Thursday, September 30, 2010

The International


This movie is the epitome of its genre: the conspiracy thriller. Set in Berlin, Milan, and New York City, the film follows the trek of Salinger and Whitman (Clive Owen and Naomi Watts), Interpol agents whom look into the increasingly murky dealings of one International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC). As they soon discover, their investigation will lead into an environment of uncertainty, danger, and ambiguity. A path leading directly into a great and harrowing story worthy of any lover of dramatic film.
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The Precipice Of Morality and Power

At the heart of the story is the character of Salinger. He is an Interpol agent who is uncompromising, specifically in his pursuit of the IBBC. When all other agents turn aside and decide it isn't worth it, Salinger pushes on, even when he knows full well that he risks his own life in doing so.

For merely being an Interpol agent is no protection in a situation such as this. While I won't say if the IBBC is guilty of his accusations or not, it is clear that, by prising open the lid of Pandora's box, Salinger is truly pushing his luck. Yet, despite this imminent sense of worry that you get as he pushes onward, you can't help but want him to go just a bit further. The web is tangled and dark, and discerning the safe paths from the traps becomes a more tenuous prospect as Salinger goes further into the rabbit hole.

What really made me interested in Salinger's character, though, is the theme that movie pushes as time goes on, and how it affects him. Unlike any of his fellow agents, Salinger wants to bring the IBBC to the ground; he wants to do the right thing no matter the danger. However, when faced with the complexities and murkiness of international law, he is more inclined to try and sidestep legalities than deal with them one by one. Consequently, Salinger (and those who work with him) are at constant risk of becoming something akin to that which they seek to destroy. As one man said, "When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you." This movie depicts this path of skirting the edge of darkness; tip-toeing on the precipice between morality and power.

Consequently, watching Salinger and Whitman's progression in character, along with their reactions to events terrible and surreal, becomes one of the many draws of the film. I can't name many movies that manage to depict such a Heart of Darkness feeling so aptly. The intermixing of character study, dark investigations, and cinematic filming combine to create one heck of a good conspiracy thriller, enthralling and subtly disquieting.
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The Tangled Webs of International Law

Part of what makes the hunt for truth so difficult in The International comes from the IBBC's status as an international corporation. For those not in the know, when a corporation extends its business into many different nations, it becomes very difficult to keep track of their actions. Detective work becomes a nightmare as one has to stop constantly to ask permissions from national governments, permissions that must be acquired separately for everything from phone tapping and document searching to warrant acquisition and interrogations. Things become even more complicated if you actually want to take the criminal to your own nation for justice.

Needless to say, the status of international law is a major point within The International. Nations have never been willing to give away sovereignty to international institutions, hence the United Nations' and Interpol's relative powerlessness when it comes to investigating possible crimes across multiple borders. And this topical focus lends The International much of its mood of uncertainty, ambiguity, and danger. International law makes the IBBC almost impregnable to oversight and, given that they are a bank with tons of money, they also have the liquidity they need to potentially sidetrack any criminal investigation.

Another topic of importance touched on in the film is that of weapons manufacturing and its tenuous grip on legality. Given the cobwebs of international law, this is another business that is often able to slip under the radar; those that want the weapons have no reason to help those investigating, and those who distribute them do not want to lose business or reputation by being brought to light. The movie also delves into the financial opportunities of political destabilization for such manufacturers; if a weapons distributor wants to insure steady business, then isn't it in their best interest to work towards the escalation of conflicts? As also dwelled upon in the movie, Lord of War, it is conceivable that this has been a contributing factor with regard to the past century of constant warring in the Middle East and Africa.
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Conclusion

This movie was, in my opinion, near-perfect in its depiction of and mood-setting for a conspiracy thriller. The only movie I could think of that comes close to a similar feel is Casino Royale. The International successfully shows us the shadows and possibilities of corporational conspiracy, and how the weblike and convoluted nature of international law can sometimes make it impossible to stay within the law if one wants to out a criminal organization spanning across nations.

The acting was well done; the characters interesting, convincingly portrayed, and occasionally heart-rending. Salinger's quest and its tenuous legal nature are compelling, and reminiscent of choices that people can face in real life; choices between moral purity and the often easier compromises in order to accomplish what has to be done.

However, on the negative side, it was occasionally hard to follow precisely what was going on. To be fair, this is partially a consequence of the topic itself; international law and how it affects multinational corporations is confusing. But I feel like it could have been done a bit better. Overall, though, the movie was definitely a good one, and deserves watching if the genre and subject matter appeal to you. It is a great drama/action that also makes you think. And I love it when those combinations click.

8.5/10

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Written by Joe the Revelator




A Prince Among Orphans:
Replace the word Prince with ‘brooding male model’ and Persia with ‘the well-tanned white folk’, and you’ll have the real title for this movie.

Jake Gyllenhall, of October Sky and Jarhead, takes on the mantel of the adopted prince with a heart of gold bullion, armed with a time-defying dagger, navigating through a plot based roughly on the PS2, Xbox, and gamecube game bearing the same title.

Aside from every major actor being very un-Persian with accents that run the gamut between lightly British, flat-tongued American, and an almost comical middle-eastern that’s reminiscent of SNL’s ‘cheeburger’ skit, the two-dimensional characters are carried well enough to not bump the viewer from the freight train of action sequences and large-scale fights that inevitably blur together. The graphics are fantastic, as are most of the cities and ruins that serve as sandy playsets for the battles. The camera seems especially enthralled by Gyllenhall’s overworked biceps as he rope-swings, ledge-swings, rope-climbs, leaps, wall-sprints, and wireworks his way from one confrontation to the next.

Watching your bald head...

The relationship between the quietly cynical Prince of Persia and the rambunctious over-the-top independent Princess/Empress/Guardian/Priestess is so saccharin sweet it could give you a toothache. It would be a match worthy of the Disney channel if she didn’t meet his tragically misunderstood attempts at courtship by stabbing him, bludgeoning him in the head with a bone, insulting his intelligence, and finally falling for his boyish charm.

How It Tastes Going Down?

By the end of the movie I couldn’t help but feel that old familiar sense of let-down when a story sums itself up with a bit of time travel using a mystical plot-moving device. The character goes back, saves the day, and somehow robs me of exactly the same amount of time that it took him to find his balls and jump into the past. And anyone who didn’t see that coming from the very beginning of the movie probably couldn’t guess how See Spot Run would resolve.

Bioshock


Imagine a city beneath the seas. Imagine it to be populated by those who can do whatever they want to do, without concern of laws, regulation, or interference. A utopian society. Imagine a revolution in genetic engineering. Behold the ability to weave lightning across your fingertips, command machines with a gesture, and control the very air you breathe in whatever way you choose. Now imagine that you are going to this city. This city is Rapture. And this is the premise of Bioshock.
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No Gods or Kings

Rapture is a society established deep within the ocean with the aim of being completely free from government control in all of its forms. Ignoring the feasibility of this engineering feat, we can see that a state independent from the wars and conflicts of Earth sounds like a pleasant concept, geographically isolated and having no desire to even talk with those above the waves. This is the city that you wander through during the game, and it is eye-poppingly beautiful.

