Red Dead Redemption 2: A Masterpiece

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If you’ve ever dipped your toe into anything game-related in 2018, then you just might have heard about Red Dead Redemption 2, a game developed by Rockstar Games that everyone has been raving about and that many have referred to as the best video game of 2018. What makes this game so special you might ask? I have to admit I was skeptical myself, but as soon as I decided to sit down and give the game a go, I was lured in by several factors. From the breathtaking visuals to the excellent exploration mechanics, to the variety of activities, to the powerhouse of a story, I cannot deny the hype and so I must say for myself that Red Dead Redemption 2 is, although not perfect, a masterpiece of a game and my favorite game of 2018.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 features an expansive and detailed open world to explore.

As I said, there are a myriad of things that contribute to the game’s success, and a few that detract from the experience, but the strongest element of the game comes from its open world depiction of the American heartland during the Wild West era. The game takes place in the year 1899 in a fictional state and has the player takes control of Arthur Morgan, a rough and gruff no-nonsense member of the Van Der Linde Gang. Throughout the game, the player has the freedom to explore an immersive open-world filled with side quests and in-game activities. You can do anything including riding horses, engaging in duels, starting bar fights, hunting and fishing, robbing trains, playing poker, herding cattle, cooking and crafting, and countless other activities. On top of that, this doesn’t take into account the things that you will be doing over the course of the game’s story missions.

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Golden rays, whistling winds, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers an incredibly immersive experience for the player. 

When I first dove into the game, what grabbed my attention was the game’s immersion. The way the snow fell on my character’s boots, to the footprints that were pounded into the ground, to the sleek glistening water reflected on my character’s coat. Everything from the wildlife to the trees to the particles in the air was materialized with immaculate detail and impeccable quality. This feature was only enhanced once I left the snowy mountain setting of the game’s opening and was allowed access to roam the entire massive world. The environments are truly diverse. There are grasslands with grazing buffalo, canyons with rattlesnakes, lowlands and mountains with dangerous cougars, swamplands filled with crocodiles, and industrialized cities filled with people. As you can see, the natural habitats are complemented by the creatures living within the world. Each region feels like an actual biome or ecosystem, filled with new and different kinds of wildlife that add to the immersion. As a result, the world doesn’t just feel open, it feels lived-in. In fact, the best part of the game is simply riding on your horse and trekking through the American Frontier on the way to your next waypoint or mission. This is because while on your way to said objective, there are an infinite number of side stories or incidents that will veer you off of your charted course and engage you in some other aspect of the world. To some, it may get distracting but simply based on the fact that wandering through the world gives you a new experience and activates a new mechanic or development in the game is a testament to how extensive the developers went in designing this world. There are a number of chance encounters that can happen while exploring such as attacks by rival gangs, getting robbed, or helping people in distress. Considering the rough time period, you will eventually have to get down to some good old-fashioned shootouts. This is where the game falters somewhat. While the game’s shooting mechanics are by no means terrible, they can be a bit clunky. Aiming is a little wonky especially with the hypersensitivity of the reticle display. It also takes enemies several hits to be taken down unless you aim directly for the head in which case they always go down with one shot. Still, I can’t count the number of times I kept aiming for the head and having shots graze by enemies due to the fidgeting reticle. One could argue that it adds to the immersion in not having your character able to aim perfectly with historical weapons that weren’t always accurate, but if that is the case then why would a mechanic like Dead Eye which slows down time allowing for the player to get in perfect shots exist? Regardless, the shooting mechanics are still serviceable, but not the most electrifying aspect of the gameplay. The choices that the player makes in the game also decide the story and the experience for the player. Unlike Rockstar’s other popular franchise, Grand Theft Auto, good behavior is incentivized through the game’s Honor System, which gives a scale between High Honor and Low Honor based on the player’s actions throughout the game. The honor system affects key gameplay and story decisions as well as higher or lower prices in stores based on high or low Honor. Causing too much trouble also leads to high bounties which means that a player with a very low honor system may end up being chased by the Lawmen in any region they visit.

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Though not perfect, the game’s fighting mechanics can still provide enjoyment. 

