knows how to hold her own in a fight and improvise when a mission goes wrong.

Yet they also balance this with a more compassionate side. Hera's leadership allows her to become a maternal figure towards her crew (and as one Imperial Intelligence crew learned the hard way, she gets really nasty if you hurt her droid). She is a dedicated Rebel but also emphasizes that how one fights is just as important as why they fight.

I kinda wish they'd bring Hera back for the new trilogy. I could totally buy her being with the Resistance but what happened with her in that 30-year gap?

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Assassin's Creed Protagonists Ranked

From left to right: Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, Ezio Auditore De Firenze, Bayek, Arno Dorian, Shay Cormac, Evie Frye, Jacob Frye, Arbaaz Mir, Edward Kenway,  Ratonhnhaké:tonAveline de Grandpré, Nikolai Orelov, Shao Jun
Credit for the image goes to santap555 on Deviantart

I've been looking for stuff to do on this blog, and I seem to be a bit burned out with detailed film analysis. Plus I think that recently it's been causing me to overthink stuff. I need some fun stuff to do.

So I got to thinking that I could try making lists. Lists are fun. Everybody likes a good list, and they're a bit more straight forward to make.

I might have mentioned that I'm kind of a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series of video games, and I've been playing a lot of it recently. The full franchise is extensive, and has given us a wide variety of different characters and settings.

If you're not familiar with the lore of Assassin's Creed, it's basically a series of games that combines historical facts with science fiction and conspiracy theories. The concept is that it revolves around an ongoing conflict between two secret societies. One is the Templar Order, which believes that world peace can be only be accomplished through total control of humanity. The other is the Assassin Brotherhood, which believes peace can still be achieved while preserving free will.

Most of the time you play as an Assassin but exceptions do exist (III, Rogue, and Unity all have playable Templars). the games are set across a variety of different historical eras including (in order of appearance) the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the American Revolution, The Golden Age of Piracy, the Seven Years War, the French Revolution, the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and that's just from the main series!

Unsurprisingly, they also  feature a variety of different characters (though not without small continuity-based rewards for long-time players). With the exceptions of the "Ezio Trilogy" each game has a unique protagonist (starting with Black Flag, they humorously started including a feature where the player can dress the current protagonist in outfits from previous games). These characters come from a variety of different backgrounds and all have their own personalities. Having played a bunch of the Assassin's Creed series, I thought it would be interesting to try and rank their various protagonists.

It should be noted that this list is based only on games in the series I've actually played, and only focuses on playable characters. Installments that I have not played I am not as fit to comment on. For instance, I have not included Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad on the grounds that I have never actually played the original Assassin's Creed (I know), making it hard to judge how good he was as a character. The same is also true for Chronicles.

Additionally, I  will not be including individuals from the present-day sections in the games. This is mainly due to the complications that would occur (between Black Flag and Syndicate, the player themselves is made a character within the game during the modern sections). I am also sticking to characters who are playable in the main storyline which is why I have, for instance, omitted Lydia Frye.

So here is my countdown, from worst to best, of all the protagonists in every Assassin's Creed game I've played so far. Which of the games' numerous protagonists will take the #1 spot? Read on to find out!

11. Shay Cormac (Assassin's Creed: Rogue)

Honestly, I never could get into Rogue. A lot of people like Shay but I found him to be more frustrating that engaging. This is the one game in the series that tries to flip the usual perspective by focusing on the Templars and making the Assassins the bad guys. Shay is supposed to be an Assassin who grows disillusioned with the Brotherhood and joins the Templars, but it seemed to me the result of being too impulsive and hotheaded rather than a moral choice. 

Shay goes on one mission that goes wrong, then immediately jumps to the conclusion that the Assassins knew it would result in a massive Earthquake but sent him anyway (no evidence in the game supports that conclusion). He then proceeds to yell at his mentor, doesn't listen to any attempts at reason, and steals from them before trying to commit suicide. Even before this he has a tendency to argue with his fellow assassins, ignore advice, and generally be more of a frustration for them than a useful ally.

10. Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor (Assassin's Creed III)

A lot of people like Connor, but to be totally honest I found him rather flat compared to some of the other characters who have appeared. Although I do applaud the new perspective his character brings (which is able to better look at the moral uncertainties of the American Revolution and how it affected Native Americans), he had very little depth or personality. Also I feel like they could have found a much better voice actor to play him. He sounds very monotonous.

9. Jacob Frye (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate)

Of the two Frye Twins, I would say that Jacob was the weaker character. He was very much depicted as a man who values brawn over brains, while Evie had considerably more depth. While enjoyable, his character was largely quite arrogant and foolish (several plot points involve Jacob rushing into an Assassination only to later reveal negative long-term consequences that Evie has to clean up). He is not exactly great at being an Assassin as a result, which makes Evie fit the gameplay much better.

8. Haytham Kenway (Assassin's Creed III)

To be honest, for the small portion of Assassin's Creed III in which he is playable, Haytham Kenway was actually a far more engaging character than Connor. He also marks the first playable Templar in the series, though this is not revealed until the end of the first act (followed by his modern-day descendant ranting about the sudden plot twist). Yet Haytham did what no Templar before him had done: he added a layer of moral ambiguity to the series. Although he is technically the main antagonist of the game, Haytham is a remkably deep character and a man who easily earns respect.