Theoretically, Rapture is what an objectivist society would look like as derived from the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Having little experience with these philosophies, I don't know if this is true or not. But, from my understanding, Bioshock shows us an ultra-capitalist society with absolutely free markets, government's only purpose being to prevent and stop murders and theft. A libertarian's dream. Set in the 1950s, Rapture has an eclectic mix of that era's art/cultural styles as well as a touch of its own decor. It seems odd to mention these thing but, needless, to say, Rapture is a complete city that is both intricate and visually appealing, and this encourages exploration into every nook and cranny.

However, at the time of the game, Rapture has fallen. In essence, this is the game's creators' impression of what would happen if an objectivist/ultra-capitalist utopia actually existed and, specifically, how it would fail. I won't detail that process here for the sake of spoilers, but I will point out that this assessment makes the game quite the political piece. Step-by-step we see how the system crumbled and why the society was unable to function for long on a foundational level. This learning experience is another factor of intrigue that keeps you playing; as you explore every part of Rapture, you learn what caused it to fail, and you see what happened to those few who survived.

Assessed simply, Rapture has divided into sections controlled by warlords of a sort, similar to the way countries fall apart in real life. And each sphere of influence is home to the strangest, most disturbing, yet oddly compelling men and women I've ever seen. Most, if not all, have gone through severe mental trauma, and this is both understandable and saddening as you realize how awful it must have been to have seen an entire society collapse around you. This also helps make the exploration of Rapture ever more interesting; each separate zone is starkly different, ranging from biologically created gardens beneath the sea to the district of theater and the arts.
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Traipsing Through an Underwater Nightmare

From a gameplay standpoint, the environment of Rapture also is very important with regard to how you defend yourself. Not many games allow you to manipulate positioning and traps so well and, if you are so inclined, you have dozens of different ways to set up defenses wherever you go with which to protect yourself from the maddened denizens of the failed dystopia. For example, turrets and cameras are spread throughout the game. Their story purpose is that they were placed by the government in order to try and stop the riots that occurred during Rapture's fall. From a gameplay standpoint, you can approach them from different angles in order to hack into them and make it so they shoot only at the enemy or, with the camera, only summon security droids if they see the enemy. Your weapons offer more options: you can set proximity mines, electrified tripwires, isolate and freeze enemies with liquid nitrogen. The tactical possibilities are staggering and are extremely rewarding to play with, particularly if you know when and where you will be attacked.

The genetic engineering mentioned earlier also is a huge part of the game, as these 'plasmids' (the in-game term for genetic powers) allow even further manipulation of the environment. Commanding the power of wind can allow you to set cyclone traps. If an enemy steps on one, they are promptly shot into the air without warning. You can also use telekinesis to grab pieces of rubble, trash cans, anything; and you can use these to set up barricades, protect yourself from incoming fire, or throw things at enemies with your mind. You can also set enemies against each other, for a time, and hypnotize 'Big Daddies' to guard you from attack.

The Big Daddies deserve extra notice. I won't say why they are in Rapture specifically, as this would be a spoiler, but I'll give a little background. Big Daddies are, presumably, men in gigantic armored deep-sea diver's suits who defend Little Sisters. Little Sisters are young girls mentally conditioned and manipulated to harvest genetic energy from the dead in order to keep the genetic economy of Rapture going. Throughout the game, you encounter these duos often and, if you engage and defeat the Big Daddies, then you can choose to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters. If you harvest them, you kill them, absorbing all their accumulated genetic power. If you free them, then they are freed from their disturbing mental conditioning, and become regular little children once again. Interacting with these Big Daddies and Little Sisters is an integral part of the game, and is often epic, as facing a Big Daddy in combat is absolutely terrifying. Armed with massive power drills and rivet guns, they will mess you up unless you prepare carefully, and even then they can be more than you bargained for.
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Conclusion

Bioshock is an incredibly deep game with a complex narrative, backstory, and environment. It is very rare for a game to assess the ramifications of hypothetical political societies, and exploring such a fictional nation was very interesting, from my perspective. From a gameplay perspective, the amount of options at your fingertips with regard to manipulation of the environment, your multi-faceted weaponry, and endless genetic power possibilities, made it so that the game never got old.

On the flip side, this game is very disturbing if you don't know what you are getting into. I did, but I would point out that this game features a number of horrifying images, characters, and activities, so you must steel yourself for it. However, I was not really disturbed to the point of walking away from the game at any point, so I do not think this is a huge issue, just something to be aware of. Other than that, I can't really think of anything else being a problem. The game is a masterpiece and I look forward to playing the sequel.

For my review of the sequel, click here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Epic Villains in Video Game Lore: Knights of the Old Republic II


Within the game, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, lies one of the most complex characters ever created in a video game or elsewhere. It is in fact a game with many characters that have great depth and interest to them. Sadly, the characters inhabit a video game that, gameplay-wise, was never that good. Consequently, their story has been missed by many unable to reconcile this fact. Despite this, it is an old favorite of mine, having one of the most complex plots and characters of any game I've ever played, bad gameplay aside.
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Worlds in Darkness
"It is all that is left unsaid upon which tragedies are built."

KOTOR II is set in the Star Wars universe, thousands of years before the events of the movies. You start out in the game upon a space station almost entirely in ruins, wiped clean of life by an unknown force. You are an exiled Jedi, unique in that you appear to be a void in the Force; this is attributed to your character's time in the recent Mandalorian wars, a conflict epic in scale, filled with atrocities and violence. This does not stop you from using Force powers, but it does affect those around you in subtle, meaningful ways. As you come to, you meet another companion, a survivor of whatever whirlwind ravaged the hallways of the space station; an old Jedi woman from a time long since past. She is a teacher, although perhaps the most peculiar teacher ever to be encountered. Her name is Kreia.

As you escape the space station and begin a search for the last remnants of Jedi in a galaxy dominated by the Sith, you learn more about this strange, proud, and manipulative old woman. Kreia's past is cast in shadow, but she parts with some information as the bond between teacher and student grows. Before the wars, she was a Jedi Historian, a Force-user tasked with consulting the histories of the galaxy and of the force in order to pass on said knowledge to those who require it. She was most unorthodox in her learnings and became a philosopher of sorts, willing to challenge the established Jedi creed in an effort to get others to think for themselves.

