Umberto D and the end of Neorealism

Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D is a film of great significance, not only in its cinematic quality but also in its historical context. Released in 1952 and considered by many to be De Sica’s most prestigious work to date, Umberto D is a celebration of every facet of Italian Neorealism, and is heralded by many critics as the pinnacle of the movement. One such critic was Andre Bazin, who stated that it was “the ultimate expression of Neorealism”, revising his previous claim for De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)(Grimshaw, 2009).

The sub-genre of Neorealism has a number of qualitative signifiers, both thematically and visually, including the use of non-professional actors, location-shooting and a thematic focus on the plight of the poor and working class. Born as an antagonistic response to the conservative, upper-class “white-telephone” films that were heavily promoted by the Fascist Italian government of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Neorealism resonated with the downtrodden masses, ultimately finding a place as one of the most significant cinematic movements of the 20th century.

De Sica’s neorealist trilogy, consisting of Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, provides an accurate lens into the socio-political environment that spawned these films. By studying the trilogy, it is possible to identify the metamorphosis of the Neorealist movement, simply by examining key elements within them. For example, the ending of each film is indicative of its historical context; Shoeshine ends with the disintegration of friendship between previously codependent characters, reflecting the crumbling post-war dichotomy between the upper and working classes. Bicycle Thieves is the logical progression of this sentiment, openly depicting the harsh, uncompromising circumstances that the working classes were subjected to. Concluding with a loss of innocence, Bicycle Thieves delivers a similar message as Shoeshine, if ultimately more damning.

Each film deals with the primary characters being forced to compromise their principles and ultimately being punished for doing so. The reveal of a secret, the stealing of a bicycle and the act of begging are all actions taken as a result of desperation, which in turn reflects the national sensation of loss after the irreversible effects of World War II.

One of the key elements that separates Umberto D from its contemporaries is its comparatively optimistic ending. As opposed to De Sica’s earlier forays into Neorealism, Umberto D ends with a distinct sense of nihilism. Umberto Ferrari, the aging protagonist, ends his tale by playing with his dog, following a failed suicide attempt which seemingly gives him a new lease on life. Under further scrutiny however, the ending reveals itself to be an self-referential analysis of Neorealism, as Millicent Marcus suggests:

Significantly, there is no child at the end of Umberto D to embody the hopes for a better future, there is only an old man whose refusal either to die or to prolong an unviable existence reflects the dilemma of neorealism itself toward the end of its first decade of life. (1986, p.117)

For many, Umberto D marked the end of the Neorealist era, as it reflected the contemporary position of the movement, whilst subtly illustrated its less than concrete future. This conclusion was not entirely unexpected however, as Anna Grimshaw (2009) notes in reference to Bazin:

“Bazin was among the first to acknowledge his doubt as to whether there was any future for neorealist cinema once the crisis of the war and occupation had passed.” (2009, p.17)

Neorealism’s role as anarchic contrast to the heavily regimented fascist industry was slowly diminishing, as without the context of wartime occupation, Neorealism lost its relatively apolitical position. This would eventually lead the movement becoming politically motivated, rather than morally, as Federico Fellini explains in an interview circa 1969:

It’s simply a way of looking at the world without preconceptions or prejudices. Some people are still convinced that neorealism should only be used to show a particular type of reality – social reality to be exact. But then it becomes propaganda. (Pasquale, 2013)

Serving as an apt demonstration of the effect that a historical context has on a production, like Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves before it, Umberto D embraces these contextual elements and uses them to enhance and emphasise its subtextual themes. A delicately-crafted product of its era, Umberto D defines, and concludes, the first age of Neorealism.

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‘G.I Joe: Retaliation’ Review

‘Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.’

2007’s G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a surprisingly refreshing Hasbro-em-up, and neatly demonstrated that a keen eye for tone could contextualise and redeem a sub-par narrative. Truly a testament to Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy, The Scorpion King) tonal awareness, the film remained faithful to its subject matter whilst providing memorable action setpieces, and held a wisely-placed tongue firmly in cheek.

