Saturday, April 30, 2011

Confessions of a Superhero

Written by Joe the Revelator


In one of the strangest niches our society has created lies a sect of panhandlers who dress as their favorite superhero, stroll the Hollywood strip, and take pictures with tourists. Marilyn Monroe pretends to smooch with a pedestrian. Spiderman hops up on trash cans to shoot invisible web at people. And on the bad days, Elmo and Mr. Incredible get cuffed and jailed for getting pushy and breaking the rules.

They’re all waiting for their shot at the big screen. They have talent agents and coaches, they go out for casting calls. And when they’re not getting hassled by the cops for aggressive begging, they’re performing on the street, striking heroic poses.

Matt Ogen’s documentary follows four heroes who have seen better days. At a glance they look like Hulk, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. But up close you can see where the spray-painted yellow bat symbol didn’t dry properly, or where Hulk’s mask is slit up the back, or how Superman’s narrow shoulders are slight under his cape. The costumes are all homemade and the actors wearing them are technically unemployed, working for ‘tips’, if the people flocking to them for a photo op are generous enough to pay out five bucks.


Look! Up in the sky! It’s a...

The camera doesn’t stay on the street though. It follows them and captures a slice of their life, their history and relationships. Ever wonder what kind of woman would date a man who wears a cape 16 hours a day? We’re given a good look at their homes, grit and all, and their secret identities might just make you cringe.

There’s something infinitely surreal about watching Batman, still hidden by his leather cowl, explaining to a psychologist that he has anger issues. He even pauses a moment to wipe away the tears which have collected under his mask. Or to listen to Superman lament about the worst day of his life, which surprisingly wasn’t during his battle with speed addiction, but the day Christopher Reeve died. In fact the only hero whose life is on an upswing is Hulk, who has improved his condition from homeless to living in a small apartment without furniture.

Superman, who seems to be the focus of the film, claims to want to star in movies. But this is contradicted somewhat by his odd leadership of the street performers and commitment to the lifestyle. He lectures the new Ghostrider about morals and takes steps to calm Batman’s outbursts toward the public. His apartment is cluttered and stacked with Superman memorabilia. He even makes a trek to Metropolis Indiana for the annual Christopher Reeve day, to compete in a superhero look-alike contest he doesn’t even place in. The other heroes openly admit Superman is the “crazy” one of the group, possibly believing himself to be the man of steel.


After the cape stops fluttering:

By the end of the documentary I couldn’t decide which emotion the director was trying to evoke; sympathy, pity, or humor. Maybe all of the above. I laughed like a madman watching Batman get put in the back of a squad car (which he subsequently kicked out the back window) for picking fights over a port-o-potty urinal. Wonder Woman’s history felt the saddest, the classic failed actress who packed her bags after high school and came to Hollywood on a dollar. And Hulk’s optimism was so natural and sedate it was infectious.

Would I recommend Confessions of a Superhero? When I see these people the only sure word that comes to mind is Byproduct, of stardom, of media, and of economy. Having said that, I would heartily recommend this documentary. And be prepared to feel weirded-out for the next few days.

Friday, April 29, 2011

How I Met Your Mother

By DionysusPsyche
How I Met Your Mother is a sitcom that takes place in New York. Bob Saget is the perfect voice over for Future Ted, and the series is about him telling the entire story to his kids (the reason for which is revealed in one of the episodes).

At the beginning of the series, Ted's best friend Marshall (Jason Segel) proposes to his long time girlfriend Lilly (Alyson Hannigan). Ted (Josh Radnor) realizes that it's time he found the person he was meant to be with and settle down. His friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), the ultimate player, has other plans for Ted. He believes that Ted is too young to get married, and instead wants Ted to be his wingman while they go off on adventures of dating—or in Barney's case, elaborately hooking up with and then bailing on—girls. Then Ted meets Robin (Cobie Smulders), the girl of his dreams, who doesn't want anything serious.
Throughout the series, Ted struggles with relationships. Whether it's with long distance, waiting for the slutty pumpkin, or battling his feelings for Robin, Ted longs for the real thing and meets a lot women who just aren't it. He's romantic, a little too honest, and very sincere. He also has to adjust his relationship with Marshall as Marshall and Lilly go from dating to a married couple. Ted's friends teach him how to be a better version of himself, and these things he shares with his kids.
Robin plays the love interest and friend who is determined to conquer her career over everything else. She has dogs and loves guns. Despite her confident nature, serious relationships terrify her, and she doesn't care for children. She plays Barney's wingman in one episode. She works with a myriad of frustrating co-anchors, schedules, and job relocation. Occasionally, Robin longs for her homeland, Canada. A lot of the funniest episodes have to do with Robin's essence and weaknesses which is also true for Barney.