For Kreia is not truly a Jedi as we perceive them in film. This is part of her appeal; Kreia defies conventions, and does so in a way that makes it difficult to cast her as either Jedi or Sith. Instead, Kreia decides to be 'on her own side', seeking only to further her own inscrutable goals, goals that include training you to become something more than just another user of the Force. As you go through the game, Kreia teaches you her philosophy, a point of view that is both intriguing and somewhat unsettling.
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A Galaxy without the Force
"Take the greatest Jedi Knight, strip away the Force, and what remains? They rely on it, depend on it, more than they know. Watch as one tries to hold a blaster, as they try to hold a lightsaber, and all you will see is nothing more than a woman – or a man. A child."

As Kreia teaches you, it becomes clear that she is opposed to the Jedi, the Old Republic, and the methods with which that they have sought, throughout history, to live and get by. Unlike anyone ever depicted in the Star Wars mythology, Kreia believes that the Jedi have lost their way, requiring a radical change in belief, temperament, and the way they approach life and the Force. In this era of Star Wars, the Old Republic is failing and the galaxy has become an ever darker place. Kreia tells you that the Jedi are the ones responsible; she casts them as a religion unwilling to learn or to change, ever focused on serenity, unable to take action, blind to growth. Similarly, she points to the Sith as being just the same, enraged warriors who cannot see past their own arrogance and lust for power, blinded in a way that causes them to make the same mistakes, unable to learn from history. But, interestingly, she does not blame the Sith or the Jedi entirely for the state of affairs in the Star Wars galaxy. She reserves that blame, and her own hatred, for the Force itself.

What Kreia seeks to explain to the player is that the Jedi do not need the Force, that they are addicted to a power that breeds conflict, an ability that stunts their own personal growth as individuals. She illustrates that most of the wars in the universe of Star Wars have come from those who use the Force; infinite conflicts arise from the never-ending duel of ideologies between the Jedi and the Sith, Light and Dark. Part of this arises from the tendency to regard the universe as being separated into good and evil, when the reality is far more complicated than that. Another part lies with how the Force seems to subtly guide those who use it down one of those two paths.

Everything that Kreia does and teaches derives from this singular belief; the belief that the Force is an arbiter of conflict and death in the universe. She tries to teach that it is not necessary, and that furthering one's self and self-discovery are more important. Essentially, she believes that relying on the Force blinds one to the greater mysteries of the universe, inhibiting self-progression.
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Rise and Fall
"There is no truth in the Force. But there is truth in you. And that is why I chose you."

But what makes Kreia the villain? Aside from an interesting viewpoint on the Force and its machinations, where is the harm? The truth is initially hard to see, like so much about Kreia.

Throughout almost the entire game, Kreia is very careful to hide why she takes so much interest to you. To this effort, she goes so far to manipulate your other companions against each other, occasionally going so far as to fool with the minds of others. When you allow a Jedi to join your crew, she secretly uses the Force to confound his vision, leaving him completely unable to even detect her being on the ship, even when she is standing right in front of him. With every action that you take and planet that you save, Kreia shifts events behind the scenes, moving pieces about with some final aim in mind. It is only when you finally find all the Jedi Masters and assemble the Jedi Council that this goal reveals itself.

On the planet of Dantooine, you gather with the last remaining Jedi Masters in an effort to discuss and resolve what to do against the massive, unknown threat that lies among the stars. Unexpectedly, the Council decide to sever you from the Force. The reason is that, despite your efforts to gather Jedi together to oppose the darkness of the galaxy, your character remains an anomaly, a void within the Force; you are something that, to their eyes, should not be. Therefore, in fear and, perhaps, in lack of understanding, the Jedi decide that you are an abomination and must be purged; they regard you as possibly being the reason behind the galaxy's shift toward the dark. You resist, but all together they are too much for you. Hope seems lost... until Kreia shows up.

Kreia halts the Jedi Masters, declaring them to be ignorant and fools. She states that they have lost their way, unable to see that the galaxy's fragile state upon the edge of a knife is a situation of their own making. And this is where she becomes the villain. For Kreia decides that, for the galaxy to live in peace, the Force must be destroyed. This process begins with the murder of the Jedi Masters. In the end, she hopes to cause the Force's death through you, an enigma of the Force; one able to use Force and suck it through you endlessly, like dumping water into the empty void of space.

This is obviously an extreme view, and one that you have to stop. For killing the Force might, possibly, destroy the fabric of the universe itself. For, in the many movies, the Jedi state that the Force is in everything; it is an indicator of sentient life. Therefore, it is possible that such a move to end the Force might exterminate all life, everywhere. And it is for this reason that she must be stopped.
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Conclusion
"You are greater than any I have ever trained. By killing me here—you have rewarded me more than you can possibly know."

You follow her to a planet so disturbed and dominated by the dark side of the Force that the only life that grows there are hostile, twisted mockeries of normality. There she seeks to persuade you to kill her upon this massive gaping wound in the Force, an explosion of Force power that, with your Force void in place, she thinks will destabilize and essentially break the Force itself. She tries to talk you into it, but it is clear that the ramifications of this action might destroy the entire universe. You fight, and she is unable to match her former student. As she slowly dies, Kreia notes that you are the greatest of her students and that she is glad that the galaxy is in your hands, even though her own plan failed. She tells you of the future of the universe, a power that only she seems capable of using given her experience of all facets of the Force: the Light, the Dark, and that area somewhere in between. And then she passes away, fading back into the Force that she despised so much.

Kreia is by far one of the most complex individuals I have ever seen in any story format. And, though I tried to do her justice, I still feel as if I have failed to touch upon the many nuances and gems of interest within her story. I failed to mention the subtleties of her plan to teach and control you, how she carefully devoted her later life toward accomplishing this one goal, essentially dominating and planning out twenty years of history through her own thoughtful actions. I did not explain how her teachings affected another student, Revan, and how powerfully he affects the universe of both KOTOR games. Needless to say, Kreia is the only villain I have ever seen who is so intricate as to have her own strange and interesting philosophy of life itself, as well written as it is intriguing.

"What do you wish to hear? That I once believed in the code of the Jedi? That I felt the call of the Sith, that perhaps, once, I held the galaxy by its throat? That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy? That perhaps what the greatest of the Sith Lords knew of evil, they learned from me?"

And a villain of such complexity helped make KOTOR II one of the most rewarding stories I've ever experienced, even if the game itself was occasionally a chore.

Kreia is awesome. That is all.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Oil

Written by the Financial Loon


Blood of the Earth
There is no question that the modern world would not exist if it were not for petroleum. Oil has seeped its way into every fiber of our existence. The food we eat is fertilized by chemicals derived from it. The clothes we wear are made from fibers created from oil, or in the case of natural fibers fertilizer again play a large part. Plastics ranging from the common grocery bag to life saving medical equipment are sourced from it. The rubber in your tires and the asphalt you drive across are both derived from oil. All manner of adhesives and lubricants find their roots in it. Our electronics would not be the same without it. For example the keyboard, mouse, and monitor you are using to view this, all contain plastic, all from oil. Casing for electric wires and much the electricity we use is generated from oil. Not to mention we burn it every time we move ourselves or transport any product we use. From mine, forest, farm, or sea to factory, warehouse, port, or store, oil is burned, moving our goods along every step of the way.