Though it was by no means perfect, it was a refreshingly streamlined summer blockbuster that understood its place in mainstream culture, tailoring its content accordingly. Cobra was dumb fun, plain and simple. Explosives, ninjas, and explosive ninjas abound.

This leaves us with G.I Joe: Retaliation, a perplexingly unambitious, generic and downright cynical work of fiction, with all the slick and polish of an aged railroad spike.

Now helmed by serial mediocritist Jon M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), the series appears to have taken a fatal turn for the tedious, forgoing the former’s sense of tone and pace in favour of a script that somehow manages to be woefully messy, yet painfully boring.

Following the complete extinction of the G.I Joes, by their mortal nemesis Cobra, the few remaining operatives, lead by Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Roadblock’, must undercover Cobra Commander’s sinister plot of utter convenience.

Whilst the previous entry was hardly a Dickensian soliloquy, it was charmingly self-aware. Retaliation has no such charm, and instead eschews all sense of campy fun in favour of a darker, more realistic flavour. This is completely to the film’s detriment however, as the stronger story focus illuminates the fundamental narrative flaws and gaping plot-holes.

The film seems to masquerade under the banner of “sequel”, whilst retaining little but cosmetic references to its predecessor. The storyline carries on from the ambiguous cliffhanger ending of Cobra, but seems to ignore its own internal logic, along with the redeeming tone. This tonal dissonance only serves to highlight the significantly smaller budget, with most setpieces amounting to little more than unremarkable CG.

With regards to performances there’s very little to comment on, partially due to the apparent lack of a protagonist. Following Channing Tatum’s first-act swan song, leading to a rather graceless exit, the film clumsily stumbles forward with three forgettably dull leads. And whilst Dwayne Johnson has established himself as a competent action hero, his character’s never given the chance to compel, bar some early interactions with Tatum.

Retaliation’s flaws don’t lie in its premise, but instead in its execution. Jon M. Chu has somehow taken an inherently thrilling romp, and moulded it into something criminally dull and unbearably soulless. An almost surgically-crafted mess of an action film, Retaliation commits the one cardinal sin it couldn’t afford to;

Being boring.

Go rent Cobra.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Use a Predictable Title

How was I supposed to know my University expected me to submit work? It’s a film course.

Anyway, here’s my piece for last term’s Criticism, Analysis & Theory module, in all it’s Harvard referencey glory.

I talk about the historical context of Strangelove. You should read it.

Please?

Stanley Kubrick’s political satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a loose adaptation of the novel Red Alert (1958), is seen to be as influential in the public shaping and definition of the Cold War as it was controversial. A farcical satire of the contemporary political landscape of the Atomic age, Strangelove was a impactful game-changer, and a bastion of cinematic aspirations.

Strangelove garnered an extremely positive critical reception, receiving four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is still considered one of the most prestigious films of the 20th century, earning a placement in “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” (Premiere, 2006), 14th in “Greatest Film of all time (Entertainment Weekly)”, and 3rd of “100 greatest comedies” (American Film Institute). Many attribute Strangelove’s critical and commercial success to its biting wit, surreal comedy set-pieces and iconic performances. However, I believe that a large portion of Strangelove’s success is owed to the manner in which it resonated with its contemporary audience.

George C. ScottAs Cold War tension escalated, due to events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, the general public was left in a state of consternation and dread. Kubrick chose to use this tense environment as the basis for comedy and farce. Not only would this approach appeal to those wishing for escapism in an era wrought with fear, where terms such as “Missile-gap” and “Megadeath” (Henriksen) entered common parlance, but also resonated with a demographic that were surrounded by post World War II idealism permeating all entertainment forms, and yearned for something innovative.

