The Villain Checklist: Goal/Motivation

Having gone through the villain’s introductory elements in detail, we now turn more to the nitty-gritty of the villain’s character. And perhaps nothing is more important for villains than their goal and motivation in the story.

As with many things I’m talking about, this is Story-Telling 101 and Characterisation 101, and it applies to all and sundry: heroes, supporting characters, everybody. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in his rules for writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Or to put it my way:

Goal/Motivation – The villain must have a goal, or a motivation for their actions, which is clear, believable to the audience, and something that this character obviously wants, enough that he/she is willing to do the things that they do to achieve it.

Many will rightfully point out that “goal” and “motivation” can be very different things: a goal is a tangible endpoint, and a motivation can be a feeling, a drive, that is intangible. To put it another way, the goal is in the future, the motivation is in the past. But this doesn’t always hold true, and I find that the terms can be used interchangeably when it comes to many antagonists. In terms of defining a character, most of what can be said for goals can also be said for motivations, so rather than repeat myself…

Let’s go through this and what is expected in a bit more detail, through the lens of what, why, and want .

The goal or motivation must be clear: that is, it must be understandable to the audience. The con-man wants to cheat a sweet old lady out of her savings for financial gain, the supervillain wants to take over the world for powers sake, whatever it is, big or small, it has to be something that the viewer can grasp. You can play around a bit with the specifics of it: maybe the con-man’s nominal goal is to cheat the old lady, as part of a larger motivation of amassing enough capital for some kind of criminal empire. Maybe the supervillain’s goal in the story being told is to find enough plutonium to build a Doomsday device in order to take over the world. In other words, the goal/motivation can have layers that the story can explore. But it still has to be clear. This is not an absolute – some stories may be based around trying to uncover what the villain is up to, wherein their goal/motivation might be deliberately vague and mysterious for much of the narrative – but it is a generality that stands up to scrutiny. This is the what.

The goal or motivation must be believable: that is, it must be something that the audience can buy in terms of the character being presented. Our aforementioned con-man trying to take over the world would be a bit much; similarly, the supervillain trying to con the old lady would be difficult to swallow. When this goes wrong its usually on a different, more subtle scale, but it does happen, wherein antagonist characters are portrayed as reaching for something that should, in the world of the story being told, be completely out of their reach (or below their notice). This is the why.

The goal or motivation must be demonstrable: that is, the villain must show, early on preferably, that the goal or motivation is something they need, or something that is driving them. That desire must be plain, even in stories wherein the final goal is a mystery. The con-man has to be seen to be driven to cheat the old lady, the supervillain must express a desire to rule the world (and why, ideally). And their actions must be tied to this. The con-man must be willing to get into the old lady’s good books through subterfuge, the supervillain must be willing to blow up a few cities here and there. This is the want (and, to an extent, the how as well).

Lastly, I want to note that it is my belief that it is especially important for antagonist characters to define their goal/motivation in these terms, because their actions, in pursuit of their goals or whatever is motivating them, is generally the inciting incident of the plot. The plucky hero will never get the chance to be so if he doesn’t have a bad guy to overcome, or to frustrate in their designs. In many ways, stories are based as much or more around what the antagonist is doing or seeking as it around the protagonist(s), because how would their be a story otherwise?

Lets look at a few examples, good and bad.

In Episode IV, Vader’s goal is to find the Death Star plans that were stolen by the Rebel Alliance. This is clear: the opening crawl outlines this reality, and one of Vader’s first lines is “What have you done with those plans?”. The goal is believable: the new superweapon is supposed to be a game changer that will insure the Empire’s galactic dominance forever, and the chance that a weakness in it will be discovered has to be stamped out. The goal is demonstrable: Vader sacrifices a platoon of troops just to get onto the Tantive IV, then chokes a man to death in an interrogation shortly after. And that’s just for starters: later he’ll let Tarkin blow up a planet to find out where the plans are. And Vader’s goal defines the story and where it goes: the search for the droids leading to the deaths of Luke’s aunt and uncle leading to him leaving Tatooine to become a Jedi and join the Rebel Alliance leading to Obi-Wan’s death and the attack on the Daeth Star and so on and so forth.

Goal_Vader

Man crush intensifies.

Even poor maligned and mocked Darth Maul, my favourite punching bag, gets things half-right. His goal in Episode I is clear: to re-capture Queen Amidala for his master. His goal is understandable (if a bit daft for a Star Wars movie): Darth Sidious needs Padme in hand to order to justify his invasion of Naboo, and we can buy that a Sith apprentice like Maul would undertake whatever nefarious deeds his master would ask of him. Where it falls down is with the want: what exactly is Maul getting out of the task that defines his character in some way? Aside from a vague “At last we will have revenge”? Where Maul also falls down is the how, at least in the conclusion, when he seems to forget about the Queen entirely in order to have a triple threat match with Qui Gon and Obi-Wan. His goal also does not incite or define the plot, it’s just an addendum to it really.

Goal_Maul

Maybe he’s going to get a toothbrush out of the deal?

In the world of comic books, let’s look at The Dark Knight and the Joker again. Many may cry foul here and claim that Heath Ledger’s role is the antithesis of my argument, as the Joker in that film was an “agent of chaos”, a character with no real discernable goal or motivation for the panic and hysteria he inflicts on Gotham. I’d argue against that, with my primary point being that the Joker is lying somewhat when he declares “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”. He’s gaslighting Batman, Dent and everyone else when he says this: of course he has a plan. It’s just that his goal is somewhat obtuse: he’s a traumatized and mentally damaged figure who wants to justify his own existence by proving that everybody else is just as bad as he is (The Killing Joke covers similar territory with the same character, in a more obvious manner). It’s fair to say this goal isn’t very clear, at least not until the latter part of the film, and requires you to acknowledge that the Joker himself can’t be trusted in his dialogue. This apparent deficiency, in my mind, is offset by the depth of the character and the story being told, that he requires you to do some thinking to fget to the right point. Perhaps the goal isn’t believable to a certain extent, though it becomes more-so when you realise the depths to which the Joker has been, however he got his scars. But we can certainly believe the want and get hooked in by the how, as exhibited throughout the running time of the film. The Joker wants to fight and win a battle for Gotham’s soul, and in an ideological battle like that gunning down bank-robbers and planting bombs is very buyable.

Goal_Joker

It takes a lot of motivation to blow up a hospital.