As one can see, any society which wishes to live a modern life must control great sources of petroleum. There is one problem with this situation: a modern society’s consumption of oil rapidly outpaces its domestic output of the product the more that the society develops. This is the case for most developed nations across the globe. More and more developing nations are also exceeding their local oil reserves. All interested parties eventually turn to areas where there is a vast surplus of oil, and few locals to use it. The largest of these areas on the globe lies in what was once territory of the Ottoman Empire.
Blood for Oil
Petroleum usage during World War I showed the world that the nations who controlled the supply of oil would command the globe. Oil provided the energy to drive both new and old machines of war. Battleships and locomotives were made many times more effective after abandoning coal and instead burning diesel. Tanks, planes, and armored cars developed the speed, range, and maneuverability for which they would be feared for decades to come. It became evident that the greater the consumption of oil by a nation’s military the greater the need to locate and control sources of the fuel.

Having provided much of the refined oil needed to win the war, the United States thought it right that it should receive claim to a large portion of the untapped oil reserves in the Middle East. The years between WWI and WWII saw great development of western oil interests in the region. The Iraq Petroleum Company was established during this period and is most easily described as the OPEC of the day. Though, in its case, it was thirty years before the actual OPEC was established, and consisted of European and American oil companies instead of actual oil producing countries. Its purpose was to form a powerful oil cartel that would share Iraqi oil among its members, who by no accident did not include Iraq. The final agreement was known as the Red Line Agreement, and covered a huge amount of territory.
World War II saw the fine tuning of oil-powered military equipment which was only being developed during the First World War. Allied success can again be tied to the United States’ ability to provide fuel for the war machine. The war would also prove a boon to the newly developing petroleum derived products industries. Synthetic rubber and oil based nylon replaced natural rubber and silk and carried American paratroopers off the ground and back again by way of aircraft tires and parachutes. The importance of controlling Middle Eastern oil fields was redoubled at the conclusion of the war. Speaking to the British, FDR commented, “Persian oil …is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.”
FDR and King Saud, 1945
The Eagle, the Bear, and the Dragon
The decades following the war have been fraught with turmoil throughout the region. Every modern conflict in the area can be traced to powerful nations seeking control of oil fields in the Middle East. Nationalizing of petroleum industries by host nations has greatly dissatisfied those who once had dominion over the oil. Much of the military muscle flexing by the US, the Soviet Union, and later Russia can be directly tied to securing land for oil pipelines. Coups, bribes, and military arms support have been used again and again to install leadership favorable to the nations behind them.

There is no commodity in the world that can replace oil; its versatility and portability are unmatched. The wealth and power gained from controlling it are unsurpassed by any other product. However, countries whose populations have outgrown their domestic supply are growing more numerous year by year. China has only been a net oil importer since 1993 and is just beginning to exert its great influence over oil rich areas. India is right behind China and with over a third of the global population between them their effect on world geopolitics will be great.

As has been the case since the ending of the Second World War, American political and business policy toward oil has been to find more and exert a tighter grip over what we already have possession of. We did not much enjoy our brief stint of conservation and rationing during the early seventies, many could not stand to repeat it. This attitude can only lead us toward further and greater conflict. Should the flow of oil be greatly interrupted again we will see immense chaos.

As we rapidly exhaust land and near-shore oil reserves we will be forced to go further out to sea in our quest for oil. Deep sea endeavors will only be warranted when the price of oil has sufficiently risen to match their prohibitive costs. By this time we will be running uphill chasing ever more expensive oil. The cost of everyday life will be increased to unsustainable levels. Furthermore, we will see a rise in disputes over drilling in international waters, and in seas bordered by oil deprived nations.

The only solution we have is to pursue every alternative to oil at once. While nothing can replace it completely many of its uses, particularly as fuel for power and transport, can be substituted by other products. Only through reducing our use of oil on all fronts can we have enough left to use for the things we cannot yet replace. The hand of business will only pick up this cause when that is where the profit is, or unless we force it to through regulation. If we wait until the alternatives are less expensive it may be too late to perform the sweeping changes to our way of life.

This article was greatly influenced by Dilip Hiro’s “Blood of the Earth” which I recently finished reading. If you are interested in the past, present, and future history of oil please give it a read. His descriptions of notable characters and locals across time made the story very intriguing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Epic Villains in Video Game Lore: Baldur's Gate II


Next up we have a villain whose skill at manipulation is matched by his power, a man ravaged by hatred who yet has the intellect and foresight to toy with the player and much of the game world as if they were mere marionettes.
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Jon Irenicus
"I cannot be caged. I cannot be controlled. Understand this as you die, ever pathetic, ever fools!"

In Baldur's Gate II: The Shadows of Amn, the player is brought into the game with a jolt. The first thing you notice is that you are stuck in a dark and disturbing prison, trapped in individual cages along with your companions from the first game. Immediately, a man walks into the room, imperious and cold. Without warning, he tortures you, probing with one element of magic after another, unwilling to listen to any demands for an explanation. He references you as a "Child of Bhaal". Those familiar with the first game know that the main character is the progeny of a deceased god of murder, and that the spark of immortal power that lies within the player makes him the target of one scheme after another. On surface level, this looks like another plan to manipulate the powers given by your birthright. But it turns out that this man, Jon Irenicus, is a foe beyond anything the player has ever seen before.

What is immediately apparent about Irenicus is his power, his dominating presence, and his ability to force events into his favor. His personality is that of the self-absorbed god-king; his power is beyond reckoning, and he regards everyone else as 'mere mortals' before his might. Thus, to him, people merely serve as pieces upon a chessboard; and he is the distant, ephemeral controller from on high. His motives are murky for most of the game, and this only serves to cast his actions into shadow. Unable to comprehend why Irenicus does what he does, he is given a mythical quality. When he appears, he is instantly the center of attention as he seizes the initiative so as to further his own inscrutable goals.

As you escape from Irenicus' prison at the start of the game, it becomes clear that Irenicus is perhaps as insane as he is powerful. He holds two effete creatures captive, creatures that, when freed, explain in hushed whispers how they reminded Irenicus of her. Further exploration reveals a beautiful room dedicated to this unknown woman, a shrine that engenders as much sympathy in Irenicus as it does revulsion. For Irenicus' interest in this woman is not so much romantic as it is obsessive; he even has laboratories dedicated to cloning her, for some dark purpose.