Between 1947 and 1960, the major Hollywood studios released an approximate total of 300 films per year (Shaw, Tony 2007, pp.158-159). Post-war cinema in the USA, whilst hardly stagnant, had its ideology firmly rooted in the principles established in a wartime environment. These principles promoted individuality and a pride found in masculine role fulfillment. These themes often manifested as lone gunman action films (Fistful of Dollars, 1964), or spy thrillers (Dr. No, 1962) that reinforced the strength of the individual. Tony Shaw references this with regard to films released in the 1960s:

“A relatively small number of these movies were explicitly anti-communist or anti-soviet. A far greater number lent implicit ideological support to the US government’s Cold War stance through their inherent endorsement of individualism, consumerism and patriotism.” (Shaw, 2007)

Horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), used this escalating sense of fear in the American populace to their advantage by playing upon the paranoia of the American people. Historical dramas were also extremely prevalent, such as William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), and were the bulk of what remained true to the traditional Hollywood production system. These historical dramas were, in part, generated by cinema’s tendency to reminisce, a habit that was strongly rooted in the post-war mindset.

In many ways, Strangelove was the catalyst for a fundamental change in the understanding of comedy, as it chose to mock and satirise a subject that was so deeply engrained in the public consciousness, making it all the more impactful. More than just a comedy of forgettable laughs, Strangelove used comedy to deliver poignancy. This technique is clearly demonstrated in Blake Edwards’ romance/comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which elevated the concept of a comedy-drama, using subtle comedy to conceal a harsher dramatic undertone. These two quotes, whilst tonally different, carry heavy subtext concealed within a quippy quote:
Certain shades of limelight wreck a girl’s complexion.” – Holly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” – President Merkin Muffley (Dr. Strangelove)

Strangelove was clearly influenced by films of this nature, as the themes at play were far too macabre to present without subtlety, and the political statements that are made never seem especially heavy-handed. The jokes were presented with an air of flippancy, a tone that the film generates throughout. From the film’s character names to its ludicrously long title, Strangelove oozes a decidedly facetious style. This comedic renaissance paved the way for satirical deconstructions of pre-established genre conventions, such as Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967) which sharply spoofed Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” series, first brought to the cinema by Albert R. Broccoli in Dr. No. In a similar reflection, Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was adapted to film by Richard Lester in 1966, and clearly parodies the historical dramas that were so prevalent.

One interesting element of the film is its entirely male main cast. With almost no female characters appearing on screen, and those who do having little or no impact on the narrative, it’s certainly noticeable. Although elements of this are due to the era of production, as there would almost certainly have been no women with the political standing to enter the war room during the 1960s, I believe that it may have been a conscious decision by Kubrick. Since a large portion of the narrative consists of archetypal masculine self-fulfilment (eg. warfare, weaponry, political dominance) leading to mutually-assured

destruction, it’s entirely possible that Kubrick supported gender equality and was demonstrating this through a dark depiction of the alternative.

Sellers

A vital member of the writing team, and the man largely responsible for the vein of authenticity running throughout Strangelove, was co-writer Peter George. Author of Red Alert, and former RAF pilot, George imbued the criticism with sincerity and validity, never allowing the narrative to stray too wildly into the absurd, whilst still remaining farcical. This delicate balance between the real and surreal is very much the basis for all humour and observation in Strangelove. The comedy stems from the juxtaposition of absurdist circumstances against a real, relatable backdrop of nuclear war. This dichotomy fuels the majority of the narrative, and lends context to the parody. However, if the narrative were to deviate too far into the absurd to the point of becoming inane, the weight and delivery of the themes are eliminated. Even in a farcical comedy, a narrative must have a logical progression, as Jane Gaines explains:

In classic realist narration everything that happens must be clearly motivated by a plausible clause. This chain of cause and effect produces narrative as a linear sequence of logically motivated events.” (Gaines, 1989 pp.138-139)

The film takes liberties in extending and exaggerating the political archetypes that it parodies, but the themes always remain grounded in reality. Whilst Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove exudes ridiculousness, and George C. Scott’s deliberately overacted General Turgidson is a wry caricature of government shortcomings, the narrative never strays from its central grounding in the real world. The alternate, apocalyptic, timeline that Strangelove proposes seems like a tangible, if worrying one.