Moving on to the story, the element of the game that I thought would be the most lacking ended up being the most surprisingly brilliant. I was watching a game awards video recently and was astonished to see that Red Dead Redemption 2 had been crowned with the title of “Best Narrative Game” over games like God of War. Now after playing the game, I wonder how I could have ever thought differently. While God of War’s narrative is strong, the story in Red Dead Redemption 2 is so passionately constructed and filled with rich character development and philosophical themes that it rivals classic Spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. The story follows a gang of outlaws led by the prideful Dutch Van der Linde. You play as Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s earliest followers. All in all, there are several members of the gang, both men and women, and pretty much each member is given a distinctive personality and character trait that makes interacting with them a fun experience. There’s Hosea, the sagacious veteran with a diplomatic mindset and a tactful approach to situations, Micah, a loose cannon with a malevolent nature and an itchy trigger finger, Mrs. Grimshaw, the tough and uptight upholder of the rules within the camp, and many more. The game gives you the feeling that the gang is only a gang by name and actually operates more like a family, with each member looking out for the other. Despite the dire circumstances, there are several moments where the gang rallies together for a happy moment or shares a bond in an auspicious occasion that gives you hope that they can make it through as a unit. The plot follows the gang after an incident gone awry in the town of Blackwater. They make their way through the American heartland following Dutch’s plans for gaining money so that they can eventually have enough to settle in a tropical paradise. At first, you really root for the entire gang as they make their way through the harsh world and try to survive in an uncompromising environment. You really want to believe in Dutch’s views that civilization is not a place for everyone and that some people are just meant to live freely, able to roam the wild lands and settle within the elements of their own making. You want to see the gang succeed and eventually find greener pastures, however, this view is deeply contrasted in our main character of Arthur Morgan.  To put it short, Arthur Morgan is one of the most compelling and interesting video game protagonists of the decade. He initially comes off as an abrasive and grizzled frontiersman with a short tolerance for others and an untrusting nature, however, as the game goes on we learn more about Arthur’s sensitive nature and free spirit by playing in his shoes. Arthur, though initially a staunch supporter of Dutch and the gang’s values, admits to the idea that the time for outlaws has passed and that sooner or later, the idea of living free in nature in a world without the strict laws of civilization would not be possible with the turning of the century. As the game progresses and things get more desperate, so do Dutch’s half-laid schemes. Over the course of the game, Dutch slowly becomes more and more unhinged and resorts to increasingly harsh methods. This is where Arthur’s moral compass stands strong against Dutch’s unbridled vision of a free world. The story plays out like an epic and spans several years where Arthur’s philosophy contends with Dutch’s idealism. Throughout the game, the player witnesses Arthur’s character and softer nature not just through the story missions, but through the various side-quests. We learn that Arthur Morgan has a simple appreciation for the beauty of the country, and a poetic view of life as something that should be appreciated. His sense of loyalty is also deep; however, we see that he is only willing to go so far as to do what helps others the most without hurting innocent people. It’s clear that what Arthur wants the most is for a peaceful existence for him or the ones around him. He wants good people to be treated kindly in a society that often rejects that characteristic. The concept of redemption is embodied within Arthur Morgan, as he defies the savage nature of outlawry and follows his beliefs of morality in saving those who deserve better lives. At first, the player may be saddened by Arthur’s musings that their gang’s way of life is coming to an end, but by the end of the story, the player will most likely realize that the outlaw way of life needed to end and couldn’t have survived the developing world. The game comments on the nature of living outside the laws of society and how there is a fine line between idealism and the corruption of the idea itself. It also comments on the displacement of entire groups of people due to the rapidly changing and uncompromising beliefs of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. This is heavily exhibited in a large section of the game dealing with the plight of a Native American tribe and its conflict with the U.S Army. Sometimes, getting through the story missions can be a bit of a slog, but the best solution is to pursue side quests for a while and come back to the story missions later. What’s interesting about the narrative in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that it feels less like a video game and more like a ten-episode long Netflix series that details the rise and fall of the Wild West outlaw in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.

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Subtle, restrained, and brimming with courage and spirit, Arthur Morgan is a relatable and extremely likeable protagonist. 

Unfortunately, as gripping as the story is, there are aspects of it that take away from the overall experience in regards to choice. Most of the story missions play out very linearly, with little room for players to play the game the way they want to. For example, you may want to approach a mission by going in guns blazing but instead will have to be stealthy. There are occasions where killing a character will start the mission over, or trying to stay and fight off enemies instead of running away with the gang will lead to mission failure. Considering how tightly woven the narrative is, it makes sense that the game wants you to follow it as closely as possible. However, given the variety of character choice and exploration with the other areas of the game, more player choice in the story missions would have only enhanced the game’s quality.