My negative example here is from a character I otherwise enjoy, Obadiah “Ironmonger” Stane in Iron Man, who is my pick from a long list of MCU villains who don’t measure up on this checkmark. Stane’s goal is remarkably unclear, especially as it is only properly clarified in the morase of the last act: he wants to control Stark Industries and use Tony’s designs to deliver a new generation of weapons to the world for…profit? Power? The grandeur of America? It’s hard to get on-board with such a motivation as the film devolves and Stane starts acting like a madman in terms of his actions, especially when he gets found out by S.H.I.E.L.D and proceeds, instead of running, to fight Tony in a mechsuit battle. And Stane’s actions in pursuit of this goal are all over the place: an assassination plot turns to corporate intrigue turns to industrial espionage turns to aforementioned mechsuit battle. Only in the last part of the film do Stane’s action begin dictating the actions of the hero (Stane is responsible for Tony’s capture early on, but this only comes to light by the end). Ronin, Kaecilius, Cross, the MCU keeps coming up with bad guys who fall flat on this score. I can’t even tell you who their next villain, for Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume 2, even is.

Goal_Stane

The film has taken a weird turn by this point.

Another good compare and contrast comes from alternate versions of The Magnificent Seven. In the 1960 film, the villain is the bandit leader Calvera, who periodically plunders a defenseless Mexican border village. Calvera’s goal is clear, and is suitably introduced and then elaborated upon later: he wants to keep plundering the village, because his men will starve to death if they don’t do so. The goal is believable: as a fearsome bandit we can buy Calvera preying on the village, and as a leader with men to feed we can buy him taking food by force. And the want and the how are clearcut too: Calvera and his men need to eat – and exert their dominance over the “sheep” – and will take on the titular seven, directly and through subterfuge, to satisfy their motivation. It’s simple stuff, but it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.

Goal_Calvera

Shouldn’t have thrown them their guns.

Then take robber baron Bartholomew Bogue in the lamentable 2016 version of the same story. Bogue’s goal is to take over a quiet frontier western town so he can…have the land? His motivation isn’t believable: he’s already a rich and powerful man, and from the first scene goes to overly-dramatic extremes to threaten the townsfolk, murdering them willy-nilly when they voice the barest of opposition (before vanishing from the film for an hour). And sure, we can see that Bogue wants the land, but we don’t adequately understand why, so we can’t adequately accept how he goes about getting it. Calvera is a deserate man taking on the role of a hoodlum in order to seem powerful and feed his fellow outlaws. He is both a threat and interesting. Bogue is a maniac, and maniac’s without anything else to them are dull.

Goal_Bogue

Remember when Peter Sarsgaard was the villain in Green Lantern? He’s got priors in bad bad-guys.

How about stories where the villain’s goal and motivation are fixated upon an individual instead of a prize? Take The Terminator as a positive example. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot assassin has a clear goal: to kill Sarah Connor in order to negate her effect on the timeline. He has a belivable goal: the machines striking at John Connor in this manner is easy to grasp, once the films time travel “rules” have been established. The want is not applicable to an extent, as the Terminator’s emotionless intensity is what defines him, he’s just following his programming, and the how is connected to this: it fits such a character, whose actions resonate with the audience due to how aggressive and persistent they are.

Goal_Terminator

Might want to fix that.

Then take a somewhat different film I re-watched very recently: 1997’s Anastasia, where the villain is a very anachronistic Gregori Rasputin, voiced by the irrepressible Christopher Lloyd. His goal is somewhat clear: he wants revenge against the Romanov family that exiled him from court and decides to focus on the last surviving member of the family. This is fairly believable: while Rasputin is undoubtedly evil, we can buy that he could form a twisted obsession with vengeance over those he perceives as having wronged him. The problem comes in with the last part of the equation. The want is fine: sometimes revenge is perfectly acceptable as a villain’s motivation (see Skyfall’s Silva as great example we’ve previously discussed). It’s the how where things come a cropper, as Rasputin doesn’t confront Anastasia directly until the final five minutes of the film – always a bad call, as I’ll go into more detail on in a later entry – resorting to supernatural means of distance targeting instead, when, as the third act makes clear, he’s always in a position to go after her directly if he wants to. Rasputin becomes a distant, cut-away figure in the larger narrative then, because he isn’t actively pursuing his goal to the extent that he should.

Goal_Rasputin

The animation is that film could have used some work: his hand isn’t properly holding that reliquary.

So, that’s goal and motivation. But, just like any other character, there is a flip-side to that coin that must also be part and parcel of the antagonist: the element of risk. And that is what we will talk about next time.

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Ireland’s Wars: Reddersburg

The relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley, rescuing trapped British forces and providing a badly-needed morale boost for both the home front and the active campaign, altered significantly the dynamic of the Boer War. The Boers’ time having the initiative had largely passed, and Lord Roberts was soon following up his initial success with a major victory at Paardeberg in late February. Paardeberg came at a high cost, thanks to a reckless charge led by Roberts’ second in command, Herbert Kitchener, that left over a thousand British troops dead or injured in an event later dubbed “Bloody Sunday”.

Regardless, it was the British on the advance soon after, with Roberts intent on bringing the war to an end with the capture of the Boers’ political centres, Bloemfontein for the Orange Free State and Pretoria for the Transvaal. The retreating Boers, in a bad state after the (for them) lengthy campaign, did not offer much resistance to Roberts, who duly claimed Bloemfontein in March. His army would camp there for a time, and end up suffering terribly from an epidemic of typhoid exacerbated by poor drinking water and awful medical care. The march on Pretoria would have to wait a while.

It was shortly after this, in early April, that the British got their first nasty taste of what the Boer War would now turn into, thanks to a Free State commander named Christian De Wet. De Wet, 46 years old at the time, was a veteran of the First Boer War and the Battle of Majuba, and had served as Piet Cronje’s closest subordinate in the early stages of the campaign on the western front. Cronje had surrendered alongside 4’000 of his men at Paardeberg, leaving De Wet as the senior active military commander of the Orange Free State. He was soon to prove himself a genius in the manner of combat that would come to define the remainder of the conflict: guerrilla warfare.

The Boers were uniquely suited to guerrilla tactics, to the point that the idea of them engaging in formal battles or sieges seems rather crazy. Nearly every soldier in the Boer armies had a horse, and were experts in riding, having spent a significant portion of their lives on horseback. That made them mobile. They were well-used to rifles and manoeuvres involving dismounting, firing, remounting and riding off. That made them deadly. And they knew the land better than the British, mostly didn’t wear uniforms, and had a commitment to mobility that was in matched in the area of combat operations. That made them hard to catch, and hard to kill.

De Wet would utilize all of these things to advantage, and some of the first to learn that in this phase of the war would be 600 members of the Royal Irish Rifles, stationed near a small town called Reddersburg in the Free State, shortly after the fall of Bloemfontein.