The feeling of realism overtly clashing with absurdity stems from a series of tactical decisions within the screenplay, choosing to infuse certain elements of the film with a peculiar feeling of irony. One example of this lies within the film’s opening (Falsetto, Mario 2001, pp.143-144):

From the beginning of its credit sequence, over the visuals of the refueling of a B-52 in midflight by another aircraft, one can sense the dialectic of realism and artifice at work in the film.” (Falsetto, 2001)

The visual component of this scene is a realistic portrayal of the refueling process applied to B-52 aeroplanes, an iconic image that carried many connotations for American audiences at the time, and alone this portion of the opening could easily be mistaken for wartime stock-footage. However, the musical accompaniment, Vera Lynn’s “Try a Little Tenderness”, warps the previously rigid, documentarian nature of the visuals into what is essentially a sexualised sequence. This deliberate juxtaposition of formalism and realism is a product of the brewing Cold War tensions that fuel the entire production, and it’s displayed here to outline the intentions of the film, as Falsetto explains:

Not only does this sequence prepare the audience for the sexual associations to come in the film, it also implies that any piece of reality can be manipulated to become a fiction.” (Falsetto, 2001)

tumblr_m8w1hylb7y1re4uqoo1_1280Kubrick has often displayed an impassioned political stance in regards to warfare, as evidenced in his 1957 Drama Paths of Glory, and later in his critically acclaimed 1987 classic, Full Metal Jacket. For Strangelove, Kubrick allegedly insisted upon a generous marketing scheme, as he believed that for the film to have the intended impact it must be seen by as broad an audience as possible. This included filming a split screen sequence in which one of two characters (Sellers‘ President Muffley & Scott’s Gen. Turgidson) would act out a series of responses over the phone that would then be edited together with a modern interviewee. This particular technique resonated with a much larger portion of the public, as this breaking of the fourth wall appealed to a demographic that appreciated a personalised approach. Peter Sellers’ three roles were also heavily marketed on the posters, as the novelty alone was enough to attract some viewers. Sellers received a payment of one million dollars for his role in Strangelove, 55% of the film’s budget, prompting Kubrick to famously quip:
I got three for the price of six.” (Kubrick, 1964)

As evidenced in his filmography prior to and after Strangelove, Kubrick has no qualms in depicting war at its most savage and brutal, emphasising the emotional turbulence that accompanies it. However, Strangelove is an entirely different depiction of war. Kubrick chose to portray a romanticised, comedic vignette of a potentially apocalyptic scenario, and did so with tongue firmly in cheek. Kubrick was famously quoted stating (Varak-Iglar, 2007):

No better way to express the whole thermonuclear dilemma; it was so crazy and it was so insane that the best way to do it would be as a satire.” – (Kubrick 1965)

Kubrick makes the same disparaging comments here that he had directed towards World War II in Paths of Glory (and later in Full Metal Jacket), but focuses less on the effect of war upon the individual, and instead on the wider cultural implications. The film climaxes with the mutual destruction of both Russia and the USA, instigated by one unstable General, an entirely possible outcome based on true reports of potential doomsday weaponry. Remarkably, the failsafe system that General Ripper exploits was an actual procedure put in place during the Cold War, with twelve fully armed B-52 aeroplanes deployed and prepared for a pre-emptive strike (Kaplan, 2004).

A number of the main characters were based on actual military and political figures, including General Turgidson and the titular Dr. Strangelove. George C. Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson was based primarily on General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command and advocate of nuclear weaponry, a trait that was certainly translated to the fiction. The character of Dr. Strangelove appears to be an amalgamation of RAND German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Manhattan Project principal John von Neumann, RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, Edward Teller (Peter Goodchild, 2004). A common misconception is that Dr. Strangelove was partially based on German-born American writer and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Both Kubrick and Sellers deny this however, and it is highly unlikely, as Kissinger was not a prominent political advisor until 1969.