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Nevertheless, these few flaws are but a small chink on the wonderful suit of armor that is Red Dead Redemption 2. The game captures the spirit and essence of the time period. You will most definitely feel like an outlaw of the Wild West by playing this game. It offers an incredible, sometimes too immerse open world with endless hours of gameplay and variety. It follows one of gaming’s most memorable new protagonists and offers a reflection of the American way of life as well as a commentary on how our society treats entire groups of people with a less than appropriate amount of care and consideration. Quite simply, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Despite its flaws, Red Dead Redemption 2 is primed to take its spot on the gaming pantheon in gaming Mount Olympus alongside games like Skyrim, The Last of Us, Dark Souls, and the original Red Dead Redemption. In fact, I can’t remember having a video game story resonate with me this much since 2007’s BioShock, which I consider to be my favorite video game of all time.

 

 

 

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.

 

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.

 

 

Justice League Review

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This is going to be a personal, informal review for a very personal topic. I have not been a fan of the DC Extended Universe movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of DC Comics. Batman is my favorite superhero; Superman is a close second. I grew up watching the Justice League cartoon and Batman: The Animated Series. Not to mention, I’ve read basically everything when it comes to comic books featuring the Justice League. I’ve been reading everything from the Golden Age Comics, to the Grant Morrison Era, to the New 52. I’ve read Death of Superman, All-Star Superman, Golden Age Superman, Birthright, For All Seasons. I’ve read Golden Age Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, Death in the Family, Knightfall, No Man’s Land, Court of Owls, and a bunch of other comics that nobody’s ever heard of. I dedicated most of my early teen years scrubbing through the comic book histories of each character of the Justice League. DC comics were vital to my defining years, and I attribute them to defining much of my moral center. They taught me the importance of virtue and compassion, they were everything to me. Then the movies came.

I was actually very excited for Man of Steel. I was right in the middle of binge-watching all ten seasons of Smallville leading up to its release. At the time when I watched Man of Steel, I loved it but now after reflection and further viewings, it’s not bad but not great. Then Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice came and well…I hated it. It featured a mopey underutilized Superman, a psychotic murderous Batman, and an inconsistent and uneven plot. It was an overall mess of a movie. Then Suicide Squad was right around the corner, so that had to be good right? It was even worse. In my opinion Suicide Squad is garbage. I can understand if others enjoy it for its entertaining moments but for me, it’s a disaster. Then Wonder Women followed a little while later, and it got rave reviews from the whole world so I was hyped. It was decent, but in my opinion, it wasn’t as good as everyone claimed. I enjoyed the movie but I wouldn’t consider it to be in the upper echelon of top 10 superhero movies. So finally, the moment everyone was waiting for…Justice League was coming, and I wasn’t all that hyped. I had been fooled too many times to get excited, and even though Wonder Woman was good, I couldn’t trust the trailers or the fact that Zack Snyder had picked up right where he left off from Batman V. Superman. I didn’t see Justice League when it opened, and when I heard about its lackluster box office I thought “Good, their failures finally caught up with them”. It wasn’t until today that I actually decided to sit down and check out the movie.

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After finally watching Justice League, which I viewed with low expectations, I can say this: Justice League has awful CGI, some really bad dialogue, bad editing, its characters don’t feel established in their world, the humor doesn’t always work, the story is derivative, and…… it’s actually not that bad of a movie. Yeah, I actually really liked Justice League.  It was wildly entertaining and for the first time, I recognized some of the DC universe that I grew up with.

Since I went into this film with a negative view (being honest, I wasn’t objective), I started finding faults early. The dialogue was sooooooo bad. None of the jokes were funny early on, and there was a constant usage of generic superhero catchphrases and dialogue (“together we can save the world” “I’m putting together a team”). I’m not actually quoting dialogue from the movie, I’m just giving my representation of what it was. The special effects were literally horrendous. When the villain Steppenwolf first appears, a CGI fight scene happens that looks about as real as a 17th-century stage play. Steppenwolf himself looks ridiculously fake, and I’ve seen World of Warcraft cutscenes from 2013 that had better effects than the fight scene. The only recognizable superhero characters from previous films are Batman and Wonder Woman, and they feel disconnected in their effect on the outside world. The majority of the superheroes are introduced for the first time in this film, meaning without many characters to latch on to, the world doesn’t feel identifiable or established. The story is straightforward and borrows a few elements here and there from The Avengers and The Lord of the Rings.