Barney proclaims himself to be Ted's best friend—even though Marshall is. He always wants people to “suit up!” and creates catch phrases that often only appeal to him. He constantly quotes The Bro Code and tries his best to live by it—although no one else does. His antics and schemes to lour girls into his bed are wild, hilarious, and extensive. He makes lists, he has goals, and he sets the stage, all in the name of getting laid. Sometimes, he's even generous to try to get Ted laid, which Ted resists most of the time. He is not above changing costumes multiple times in order to hit on the same girl, telling ladies he's shipping out, building a time machine, etc. As the seasons go on, Barney's acrobatics get a little old, but fortunately the writers dive into his childhood, his first real girlfriend, and what makes Barney tick. Even Marshall and Lilly are wow'd by his efforts and ideas once and awhile, and deep down, Barney is influenced by their solid relationship with each other.
Marshall and Lilly are the ultimate duo in every way, even when they dress up for Halloween together. They occasionally act like parents to the rest of the gang, but they are also the paradigm couple that Ted envies. They compliment each other, and he wants that. Marshall and Lilly are not without their faults, and they come up against the same issues that every couple deals with—moving in together, getting married, cold feet, whether they've been together too long, and if they've had enough of a chance to experience the world. They also debate on how to raise their kids, buy a house, and spend time wondering if they're ready for kids. Without a doubt, they are the heart of the show. Lilly is sweet and positive. Marshall's quirks make him one of the best characters, and his constant support for Lilly is one of his many endearing qualities.
Like Friends, the cast of How I Met Your Mother is an ensemble cast, even though Ted is supposed to be the main character. He often takes a backseat to his friends' stories telling how their experiences not only shaped them but shaped him as well. There are lessons to be learned: when and when not to lose your virginity, how to get a girl, the lament of long distance relationships, getting back together with your ex, and more. Frequently, Future Ted omits information from his kids. At one point, when his neighbors are having loud sex, he refers to it as “playing the bagpipes,” and there are actual bagpipes that play. The holiday episodes are pretty great. How Lilly Stole Christmas is hilarious, and The Slutty Pumpkin might be my favorite Halloween episode of any sitcom or show.
The first season is defined by Ted's determined quest which features his desire to date Robin while grappling with being her friend. Lilly and Marshall have their own difficulties, including whether it's time for them to get married. Season two Ted is dating someone, but things get in the way, like his parents. We also learn how he and Marshall became best friends. Barney tries to become a better friend to Marshall. There's a wedding. The season's most memorable episode reveals an unexpected secret about Robin. By third season, Ted is sick of looking for The One and decides to play things Barney's way. Marshall helps him realize that maybe he's not the man he needs to be when he meets The One. Future Ted reveals information about his future wife. Barney, on the other hand, starts developing actual feelings for a woman and Lilly helps him cope with it.
Ultimately, there is the mystery of how Ted meets his future wife and mother of his children. On his mission we get to meet all the girls and crazy situations Ted finds himself in before he finds The One. The show is about the journey, and the fun had along the way.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Green Zone


The Green Zone sure is an odd one. Based on how it looks and was marketed, I went into this expecting a run-and-gun sort of thriller set in Iraq near the beginning of America's involvement in Iraq. It has Matt Damon, the same director as the Bourne spy thriller movies, and a similar to approach to action within the film. It is an easy mistake to make.

But what the movie truly is is a criticism of how the Iraq war came to be. It is hard for me to gauge how effective this was, because I can go both ways on this, but I'll do my best.
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The Plot

The movie's story focuses on the actions of one U.S. army squad leader (Matt Damon). He is tasked with taking his squad and searching locations that are supposed to have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) within. As we already know, he comes up empty handed and begins to become frustrated with the American intelligence, supposedly rock solid, that keeps leading his team into areas that haven't a whiff of WMDs ever being there. Feeling misled, he tries to confront his commanders and high-up members of the United States administration about it, but is repeatedly sidelined, told to stand down, and to just take orders without questioning them.

In real life, that would probably be the end of it. But, being a movie, Matt Damon instead aligns himself with whomever can help him figure out the truth behind who is giving them faulty intel. To this end, he essentially operates on his own outside of his jurisdiction to find the truth. This results in him going behind enemy lines and flouting the authority of his superior officers in order to seek what was actually going on with the WMDs.
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The Message

Now, first off, I do want to say that this movie was really exciting and kept a surprisingly tense tone throughout. It is one to keep you on the edge of your seat, and it accomplishes this well. The problem is twofold. 1. The characters are one-dimensional depictions of points-of-view. 2. The message it gives goes too far.

First off, the characters. In Green Zone, each of the characters basically represent the perspectives of entire organizations/groups of people. For example, the journalist character embodies American journalism in general during the time; the press accepted reports of WMDs in Iraq without making any real effort to check the facts until we were already there in force. Early in the movie, Matt Damon meets an Iraqi man who seeks to help the Americans, but resists when he discovers that they plan on making a deal with the Iraqi army, support an exile who has not actual support within Iraq, and when he sees a number of mistakes that the American forces make; there are a number of revealing moments when it is clear that he represents the Iraqi people in general. In another instance, the Pentagon special intelligence man in Iraq embodies the average politician of the time, seeking to achieve goals that have results that will please the American press and people, but that, in the end, make the situation in Iraq much worse for the Iraqi people. I could go on, but I just want to point out that this is a double-edged sword. I enjoyed that so many perspectives were shown, but it was a failure to characterization because each of these characters were nothing outside of these opinionated stances.

Secondly, the end message that the intelligence was fabricated by the United States higher-ups for some undefined nefarious purpose seemed like it was going too far. It is possible that this reason was convenient in persuading people to get into the war, but I seriously doubt that this was some sort of conspiracy which they sought to hush up, which is essentially the position that The Green Zone takes. I personally believe that, instead of there being a conspiracy, the leaders of America at the time were just plain stupid. There was definitely evidence that WMDs were once there, it was not far-fetched to guess that they might still be there, and thus efforts to double and triple-check intelligence reports were not made. The only reason that there would have been a conspiracy was if there was something to gain, and as we are leaving Iraq now we still haven't commandeered all their oil or made them into our democratic puppet state, so I just don't see it.
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Conclusion

Despite my lengthy criticisms of The Green Zone, I still found it to be a very exciting movie that was additionally thought provoking. It definitely made me curious to research further into the Iraq War and how it started. And, despite what was essentially one-dimensional characters, the acting and intensity of the film made it so that I really didn't care or even notice until after I thought about it upon finishing. As far as war movies go, I would highly recommend this one.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Red Eye


Finding myself in a pawn shop apparently specializing in used movies, I traveled over to the back wall to inspect their vast array of movies ranging from terrible to "meh". After a few minutes of browsing, I found my eyes drawn to Red Eye. Featuring Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and that-one-girl from Wedding Crashers and Mean Girls (Rachel McAdams), I figured, "Hey. Might be good." The fact that it is directed by Wes Craven also assisted my interest. While I know next to nothing about this guy, he is fairly renowned as being a pretty good director of horror movies (from what I heard), and so worth checking out.
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The Premise

Red Eye's plot is based upon a girl meeting a guy in an airport while getting ready to take a flight home. They flirt, they bond, they connect. He seems like a really great guy. In a way, it is every girl's dream, to spontaneously run into Mr. Right, the impossible equivalent of Mr. Darcy, without even trying. They have some fun times together while the flight is delayed, and then part ways once boarding call is announced. But, lo and behold, there he is seated next to her on the flight! What a stroke of luck! Or so you would think...