He had already bloodied the British nose. Shortly after the capture of the Free State capital De Wet had led a successful action at nearby Sanna’s Point, ambushing a British camp and capturing some of the towns critical water supplies, before making a successful escape. Five miles south of Bloemfontein, three companies of the Royal Irish Rifles had been marching through the countryside, stopping a few kilometres from Reddersburg on the night of the 2nd of April. Having been well-informed of the advance of this force, De Wet drew his commandos together and prepared to strike.

The Royal Irish Rifles had already suffered during the war, at the Battle of Stormberg the previous December, but now they were going to suffer some more. They had been engaged on some soft power exercises in the area, proclaiming a peace and inviting locals to disarm, so as to avoid being targeted later. On the morning of the 3rd of April, they reached a farm six or so kilometres from Reddersburg, and came under fire from both sides of the road, from an enemy based on kopje’s they could not adequately see. Commanded by a Captain McWhinnie, the Royal Irish scrambled to take up position on a horseshow-shaped set of hills, but soon found themselves attacked from all sides.

Both sides engaged in firing at each other, but in truth to little effect. The Boers were far away and hidden, and the Irish were in a decent defensible position. Both sides had plenty of cover. But the Boers had artillery, and soon had this in position to rain shells down on the Royal Irish.

De Wet gallantly sent a message to McWhinnie requesting surrender, pointing out his advantage in men and artillery. McWhinnie dismissed this request, and De Wet commanded an artillery barrage to begin. There were actually few casualties – a disproportionate amount of officers fell, as was often the case in the Boer War, as they didn’t take advantage of cover the same way the ranks did – but the artillery rattled men’s nerve and morale. The bombardment, and the small-arms fire, continued all day.

The Royal Irish’s options were limited. They could wait for relief: the noise of the fighting would presumably reach allies and then maybe reinforcements could be arranged. A big enough relief force and the Boers would retire, rather than risk a major engagement. But it was just as likely that they would be overwhelmed before that could happen. They could attempt to break out themselves and make a beeline for Reddersburg, but of course this carried the risk of taking enormous casualties in the effort.

With the light failing and the artillery fire dying off, the decision was taken to hold on until the following day. The Royal Irish had only lost nine men, but were running out of both bullets and water. A fitful night followed where the men struggled to snatch a few hours of sleep, with the firing, from both the Boer infantry and the artillery, re-commencing before the sun had even risen.

The Boers crept closer to the British position as the Royal Irish expended much of what was remaining of their ammunition trying to stop them. The local commander, General William Gatacre did organise a relief, but ended up not engaging when they heard the volume of fire from the engagement: Gatacre, his reputation already in ruins after his command at Stormberg, was sent home to Britain soon after.

Before noon De Wet rushed one side of the kopje position, driving a force of mounted infantry back from the height. With one side of their defences caved in, ammunition nearly out and water running low, the Royal Irish were out of options. The white flags went up and the companies surrendered. They were marched into captivity in Pretoria, where they would remain for the next few months. Nine were dead, and over 25 injured. The Boer losses were negligible.

The engagement was a typical example of what was going to start occurring more and more in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The mounted mobile Boers utilised their freedom of movement and local intelligence network to identify a weak link in the British deployment, namely a detachment that had been ordered to march without requisite support between defensible points. Knowledge of the terrain allowed De Wet to pick the perfect place to pin the Royal Irish down, and the State Artillery did much of the rest. Lacking both artillery of their own and adequate relief forces, the Royal Irish were hopelessly bereft, but it is to their credit that they were able to hold their nerve and position for as long as they did.

They would not be the last British unit to be caught in such a manner. Roberts could capture as many towns and cities as he liked. Many of the Boers would fight to the bitter end regardless. And De Wet was showing them just how to do so.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

 

 

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Review: In Loco Parentis, The King’s Choice, The Age Of Shadows

I was able to see all of the following films at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

In Loco Parentis

Trailer

ilp

Ah, the joys of teaching.

Through the experiences and tribulations of its teachers, staff and students, In Loco Parentis is an in-depth look at Headfort, the only primary boarding school in Ireland.

It’s a simple but charming documentary. Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane craft something fairly engaging here, with a suitably wide set of perspectives: several students, the principal, etc. Pride of place is given to John and Amanda Leyden, a married couple teaching different subjects at the school. Amanda tries to engender in them all a love of reading, while John is a bit more musically inclined, overseeing a sort of extracurricular den where students can work at their artistic sides.

In Loco Parentis is practically oozing with positivity in every other frame. The teachers are caring, the students are (eventually) happy and even the ethos of the school – surprisingly liberal, as a scene focusing on Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum shows – seems to tailor made to make you smile. Indeed, it is this which is really In Loco Parentis’ only flaw, in that it lacks any kind of bite or higher point to really make. In much the same was as Older Than Ireland, the editing of In Loco Parentis smacks as being tad selective in terms of the overall positive portrayal: the strain of elitism in private education is barely touched upon.

But that really doesn’t mean a whole lot. It successfully manages to draw a contrast between John and Mary, they being in their twilight years in terms of career, and the vast potential still stretching out ahead of their young students, not even half-way through their formal education. For a 90-minute look at a unique part of the Irish school system, and at the joys of teaching generally, In Loco Parentis does what it says on the tin. As the people behind ADIFF noted before the show starts, this positivity is one of the films key drawing points: in comparison to pretty much all of the films I otherwise saw, this documentary is the happiest that things were really going to get. Recommended.

The King’s Choice (Kongens Nei)

Trailer

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Surrender or resistance: the choice of Norway’s monarch in 1940

April 1940: Norway stands on the brink of war, as Nazi Germany threatens invasion. King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) sticks strictly to his ceremonial role as a constitutional monarch in the face of the crisis, until events overtake him and the rest of the royal family.

I can’t say I’m very familiar with Norwegian cinema (though this is actually a co-production of Norway and Ireland), but I am familiar with Christensen, due to his recurring role in the more recent Bond films, where he’s been rather good. He’s really stepping things up here, playing arguably the most famous Norwegian monarch in that Kingdom’s history. Haakon VII is renowned for his deportment and behaviour in the face of unrelenting Nazi aggression and inevitable defeat, and he needed a portrayal to match. Christensen gives him that, managing to mix and match the aloof seriousness required of any mid-20th century monarch and the family man who just wants a quiet life, one being denied to him by the whims of history. Scenes between Haakon and his grandson Harald – the current King Harald V – are some of the film’s most heart-warming, as a strained patriarch delights in a younger generation, and does everything he can to shelter them from reality. The interaction between Haakon and his direct heir Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is also to be noted, a more mature father/son relationship, being tested under the most trying of circumstances. Haakon wants to limit his participation in the unfolding events, while Olav wants to take control, but at its heart is a simply story of a man trying to live up to the example of his father.

