Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Overlord

A few weeks ago, yes I've been a bit busy, I went and saw the film Overlord with a friend of mine. Billed as a WWII horror film, it generated a lot of buzz as it was helmed by a black actor in a WWII film. This, in and of itself, was rather remarkable. Black characters in horror movies have a stereotype of being quickly killed or reduced to secondary characters. With this trend being more reversed in recent years, it was understandable that this film should seem like it would bring something new to the table.

A firm WWII setting seemed like it would generate some good visuals, and theories ranged from Nazi zombies, to something set in the same universe as Cloverfield. With the film being produced by well known sci-fi personality J. J. Abrams, this wasn't an unrealistic probability. Soon we learned it was an independent production.

So did Overlord overwhelm me like Operation Overlord overwhelmed the Nazis?

Well, it mostly did.



The film opens in daylight, and we see that a stunning amount of the CGI budget must have gone towards these opening shots. We get lovingly rendered shots of the invasion fleet moving across the Channel to invade Fortress Europe, as the paratroopers fly overhead towards their objective.

Bear with me here, I'm going to be putting on my pedantic historian's hat a few times. Choosing to blow lots of CGI money on this scene feels really weird. Not only does it not make sense (the paratroopers would have been flying over at night, well in advance of the invasion fleet) but it causes some weird disjointedness in the film's timeline. It really seems like a bizarre waste of money, but ah well.

On the plane our main characters are all progressively introduced. The oft derided and ill thought of Ed Boyce (our black protagonist), the far too talkative Jacob Rosenfeld, the horrendously stereotyped Italian-American Tibbet, the no-nonsense Corporal Ford who is attached to make sure the paratroopers objective goes smoothly, the forgettable Dawson, random photographer Morton Chase  and the strangely compelling Sergeant Eldson.

Boyce is something of an enigma, but comes off as wishy-washy at first. Sgt. Eldson (played by Bokeem Woodbine) comes off as the much more interesting character. Tragically, the movie plays for keeps and the plane is soon blown out of the sky, many of the paratroopers along with it. In a truly well choreographed scene, Boyce is falling until he hits a patch of water and has to cut himself loose. He meets up with Ford, just in time to watch Eldson get whacked by the Nazis. Which is a crying shame, but does show that the film is not going to give anyone any mercy if they can avoid it.

The survivors of the crash landing, Boyce, Ford, Tibbet, Chase, and Dawson, regroup and make towards their objective. A radio tower where the Nazis could call in strikes on the landing beaches.

This motley crew overcomes further horrors of war as Dawson, in an unexpectedly hilarious death scene, steps on a landmine after perfectly finishing a sentence. I have to admit, the accidental punctuation made me laugh uproariously, largely because it was such a scene of unintentional black comedy I couldn't help it.

Despite this, I found the opening a little weak, as the characters meandered around and talked to no real end. It seemed like random explosions intermixed with somewhat pointless dialogue.

Moving on they stumble across a French villager, Chloe, who is scavenging the battlefield, and force her to lead them to the village. There they take cover while accidentally stumbling upon SS Hauptsturmf├╝hrer (Captain) Wafner. He's actually an amazing villain, with the right amount of sneering Nazi contempt and unbridled violence which will make you love and hate him.

We learn not all is as it seems in this village. It is a radio tower sure, but the Nazis have a strange lab beneath the church where they have been steadily experimenting on the villagers to mysterious ends. Corpses and villagers go in, and only occasionally do diseased people come back out. One of those includes Mathilde's aunt who she keeps separate from her young brother Paul.

From here the movie moves between a somewhat confusing genre of action and horror. In a series of events which I don't think re-watching will explain, Boyce stumbles into the Nazi base by accident while he is supposed to be doing something completely different. Boyce seems to have a horrendous instinct for self preservation which at times made me sure he was going to die. However, it does lead to some of our creepier moments early on in the film.