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The turning point for me was when all of the characters came together. First off, I want to say that Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, is awesome. He has this great intensity, and whatever origin he should have been given is summed up by his penetrating stare that indicates he suffered an unwanted accident that made him the way he is. Ezra Miller is also surprisingly relatable as The Flash. There is a standout scene early in the film where he is reluctant to fight, admitting that he’s never done battle before and in the moment is scared. Gal Gadot, in my opinion, is better in Justice League than she was in her own feature film (in which I thought she was serviceable but not remarkable). As Wonder Woman, she conveys a certain strength that holds the group together. I also finally got behind Ben Affleck as Batman. His murderous escapades in Batman V. Superman really deterred me from seeing what I see now, which is a great Batman. Batman and Wonder Woman play off of each other really well and serve as motivators for the rest of the group. The chemistry between the entire cast is a total success. Jason Momoa as Aquaman, though he is the least developed character in the league, has some of the best moments.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Now, minor spoiler warning, I’m going to talk about Superman. I hesitate to call this a spoiler though, since, unless you’ve never heard of the Justice League or have been living in a cave, you’ll know that Superman is bound to show up. When he does, it’s great, but he’s not in the movie all too much. Poor Henry Cavill always gets the short end of the stick as Superman. In Justice League, he yet again gets pushed aside when he should have had a much bigger role.  There’s also been some controversy about Cavill’s CGI face since his real-life mustache had to be digitally removed. Honestly, it’s one of the least relevant criticisms I’ve heard and it’s really not that bad. I’m surprised that critics had a hard time getting over Superman’s fake upper lip more than they did getting over half of the other ridiculously bad CGI (I’m looking at you Steppenwolf). The upper lip was a little wonky at times but it was something I could easily get over.

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Ciarán Hinds as the villain Steppenwolf

The height of the film, as most people would expect, was the climax, and it was glorious. The action throughout the film but particularly in the climactic battle was fantastic. It’s everything you would want to see in a blockbuster superhero movie. The league functions as a unit, strategically approaching Steppenwolf and talking down his Parademons. The only real issue with the end is Steppenwolf himself, who is simply a weak villain. He isn’t terrible, but he doesn’t offer anything other than the usual bad guy dialogue and agenda. It’s a shame that he was chosen as the villain instead of Darkseid. He did the exact same things that Darkseid would have been doing, so why didn’t they just have Darkseid instead? The final battle could have also been on a larger scale and could have shown a larger impact on the global population.

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Darkseid, ruler of the planet Apokolips

The ending of the film was actually kind of touching, having finally set up the potential for a larger DC universe. The film itself does feel like a righting of the ship. Keep in mind, I went in with an already negative perspective and was instead won over by the movie. The team works well together, and there’s even a decent end message about returning to the world and taking initiative. None of the characters fell flat, and despite there not being a lot of humor that works, the scenes in which it does is a nice touch. Though some of the early dialogue is bad, it greatly improves as the film progress until the dialogue is great in the end. There are some cool Easter eggs and it might just feature the two best end credits scenes ever. It makes me kind of sad that we may not see a continuation of this universe due to its low box office. I wouldn’t have minded if the DC movie universe kept going from Justice League. I finally saw flashes of the DC that I loved and wanted. It does feel like The Avengers in some sense, which can’t be avoided because, in the end, it’s a fun and generic blockbuster action film. Justice League gave me the DC feeling that Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Wonder Woman couldn’t give. Wonder Woman is still a better overall film, but Justice League, in my opinion, is more entertaining, and my personal favorite DCEU film.