The film is quite long, due to the preponderance of material outside of Haakon’s experience of the German invasion, The King’s Choice perhaps being somewhat misnamed: The Nation’s Choice might have been better. Excellent scenes early on document the initial Kriegsmarine incursion into Norwegian waters, as ghostly destroyers glide into the range of army guns, the eerie serenity of the moment soon dispelled by the devastating blasts. The German embassy works itself into a frenzy of negotiations and politicking, as poor Ambassador Kurt Brauer (Karl Markovics) struggles to maintain his authority and deny Vidkun Quisling a place at the table. Beyond that, the film flounders a little by casting an eye on various generals, ministers, and lowly soldiers, with a combat sequence in the latter half oddly out of place with the diplomatic wrangling going on all around it.

For Norwegians this will all be well-known history, but for the rest of us, A King’s Choice is rather special, that little slice of World War Two largely outside of our experience, and worthy of further attention. There is a certain element of hero worship, and the film only lightly covers Haakon’s decision to go into exile – a marked contrast to his brother, Danish King Christian X – so should not be considered a definitive exploration of these madcap days of the German invasions, but for those of a film persuasion, it’s not a bad way to start. Recommended.

The Age Of Shadows (Milijeong)

Trailer

taos

I wonder if they are fans of Neil Jordan?

In 1930’s Korea, an underground resistance movement orchestrates a plan to smuggle explosives into Seoul, with operative Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) running into both a problem and an opportunity: the attentions of government detective Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-hoo), who may be turned to the resistances’ cause.

I’ll admit, I went into this one expecting something a bit different to what I got, thanks largely to the films primary flaw, namely that it doesn’t to know what it wants to be either. All in one overly-long two and a half hour experience, The Age Of Shadows is a crime story, a love story, a political uprising story, a fall from grace story, a revenge story, a torture porn story, and the real issue is that it doesn’t blend any of these things together very well: instead it just sort of jumps from one to the other whenever it pleases, with corresponding leaps in the amount of bloodshed at random moments, especially in the last 40 or so minutes.

And maybe the other problem is that the film doesn’t seem comfortable in itself. It very obviously wants to eb something akin to The Untouchables in large stretches, a very western production in so many ways, and I think I would preferred something a bit more Korean in focus. As it is, it feels like a quasi-Coppola film that happens to have an (nearly) all Asian cast. The character journeys suffer much the same fate as the general tone as the film jumps from one to another, never really settling on whichever it considers the most important: is it Lee’s quest for Korean independence, Kim’s reluctant search for redemption? The Age Of Shadows can’t mix and match them properly.

Of course, it still manages to hit the right notes at times. The world of puppet-government Korea is well-realized, and a sequence on-board a train around the midpoint is a real stand out in terms of creating tension and really tapping in to a sort of noir/espionage sentiment. But the tidal wave of blood and gore in the last act drowns a lot of that out, leaving you with a very different impression of the film then what it might deserve.

In the end, it’s really only alright: a somewhat dull slog through a lot of boring dialogue that tries to compensate with a violent explosion towards the end. As an example of Korean cinema, not all that appealing. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Magnolia Pictures, Nordisk Filmdistribusjon and Soda Pictures).

 

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Ireland’s Wars: The Tugela Heights

Two months on from “Black Week” and Buller, along with the rest of the forces under his command, were still on the wrong side of the Tugela River.

It had been a costly period. Twice more, after the repulse at Colenso, Buller had attempted to force a crossing so that he could relieve the beleaguered Ladysmith, and twice he had been repulsed again. On the 24th of January 1900, the British had been mauled badly at Spion Kop, west of Colenso, a battle marked by an excess of command blunders based around whether to abandon or reinforce a hill on the titular rise, that eventually resulted in the British retreating when there was no need to. Hart’s Irish Brigade played a supporting role in the lead up the battle, but luckily avoided any major involvement in the bloodbath that followed.

Nearly three weeks later, Buller tried again, this time at Vaal Krantz, east of Spion Kop, but three days of skirmishing against Boer positions entrenched on hills again resulted in the British withdrawing. By now, the British government had realized the immensity of the task before them. Previous administrations had balked at the idea of an escalating war in South Africa, but the Conservatives were more committed: more regular divisions, and thousands of colonial volunteers from different parts of the Empire, were soon being sent to South Africa. But, for the moment, Buller only had what was to hand, though this was hardly insignificant: he maintained a four to one advantage in men, and a ten to one advantage in artillery. He simply had to find a way to use these advantages properly.

Nine days after Vaal Krantz, Buller was ready to try again. He returned to the area around Colenso, focusing especially on Hlangwane, a position that had repulsed British attacks before but which, if captured, would allow British artillery to safeguard a crossing of the river at Colenso itself. Preliminary operations securing the south bank, with the Royal Irish Fusiliers of Geoffrey Barton’s 6th Brigade engaged, took place and soon Hlangwane had been secured, with the Boers quickly abandoning the south bank of the Tugela altogether.

There remained the hills behind Colenso itself, still in Boer possession. It was here that General Hart and his Irish Brigade came back into play. Hart had come in for much criticism in the aftermath of Colenso, due in no small part to the ignorant disregard he had for ensuring the safety of his men. One fellow general declared in a letter home that Hart was “a dangerous lunatic”. He was about to prove it all over again.

Hart’s objective was a rise dubbed, in a moment of sheer unimagination, “Hart’s Hill”. Buller knew that, having secured a crossing and the heights on the south bank, seizing just some of the heights on the north bank would be enough to send the outflanked Boers packing. In the plains between Colenso and Ladysmith, the Boers obviously would not fight – it simply wasn’t their style – so the seizure of these heights would mean the relief of Ladysmith.

As before the advance was supposed to be supported by an artillery barrage, from a position south of the river, but the guns were too far back to be as effective as they should have been. With the Boers dug in as they usually were, it didn’t really matter anyway. Hart’s Brigade attacked in the latter part of the 24th after a delay in getting the troops into position.

It was a torturous climb up a steep rocky hill face for the Irish troops. Behind every other rock lay enemy soldiers, able to pop up, rattle off a few shots with their accurate Mauser rifles, and then duck back behind cover before they could become targets themselves. All the Irish could do was advance up the hill as fast as they could, and occasionally pop off a few largely symbolic replies from their own guns.

Hart, in his wisdom, continued to insist that his men march forward in tightly packed columns, four abreast, which only limited their ability to manoeuvre and made then an even easier target. Boer artillery caused significant casualties in such circumstances, a grim prologue to the sort of carnage artillery would cause 14 years later. Hart, showing his usual bravery – or disregard – for his own safety, rode close to the front line to urge his troops on, but they may perhaps have preferred some better leadership.