The focus on comedy was less a conscious choice by the screenplay and writing staff, although it certainly played its part, and more the only logical direction Kubrick felt he could take. The Cold War was already farcical, and so ripe for parody that no other approach would seem appropriate, as Kubrick suggested:

The only social problem where there’s absolutely no chance for people to learn anything from the experience.”  (Kubrick,1964)

An interesting way in which Strangelove is indicative of its historical context is actually in what Kubrick omitted from the final cut of the film. The infamous “Pie-Fight” scene was cut from cinematic release, but stands as an intriguing reflection of the influence of the culture surrounding the film’s production. On 20th January 1961 John F. Kennedy was officially sworn in as 35th president of the United States of America, serving for almost three years until his assassination on 22nd November 1963. Only two months later, Strangelove was released, on 29th January 1964. Judging by the production conventions of that era, it’s safe to assume that Strangelove would have been in the post-production stage during Kennedy’s assassination.

The aforementioned “Pie-Fight” scene consisted of a custard pie battle between the members of the War Room, including the President. During the scene, President Muffley is struck with a custard pie and falls down, prompting General Turgidson to cry “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!”. This scene was originally intended to showcase the hysterical mindset of those involved, and was originally going to be placed near the climax of the film, but Kubrick supposedly cut it as he felt it was thematically out of place (Webster, Patrick 2011, pp. 247-248) :

The custard pie scene in Dr. Strangelove may well have been the best custard pie scene in cinematic history, but Kubrick thought the slapstick quotient did not gel with the satirical discourse of his film.”  (Webster, 2011)

Whether or not that statement is accurate is debatable, as the scene would have carried unfortunate connotations given its subject matter. It’s difficult to say for certain why Kubrick chose to cut the scene, but it’s certainly an interesting discourse to have, as it neatly demonstrates how the socio-historical context of a film can affect not only its reception, but also its production.

dr-strangelove-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-bomb-original-original1280664254Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is both a stimulating example of innovative, controversial filmmaking, and a recognisable product of its era. Absorbed in cultural context, Strangelove challenged not only the formal conventions of the comedy genre, revolutionising its development for years to come, but also expanded the demographic that its contemporaries targeted. With a universal message and a masterful, yet accessible, screenplay, Strangelove remains relevant to modern audiences and serves as a fascinating exhibition of wartime psychology. More than just a comedy of errors, Strangelove plays to the genuine concerns of the American populace, and spawns entirely from its socio-historical moment. Without the escalation of cold war tensions, the implications of the arms race and the unrelenting potential of a nuclear winter, Strangelove couldn’t exist.

Strangelove is a product of its era in both production and reception. The film’s message relied largely on the comprehension of its audience, as an extra-textual knowledge of the political landscape is key. This is why the film’s historical context was so vital to its success, as the relevancy of the themes registered with the audience in numerous ways. Kubrick understood this, and tailored the film accordingly. Standing as both a historical and political landmark in film, Strangelove is appreciated for its masterfully crafted script, ingenious narrative pacing and ground-breaking cinematographic techniques, and remains one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest cinematic masterpieces.

dr-strangelove-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-bomb-originalThanks.

Brave Review

First off; I love Pixar. I love everything from their writing to their design to their music to their art to their cast to their themes to theirblahblahblahfanboyrantblah. For me, Pixar is the perfect Grandad. Not visiting nauseatingly often, but when he arrives he comes bearing gifts of fantastic character development, flawless animation and enough gold to make Xerxes blush. He also wears converse, because he’s awesome.

I thought it’d be fair to preface this entire ‘review’ with that label, if only to justify my impending gushing. With that said, don’t think I’ll shy away from confronting any of Brave‘s flaws. The flaws are, after all, the big animated elephant in the beautifully upholstered room.

Let me just clear up that Brave is, par the Pixar course, visually stunning. I’ve played plenty of videogames and thus have taken many a trip to the uncanny-valley, and it’s never pretty. Far too many animation studios walk the rickety line between surrealism and photorealism without understanding the impact on the audience. Pixar understands this better than anyone, and instead of striding for something physically “relatable”, they present exaggerated yet lovable imagery. The aesthetic design is vintage Pixar. Expressive, lovable character designs coupled with a fun, vibrant colour palette makes the whole production extra purty. Set in tribal Scotland with all the castles and hilly vistas you’d expect, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Scottish tourism trade gets a kick up the arse from holidaying parents at the whim of their DisneyKids. It might be a good move to establish some kind of Scotland-themed Disneyland ride. All you need is a castle, some mud, some rain, and just a pinch of racism.