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The first comic book appearance of the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold Issue No. 28

 

 

Black Panther Review

Marvel Studios has been on somewhat of a hot streak as of late. In 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnorak all grossed over $800 million at the box office. Thor and Spider-man both had over 90% fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with Guardians being over 80% fresh. Despite the critical and commercial success, Marvel has been associated with using a derivative formula.  Complex narratives and serious drama are not a topic of conversation. Cinemagoers usually expect a fun, joke-filled, low-stakes comedy-action film with competent direction and acting. It is rare for a Marvel film to break this mold. Thankfully Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, is a breathtakingly dramatic, wonderfully acted and directed, and thematically rich film that stands out among the 18 MCU movies. It is a film that dares to take itself seriously where other Marvel films have embraced the camp.

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Where Black Panther truly succeeds is in its ability to be self-contained. There are very few references to the larger Marvel universe, and the film begins by delving right into the Black Panther lore. The opening fifteen minutes are immersive, the beautiful culture and landscape of Wakanda feel established and lived-in. It’s obvious that the architects behind the movie put a lot of effort into crafting an authentic representation of African culture in a technological landscape. The vibrant scenery reflects the vibrant characters. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther is as captivating as ever. He builds upon the taste of his performance that was given in Captain America: Civil War. Alongside T’Challa are several other great side characters played by great actors. A few standouts include T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, T’Challa’s ex and a Wakandan spy, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and the general of the elite Wakandan bodyguard known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. The full cast of Wakandan’s includes esteemed actors such as Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Daniel Kaluya. Winston Duke is particularly stellar as M’Baku, the powerful leader of the Jabari people, and Martin Freeman returns to the role of Everett Ross to provide some levity.

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Left to Right: Zuri (Forest Whitaker), Wakabi (Daniel Kaluya), Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challah/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright)

Black-Panther-Trailer-Breakdown-4The music is another excellent aspect of the film. It features a unique composition of cinematic score and contemporary soundtrack. Ludwig Göransson’s African rhythms and Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop beats blend into the film’s sequences and don’t intrude upon the important moments. The film knows when to use the contemporary soundtrack and when to use the cinematic score. The costume design features bright complementary colors and rich patterns without having off-putting or outlandish designs.

Black_Panther_Wakanda_TravelCoogler’s style of direction leaves little to the imagination, as breathtaking shots of sweeping landscapes and cityscapes are prominently displayed throughout the film. The overhead shots and upward tilts highlight the true scope of Wakanda’s advanced world. Where the consistency stops is during the action scenes. The first action sequence takes place at night and features jerky camera movements and bright machine gun flashes that detract from the fighting. The second action sequence features intense cuts and effective tracking shots. The rest of the action in the film is either bright and well-choreographed or dimly lit and jumpy. Black Panther also lacks the same physical prowess and swiftness that he had in Civil War. It doesn’t help that the special effects, at some times, can be very distracting and even lackluster. A few of the digital backgrounds are not fully rendered and can look fake. The CGI in some of the action scenes make the characters’ movements seem uncanny and clearly computerized. Some of the visually stunning camerawork can be hampered by the poor background effects. However, it is possible that Marvel Studios could be saving their budget for the extravagant bonanza that is Avengers: Infinity War. Aside from the unsatisfactory CGI, the visual and auditory elements of Black Panther are fantastic. Coogler has developed a fully fleshed-out world that has its own distinctive aesthetic.

As for the narrative, the subtle but socially relevant commentary and the Shakespearean levels of family drama and tragedy elevate the film above the average superhero movie. There is humor, but it is natural and not overused. The story is serious, and intent on making an actual statement. The true heart of the conflict is in the ethical dilemmas facing T’Challa. As an advanced nation with vastly superior resources, Wakanda has the capacity to dramatically affect the world. It can provide aid to other countries, bring in refugees, and do it all better than any other country ever could. The tradition that previous Black Panthers have followed is to hide Wakanda from the rest of the world, preserving its culture and sheltering its people. The choice that T’Challa has is to either take initiative and help the world or prioritize his own people above others. If T’Challa reveals Wakanda, it could result in the endangerment of his people and the potential loss of cultural identity. If T’Challa stands firm with tradition, then the world will continue to struggle and vulnerable populations would remain vulnerable. The film does provide an answer, and it relates to the message of globalization and the need for humanity to stand together as one group of people rather than a series of divided tribes. T’Challa has to make the hard choices and adapt as a leader. He acknowledges the sins of the past and makes new developments that even go against tradition. Every film has its derivative moments though, and Black Panther is no different. It occasionally follows a few story beats from other superhero films, and the superhero clichés relating to the hero’s journey are akin to what you would see in The Dark Knight Rises or an episode of Arrow.