But the fact of the matter is that Cillian Murphy is a creepy psycho who is being paid by someone (we never really find out who) to abuse, threaten, and intimidate Rachel McAdams into making some phone calls for him. For Rachel McAdams' character is employed by a hotel where the head of Homeland Security is staying and, by exercising her influence to get the head of Homeland Security to move rooms, he can more easily be assassinated by whomever Cillian Murphy is working for.

However, the motivations and sideplot behind Cillian Murphy is nowhere near as interesting as the dynamic of aggressor and victim between Murphy and McAdams. And, wisely, most of the action is focused upon the two as Rachel McAdams becomes increasingly aware that she needs to find some way to escape, and tries everything she can think of in order to do so.
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The Execution

In the scheme of things, this premise isn't enough to carry the movie by itself. For it to work, you have to have two excellent actors in the two lead roles, and they have to be able to sell it. And I have to say that I was impressed by how things turned out. Very impressed.

For unlike just about every single horror movie out there, in Red Eye, the victim is actually smart. Rachel McAdams acts just like you or I would in such a scenario. She doesn't make stupid decisions, and she does her best to fight the situation she is in, both subtly and directly. While Cillian Murphy maxes out his creepy potential and does his best to be physically threatening, by the end of the movie I became convinced that Rachel McAdams could totally kick his ass in a fight. While initially overwhelmed and afraid (understandably), Rachel McAdams manages to turn the tables completely. In my experience, it is highly unusual to see a horror movie where the victim manages to regain self-confidence and make really smart choices. Yet Red Eye features this nonetheless, pleasantly surprising me and making me cheer with every move Rachel McAdams makes.

To a certain extent, this is a product of Cillian Murphy not feeling dangerous enough. While he definitely scores insanely high on creepy mannerisms, actions, and voice, I just wasn't convinced for very long that he posed much of a physical threat to Rachel McAdams. A big part of this was simply how awesome McAdams was, but another part of it is that it is hard to be intimidated for long by a guy built like a reed. Fact of the matter is that Cillian Murphy is one skinny guy and, especially by the end of the movie, he just isn't in a position to cause much harm (I won't say why). However, he is definitely someone who I wouldn't want to be stuck with in a dark alleyway, so it is a hard call to make whether the movie would have been improved by him "feeling more dangerous".
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Conclusion

I found this movie very entertaining, much more so than I thought it would be for a horror movie. Considering its genre, I really can't think of many parts that actually shocked or scared me. In terms of what you expect from a horror film, I guess this is a failing. But in terms of being enjoyable overall, I found that Red Eye surpassed my expectations, which was awesome. Rachel McAdams especially impressed me as a very strong female character who, although in a really crappy situation, still manages to handle herself superbly and even admirably.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Salt


So what I'm tempted to do is to say, "Salt is as crappy a movie as you thought it might be from seeing its trailer... but you should see it anyways." I want to say this, not because the movie is crappy, but because going into it with expectations like that, like I did, will blow you away.

Let me explain. When I watch movies, I almost always am multitasking, doing something else while the movie plays. Be it exercising or job hunting or even just plain internet surfing, it always feels more productive to do it that way. Only really good movies can actually bring me to stop what I'm doing and pay full attention. With Salt, I begun it with the impression that it would probably be a somewhat uninteresting film, so I did something else at the same time. After all, the trailer suggested that it would be Angelina Jolie as another Jason Bourne knock-off.

About midway through I had stopped what I was doing (I actually have completely forgotten what it was I was doing!) and was transfixed to the screen. Time flew by as I sat there, jaw agape, watching the insanity unfold before my eyes. The sequel hook was laid, the credits rolled, and I found myself musing, "If they make a sequel to this movie, it will be AWESOME!"
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Badass in Disguise

One thing that the trailers and reviews of this movie could not convince me of was Angelina Jolie's capacity to become a badass secret agent. Often hailed as the sexiest woman of all time (which is totally subjective, mind you), Angelina Jolie's roles often have her playing aloof women who are merely present to look sultry. To be sure, she has played roles where she has kicked ass (Mr and Mrs Smith comes to mind), but she never convinced me of truly being a badass.

Consider that perception absolutely corrected. In Salt, I became convinced that Angelina Jolie is quite possibly the scariest and most deadly spy I've ever seen in cinema. Prior to this, my impression was that Daniel Craig's James Bond would take that cake, but I think that, given the opportunity, Angelina Jolie's Evelyn Salt would take down Craig like it was nothing.

This badassery comes in two parts. First, Jolie's capacity for improvisation is beyond par. Armed with absolutely nothing, she is able to take out many enemies in the film at once through an intriguing use of the environment. Second, the sheer physicality of Jolie. I think that Angelina Jolie as Salt makes for the most vicious fighter I've ever seen in a female role. Jolie could take on Terminator 2's Linda Hamilton with both hands tied behind her back. Jolie could absolutely dominate Underworld's Kate Beckinsale, vampire powers be damned. By the end of the movie, I was utterly convinced that Angelina Jolie was one badass mofo, and that is quite an accomplishment considering my previously low opinion of the actress' acting abilities.
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Full of Surprises

Another thing that made Salt really awesome to watch was the fact that, for me, the plot and the actions of many of the characters were completely unpredictable. Mind you, I went into this knowing only that Angelina Jolie would end up wanted by the law for something she didn't do. And that was just enough. For me, just about everything that followed surprised me. In order to avoid spoilers, all I can add is that nothing is what it seems. Usually I'm pretty good at spotting the good guys and the bad, but this one threw my first impressions for a loop.