Yet this indication of insanity does not cripple his ability to manipulate events and overcome them with an incredibly hardened will, and indescribable power to match. When he discovers your escape, he goes to the surface to stop you; a surface that happens to be within a crowded city district defended by hundreds of magical police. Why he chose to build his dungeon underneath a city of all places is beyond me, but Irenicus doesn't seem to care. You flee to the police, but Irenicus falls into an unstoppable rage, cutting them down like wheat before his awesome magical power. With one hand, he turns a man to stone, squeezing a fist to smash him into fragments and dust. With another, he rips a man through the very fabric of reality, leaving nothing but dust after a long, shattered scream. Finally, after a jaw-dropping massacre, the magical police shout that, though many of them will die, they will get him in the end. Irenicus replies with characteristic hauteur that he is bored, and that he'll go with them just because he feels like it.
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Usurper of Power
"I wonder if you are destined to be forgotten. Will your life fade in the shadow of greater beings?"

As you quest onward, hoping to save up enough money to free a companion who went to prison as well, you hope that you've seen the last of Irenicus. You hope that you won't ever have to feel those cold, steel eyes bearing down upon you. Sadly, events work against you. Your character experiences horrible dreams where Irenicus explains to you the draws of your god-derived power, and how you can utilize it, reach out, and grasp the world in the palm of your hand. The dreams are detailed, with ethical dilemmas prompting you to choose between your friends or unlimited power. Echoes resonate throughout. Follow, if only to protect the weak that fell because of you. In the dreamscape, Irenicus coaxes you down a path of his own making, although that path's end is cloaked in shadow and uncertainty.

Eventually, you gather enough money to go to the maximum-security prison where your companion is held. As it so happens, this is where Irenicus is held as well. And, as you enter, it becomes clear that perhaps his capture was part of the plan all along. The magical stronghold has been subverted from the inside out. Previously contained asylum inmates are free to roam as they will. The entire purpose of the keep is twisted into a mockery of itself, and you are inevitably faced with Irenicus himself, who tortures you and forces you to go through the labyrinthine corridors until finally he manages to steal the player's very soul. His plan becomes clearer; Irenicus wants to use the splinter of power derived from the god in order to empower himself. But to what end?

The explanation lies with the woman whom Irenicus has obsessed over. As you manage to weakly escape from the terrible stronghold and start to pursue, it is evident that Irenicus is taking this additional power and using it to confront his tragic love, the very Queen of the Elves herself. After manipulating an entire nation of dark elves to weaken the good elven nation, Irenicus confronts the elvish matriarch. He announces in deep, haughty tones that he plans to become a god himself, utilizing the splinter of power to supplant a member of the Elvish Pantheon. With the memory of all the events he has controlled and coldly utilized to his advantage, it looks as if he is perfectly capable of accomplishing this goal.
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Conclusion
"Do you cling to the past or can you see through the pain?"

The Queen of the Elves tries to dissuade him, trying to appeal to some part of himself that still holds to love, a powerful evidence of some remaining good. His reply is as arrogant as it is hollow. Irenicus states that he has long forgotten love, and that nothing is left but his hatred and desire for revenge. It is at this crucial moment, where it seems that Irenicus is about to become a god, that the player charges forth, an unexpected spanner in the works, to face Irenicus in an explosive face-off that ends up taking you into the very pits of hell, thus fighting him on multiple planes of reality. In the end, you declare him to be empty of feeling and thus empty of life, qualities not lacking from you and your companions. Irenicus is left to face the demons of hell alone, which he tries to do with growling confidence and cold, raging intellect. Doomed to fail, yet fighting to the last.

Epic Villains in Video Game Lore: Jade Empire


What will follow for this post and the next two posts are my assessments of three different villains in video games. What prompted me to do this was an ongoing fascination in how they approached their "villainy". Here are characters who are manipulative, incredibly intelligent, and are able to subtly guide events around them in ways that almost always work out in their favor. These are the best, villains that you often find yourself respecting more than despising, villains with powerful personalities with whom you can't help but be intrigued by. Rare in fiction, rare in film, and especially rare in video games. But given the increased interactivity within video games, it is hard to view these guys as anything other than the best. They are profound, dominating, confident, and astoundingly clever. And complex characters such as these help to fuel my interest in video gaming.
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Master Li of Two Rivers
"It does my heart good to see that you remember the basics of what I taught... even the flaws..."

In Jade Empire, you come into the game training at a martial-arts school lying within a quiet village on the outskirts of an expansive, mythologized Asian empire (reminiscent of ancient China). Much of your early time in the game is spent mastering your combat skills, getting to know your fellow students, and receiving the teachings of one Master Li of Two Rivers.

Master Li serves as a bulwark in an unfamiliar world. He is an older man, caring yet disciplined, patient yet endlessly encouraging the player to try harder. By himself in a hostile and wondrous world, he brought you up from child to adult. Master Li has an unshakeable faith in you that is comforting; he urges you to trust yourself as you train towards the destiny that awaits you out in the limitless frontier. This is reassurring, particularly as you notice that other students are jealous of your rapport with Master Li. It becomes clear that you are the best among them, a status to be proud of, yet one that forces one to feel alone.

After a peaceful day of training and lecture, events begin to speed up, swinging swiftly out of control. Your master decides that you are done, ready to graduate. In a close and heartfelt discussion, Master Li confesses that he is Sun Li, brother of the Emperor Sun Hai, and that the Emperor, his empire, and his servants are not pleasant at all. In an event twenty years past, the Emperor sought the power of a goddess and, though Sun Li opposed this, succeeded in wresting the power away from the elder deity, destroying the temple and monks who served her.

Consequently, Master Li was nearly killed and fled to the edges of the empire, carrying with him the only survivor of the temple massacre; a baby. That baby was you, the last of the spirit monks. It becomes clear that the destiny Master Li referred to was the urgent need to defeat the corrupt Emperor and return his power to the Asian pantheon of gods and goddesses. And only a spirit monk can do it.

Master Li is soon captured by the Emperor's armies as a jealous student overhears this conversation and tips off the Emperor. The majority of the game involves finding a way to save Master Li, doing good along the way, and finding ancient remnants of an artifact designed to assist with your overthrow of the Empire. Along the way, many people notice that the martial style that you fight with as impossibly unique. It seems to have a flaw, but nobody is ever to figure out what it is. Thus you are able to defeat many, who end up viewing this oddity as a cunning trap, as it ends up distracting those who seek the opening but inevitably fail to find it.

Finally, you reach Emperor Sun Hai and strike him down with all the skills learned from Master Li, the spirit monk teachings you discovered along the way, and the artifact painstakingly crafted together over hours of searching and combat. Master Li, rescued at last, comes before you smiling with careworn wisdom. He then proceeds to beat you to death in a matter of seconds.
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Sun Li the Glorious Strategist
"Sometimes all you will learn in defeat is that you have been defeated."