Hart’s greatest folly was his sheer impatience. The march to Hart’s Hill, over a swollen stream and under fire, had been slow, and the six battalions that Buller had given Hart for the assault did not all arrive at the objective at the same time. Instead, they were coming up one at a time, with a unit of the Royal Inniskilling’s first. Hart should have waited until more, or all of his force was available before committing to the attack up the hill. Instead, for reasons best he ordered the Inniskilling to attack on their own. When the Connaught Rangers arrived next, he sent them up on their own too, and then the Royal Dublin’s, and then the other battalions, one after the other.

The result was predictable. The range of the attack was narrow owing to the lack of men in each push, and the force was weak. With the light dying, the supporting artillery was no longer a factor either. The Boers, behind the rocks and dug-in on the top of the hill, only had to stand up and fire at an enemy they could hardly miss.

The Inniskillings, and then the Connaught Rangers and then the Dublin’s and the ones that came after all tried to take the hill, and all of them were thrown back. Hart aghast, ordered a combined charge of various companies after this catastrophe, that met with a similar result. That night, the wounded were left stranded on the hill, dealing with their injuries, their thirst and listening to the hymns of the Boer enemy. They would not be rescued that day. In the morning, what was left of Hart’s force retreated. 500 of them were casualties. For the Inniskillings, in particular, the Battle of the Tugela Heights was a devastating one, with over a quarter of the battalion dead, injured or missing.

Buller was forced to revaluate, going on another flanking march and approaching the hills from a different direction. Another section of the Royal Dublin’s was involved in a failed attack at the nearby Pieters Kop, while at Hart’s Hill a brief armistice was agreed, a full day after the fighting, so that the dead and wounded could be removed. The new strategy did work eventually, thanks to combined attacks from different directions, the sheer volume of men attacking the heights enough that the Boers simply couldn’t stay where they were. When they retreated, the last block on the relief of Ladysmith vanished. 118 days after being trapped there in the first place, General White and his force, including many Irish soldiers and units, were saved. But the cost had been far, fat heavier than anything the British military could have imagined. The Irish Brigade paid the price for the army leaderships ineptitude.

The relief of Ladysmith coincided with other British successes elsewhere, showing clearly that the tide was turning. Buller was formally replaced in command by Lord Roberts before the Tugela Heights, and in Natal Roberts had forced an opening to Kimberley thanks to a cavalry led assault. The Boers retreated back into the interiors of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. By all appearances, it seemed as if the expected course of the war was now being followed: soon Roberts would march on Pretoria and Bloemfontein, and the Boers would be obligated to surrender. But the Boers were not going to follow that script.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Villain Checklist: Kick The Dog

Blake Snyder’s seminal work Save The Cat! is considered the bible of Hollywood screenwriting and its backbone is the titular plot point. In the book, Snyder describes the “Save the cat” moment as a relatively small but very important instance in the definition of a hero character that must occur early on in the story, that establishes them as the morally good protagonist. Something like, for example, saving a cat trapped up a tree. The exact details of the moment will differ depending on the exact character and the story that they inhabit, but the point remains the same: we need something, early on, that shows us clearly which character in the story to root for.

In response, and as part of my villain checklist, I present the opposite moment that you need for your villain:

Kick The Dog – The opposite of the famous “Save The Cat” trope, the adversary should perform some relatively minor villainous action early on in the story.

The Kick The Dog moment has three critical aspects. Firstly, it must occur early in the story, so it accomplishes its main purpose of defining the villain at the best time. Indeed, the same scene where we first see the villain is the best time to enact the Kick The Dog event, whatever it may be. Leave it too late, and it becomes superfluous.

Secondly, it has to be a small thing, at least relative to the story being told. The important word there is “relative”, and that goes for both Save The Cat and Kick The Dog. In a story where a common criminal is the bad guy the Kick The Dog moment might be something small-scale, like pickpocketing someone or running a con-job on a gullible older person. In a story about a megalomaniac trying to take over the world, the moment might be shooting an underling dead for no good reason. In a story about inter-galactic warfare, the moment might be blowing up a planet.

Lastly, it has to tell us something very important about the antagonist character: to put it simply, it should indicate what kind of level of villain we are dealing with. In the case of the common criminal running a con-job, it might showcase amoral ruthlessness as well, as a degree of charm. In the case of the megalomaniac, we might see reckless ambition combined with callous brutality. And with the planet destroyer, we might certainly see a God complex merged with technological reliance. Whatever the act, it has to give an insight into the antagonist, though, at the same time, it doesn’t have to tell us absolutely everything about them. It’s just a taste, a little spice in addition to the other parts of the introduction.

Let’s take a look at some good and bad examples of Kick The Dog in action.

You can pretty much take it as a given that I’m going to come back to Vader time and time again. His Kick The Dog moment is fairly clear. After accomplishing one of the most noteworthy entrances in film history, we next see him undertaking some “advanced interrogation” against a rebel soldier, holding the unfortunate guy up by the throat while he demands to know what the Tantive IV has done with the Death Star plans, a scene that ends with Vader, perhaps unintentionally, killing the soldier, throwing his corpse against a wall and flying into a rage. The scene hits all three of the necessaries for Kick The Dog: it’s early (Vader’s second scene), it’s a small thing relative to the larger story (what with the planet destruction later, and the Death Star generally) and it showcases Vader as both physically strong, without sentiment and liable to get angry very fast. Vader’s dialogue also leaves us with the impression that he’s intelligent. He see’s straight through the lie that the Tantive IV is just “a consular ship” and nothing more, and his demand to know “where is the Ambassador?” is both a refutation of the rebel’s story and a realization that whoever is the ambassador is likely to be the one with the plans, as noted by his next line: “Bring me the passengers, I want them alive!”

 

Kick_Vader

“What have you done with those plans?”

Let’s look at some of Star Wars’ more stuttering efforts to capture the same feeling. I’ve gone after the non-entity that is Darth Maul a few times already, but boy he is gift that keeps on giving. Maul doesn’t really have a Kick The Dog moment at all: his first scene is his hologram introduction, then he gets to tell his master that “At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi”, and then he’s on Tatooine sending out probe droids and by then we’re halfway through the film and the chance to have an actual Kick The Dog moment is lost. When is the first-time Maul actually does something unabashedly villainous? I guess when he engages in his first lightsaber duel with Qui-Gon Jinn as the heroic characters leave Tatooine. For the record, a laser sword duel between one of the main characters and the films primary antagonists does not constitute a “relatively small” action. And it really tells us nothing about Maul, nothing important anyway.

Kick_Maul

Maybe its how he nearly runs over Anakin…

If we’re talking Compare and Contrast, we can go back to the dichotomy between a good Bond villain and a bad one. Both Silva in Skyfall and Dominic Green in Quantum Of Solace are shown being responsible for the death of someone in their early scenes, but the difference between the two is enormous. Silva toys with Bond’s relationship with Severine and his general shaky marksmanship by forcing him to play a twisted shooting game, the target being a glass of whiskey balanced on her head. Bond misses and Silva, all so casually, just shoots her without looking, moving on before the smoke has even cleared. He comes off as twisted, dangerous and altogether threatening, especially compared to Bond.