On top of this, we have a plot that is rather exciting in terms of the politics and Cold War skulduggery of it all. While, in this movie, the Russians are once again put into the role of the antagonists (kinda), the real focus is on the spies, the members of the CIA and KGB. Given all the misdirection and ambiguity of both organizations, the story of Salt becomes multilayered very fast, and in a way that is appealing and less than convoluted. Although the climax is a bit stereotypical for a movie of this genre, I still found the story as a whole to be positively brilliant.
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Conclusion

Long story short, Salt rocked my socks off. Once sockless, I found my way here, to the blog, to gush about how, for a movie that received so many "meh" reviews and bland trailers, Salt is refined awesomeness in disguise. My only complaint is that the movie felt like it started slow. However, it makes up for this failing by picking up to epic speeds right where you expect it to.

As a side note, I would point out that Angelina Jolie (for reasons I will not disclose) dresses like a guy in one scene of this movie. And it is the most terrifying thing I've ever seen. It is probably the scariest thing in the entire film, so if you aren't prepared for manly Angelina, then give this movie a wide, wide berth!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Restrepo


Restrepo could easily be renamed Days in the Waging of the Afghanistan War. A documentary filmed by journalists for Vanity Fair (but distributed by National Geographic), it follows a platoon of soldiers tasked with holding and securing the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
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Strategic Relevance

"Where the hell is Korengal Valley," you ask? Don't know. Its strategic importance isn't explained very well outside of, "We need to defend these people in this valley so that they will cooperate with us in opposing the Taliban." To this extent, it made me wonder as to the overall strategy of the Afghanistan war in general. While I'm sure that there is a strategy, the documentary does a fairly effective job of giving the impression that not even the soldiers know it; upon arrival in the valley they spend time wondering why they are even there. The valley itself is composed of extremely rugged terrain with loads of hills and mountains, making travel and movement very difficult. Despite this, through the documentary we see a year of the company's time in the area and their efforts to make the valley increasingly secure.

Restrepo focuses primarily on three events in the company's time in the valley, with entertaining interludes of watching the soldiers pass the time. These events are: arrival in the valley, creating a forward outpost named Restrepo after one of their fallen comrades, and the dangerous mission dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche. Of these, I found their time at Restrepo to be the most thought provoking with regard to how America is waging the war in Afghanistan.

Restrepo was an outpost built by the platoon on the top of a hill whose only purpose, according to the documentary, was to bring the enemy to the army to be taken down and also as a psychological hit to the Taliban, basically saying, "Hey, I took this rock from you and you can't take it back. Neener neener." This reminded me of the movie Lions for Lambs, within which this precise strategy is criticized for its inherent pointlessness. What is the point of building an arbitrary outpost just so you can get shot at within it? Aside from the psychological impact on the enemy, Restrepo did not convince me of the strategic wisdom of this move. To that point, this documentary was successful in making me curious as to how America is waging the war in Afghanistan and if our approach has changed for the better now.
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The Human Factor

Another thing that makes Restrepo intense to watch is witnessing the lives of the soldiers within the company as they fight within the Korengal Valley, what was once regarded as "the deadliest place on earth". You see the leader of the platoon and his approach to keeping the company focused and together. You see the men and their reactions to what they are commanded to do. And, perhaps most potently of all, you see how this company of soldiers copes with the nasty situation they are in, how they entertain themselves and how they overcome the inevitable deaths of some of their closest friends.

You also get to see the company and the leader of the platoon deal with a number of the Afghans themselves. At a number of points throughout the documentary, the company goes door-to-door trying to gather information so that they can better defend the people within the valley as well as to try to winnow out those who might be secretly working for the Taliban. Of particular interest was the weekly meetings that the company holds with the village elders. My conclusion of this was that the army definitely needs some more diplomatic people inserted into the army units; the leader of the company is very blunt and often wince-inducing in how he treats and talks to the elders. It became very clear very fast that, if winning hearts and minds is the goal in Afghanistan, America needs to be sure that they are being polite to Afghanistan's local leaders while they are overcoming the understandable difficulties of working with them.
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Conclusion

Restrepo may be one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. I did not feel that I was being force-fed an argument or point of view; instead I viewed objective events and was able to draw my own conclusion from them. One might argue that objective footage of anything isn't nearly as energizing as someone passionately defending one side of an issue, but I felt that this documentary was incredibly engrossing to watch while simultaneously not coming down for or against the war in Afghanistan. If I were forced to try and gauge what side the documentarists are on, I would wager they are against the war. But, coming out of it, I think that us being there and trying to help out is the right thing to do, we just need to make sure our strategies are workable and that we are kind to those who we want to work with. One thing is definitely clear, though, in that winning the war in Afghanistan will be a long haul. But I personally think that it is worth it.

Thus I highly recommend this documentary. One needn't worry about seeing people killed or anything like that; I thought that it was pretty tame with regard to injuries shown and all that. The big reason why is because the cameraman was trying not to get killed, and thank goodness for it. Consequently, this is a superb war documentary well worth watching that shows us a very close look at what exactly our troops have been up to in Afghanistan.

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P.S. – On an unrelated note, happy 100th weblog post to me! Given that my posts tend to be around 1,000 words (usually more), I have now written over 100,000 words to this blog. For the record, that's the size of an average-length novel. Pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. :)

Friday, April 15, 2011

World War Z


World War Z is one of those books that makes you instinctively wince a little when you see it. A fictional world war of humans versus zombies? That sounds like the most ridiculous thing ever; one would assume it is incredibly cheesy and a shallow book with bucketloads of moaning, groaning, and gore.

And yet, this is far from the truth. World War Z instead assesses competently how humanity as a whole would truly react to an infection that turned people into hostile zombies. The result is epic to behold; the story is told by 'survivors' of the war: men and women, young and old from countries and professions all over the globe. Put in the format of them being interviewed by a journalist, the multiple and different viewpoints give the novel an intensely human factor that throws you right into the plight of those who have to face this apocalypse.
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The Progression

It is very compelling to read World War Z. The book is essentially told in chronological order. First, we get the initial reactions to the zombie outbreak; disbelief, efforts to cover it up, attempts to profit from the chaos through political posturing and opportunistic creation of false vaccines. It is clear that the author, Max Brooks, did a great deal of research on how people tend to react to immense crises both medical and physical. We see doctors muse over the symptoms of zombification, strategists think about how best to destroy the zombies, and people in general seek elaborate ways to survive while, in general, trying to hold onto their humanity and empathy for others in need.