The truth is that Sun Li has been using you as a tool from the very beginning. In his own fight with the Emperor twenty years ago, he had sought to take the goddess' power for himself. When the Emperor defeated him and sent him running, Sun Li managed to discover the last surviving spirit monk; your character, as a baby. In a comprehensive plan that would span decades, Sun Li decided to train you to defeat his brother as no other could, as a fully trained spirit monk able to cancel out Sun Hai's godhood. Everything lead up to that crucial moment, and it is a testament to Master Li's cleverness, subtlety, and foresight that the entire plan worked perfectly, with nary a hiccup.

There are hints to this throughout the story, and it lends the game an extra layer of depth. For example, it is clearer as to why your fellow students at the martial-arts school were so jealous of you. Master Li's main objective was to train you, and only you. The other students were simply pawns; maintaining a school helped to avoid attention from the Emperor's eye. Keeping the students jealous also gave them incentive to tattle on Sun Li to the Emperor when the right moment came, setting the chain of events into motion. Sun Li knew that he would allow himself to be captured eventually, thus it was similarly in his interest to keep the rest of the students untrained, so that they would be certain to fall to the armies and give you additional motive for overthrowing the Emperor.

The uniqueness of your martial-arts style was another gambit. Others could not find the flaw, but Sun Li purposefully built it into the style so that he could exploit it at the crucial moment; at the precise moment that the Emperor fell. Thus it is that he was able to take you apart without a chance to defend yourself; Sun Li knew the answer to the enigma that was your combat style, and crushes you with it. He also counted on his skills as a teacher to make the flaw so incredibly subtle that, in the inevitable battles to come, others would be unable to capitalize on it. The opening would be his, and his alone, to take advantage of. He would let nobody else tamper with his plan decades in the making.
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Conclusion
"You surprise me yet again. I'm a better teacher... than I thought..."

Master Li of Two Rivers, or Sun Li the Glorious Strategist, deserves respect and awe for pulling off a brilliant, multi-layered plan whose fruits would be gathered years down the road. Throughout most of the game he leads the player to believe that this is yet another quest to overcome an evil empire when, truly, it is nowhere near that simple. Thr truth is that Sun Li plays you from the beginning, and takes advantage of your every action in order to achieve the payoff that he desires. In the end, he is defeated by the one thing he is unable to anticipate, the actions of an inscrutable goddess who uses her last scraps of power to bring the player back to life who, in the end, unseats Sun Li and returns deific power back into the balance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Art of Maneuver in a Solar Empire


In my playing of Sins of a Solar Empire and reading of a biography of President Dwight Eisenhower, I've noticed something interesting. The biography takes the reader through every major strategic, tactical, and logistic consideration in World War II (in Eisenhower's time). The attention to detail made me realize commonalities between the movements in World War II, the importance of positioning in battles, and the way Sins of a Solar Empire embraces this need for maneuver where few other RTS (real-time strategy) games do.
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The Art of Flanking

In all the wars that I've read about, the goal is not to destroy the enemy or to kill people. Instead, each battle involves moving troops around in an effort to flank the enemy: to attack the enemy from a position that they do not expect or cannot defend against. Often this involves sliding a unit around the side or the back. The goal of this is to, essentially, freak the enemy out in a way that has people running away or surrendering. Very rarely are battles fought to the death. Instead, battles end when one side is outmaneuvered and thus feel that they either have to retreat or wave the white flag.

Another goal in flanking an enemy is to cut off their line of supply or connection to their own territory. If cut off, not only does the enemy fail to receive more fuel, ammunition, or reinforcements, but they also are dealt a severe blow to their morale, or willingness to fight, that often results in the entire unit's surrender.

Strategy itself is defined by the positioning of units and maneuvering them into positions that can make the most difference. This approach in flanking has many applications given the many situations that can arise in battle. And, finally, this explanation circumstantially helps to explain why it is often so interesting (for me, at least) to read about wars and how they play out. They certainly do result in the loss of human life, which is tragic. But the best generals are those who can play the game of flanking the best, and knowing when to act is also a crucially important skill. These skills help to end wars quicker, stem the loss of life, and thus are compelling to read about.
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Chokepoints and Outmaneuvering

Sins of a Solar Empire is a game that seizes on this concept of flanking and maneuver. It defines the game. For the galaxies of Sins are laid out in a way that gives only a handful of routes with which to attack a planet, and deciding which planets are most important, must be fortified, or can be safely ignored is immensely important.

For these planets can act as chokepoints, areas which the enemy must take in order to push on to your more lucrative worlds. It is easy to recognize them and, when one does, essential to fortify them extensively to make seizing the planet very difficult. Harder to recognize are lateral chokepoints, planets which either: connect to two of your own front line worlds; or they connect to two of your opponent's worlds, or more. With regard to the former instance, stationing your reserve fleet at the lateral chokepoint allows it to be in an excellent position to respond to the attack of either front line world. With regard to the latter, holding the lateral chokepoint forces your opponent to worry about attack on either of his two worlds, even if you don't actually plan on doing so.

Maneuver and maneuvering well can win the game for you. In a recent game, I played against a computer-controlled player who had a habit of putting all of his eggs in one basket; he would have a massive fleet that would be very difficult to stop, but it required him to use all of his ships at one planet at a time. After a few early losses, I decided to try splitting my own fleet into two groups, positioning them at two entrances to my territory and heavily fortifying a far away third (so I wouldn't have to worry about it). Every time the computer attacked me, I would position the beleagured fleet near to repair bays to allieviate losses while my other fleet attacked one of his bordering homeworlds.

I did this because I knew exactly where his fleet was; and he was nowhere near to my second fleet. Consequently, it allowed me to take the planet, fortify it a bit, and then hold a distracting action when his juggernaut showed up to stop me. When it did, my first fleet attacked his flanks, another planet that his own fleet was now nowhere near. With this strategy I was able to outmaneuver the juggernaut, chip away at his economic potential, and finally draw his weakened fleet into battle in an effort to reclaim one of the planets where, on the defensive, I was able to combine both of my battle groups and destroy him.
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Conclusion

This sort of give and take is indicative of how important the art of maneuver is within Sins of a Solar Empire. By taking advantage of positioning and striking carefully on the flanks where the enemy was unprepared, I was able to overcome a numerically superior enemy who, at first, held more planets than I. By fortifying my far away border with another computer player, I looked to the defenses of my own flank so that it could not be taken advantage of while I was busy.

It was very exciting to read about this link between strategy in Sins and strategy in the way real wars play out. And I think it is a quality Sins has that few other RTS games possess. After all, in other games it is very common to simply amass a large variety of units and then collide them against the other player's army in a huge battle of attrition. But rarely does the geography of the map, possible maneuvers, and existence of chokepoints prevail as it has in Sins of a Solar Empire.