Kick_Silva

Don’t miss.

Greene, on the other hand, just shows Camille a geologist he’s had killed under suspicion of betraying him. We don’t see the geologist die, we don’t know if Greene was directly involved, it’s just something that happened off-screen that is meant to be scary and impressive. But it just isn’t. The moment in Skyfall has a bang to it that captures the imagination. The moment in Quantum Of Solace is just a bland addition to an already slapped together scene.

 

Kick_Greene

Yawn

For another compare and contrast, let’s look at the MCU’s Guardians Of The Galaxy and DC’s attempt to do the same kind of thing in Suicide Squad. These are both films that I have criticized for their antagonists, but Guardians Of The Galaxy at least gets Kick The Dog right. Lee Pace’s Ronan, otherwise a dour unimaginative aping of Darth Vader without any understanding of what made that character great, is introduced to us as the leader of a sort of militant faction of a war that has just ended, and proceeds to summarily execute a representative of the other side, caving his head in with a massive hammer just off-screen. It’s a film where Ronan is later threatening the entire galaxy through the use of an Infinity Stone, so his Kick The Dog being the ruthless murder of an enemy underling is fine. And it shows us that he is both physically capable and a political threat to the standard order of the galaxy (I would be remiss if I didn’t also point at the MCU’s The Incredible Hulk, where Tim Roth’s Blonsky, in lieu of kicking a dog, shoots one instead).

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He was terrible otherwise mind.

Meanwhile, over in the land of multiple edits, we have the Enchantress, a villain so muddled in presentation that it makes the film somewhat hard to figure out. I’m not even sure if we can say that the Enchantress has a proper Kick The Dog moment: the first time we see her do something outrightly villainous of her own volition is a long way into the feature, when she helps bust her brother out of whatever ancient pot prison he’s in so he can go around causing chaos and…absorbing people? Like I said, that film wasn’t altogether straightforward in its presentation. In her early scenes the Enchantress is a frustrating enigma without a voice, having more of a weird look: it takes a very long time – too long – for us to learn anything substantial about her character through her actions, and by then the film has already floundered amid all of its other problems.

Kick_Enchantress

YAWN

And maybe we can also give Suicide Squad’s Joker a brief mention in comparison to The Dark Knight’s version of the character. Jared Leto’s Clown Prince Of Crime goes around killing and hurting people willy-nilly in his early scenes, mostly for garish effect; Heath Ledger’s take is a bit more calculated and reserved in the way that he offs his fellow bank-robbers, and comes off as far more intelligent – and interesting – as a consequence. To put it another way, Leto’s Joker describes himself during his Kick The Dog as a “black hole of rage and confusion” while Ledger’s Joker goes with, as previously noted, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger”. Who sounds more like an antagonist you want to get to know?

For a more negative example of the idea, take a look at Hoskins from the dreadful Jurassic World (the central human antagonist, as opposed to the giant reptiles). He’s a real nothing character generally, and his Kick The Dog would appear to be nothing more than looking on, gleefully but passively, while an attendant gets into trouble in the velociraptor pen. Hoskins is the guy who was earlier talking about using velociraptors as military assets – God, that movie was awful – and this is apparently supposed to be the moment when the audience understands his desire is not just a demented inspiration, but tied into his own disregard for the well-being of others. But it’s simply too non-kinetic for a Kick The Dog moment, and doesn’t help to play Hoskins as effective or a threat, in any way.

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Drones don’t need to be fed Hoskins!

The Kick The Dog moment can also just be a general but of a behaviour that covers the characters introductory phase. For example, take Beauty And The Beast, both the animated and more recent live-action version, and the character of Gaston. In both, Gaston’s early scenes are marked by boorishness and bullying, both towards Belle and towards his right-hand man La Foux: Gaston’s Kick The Dog is his general obliviousness to other people’s desires and independence in the course of the “Belle” song, whether it is the woman who wants nothing to do with him or the attendant whose man-crush he keeps exploiting.

Kick_Gaston

No one checks off the list like Gaston…

That does it for the introduction of the villain then. We’ve gone over the moment we first see them, their distinctness, their early definition and now a more practical application of their villainy. If done right, we should now be set up with a clear character to root against, identifiable and effective. Now is the time to get more into the villain’s actual character: what drives them, what they stand to lose, what actions they are willing to take and what they think of themselves. Next time, we’re going to get into how a villains motivation should be portrayed.

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Ireland’s Wars: Black Week

The Boers’ early advances had achieved some notable successes, but as November ticked on by the new British forces assembled under General Redvers Buller were ready, more or less, to begin what was expected by many to be the decisive countermove. But Buller was hamstrung in his strategy, unable to focus on the political targets of the Transvaal and Orange Free States’ capital cities. Instead, he was obligated to form his plans around the relief of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, the three towns that had been left foolishly exposed in the early stages of the war, and were now cut off from British controlled territory.

His hand forced, Buller reluctantly split his army into three detachments. One, under General Paul Methuen was to advance on and relieve Kimberly and Mafeking. Another, under General William Gatacre was to secure the Cape Midlands. And Buller himself would take the third, with the aim of relieving Ladysmith.

The three-pronged offensive was ambitious, and ultimately, futile. Gatacre’s force made an ill-judged attack at Stormberg on the 10th December, hoping to seize back control of a vital railway junction: their number included a battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. The field of battle was not properly reconnoitred, and the force was unable to adequately attack Boer positions on the heights near Stormberg, briefly coming under fire from their own artillery, which had the sun in their eyes. They were forced to make a disorganised retreat. Meanwhile, Methuen’s force ground through a number of entrenched Boer positions before being turned back with a disastrous defeat at Magersfontain on the 11th of December.

It was with Buller’s portion of the army that the majority of the Irish units fought. The Boers on this eastern portion of the campaign had retired in the face of Buller’s numerical superiority, taking up strong defensive positions behind the Tugela River, at a place called Colenso. They provided an impressive roadblock for any initiative to re-take Ladysmith, barely a day’s march away.

Buller, recognising the strength of the Boer position and wary of the kind of fire their rifles and artillery could coordinate, originally settled on a long-distance flanking march to avoid the position entirely, but the defeats at Stormberg and Magersfontain changed things. Buller no longer had the element of time on his side, and realised that he needed to get to Ladysmith quickly, no longer having complete confidence in his supply of pack animals or the ability of his own troops to avoid encirclement. To that end, he determined to make a frontal assault on the Colenso position.