This progresses to "The Great Panic": nations trying to face zombie swarms and hordes with modern armies and, for the most part, failing utterly. We see the reactions of countries from all over the globe, actions guided by historical habits and backgrounds; this is another area where it is clear that the author has done his homework. China tries to hush up the outbreak to keep order; the United States attempts to smash it head on; Japan seeks to evacuate the islands for geographical and geopolitical reasons. Just about every move feels right for each culture based on real-life decisions they've made in the past, and that helps to make the book that much more believable.

Finally, the progression ends with the world finally starting to get its shit together and cooperating with each other in order to achieve victory over the zombie threat. It is in this part of the story that the heroes really begin to shine and we see ordinary people put themselves in harm's way in order to do the right thing and save others. It is genuinely inspirational, and downright impressive that it feels so real. It speaks to the book's efficacy that it can shine so even when the circumstances of the world within it are so dark and nightmarish.
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My Assessment
(Spoiler warning)

However, there is a specific part of the story that I found issue with, with regard to how certain nations composed themselves in the face of the zombie threat.

The Battle of Yonkers. In this battle, we see the United States engage a massive horde of zombies for the first time militarily with a force composed entirely on the basis of the "Shock and Awe" doctrine. This essentially means that the weaponry is entirely based on causing widespread general damage with the aim of freaking the enemy out to the point where their morale breaks and they run away like little pansies.

But we are fighting zombies here.

I found this section of the story to be so painful because, at this point, all the nations in the world know that to kill a zombie you have to shoot it in the head. All bombs do is hurl the bastards into the air, leaving them perhaps legless but still able to drag themselves over more stealthily in order to nom nom on the marines. On top of this, it says in the text specifically that they had electronic combat vehicles there, absolutely USELESS in fighting zombies who aren't using anything electronic. Consequently, this section made me want to bash my head against the wall; it seems clear that the United States military response was dumbed down just so the crisis could seem that much more extreme and dangerous. An author's trick, if you will. Thus everything having to do with America later in the story felt somewhat artificial; I felt cheated by the author's deliberate alteration of what would happen, mostly because my expectations were raised by his ability to predict everything else so realistically with nary a fault.
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Conclusion

In the end, though, I really enjoyed World War Z. The first half was like watching a train wreck; it is horrible and you know that something awful is about to happen, but yet you can't look away. The second half, however, really took me away with so many epic stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of survival and love for their fellow man. It is hard to state how powerful and moving things get by the end. The last few dozen pages are essentially a nonstop victory for what makes the human spirit great. Yet even there the author doesn't let it go to his head, and points out realistically how people are always capable of doing nasty things in crises, as well as how hard it would be to reconstruct society after such a horrendous event.

I highly recommend World War Z to anyone who has the stomach for horror and a curiosity of how the world and people like you and me would deal with a zombie invasion. If you are enthused, then this book is a masterpiece of fiction. If you don't, then walk away and try not to think about how unprepared you will be when the zombies finally come...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero


Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero is the second book I've read by Michael Korda. Korda is one of the best history writers out there; he has a gift for taking old historical subjects and breathing life into them. As I believe I've mentioned before on this blog, it is quite rare to encounter a true page-turner among historical books and biographies, and this mini-biography of Ulysses S. Grant is one of those.

I call it a mini-biography because the book is only about 150 pages. However, this in no way hampers the ability of Korda to capture the feel and essence of Ulysses S. Grant. We are taken on a breakneck journey through the major events of Grant's life; from his dogged generalship in the Civil War from his controversial two-term presidency, we see Grant's successes and his failures cast in equal light. Like any one of us, Grant was human, and this is depicted fairly if sympathetically by the author.
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Just a Man

One thing that makes Ulysses S. Grant so interesting is that, unlike most famous generals or leaders, he was a truly common man. This held true even when he was president of the United States. As Korda points out, Grant never seemed all that comfortable with being entrusted with such power. Grant could not respect those who held themselves aloft over other men. As a consequence of his common birth, lower-class upbringing, and constant bad luck in all business ventures throughout his life, Grant refused, as a general, to be regarded as anything but a man. He would drink often, he was constantly unkempt, his uniform perpetually dirty. In a time period where generals and presidents often colorfully maneuvered and postured for attention and favor, Grant stood alone as a man who was all business and cared only for one thing: to win.

Thus, as Korda explains, Grant's story is the quintessential American dream; a poor man fraught with bad luck is able to overcome circumstance in order to command the entire nation. I found it very interesting to read about a figure like this and, after thinking about it, I came to realize that this is the first time I've encountered an individual like Ulysses S. Grant. Even Truman was a politician who sought to curry favor in others. By contrast, Grant was elected president without even having to campaign for it; such was his popularity and such was the gratitude of the American people to his Civil War generalship. Consequentially, Grant was completely unprepared for the job of president, yet still he managed to steer the nation in the right direction, if primarily from a foreign policy perspective.
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Military Genius?

One of the things which the author did exceedingly well was describe Grant's campaigns in the West during the Civil War, along with how Grant's approach to strategy was incredibly astute. Korda states, in fact, that he views Ulysses S. Grant as the greatest commander of all time. I found this to be quite the statement, and I'm not sure if it is one I agree with.

I found it questionable because Grant's strategy was exceedingly simple. He would find the enemy and then attack, attack, attack, until he found some way to defeat the opposing army or whittle them down to nothing. What made this so impressive during the Civil War was the fact that pretty much every other Union general was scared stiff of confronting the enemy and/or giving solid pursuit if the enemy retreated. Compared to them, Grant's determination to attack until victory was achieved was downright revolutionary and wholeheartedly welcomed by President Lincoln, who wanted the war ended as soon as possible.