Admittedly, this is not without a more extreme side (i.e. his habit of ending interrogations with the occasional spot of murder) but we see that there is actually a cold logic to his actions. Haytham actually has genuine concern for maintaining order (even if he believes the ends justify the means) and fully believes in the cause, a huge departure from the antagonists of previous games such as the Borgias (who believed the Templar Order was about power at any cost). He even makes a point of trying to respect the people under his command.

7. Aveline de Grandpré (Assassin's Creed: Liberation)

The first female protagonist in the series, and possibly also one of the first LGBT characters to be introduced (come on, don't tell me you never saw it between her and Elise), Aveline certainly makes an impact for the short duration of her appearances. She is tough but also noble, and manages to keep a clear head even when everything falls apart around her (given she is both betrayed by her former mentor and discovers a few shocking family secrets along the way, that's no easy feat). The fact that she never loses sight of her goal to find the elusive "Company Man" overseeing the Templar Operations is admirable.

6. Arno Dorian (Assassins' Creed: Unity)

Arno is an interesting figure for his somewhat unusual storyline. Unlike many of the other characters on this list, Arno doesn't firmly gravitate to one side or the other. If anything, much of the story revolves around shattering the Assassin/Templar binary that usually drives the games. This comes most notably in the Romeo and Juliet-esque romance on which the story hinges- namely that he is an assassin who happens to be in love with the Templar Elise, though it is a little more complicated than that.

What makes Arno interesting is that he ends up exposing flaws on both sides. He and Elise both end up being cast out of their respective factions and have to navigate a web of deceit, lies, and betrayal by both Assassins and Templars (all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution). Amidst all this, he is actually more interested in a parley between both sides (which he spends much of the game doing) and somewhat ironically avenging his Templar step-father. The fact that he is still able to maintain a strong connection with Elise even after it comes out that they are on opposite sides is impressive.

5. Aya (Assassin's Creed: Origins)

Talk about a good marriage! Though she is not playable as often as her husband, Aya has an important role to play in the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood, and she knows how to balance her priorities. This is a lady who can go from showering her husband with affection one moment to captaining a ship against Ptolemy's navy the next. One can hardly doubt the love she has for Bayek, but it is not her only driving force. It used to be a common assumption that marriage for a women meant giving up her career and turning to domestic chores: this is not Aya. She is a woman who has managed to find and balance both sides and remains content with doing so.

4. Ezio Auditore De Firenze (Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood)

I might be slightly biased here as Ezio does have a certain personal significance to me: it was through him I was first introduced to the Assassin's Creed series. Ezio was a fun character to play as, with his constant optimism and wit. He can be tough when he needs to be but also has a clear compassionate side. He had his faults, but he also managed to overcome them (case in point: likes to promote himself as a ladies' man, but has no trouble working with female assassins).

Also interesting is the choice to thoroughly subvert the usual image of Renaissance-era nobles as corrupt and greedy. Ezio is a man of wealth who works for the people, and never gives up this view even when the odds are hopelessly against him. This was after all the guy who started a one-man revolution against the Borgias (arguably one of the most powerful families of the Renaissance) and won. To start with practically nothing and end up overthrowing a tyrannical regime is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

3. Bayek (Assassin's Creed: Origins)

Assassin's Creed: Origins tells the story of how this whole mess between the Assassins and the Templars got started, so it's not surprising they needed an interesting character to introduce as the founder of the Assassin Brotherhood, and they certainly delivered. Bayek is a somewhat enigmatic but very compelling character. He is a man trying to do the right thing in a world rife with corruption and greed. 

As a medjay (the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a cop) Bayek seeks justice in an unjust world, but his motives go beyond a mere sense of honor. Beneath his skill with a blade he is still a human being, and a man who struggles to find his way. As we also learn, he must balance his desire for justice with a burning anger towards the mysterious Order of the Ancients responsible for the murder of his son, while trying to save a divided Egypt along the way.

2. Edward Kenway (Assassin's Creed: Black Flag)

Edward Kenway stands out as a notable departure from the more idealistic Assassins of previous games. In fact, he doesn't even become an Assassin until late in the story (though he has many of their unique skills from the get-go). Instead, Edward is an anti-hero who starts off as a simple fortune seeker looking to get rich only to find himself in over his head when he ends up killing and impersonating an Assassin who (of course) just happened to be defecting to the Templar Order. Kenway's character arc is largely one of self-discovery and redemption. 

He first appears to be a fairly cold anti-hero more interested in fortune than anything else, which becomes problematic early on when he unwittingly sells out the entire Assassin Brotherhood to the Templar Oder, and then has to spend the rest of the game trying to undo his mistake. But beneath this facade is a far more complex individual who eventually discovers his real interest to be liberating humanity from tyranny. The close friendships he develops with Stede Bonnet, Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch, and Mary Reed James Kidd also reinforce this notion. 

1. Evie Frye (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate)

Of the two playable heroes of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Evie was definitely the more interesting character, and generally the one I preferred playing as. Her brother Jacob was okay but I felt like Evie had a much more complex personality. She also provided a more interesting gameplay experience due to her range of skills. Playing Jacob is  based mainly on combat, getting into big brawls, while Evie has more room for stealth and ingenuity (more fitting to the tone of Assassin's Creed).

She is also a very strong character in her own right. She can hold her own in a fight but she's also witty and intelligent, and knows how to balance this with compassion. Even the romantic plot that occurs between her and Henry Green is handled carefully to ensure it doesn't overshadow her skills as an Assassin and her role in freeing London from the Templars. Evie might just be one of the best characters in the series.