I say that the genre is confusing because for all the horror elements, most seem to hit the notes of either a spy thriller or a war drama. There is one or two points where the soundtrack assaults your ears to scare you, but nothing in the film ever really made me jump. We have some legitimately creepy visuals in the Nazi labs, and a bizarre scene early in the film where they talk about the decomposing corpse of a 'jackal' but that never leads to anything.

Considering the precise nature of what the Nazis are doing is never really elaborated on, that isn't too surprising.

What did surprise me was how bloody fantastic the effects were. From the blood, to the bullets, and the firefights, it was A-list movie cinematics. All the gunfights were amazingly put together, and the gory effects of those (and the monsters) were gory and great. I was literally clapping during some scenes these fights were so awesome. An amazing scene where Chloe picks up a flamethrower was also well appreciated.

The scenes where the action picks up are what makes the movie shine. Considering the slow opening these intense and visceral scenes make you really appreciate both the actors and the effects. It leads to a climax which is immensely satisfying.

I found the movie good fun, but there were some points I found weird.

First let me put my pedantic historians hat on. At one point Boyce says he was drafted, and that's how he became a paratrooper. Not only is that blatantly false, but its doing a disservice to historic paratroopers who firstly had to volunteer for service, then they had to volunteer for dangerous service, and then had to volunteer for the intense paratrooper training.

Second, I think the film did a greater disservice by making some historical revisions to incoporate Boyce and Eldson into the 101st Airborne. If you've ever seen the amazing HBO drama Band of Brothers you'll know that the 101st Airborne circa 1944, was all white. They were a unit of volunteers famous for being the tip of the spear in the Allied landings. Why the film chooses to do this strikes me as odd, this is especially true because doing some research I discovered there were black paratroopers in WWII, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Though they did not directly see combat, they were a parachute unit.


The film would have done itself a far better service had it made those men the focus of the film. Cooler still had there been a few survivors who found themselves drafted into the mission against the tower because Ford pulls rank and uses them to accomplish his mission instead of one they were originally assigned. The film would be arguably stronger, the interaction between characters more interesting and the historical revisionism to pull it off slightly better.

Historic pedantry aside, the final shots of the film give us an interesting question. Why didn't the navy shell the bloody church? Or hell, someone just drop a bomb on it? Sure civilian casualties, but if it was so important (and so close to the beach) that wouldn't have saved it from Allied planners. The final shots of the film show the whole village as being really close to the beaches, sending paratroopers was a huge bloody waste here.

That aside there were scenes where the day/night dynamic suffered. The film opens in broad daylight, but minutes later its the middle of the night. There are scenes in Chloe's house where its clearly daytime outside, but then we see the night when they look out. It was a baffling failure in editing. Just goes to show why you don't blow your money showing an invasion fleet.

This all being said, the acting was great,

Jovan Adepo as Boyce really matures into his role. The script left his character flailing, but Adepo did a wonderful job building him up as the film wore on. Mathilde Oliver as Chloe is just badass. She is multilingual (without it feeling forced) and handles herself amazingly in action scenes, and it never feels like she's being molded into a role just for the sake of being a strong female character, she just is a strong female character from start to finish.

Wyatt Russel as Ford is also fantastic. His gritty "gotta-be-bad-as-'em-to-beat-'em" attitude (implied to have been picked up fighting the Nazis in Italy) is well done, with its logical flaws pointed out. His single-minded drive to complete the mission, no matter the cost makes you love and fear him.

John Magaro as Tibbet is really fun, but he plays too much of a stereotyped Italian-American. Almost like the William Guarnere stand in from Band of Brothers. But he is a fun character.

All this being said, I came away really liking the movie. There were enough parts where the action and the characters were simply awesome enough that getting behind them was absurdly easy, and with a villain I loved to hate I couldn't get enough of seeing the SS mowed down. Though the horror elements were weird, I found it engaging.

Despite a slow build up, the film redeems itself in the end and really delivers A-list quality to B-list material. As a fun action flick, this is hard to beat and I will certainly be watching it again.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Benedict Arnold Gets a Bad Wrap

Perhaps the phrase most synonymous with traitor in the English language after Quisling, is Benedict Arnold. For those of you not in the know, Benedict Arnold was an American general serving in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Now, despite the fact that almost everyone knows Benedict Arnold was a traitor, most cannot quite name what exactly he did.