Grant's strategy was perfect, but only for the Civil War. Thus I would argue that it was merely situational. Grant's all-out approach worked for the Civil War because it was a situation where the Confederacy had less manpower, less economic strength, and less overall support compared to the Union. A general who had no concern for casualties was the most frightening thing that could face the Confederacy; Grant's willingness to fight battles of attrition led swiftly to the Confederacy's downfall as, eventually, they had nothing left to fight him with. In the epilogue, Korda argues that this strategy of bringing all resources to bear and then pounding away at the enemy until he gives up is exactly the strategy that the United States needs to follow to win wars. He cites the Vietnam and Korean wars as situations where that strategy had been sorely needed.

However, imagine if Grant had been a general on the side of the Confederacy. Fighting battles of attrition would have flown poorly then. There is also the fact that battles can be won without slamming one's force at the enemy like a blunt instrument. It is a horrible waste of life to advance without concern for casualties; wars have been won through surgical strikes at key locations without requiring enormous and bloody set piece battles. It is also worth pointing out that wars today are a completely different animal. The United States military can pretty much take anything on in a head-to-head confrontation, but then you have to be prepared for the guerrilla warfare, insurgencies, and terrorists that follow. For America's enemies today fully realize that Grant's strategy of brute force should not be confronted. Instead, ironically like the American patriots and minutemen of old, our enemies hide away, spread dissent, and chip away at the edges of our resolve to fight.

And yet, look what I just did there; I pointed out that Grant's strategy is unbeatable (it cannot be confronted) when coming from the United States. So, I concede, Grant's strategy is great. Instead, I would argue that it is no longer applicable.
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Conclusion

I found Michael Korda's mini-biography of Grant to be exceptional. It manages to pack an astonishing amount of detail into a short space; perfect for those unwilling or unable to stomach a more typical biography of 700+ pages. My only complaint is that he references President Eisenhower as an article of comparison too many times. Considering how Korda wrote a full-length biography of Eisenhower, using him repeatedly as an example smacks of laziness. After all, why not look up someone new with which to compare Grant?

In any case, I would suggest this book to any interested. Ulysses S. Grant is an interesting figure, a common man risen to the two most powerful positions in the United States: supreme commander of the military and president. It was touching to discover that his reputation for drinking was almost entirely due to him missing his wife while in the field. It is easy to dismiss Grant as a beer-drenched failure of a president, but after reading this biography I found that this stereotype is far from reality.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Rain Wild Chronicles

Written by Joe the Revelator




I swear that not every literary post of mine will be about Robin Hobb (Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies). As an author, Hobb’s work usually hits me like a can of Pringles, nothing too surprising and I could consume it all day until I got a stomach ache. Her books are safe, entertaining reads that fill the spaces between stranger novels and endeavors. But her latest books which are out on supermarket shelves, Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, deserve mention, and not exactly for their merits as fantasy novels.
As far as plot goes, it almost feels like the author has copied and pasted the bones of her previous Liveship series into a new book. Her old story featured a cunning young woman from a down-on-their-luck merchant family, thrust out to sea in search of adventure and riches, to later fall in love with the brash first-mate turned sea captain. One of the two main characters in Rain Wild Chronicles is a clever young woman from a down-on-their-luck merchant family, thrust up the Rain Wilds River in search of adventure, knowledge, and the riches of the Elders. She later falls in love with the brash riverboat captain, and in this go-around she’s a scholar with red hair instead of black.

Dragons don’t fly, they hobble.
Dragon Keeper picks up where the Liveship adventures left off. We’re briefly shown the hatching of the dragons who will encompass the plot, and are introduced to a few of the motley crew escorting them. The dragons themselves are all stunted, disfigured, or retarded due to early births and late cocooning as serpents. Their keepers are no better, having been dredged from the bottom of a population keenly affected by magical deformities. The effect is something like a dragon tale acted out by a circus sideshow. And herein lies the interesting message of this adventure.
Early in the story, almost as soon as the party of adolescent mutants leave civilization with their dragons to seek a better home, the boys and girls start pairing off like rabbits. They firmly thrust aside society’s old rules about ‘heavily altered’ children not producing offspring, and begin to make up their own rules. One of these girls, Thymara, argues vehemently about considering consequences and planning ahead; not exactly spouting abstinence, but simply keeping one’s options open and avoiding children until one is financially ready.
I’ve rarely read a fantasy novel in which planned parenthood is an open topic, sprinkled in between scenes of dragons fighting and assassination plots. Thymara turns out to be one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve ever encountered in a book, and Hobb manages to carry several romances between the other characters, for better or for worse. One of these romances culminates into a miscarried, mutated fetus being fed to a dragon. Somehow it didn’t seem unbelievable at the time.

Dragons on Welfare:
Anyone too poor, too stupid, or too genetically debilitated to procreate should have their children fed to dragons. And that’s not the author’s message, that’s mine. Robin Hobb is much more gracious and subtle about the points she makes.
Would I recommend the Rain Wild Chronicles to fantasy readers? Absolutely. And this is the last I’ll comment on Hobb’s books, unless she writes about another topic I hold as dearly as wise parenting choices. Like ninjas or saltwater taffy.

Killzone 2


So I'm going to preface this by saying that I found this game to be kind of "meh". I've actually been playing it off and on for quite some time. With much more off than on. But, because I own it and because by playing I felt like I could justify my purchase, I did manage to complete it and play a fair amount of multiplayer to boot.

But I kind of wish I hadn't bothered. A common criticism of video games is that they are a waste of time, that anything is more constructive than playing them. On the whole, I disagree. But, in Killzone 2's case, I find myself switching sides.
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Game vs Experience

Before I get into lambasting Killzone 2, I want to present my argument for video games being, in general, a perfectly valid way to spend one's free time. With video games, people tend to have this odd perception that they somehow taint or take over the lives of those who play them. "They'll turn your brain to mush!" "You should go out and play outside; do something healthy and constructive!" In my view, these arguments apply only to the extreme periphery of those who play video games. You've heard the stories; kids have played in their basements to the detriment of their lives and those around them. I would point out that this is exceedingly rare, and I have literally met nobody who fits this image.