The tale boosts off with a fantastic first act full of all the whimsey and all the wit you’d expect from Grandaddy Pixar, which flows brilliantly into Merida’s moment of rebellion, when the writers flex their muscles and the composition starts to shine. It introducing a series of interesting characters with and equally compelling voice cast. At the helm of Brave‘s bonnie cast sits Merida, a tomboyish princess as brave as she is… Uh… Scottish. As cliche as “tomboy female protagonist” is, she never strays into formulaic territory. The writing combined with Kelly MacDonald’s dulcet tones really sell Merida’s plight, and holy shit the technology for her hair animation must’ve been half the budget.

Merida’s joined by a host of Britain’s finest including Emma Thompson, channeling her very best bonnie lass as overbearing mother Elinor, and the Brian Blessed of the Glen, Billy Connolly, playing Fergus – loving father/fierce warrior/amputee extraordinaire. These two represent the conflicting paths that Merida is faced with: Whether to conform to her Mother’s ideals of ladylike demeanor and tradition, or to live her life on her own accord, independent and free to make her own destiny. It’s a classic storyline, but here it’s handled elegantly enough to carry weight to set the stakes. Also, can I just mention how incredibly refreshing it is to have a female protagonist with an overbearing mother? The misogynistic father cliche is the deadest of beaten horses. Thanks Pixar.

The writing is a solid as ever, with some of the funniest lines I’ve heard all year, rivaling a certain plush toy. It’s not all fun and games though kiddies, and when Brave puts on its serious hat and does serious business, it does it elegantly. The script is accessible from a younger age, but the themes at play hold the attention of anyone and everyone. The voicing highlight for me was of course B. Conn, but a lot of the best lines sprouted from the potential suitors, with my favourite being a traditional “teen heartthrob” pastiche that flexes to the women and then has a hissy-fit when he fails at archery. There’s some solid physical comedy provided by Merida’s 3 younger brothers, who I’ll wager will be getting their own short some time in the future ala. Jack-Jack Attack. Jack-Jack Attack was great. Go watch Jack-Jack Attack.

Okay. Here comes the awkward part. The turd in the birthday cake. The toothless grin. The hairless cat. The strange analogy. The 18 year-old blogger with a frankly shocking amount of time on his hands, wearing pajama bottoms at 4pm. Here we go. *sigh*

Brave isn’t perfect.

I’d say that the film’s considerably less ambitious than previous projects from Grandpappa Pix. Both thematically and geographically. Brave lacks the kind of scale I’ve come to expect from Pixar productions, and focuses on a smaller, more intimate scope. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as minimalistic setting and cast setups can help focus and refine a film, especially one with a young target audience. However, whilst the smaller themes and tempered world development works on paper, it falls down in the execution. The geography feels less “focused and linear” (eg. this mofo) and more “underdeveloped”. A number of tertiary characters, such as Merida’s potential suitors and their clans, feel a little rushed and token. Also, the absence of any real antagonist sort of kills the pace later on, with the 2nd and 3rd act sort of blending together in an entertaining, but messy clash of characters with an utter lack of exposition.

If I’m entirely honest the entire production feels considerably more ‘Disney’ than ‘Pixar’, but let it be known that the good drastically outways the bad. Oldman Pixo still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and although elements of Brave don’t entirely gel it’s still ridiculously enjoyable, with all the fantastic writing and Scottish gallivanting you could ever want, and I promise that you’ll be seeing these little fellas on every lunchbox in every school. It also includes my favourite Pixar short to date, “La Luna”, which is worth the admission price alone.

Extremely entertaining, but not quite as Brave as what you might expect.

Right? 😀

… Right?