To give some background, ol Arnold had enlisted early to the Revolutionary cause, and had a particular zeal and charisma about him leading to his appointment to command early in the conflict capturing Fort Ticonderoga. In fact he headed the ill-fated invasion of Quebec, while mounting the delaying action at Valcour Island which slowed the coming British invasion of New York. In 1777 he was instrumental at the Battle of Saratoga where the British force was captured, bringing France into the war. In doing so however, he suffered terrible leg injuries which put him out to the proverbial pasture rather than earning another field command and instead being assigned to command the city of Philadelphia.

However, Arnold was known for getting involved with disputes, most famously with Horatio Gates who actually sacked him during the Saratoga Campaign, only for Arnold to disobey orders and lead attacks on the British anyways. In Philadelphia, he came up against prominent local businessmen and was brought up on charges of embezzlement, though he was eventually acquitted.

It was during this time Arnold married the young Peggy Shippen, who was the daughter of a Loyalist sympathizer. After the marriage he became far more bitter against the Continental Congress, which he felt had unfairly brought charges against him, and passed him over for promotion. It had also heaped praise on his foe, General Gates, for Saratoga, where he had been unfairly sacked.

The exact causes of his decision to betray the Continental Congress are the subject of much speculation, but many believe his smoldering resentment against the Congressional leadership, and his sudden ingratiation with Loyalists through his wife (and a lavish spending style racking up debt) led him to decide to betray his former comrades in arms.

That being said, his whole plan was to surrender West Point to the British. The important fortifications could have significantly altered the balance of the war in New York, but the plan never got off the ground. The British spy carrying the papers which revealed Arnold's plan was captured. Exposed, Arnold fled for his life and despite a brief command with the British Army, he soon retired to London where he would die in 1801.

In sum totality, Arnold's treason did very little to hinder the American cause, and nothing to help the British, costing no American lives. Though arguably his greatest act, was while leading British troops engaging in the massacre of the garrison at Fort Griswold (though whether Arnold is explicitly to blame for that has also been long debated) late in the war. However, this again had no impact on the war overall.

Yet for all this, he is remembered as the greatest traitor in American history. Is that really fair?

I would argue, no.

Even were one to factor in the casualties at Fort Griswold, Arnold did far more to help the Revolutionary cause than he did to hinder it. He was instrumental in a number of significant victories, and comparatively caused more damage to the British. With those considerations in mind his greatest sin seems to be portraying George Washington's trust.

However, let us compare him to a few lesser known, I would argue, greater traitors.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Remembrance Day 2018

1914-1918

Today 100 years ago, the guns fell silent across the front. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the German Empire agreed to an armistice. The Great War, was over. For four years, three months and two weeks the greatest war the world had yet seen has raged across the face of the globe. From Europe, Asia, Africa, to South America, the war has been fought. The Central Powers have collapsed, and the Entente has won, but at great cost.

The fighting though, is not completely over. In Russia, a brutal civil war between Communist and anti-Communist forces rages on, and will do so into the next decade. Post war skirmishes between the new nations carved out from the corpses of old powers are springing up, and revolution is in the air in Germany and the former Hapsburg Empire.

However, for the Entente powers, the war is won. All that has to be decided now, is the peace.

Today, I remember the service of my own ancestors. Most specifically, William Schoular, my great grandfather. He fought with the Canadian Corps across the fields of France and recently I was able to view letters he wrote during the war.

These small memories and pieces of personal history are always fascinating, and these little looks into my own family history will allow me years of study on the subject.

Let us remember though, even though one great war ended 100 years ago, the fighting around the world rages on today. Canadians are still giving their lives on foreign battlefields, whether to keep the peace, or fight terrorism, they fight to protect us and others.

We should not, cannot, forget the sacrifice of those who came before us, or those who even now lay down their lives for our freedoms. Take a moment today to remember the brave men and women who have fought and bled for us, and if you can, thank a veteran.

Lest we forget.