In addition, I've always been of the perception that, in terms of intellectual stimulation, television shows and movies are arguably worse than video games. All three media formats tell stories; the difference is that, with video games, you are actually interacting with the story, thinking about the actions that you make, and the consequences that result. The gameplay creates a challenge that you must think about to overcome. By contrast, with movies you are a passive participant watching it without interaction. That does not mean that movies can't make you think; I would just make the bet that more parts of your brain are engaged whilst playing an interactive video games.

And the stories in video games can be epic tales that are as equally engaging if not more so than movies or television shows. After all, in video games, you are the main character. The actions that you take and see your character can often help to magnify the experience, even if the main character's personality/choices are completely different from your own.
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The Failure of Killzone 2

Now, what I've just described is why I will always have a soft spot for video games. The experiences and stories that you can encounter and see can be just as memorable as the greatest movie.

However, Killzone 2 fails in this regard. Symptomatic of many popular "shooter" games of this era, Killzone 2 is all about taking a variety of guns and repetitively blowing your way through hundreds of ugly, masked guys in the middle of a war zone. The gameplay is essentially whack-a-mole; you see the enemy hiding behind cover, you pinpoint their location with the aiming reticule, and then shoot til dead. Now this might be okay if the story were good and the characters memorable, but sadly this is not the case.

The sad case is that all Killzone 2 is about is invading the planet of some Nazi stand-ins who did bad things in the first Killzone. You and a bunch of other angry, steroid-infused military stereotypes spend the entire game fighting from city to city in order to capture the enemy leader. That's pretty much it.

To be fair, the villain is memorable, voiced by Brian Cox, and downright scary with the epic scope of propaganda he spouts. He is Hitler, Stalin, and Goebbels rolled all up into one. However, he is utterly wasted as he is only seen at the beginning and end of the game. Totally not worth the sheer amount of whack-a-mole that must be engaged in in order to see him.
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Conclusion

And, perhaps most tragically, this game is rated as one of the best games for the Playstation 3. Like the nauseatingly similar Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games, Killzone 2 is a bland, boring diversion set in one war zone after another that would be gorgeous and epic to look at if it weren't for the fact that everything is black, brown, and grey. It is video games like these that support the cultural stereotype that video games turn your brain to mush. And games like Killzone 2 are the ones that sell the most out of any other and better game out there.

Until that changes, I think the road to video games being actually appreciated by society will be long and difficult.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Watchmen (Comic)


It is rare to read something and think to yourself, "Isn't it amazing that things like this exist?" Watchmen is one of those, a comic book of such epic proportions that I actually find myself wanting to read it again right after finishing. There are so many little gems hidden throughout the story, through dialogue and imagery, that it swiftly becomes clear that I could read this a hundred times and still find something new in it that grips me emotionally or makes me wonder intellectually.

It must have taken Alan Moore a long time to write Watchmen and to work with the artist on every level in telling the story, inserting every nuance and detail. Consequently, even though Alan Moore himself looks and sounds like a New Age hippy version of Rasputin (google that shit!), I have an enormous respect for him as an author. As an aspiring writer myself, it is stories like these that inspire me to go above and beyond my literary level. But, really, here I am gushing about it generally without going into the specific why of what makes Watchmen brilliant. The immediate reflex response is, "Where do I start?" So, instead, I will focus on just two aspects of what made the story amazing. For the rest, you'll have to read it yourself.
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Chekhov's Gun

In literature, Chekhov's Gun is a technique that refers to an item, symbol, or thing that is shown to the reader that, while inconspicuous and irrelevant by itself, takes on a greater significance later on. The stock example is that of a gun shown to the viewer at the beginning of a film; it is not used or even talked about until the very end of the movie where the main character swipes it up to defend himself. By being shown in passing, the gun foreshadows events to come.

Watchmen is full of little things like this. But, unlike the typical use of the technique, Watchmen transcends it. In every panel on every page, you can find something which provides greater meaning to the story, the characters, or the environment that they live in. Every detail serves a purpose, providing a depth to the story that, I kid you not, is not surpassed by any story I have ever read. Here are some examples:

  • While the story itself focuses on a group of heroes in the 1970s/80s, Watchmen continually provides background info on the first costumed heroes of the 40s/50s, a nostalgic golden age compared to the darkness of the comic's present. Through repeated glimpses into the past, we are granted a far greater understanding of the protagonists and their own journey to becoming heroes, as well as comprehension of how much the world has changed.
  • Throughout the comic, there is a sort of counterpoint comic that is continually viewed and referenced to called Tales of the Black Freighter. While independently irrelevant to the plot, the events within this tale have an eerie juxtaposition to events in the story of Watchmen, providing greater appreciation of them. On top of this, the entirety of the Black Freighter story can be regarded as a metaphor of the journey of one of the characters in Watchmen. But I won't say who.
  • The plot of Watchmen in its purest essence is a murder mystery. Subtle hints are laid out everywhere, through visuals and references, that, in retrospect, all point to the final answer and the conclusion of the story.

It is insertions like this into a plot that, in my eyes, separate the truly grand and memorable stories from those that aren't. By that standard, Watchmen is the pinnacle of achievement.
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Characterization Beyond Measure

But what really clinched it for me was the characters. For those who know me, this is not surprising. Characters that have that breath of life, that spark that kindles a fire within your heart as if they were real, breathing individuals... This, to me, is the spice of what makes stories brilliant: being able to empathize with a person that does not truly exist. And I do not view this as escapism. Through understanding characters like these, I believe that we are better able to understand ourselves and the people we live with and encounter in our day-to-day lives. Through reading and comprehending great and moving characters we are provided a glimpse and appreciation of human nature itself, in all of its darkness and all of its glory.