Dungeon Crawling in Demon's Souls


The term "dungeon crawling" refers to the act of carefully and painfully slogging through dozens of floors of dungeon within a video game. As you go through endless traps and monsters, one vainly hopes to gain some treasure worthy of the arduous descent. But oftentimes, this just isn't worth it; the tedious grind bores and frustrates; and thus do treasure and glory lose their luster.
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Danger and Intensity

Yet now I can say that the game Demon's Souls has done the impossible. Dungeon crawling in this game is actually fun. But why is that, you ask? How is it that a game set in murky, gritty dungeons and against standard dungeon-fare managed to do this? Well, all I have to do is point to the title of this section. Demon's Souls has that which most all dungeon crawls lack. Danger and intensity.

First, a little background. Demon's Souls is a game legendary for its difficulty. The monsters hit hard. Traps will kill you. When you die in this game, you risk losing it all, potentially losing hours worth of progress. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape that has you as a lone adventurer versus thousands of demons spread across a scarred and forsaken land. And gigantic flying manta rays spawned from the pit of hell impale you with titanic javelins and laugh in your face.

To most, this does not sound fun. Most people quit before they get past the first level. But, honestly, this is not a game for only the hardcore. Instead it is a game for those who are prepared to think, prepared to learn from their mistakes and prepared to adapt to a hostile environment in order to overcome it. Nowhere is this more clear than with the monsters you face. Take the average skeleton, for example. They come at you with massive swords, often rolling like madmen across the ground to get to you, stunning you with the sudden onslaught. If you aren't prepared, they kill you in seconds, and you have to start the entire level over again.

Yet I would argue that this danger is what helps keep you pumped and glued to what you are doing. The consequences make every intense moment and victory matter. And what makes this fun is the learning process that applies to every creature that you face. Once you know how it will try and kill you, you can react accordingly in order to catch the creature off guard. Once you recognize its "tells", or when it is about to swing at you, you can dodge out of the way or parry the blow aside. Consequently, if you are cautious, thoughtful, and resist running ahead, you can deal with anything that comes your way.
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Planning Ahead

Much of what makes the dungeon crawling amazingly fun is this need to plan ahead. The pervasive danger requires you to treat it almost as if it were real. If you see a dragon lying on a hill in front of you, you avoid that hill like the dickens. When faced with a row of archers, you can't just charge in and expect to live. The first thing you do is look for alternative ways to attack. Essentially, the danger causes you to be far more cautious than you would be in any normal video game, and it becomes all the more rewarding for it.

The environment itself also requires a careful eye. You might step on a pressure plate, dooming yourself to a volley of crossbow bolts from behind. If you don't see thin planks of wood holding back boulders and strike it by accident, then you will be killing yourself. Seeing what lies around every corner becomes an engrossing experience, as you hope for treasure yet want to be extra careful to insure you don't get ambushed.

The ability to allow your friends to join you in the game makes it even more rewarded. Working together to take down massive supernatural beings is great fun, and still requires a great deal of cautiousness. Even with three adventurers the game keeps things interesting, especially as you try to take on creatures you wouldn't have dared to if you were by yourself.
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Conclusion

All in all, the difficulty of the game is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. This is because the difficulty arises in a way that allows you to learn how to defeat it, instead of making each fight a luck-based affair. One never feels that the monsters are unfair in the way they take you down, instead it drives one to be better prepared next time, or to try a different approach.

Thus it is that Demon's Souls is one of the most intense games I've ever played, with dungeon crawling that is impressively addicting. The sense of accomplishment one gets from defeating a monster that, by all rights, should have destroyed you is incredibly rewarding. Yet, sadly, it is this facet of the difficulty that goes over the head of most of the gaming population. Most people would rather play a much easier game, and then are unable to recognize why the inevitable victories in other games feel hollow.

That hollow feeling arises from the lack of meaningful consequences. The effort to swing towards "casual players" has, in effect, served to castrate the majority of games. Victories fail to resonate when they come easily, and it is now hard to find games that are challenging given the focus on targeting the casual demographic. Nowhere is this more clear than with the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). But that is a debate for another time.

Demon's Souls manages to do the impossible in creating a game that is difficult, yet one that allows for intellectual consideration and planning in order to overcome the challenge (instead of one requiring increased reflexes). And I hope that future game designers will recognize this impressive accomplishment and include it in the games of the future.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Young Victoria


This movie took me admittedly by surprise. I went into it expecting yet another period piece about "how fabulous it is to be a rich woman in pre-Industrial Britain". But, thankfully, that turned out to have little to do with The Young Victoria. Consequently, this film now ranks as my favorite period piece about a well-to-do woman in England's colonial times.
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Growth and Confidence

The Young Victoria is the story of, well, the young Queen Victoria of Great Britain, how she came to the throne, her early reign, and her romance-then-marriage with Prince Albert. What makes this a compelling film is how this journey is depicted, how well the actors/actresses fit their roles, and how Victoria is truly one of the most impressive role models for a strong and empowered woman that I have ever seen.

Victoria's youth was tumultuous, and the chaos of her younger years is clearly evident within the film. When her father died without a male heir, Victoria was immediately regarded as inferior and inexperienced. Very few people considered the possibility of her ruling without destroying the country. As a consequence, two blood relatives of the late king decided to compete and see if they could force Victoria to sign away her powers to them, to allow them to act as regents in her stead.

One can't emphasize enough how terrible this situation was for her. Her mother was among those who wanted her to sign away her powers, and her mother's servant was among the most intimidating and ruthless in trying to force Victoria to do so; he came close to physically attacking her a couple times. Victoria's father is gone, her friends limited due to a sheltered youth, and she is constantly pursued by a number of men seeking to woo her in order to gain her power. While she seeks counsel from advisors, she also has difficulty trusting them given her own inexperience; she fears that they will seek to control policy through her, and thus she has to keep one eye open on everyone at all times.

Despite the odds and despite the urge to run away from all of the conflict, intrigue, and responsibility, Victoria takes it all upon herself, defying all of expectations of her. She encounters obstacle after obstacle, and yet pulls herself through with grit and determination. It is easy to see in this film why Queen Victoria turned out to be one of Great Britain's most influential and important leaders; she takes the stereotype of weak-willed, subservient woman and breaks it over her knee, refusing to give up even in the darkest of hours.
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Depth of Character

What makes the movie memorable is the way it makes the characters multifaceted without shirking from their bad decisions and questionable moments. Victoria makes a number of poor choices throughout the movie and, instead of making us dislike her, it creates far more believability and sympathy with her actions. We feel that Victoria is human, not some royal immortal without a fault. This humanizing is important to note, as it is so easy to depict major historical figures as legendary, almost mythic characters unable to do wrong.