Buller had plenty of men, horses and artillery, not least those of the 5th Infantry Brigade, dubbed the “Irish Brigade” as it included battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Connacht Rangers, as well as a battalion of the Border Regiment. It was commanded by General Arthur Fitzroy Hart. Hart was himself an Irishman, brash, confident, but unimaginative, a big believer in standard set-piece tactics of massed firepower and the bayonet charge.

Buller ordered this brigade to proceed across the Bridle Drift fording point of the Tugela to the west of Colenso. The Brigade’s attack on the ford would be preceded by an artillery bombardment. Other brigades would attack Colenso directly, fording the river that way: it was Buller hope that successful execution of these actions would convince the Boers to abandon the position rather than offer a full-on fight, but he rightfully feared that the fording operation itself would result in large amounts of casualties being suffered. In reserve, Buller kept two more brigades, which included a battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Hart moved his men out in the early morning light of the 15th December, relying on a local guide to steer his column to the correct fording point. Hart had the brigade engage in drill for a half-hour before they marched out for the attack, as if they were going out on parade and not a dangerous military operation. The regiments marched in close order, at Hart’s direct instruction, the General countermanding orders from the Royal Dublin’s CO who tried to create greater distance between them.

The artillery fired off as expected, about an hour before the Brigade was engaged, but had little effect on the well dug-in Boers. Locals warned Hart of the danger he was in, notably when he was informed that a small party of Boers had crossed the river and was dogging his left flank, but Hart was unconcerned, confident that the Royal Dragoons Buller had sent to guard his flank would suffice to ward off the trouble.

Unfortunately for Hart, and the rest of the 5th Brigade, the local guide turned out to be unreliable, leading the 5th Brigade not to the ford, but into a loop of the Tugela, at the end of which was an impassable section of the river.

When this occurred, Hart had a choice: he could disagree with the guide and stick to what he had been told, which was that the ford was more than a mile upriver still, or he could trust the guide, and march his men into a dangerously exposed stretch of ground. Hart choose the latter option, perhaps because he didn’t want to delay, and because he simply trusted in the words of the native guide. Hart was a direct sort of general, and a direct path was in front of him.

Almost immediately, Boer artillery began to rain down on the Brigade, followed soon after by rifle fire from the opposite bank of the river. When some of the Dublin Fusiliers attempted to lay down and return fire – though this was to little effect, as the Boers were too distance and too well-concealed – Hart ordered them up and forwards, intent on reaching the non-existent ford. Soon, the Brigade was in the depths of the loop, and were being fired upon from the front and both sides.

The Brigade was caught without the ability to manoeuvre and without sufficient cover. On the other side of the river, Louis Botha, the Boer General in command at Colenso, had ordered his troops to withhold their fire until the British were over the river, but Hart’s men were simply too tempting a target: Botha hadn’t banked on the British being so foolish as to march men into so exposed a position.

In the resulting confusion, any semblance of order broke down, as the too tightly packed regiments mixed and the forward impetus gradually broke down. Owing to the terrain that Hart should never have entered, no one was sure where exactly they were supposed to be going. Hart showed great personal bravery in exposing himself to fire in an attempt to get his men moving, but the volume of Boer fire was too much for the Brigade, who eventually stuck fast and refused to advance any further, taking whatever measly cover they could find. And whatever about Hart’s courage, his command decisions remained disastrous: when the Inniskilling’s CO, Colonel Thackery, moved them left and, unknown to Hart, closer to the ford they were supposed to be crossing, Hart ordered them back to their original position.

Buller, trying to keep a handle on the overall battle, saw Hart’s disastrous blunder from a distance, noting that the Irish were advancing too fast after the start of the artillery bombardment: indeed, some of the British guns were mistakenly firing into the loop, on top of their own troops, and not over the river. Facing setbacks elsewhere, Buller was in no position to send substantial help Hart’s way: after a torturous time dealing with the baking heat as well as the shells and bullets, the Irish Brigade began a ragged retreat, approved by Buller.

Not all of the Irish got away. Those who had made it furthest, to the banks of the river that was, of course, unfordable by so large a force under fire, were now pinned down and unable to retreat without suffering terrible casualties. The Boers eventually crossed the river themselves to cut off these men from all sides. A remarkable story is told of this event: that Thackery, the senior officer left, avoided surrender at this moment by accusing the Boers of sneaking around him behind a Red Cross flag: the Boers then gallantly allowed Thackery and the others to withdraw. True or not, Thackery did stumble back into the British camp later that night with some, but not all, of his men. 500 of the Brigade were dead, wounded or missing.

The battle didn’t go any better on other parts of the field. The British artillery inexplicably raced ahead of the main force attacking Colenso itself, exposing themselves to the Boer defences. The gunners took heavy casualties, and what remained of the fighting consisted of an effort to save as many of the guns as possible from being captured by the Boers, which was only partially successful. Buller took the blame for nearly everything that went wrong with the battle, even Hart’s reckless and incorrect advance on the wrong ground, and would pay for it shortly after with his removal from overall command in South Africa. His replacement was the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ireland, Lord Frederick Roberts: his son, Lt Fredrick Roberts, had died trying to save the British artillery at Colenso, winning a posthumous Victoria Cross in the process.

Buller, humiliated, pulled his forces back. While the overall amount of casualties he had sustained were hardly fatal, it was still a major shock to the system for the British Army, so used as they were to colonial walkovers. In combination with the previous defeats on the other parts of the South African battlefield, they painted a bleak picture about the capabilities of the British Army when confronted with an industrial level enemy. “Black Week”, as the period from the 10th to the 15th December became known in British circles, took a disproportionately heavy toll on Irish regiments, while others, like those in Kimberley, were left with the painful realisation that the sieges they were enduring were going to continue for some time yet.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Beauty And The Beast, Kong: Skull Island, Ghost In The Shell

Beauty And The Beast

Trailer

batb1

Not as likely to be a “tale as old as time”.

Belle (Emma Watson) lives a frustratingly dull life in her provincial French town caring for her doting father (Kevin Kline) and fending off the unwelcome advances of town boor Gaston (Luke Evans). Things change when her father is imprisoned in an enchanted castle full of people turned into accoutrements: Belle takes her father’s place, and comes to better know the castles master, the fearsome but lonely Beast (Dan Stevens), and the curse that keeps him and the others trapped.

Disney’s latest sub-genre, the live-action remake of an animated classic, has gifted us some great experiences and some turgid bores, but they keep raking in the moolah so we’re bound to get just about all of them before too long. The latest, from director Bill Condon, aims to capture the same kind of wonder that Branagh did with a fairly by the numbers adaptation brightened up by its sense of colour and style, but doesn’t really reach the same heights. Sometimes you can just tell when something has been made with a singular idea in mind, with the rest of the film constructed around it: here, I would wager the production team was over-flowing with ideas for how to re-create “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Beauty And The Beast” in live-action form, and little else besides, as Beauty And The Beast excels when people are signing and falls a little flat else-where.