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Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger

The best part of the film by far, is its villains, specifically Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger. While Ulysses Klaue is deliciously maniacal as a villain and actor Andy Serkis steals every scene he is in, he is not a major motivator of the plot. Eric Killmonger, on the other hand, is central to the plot and his entire story parallels T’Challa’s. Moreover, much of the story is about what happened to Killmonger and why he is the way he is. Killmonger is identifiable and garners a lot of sympathy. He is a monster born out of his environment and his own family tragedy. The circumstances of Killmonger’s upbringing qualify his views. His motives can actually be seen as reasonable; his viewpoint even makes sense. Only through his ruthless methods can he be identified as the villain, and again, his actions are only a result of the hand he’s been dealt. Killmonger was an outcast, not born in the privileged wealth of Wakanda. Because of this, he doesn’t identify with Wakanda, but instead with the marginalized black communities of the world that exists outside of Wakanda. He sees the world as a chaotic nightmare that Wakanda has turned its back on, and only by taking aggressive action can Wakanda right the wrongs of ignoring the rest of the marginalized communities in the world. Michael B. Jordan brings an intensity and gravitas to the role that rivals some of the best comic book villain performances ever. He can play the sympathetic victim and then turn on a dime to become an intimidating and coldblooded monster with a pure intent to kill in his eyes. Killmonger has a commanding presence on screen, and his brilliance as a villain is also accentuated by how effective he is in causing problems and outmaneuvering the heroes. He’s a great villain because he thinks he is the hero of the story.

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Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright)
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Left: Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, leading the Dora Milaje

While the overall plot structure isn’t radically different from other superhero movies, Black Panther takes a few unexpected turns in how it manages to resolve its story. It isn’t over-reliant on the hero. It isn’t just on T’Challa to save Wakanda, it’s on his friends too. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri, and others are all superheroes in their own way as they fight together against the enemy. They are all the warriors of Wakanda, dedicated to protecting their king and country. Chadwick Boseman shines, but it is an ensemble film with an ensemble cast. Everyone brings their all to their roles.

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Ultimately, Black Panther is a film about culture. It questions whether cultural identity should be preserved and protected to the point of hostility, or whether peoples all over the world should unite under a banner of shared experience and humanity. The dynamic realm of Wakanda represents the ever-changing landscape of a globalizing world. Black Panther is important, not only because it features diversity and representation on new levels that haven’t been seen in major blockbuster films, but also because it’s a very good film with socially relevant themes. It has a focus; it tries to evoke thought from the audience. It builds and takes its time with the story, it features some of the best performances in any superhero films, and it does this all while being a part of a shared cinematic universe that’s about talking raccoons and Norse gods fighting against a giant purple alien with a power glove. It is a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that is becoming derivative in recent memory.

4.5/5 

Miniblog: The Cloverfield Paradox Spoiler Review

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Before I go into the review, I want to say that I didn’t see the ad for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl.  I watched the trailer afterward on YouTube and only then saw the big marketing ploy: it was airing that very night on Netflix. The last Cloverfield movie, Ten Cloverfield Lane, was advertised maybe a month or a few weeks before its theatrical release. The Cloverfield movies have had unique marketing campaigns that draw attention to the strange concepts and seemingly different genres of each film. In this case, the marketing campaign succeeded again. I was totally surprised when I saw the release date and immediately wanted to watch it. It was Sunday night though and I had class in the morning, so I watched it Monday and…
The Cloverfield Paradox is an otherwise straightforward isolated space thriller with interesting elements of mystery and visual appeal, however, in regards to its story, characters, and the answers to questions it sets up, it simply falls flat.
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Let’s start with the fact that we don’t get any interaction or development for the majority of the crew members. The only identifying feature is that they come from different nations. Given the incredibly talented cast including Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, it’s unfortunate that a film with such good performances provided such little detail to its characters. The only character with a backstory is the protagonist, Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I know that in typical space thrillers the crew ends up dying anyway, but at least one moment of comradery between them establishes that what is happening to them is tragic. In Alien the crew is laughing and joking around right before the alien rips out of Kane’s chest. In this movie, the crew members are at each other’s throats in the very first interaction they have on-screen.