But I'm getting way off topic here.
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Watchmen is special to me because it has characters that have a depth to them unsurpassed. A big part of that is all the little details I just was talking about, details that Alan Moore put into the story that cause us to think about the motivations of the characters, their idiosyncrasies and their failings. An even larger part is how, in its true essence, Watchmen's plot is just a sideshow. As Alan Moore himself put it, "The plot itself is of no great consequence... It just really isn't the most interesting thing about Watchmen."

What is special is the characters. They are appreciated and regarded on a level that is intense, personal, psychological, and psychoanalytical. Every character gets his or her moment in the limelight, and we discover through flashbacks, actions, and dialogue the events that made each character into who they are today. None of them are perfect. All of them have issues. Even the most powerful among them, Dr. Manhattan, is himself paralyzed into inaction, not because of some physical failing but from an inability to move beyond his own memories and his own flawed understanding of human life. Rorschach is only able to see things in Manichean terms, fighting an endless, never-ending battle against evil that can never be won, a viewpoint that we see was directly brought about by earlier experiences and memories. Ozymandias' perspective is formulated by an idolization of Alexander the Great, an obsession so grand that he embarks on his own travels to follow in Alexander's footsteps.

Everything that these characters have done and do throughout Watchmen defines them, and it is truly impressive to see such attention to detail, especially in a comic book. They are not real, but I feel as if I know them. This is only assisted by the interim sections; between every comic there are fictional documents written by and about the characters. Again, while unnecessary to the overall plot, they provide windows into the characters' very souls. The average reader might be tempted to skip them since they aren't part of the comic themselves, but I would argue that you aren't getting the full picture without them.
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Conclusion

It is hard for me to conclude this without sounding like a broken record. All I can really say is that Watchmen is truly one of the greatest stories I've ever read. It is dark, it is gritty, and there are a great many moments that may make you want to cry. But beyond all this is an optimistic viewpoint of the majesty and inherent goodness of human nature. This is one of the most depressing comics I've ever read. And yet it is also one of the most uplifting. The fact that a story, completely fictional, was able to bring this about and make me care for characters wholly unreal speaks to the power of its words and images.

Go into it with open eyes and you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness is another movie that I went into with negative expectations and came out pleasantly surprised. What were those negative expectations, you ask? Well, first off, we have Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson, while a brilliant actor in the past, hasn't really been in much of note recently and has acquired a rather nasty reputation in his daily life activities. Perhaps it is bad to judge an actor by what they do outside of acting, but we all do it just the same. However, that would make me a hypocrite because I love Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and both of them have acquired controversial reputations due to their belief in that which is most bizarre: Scientology.

Anyways, another thing which gave me doubts is that this, on the surface, just looks like yet another movie about some older guy going on the rampage when his family member gets killed/kidnapped. For some reason, this has been a recurrent trend recently, with the movie Taken leading the pack. The concept isn't inherently bad for a story, but when it has that appearance of being everywhere then it swiftly loses its luster. Speaking of which, I'll be watching the movie Harry Brown soon which has Michael Caine in what looks like virtually the same role. Having similar movies released one after another causes one to doubt and look down upon the ones that one watches after the first. I think that this is a big reason why I preferred The Prestige over The Illusionist. But I digress.
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Mel Gibson as the Subtle Badass

This movie restored a lot of respect with me for Mel Gibson. While this is hardly his best role ("Freeeedooom!"), he carries the tragic character excellently. He is suitably aggrieved by his daughter's death, yet you can't help but respect the man for his unyielding determination in trying to discover what caused it. His character has a lot going on: he occasionally hallucinates his daughter's presence yet maintains the wherewithal to act completely professional (most of the time); he is able to overcome the emotional instability that her death causes with surprising ease yet clearly lets his anguish bleed through from time to time. Long story short, Mel Gibson manages to give his character incredible depth, so much so that I'm still not quite sure whether to think of him as a solid, professional grade-A badass or a man with severe issues concealed extraordinarily well.

One interesting thing in particular that I liked about his character that seemed unique and special to the film was the fact that, unlike all those other older vigilantes in other movies, Mel Gibson's character always seems to avoid violence or confrontation unless absolutely necessary. This isn't out of cowardice, but more out of him being very smart and dedicated to, as much as possible, following the law. This spirals out of control later in the film, but I can't say why exactly without spoiling it. I can only say that there are points in the movie where Mel Gibson has no other choice but to act outside of the law, and it was great to see a protagonist act as intelligently as he does. I really found myself rooting for his character.
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The Big Picture

Another thing that made this movie especially appealing was the fact that the villains weren't small-time crooks or obvious criminals. This isn't just a gang killing here. Instead, it quickly becomes clear that the antagonist of Edge of Darkness is a corporation involved in classified nuclear operations with fingers dipped into the highest echelons of the United States government, a corporation that Mel Gibson's daughter worked for before her death. Finding what exactly is wrong with the corporation and what it does, and the daughter's role in it, was really interesting to watch.

Additionally, unlike many of the other one-man-out-for-revenge type flicks, Mel Gibson's character does not operate independently from his police force. Despite the dubious nature of the case, Mel Gibson works directly with his fellow cops to investigate his daughter's death, and he uses the police force a number of times for support and to bail himself out of tricky situations. I thought I'd point this out simply because it felt so rare for a character in this situation to do this. Again, it was interesting to see Mel Gibson's character try to work with the law despite the ambiguity of the task facing him.
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Conclusion

In the end, I really liked Edge of Darkness, which surprised me. Mel Gibson wasn't annoying, the plot was very interesting to watch, the antagonist was amorphous and difficult to pin down, Mel tried to work with the law instead of just abandoning it from the start, Ray Winstone provided a really interesting side character who I almost forgot to mention... The movie did a lot to subvert my expectations of the vigilante movie. And, for a movie called Edge of Darkness, I thought there were a lot of rather funny moments.

My only complaint would be that I found the scenes where he hallucinated/dwelled upon the memories of his daughter to be distracting. But those scenes were absolutely necessary considering that, otherwise, we would have assumed Mel Gibson's character to be a heartless bastard. It just speaks to the strength of the rest of the film that I found myself tapping my foot waiting for the main plot to continue. Definitely worth seeing.