This depth of character applies to everyone in the movie. Her mother and her advisor are unlikeable characters, and yet events in the movie show us that they aren't entirely self-motivated, balancing our opinion of them. Similarly, Prince Albert, while a caring and intelligent individual, also creates some conflict with Victoria as they try to work out how to wield power between them. Unlike other movies, where a conflict such as this is a tool to make the final reconciliation between the two lovers more romantic and pure, the differences between Victoria and Albert are crucial to understanding who they are and how they managed to get along. It is an element of realism that thankfully was not swept under the rug, and it shows us how they became one of the most successful duos Britain has ever seen.

Prince Albert bears special mention. Like Victoria, he was an individual pressured by elders to go in one direction then another. This is depicted brilliantly in a way that allows us to see precisely why they were attracted to each other, their commonalities, and how their similar experiences affected their personalities. Prince Albert is similarly a man who makes a good role-model, a man who is both decisive and humble, romantic and sensible.
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Conclusion

I am very glad that I ended up watching this movie, as it helped to push aside stereotypes I had formed about this genre of period-piece romantic dramas. It has been very easy to see how the romantic mystique of living in pre-Industrial Britain has affected the aspirations and dreams of women everywhere, and I found this to be a bit disturbing. Pride and Prejudice shows us an independent girl who waits for love and resists arranged marriage, but it glosses over the fact that Mr. Darcy was not normal for a man of his time period. It also does not mention how, if Mr. Darcy had not been around, the main character would likely have become a shunned, old spinstress for the rest of her life. The movie and the book have had the unintended consequence of casting the time period in a rosy light that isn't entirely accurate, and I think that this has gone over the heads of those who have embraced it.

By contrast, The Young Victoria shows us the world of a young queen which is full of peril, manipulation, and responsibility. It shows us her triumphs and her failures, carefully showing us what happens when she slips up. Victoria thus becomes a powerful and romantic figure, yet one that is also steeped in reality, making her victories resonate all the more. Thus do I highly recommend The Young Victoria for all viewers. This is a story that is not to be missed.

9/10

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Untouchables


Saturday night comes around and the endless browsing of Netflix's movies doesn't bring to the eye any standouts. Finally, everyone decides on an unknown quantity: The Untouchables. Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro, and gangsters? It ought to be good...
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Brothers in Arms

The time is the Prohibition of the 1920s and 30s. Al Capone is king; the mayor of Chicago in his pocket and exceedingly rich from selling illegal liquor for cheap. Instantly, this had me interested. Before this, I don't think I had ever seen a period piece movie focused on the Prohibition era.

Kevin Costner is the main lead, an agent of the Bureau of Prohibition. This role brings him all sorts of ridicule and disapproval. For Prohibition was brought about by a minority of Puritanical men in the upper echelons of power, and the common man found the law against alcohol to be beyond infuriating. While I am not personally a fan of Kevin Costner, he pulls it off with aplomb, making us convinced by his efforts. We sympathize with him as he tries to take on those who would buy or sell illegal liquor in a society that does not truly care about his mission. And we feel for him as he does his best to ignore the challenges before him and the judging people who surround him. But what makes the movie enjoyable, though, isn't just this character and his personal crusade. Instead, it is him and whom he manages to bring with him on this journey. The movie is entirely driven by the characters who populate it, and they are the reason to watch the movie.

As the movie progresses, Kevin Costner brings together a squad that will unseat Capone from power and make him accountable to the law. They are dubbed the Untouchables: men who believe that they are beyond the powerful reach of Capone. And they turn out to be one of the quirkiest cop teams I have ever seen. Sean Connery is a prominent member, playing an incorruptible, near-retired policeman who acts as if he has nothing to lose. He alone makes this movie worth watching as he challenges the entire system, doing it skilfully and with great charisma. Under Sean Connery's expert and badass tutelage, Kevin Costner gathers a team of oddball characters that eventually get involved in some of the most amusing hijinks one would ever expect from a gangster-type movie.
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Narmtastic

Perhaps it was just my impression, but at times the movie seemed to excel at creating situations that came off as unintentionally hilarious. A major contributing factor is some of the characters. Robert DeNiro plays one of the most over-the-top and despicable, yet funny, villains I've ever seen. In every scene he is in, it is hard to take your eyes off him as you don't quite know what he is going to do next. One could say the same thing of Sean Connery. Both characters do things that are both jaw-dropping yet strangely believable, and it helps keep the movie both entertaining and epic.

What brings the movie considerable appeal is the sheer amount of narm within it. What is narm, you ask? Narm is when an actor, character, or any individual tries to take something seriously, yet ends up eliciting laughter in the viewer instead of solemn nods. This movie is narm-tastic; it oozes the stuff. Whether it be the hilarious charge of the Canadian brigade, the eyebrow-raising antics of how Capone treats his minions, or the fact that a random baby somehow manages to derail the entire movie at one point; this movie turns out to be surprisingly charming on many levels.

Special attention must be paid to that baby. In one of the most memorable scenes I have ever seen, a nameless baby in a carriage manages to halt the entire plot of the movie for at least five minutes. I don't know what the director was thinking. I don't know what the screenwriter was smoking. In fact, filmed any other way, that baby would have been far less funny. And I don't think they were trying to be funny. But I'm glad that they did it, because that scene will be burned into my memory for all time now. In a good way. I wish I could be less vague, but I don't want to ruin it for you. Go see it for yourself.
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Conclusion

Yet, despite all my highlighting of the hilarity contained within, I would like to point out that this is also a serious movie. It involves gangsters, these gangsters have guns, and they do use them. There are some deaths, but seem rather tame compared to other gangster movies I've seen, and this is a good thing. The movie does an excellent job at portraying the time period, the costumes and sets look dead accurate, and quite a few scenes are gripping on a number of levels. Being funny is hardly The Untouchables' only positive quality.

Needless to say, I'm very sad that Sean Connery has quit acting. This is definitely one of the best roles he has ever portrayed, and he is entirely believable and completely awesome. In fact, he actually received an Academy Award for the role: Best Supporting Actor. As mentioned before, many of the other characters also have a flair to them which makes them each interesting. The accountant of the team has many great moments, as does the sharpshooter. Robert DeNiro hams it up marvelously and Kevin Costner is believable, if not quite as intriguing as the others.

Negatively, the movie did have a number of scenes that seemed like they should have been removed entirely or had little importance to the overall plot. Kevin Costner's relationship with his wife and child is one example. I could not see how their existence contributed to the movie; it seemed to lose steam whenever they showed up. Also, as amusing and interesting as it was, it doesn't quite match other gangster movies out there. The Godfather is king and, in all, I think I enjoyed the more recent Public Enemies better. But The Untouchables is certainly worth seeing if this review appealed to you, and I heartily recommend it.

8/10