 

Once the story gets going and the crew fires a particle accelerator, it’s obvious when we see a flash from the earth that the will be transferred to a different dimension. This leads me to my second point about the film, it’s incredibly predictable. The fact that they were transported to an alternate Earth was predictable, the fact that the gyro compass was inside the Russian character was predictable, the fact that Elizabeth Debicki’s character (the one from the alternate Earth) had sinister intentions was predictable, and the fact the Cloverfield monster had ended up on their Earth as a result of the firing was predictable. Elements of the film come out of nowhere, the plot point of the main character’s children burning down in a fire because of her decisions is expositioned out towards the end of the film for dramatic effect. The entire sub plot with the main character’s husband where he finds a little girl is entirely pointless and boring. The sci-fi elements, once they get going, are interesting enough. There are exploding bodies full of worms, sentient hands, and gruesome mutilations. However, none of these incidents are ever explained, they are simply chalked up to “quantum entanglement”, the two worlds are messing with each other because they are close. That doesn’t explain how an arm can just gain sentience and start writing instructions, or someone could collapse and die then explode worms. Once the movie ends with the giant Cloverfield monster attacking the ship, there is no context to the situation. Is it the same Cloverfield monster from New York but grown up? Is this the same world as Ten Cloverfield Lane with the alien mothership? None of this is explained, and the ending just feels tacked on for thrills.

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As a film, it has narrative problems and its characters are thin. As a space thriller it has enjoyable moments and pretty good visual effects. It contains some sci-fi movie clichés like the dumb scientists, in this case the comic relief character is so enamored by an incident of magnetic interference that he stares at it and lets the metal material he was using behind him swallow him up. Elements of the film are very derivative of other sci-fi films like Alien, Life, and Event Horizon (although really all of these films derive from Alien).

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It is definitely the weakest of the Cloverfield movies but I enjoyed watching it. Maybe I’m just desperate for semi-decent science fiction films by major studios, a topic that will be explored in an upcoming blog.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

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Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

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Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

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Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MiniBlog: Good Character or Good Actor?

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One of the interesting aspects of film that I’ve noticed recently is that although good writing and good acting are two very different things, it is possible for good acting to overshadow good writing. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and think to myself, were the characters good or was the acting just good enough to make the characters seem good? There are a few examples of this happening, the most recent being Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnorak. In the movie, Blanchett plays the main villain Hela, Thor’s evil older sister. Though Hela has been regarded as one of the more deliciously evil Marvel villains, when you really think about the development of the character, Hela falls flat as a compelling villain. Very little is established about the importance of her familial relationship to Thor, yes she does bring up the subject every now and then, but at the end of the day, she’s just another bad guy for Thor to defeat. There’s no bargaining, no internal conflict, Thor isn’t affected in any way by their relationship as siblings. She’s also given very little background and is simply depicted as the evil sister that likes war and wants to conquer things. What makes the role compelling in any way is Blanchett’s performance. She portrays Hela as a war monger that delights in the death and destruction that she leaves in her wake. If her character isn’t well developed, it is at least a joy to watch, and that may lead people to believe that it makes her a good villain. If the actor on the screen portraying the character is compelling, it doesn’t automatically make the character compelling though it may seem that way.

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Some other examples lie in many Christopher Nolan movies. Nolan, being a very big picture, narrative-driven, overarching story and plot kind of filmmaker, doesn’t spend too much time developing his characters. The story around the main characters often propels them towards much more interesting character moments. In films like Interstellar and Inception, the characters themselves are often simplistic and understated. In fact, both Interstellar and Inception deal with a single dad trying to pull off a near-impossible mission and get back to their kids. What makes us connect with Nolan’s characters are the actors that he hires to play them. In Inception, Cobb may not be as interesting a character if it weren’t for powerhouse actor Leonardo DiCaprio playing him. The philosophical lines and speeches spouted by the characters wouldn’t be as appealing if it weren’t Gary Oldman or Morgan Freeman executing them with pure eloquence. Now, not to say that Nolan or his screenwriters write bad dialogue or characters, they simply do not develop them as strongly as say Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Take a look at these films again and really consider the depth of these characters. What do you know about them? What can you say about them in the end? I think you’ll find that the importance of the performance plays a big part in how we perceive characters, and in some cases, an underwritten character can be highlighted and improved by a great actor.