It’s not the fault of a fairly excellent cast. Watson is endearing as Belle, though a tad auto-tuned, and Stevens doesn’t let the fact that his performance is buried under CGI stop him. But it’s the rest who really steal the show: Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan as Lumiere and Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Ms Potts, and Kevin Kline’s as Belle’s sweet, but somewhat hapless, father. But they’re all upstaged by the duo of Evans, as the loutish but immensely entertaining Gaston, and his campy right hand toady Le Foux (Jash Gad), who adds a little something to every scene even if it’s just an obvious man-crush. Watson and Stevens can’t muster up quite the same chemistry in the films central relationship, even as the script attempts to make the Beast a bit more sympathetic to counter the well-earned Stockholm Syndrome claims.

In the end, barring a few new songs, most notably Stevens excellent delivered “Nevermore”, Beauty And The Beast is so like its basis that one wonders just what the point was (aside from making lots of money of course). Where Branagh cut out the songs and expanded the role of the Wicked Stepmother, and the Prince, Condon largely keeps things as they are, save for showing a bit more of Belle’s early life. One feels that he should have taken more of a risk in a story ripe for darker overtones alongside the frivolity. As it is, Beauty And The Beast is a perfectly acceptable bit of modernized nostalgia-bait, but lacks the staying power of some of its immediate predecessors. I hear Mulan is next. They better not mess that up. A partial recommend.

Kong: Skull Island

Trailer

ksi1

Yup, it has one of these.

1973: As the United States military withdraws from the Vietnamese quagmire, scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) enlists the help of a bitter Army Colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) an expert British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) to explore the legendary Skull Island, a lost world of abnormally large insects, mythical lizards and one giant ape.

“It’s time to show Kong that man is the real King!” proclaims Samuel L. Jackson at one point in Kong: Skull Island, perhaps the worst example of the films primary flaw, namely a script that one hopes was the writers abandoning all pretence of seriousness instead of actively trying to be. Much like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, you can’t really critique Kong: Skull Island too much: at the end of the day, it provides a giant gorilla engaged in combat against a multitude of other giant creatures, and that’s pretty much all you can expect. Or, at least, that’s what the films production and promotional aspects would have you believe, hoping perhaps that you’ll forget Peter Jackson’s gargantuan effort with the same material back in 2005, that managed to inject a brain into a story long associated only with adrenaline.

The human cast of this struggle along, their performances a mishmash of staring off into the distance at the latest CGI monster and trying to blurt some of these atrocious lines with a straight face. Top marks have to go to Brie Larson’s reporter, who declares “I know what a mass grave looks like” when surveying some animal bones, with this viewer half expecting her to add “I’ve covered wars you know”. The film meanders with illogical focuses on bland supporting characters it wants us to suddenly care about before Kong unceremoniously smushes them with his foot, while the bigger players just don’t have enough to work with, especially Jackson, caught in a “Heart of Darkness“-esque military madman role that is as played out as it is forgettable (and hey, Peter Jackson just quoted Heart Of Darkness in his one, and that was enough).

At least the film looks great. This Kong might lack the expressiveness of Andy Serkis’ take, but is built more for combat, and he duly throws some giant punches, against Huey’s, against Giant Squids, against big quasi-dinosaur things, whatever takes his fancy. The monsters are well-realized and the film generally looks quite impressive, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts grasping fully the chance to make what is essentially a Vietnam War movie with some giant creatures thrown in. It’s just the smaller beings in the film that have trouble fitting in. As an overly-dramatic post-credits teaser outlines, this is just the next step in a Monsterverse of films that will see Kong take on Godzilla, before the two presumably team up against some other abomination. I’m not sure my brain will allow me to keep following this franchise any further though. As it is, Kong: Skull Island shows that it wants to be the new “noise and fury” blockbuster, perhaps looking to fill the gap Michael Bay occasionally leaves. Not recommended.

Ghost In The Shell

Trailer

gits1

The whitewashing is a serious issue, for the record.

Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first in a new breed of cybernetic humans, where only the brain of the original body has been retained in a robotic shell, along with the soul, or “ghost”. Major has limited memories of her previous life, that cause her to question her role as part of a Neo-Tokyo anti-terrorism task force, with a mission to hunt down a rogue hacker targeting the people who brought Major into being.

Leaving aside the obvious case of “whitewashing” that this film has become the posterboy for (and that is actual worse than you realise, going by a late third-act semi-twist), I might have been the perfect audience for this, having little knowledge or appreciation for the anime source material. And I think that might remain the case, as this film, an “AI/Cyborg/Does this unit have a soul?” exercise, is so vapid and shallow that it just does not speak well for where it came from.

Ghost In The Shell strikes me a movie designed more so for fans of the anime, aware of its characters, intricacies and plot-lines, than it is for those with little experience at all. The basic lack of characterisation for so many principals, chief among them “Major” herself, is extremely disappointing, as director Rupert Sanders and the writing team seem to just think that, having watched the anime, you’ll be able to fill in the gaps yourself. Cramming a lot into its limited 107 minute running time – why couldn’t this have gotten two hours? – Ghost In The Shell fails to engage you in the same was as, say, Ex Machina, or even 2015’s RoboCop which all covered similar territory in similar ways, just with markedly better results.

Not enough is done to make the audience actually root for Major and her quest to discover her past life, and the supporting cast, from Pilou Asbæk’s Batou (the one with the ridiculous eyes, something the live-action should have altered from the anime) to the absolutely empty “Chief” (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) can’t carry the slack. The film can’t find the correct balance between Majors search for self-fulfilment and the hunt for a dangerous megahacker, being at its best with the latter, and the third act veers wildly between being an introspective about what it means to be human in a world full of cyborgs and then a video game-esque finale boss sequence. Without spoiling much, a film with the kind of pretensions Ghost In The Shell has should never be uttering the words “Activate the Spider-Tank!”.

All that being said, Ghost In The Shell at least looks cool, with a great deal of thought clearly having gone into designing this “not too distant future” world. The swirling, towering holograms of Neo-Tokyo make you feel like you’re in a slightly alien place, while the robotic cast members, most notably some Geisha girls early on, slam the uncanny valley button deliberately hard to really get you unsettled. I thought of David Wong’s Futuristic Violence And Fancy Suits and its depiction of such a world. And then I thought that would probably make a better movie. The visuals can’t get Ghost In The Shell by, any more than they could for the other two films in this list. A really flat, disappointing affair, and that’s before you get into the racism. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures).

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