Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Horror Movie Extravaganza



It's that time of year! Spooky stories, evil children, deranged clowns... Halloween ushers forth scary movies in all of their splendor, keeping kids up at night. Grown men become unwilling to make that 2am trip to the bathroom for fear of being set upon by demons. Yes, I refer to myself there, but in my defense I haven't had to do that since college. Shut up! It's a long trip to the dorm bathrooms at night!

Anyways, to honor the season I decided to take upon myself the exciting and potentially insane task of watching a number of the scariest movies I could lay my hands on. The criteria? I wanted to target movies that I hadn't seen before, and ones that have made top ten or top twenty-five lists of best horror movies out there. My plan? To watch and then review them here. Not a full review, mind you, but enough to get a sense of how good they were, what they were about, if they are worth your time, etc. I speak in the present tense because I write this before watching any of them and, as I watch them, I'll review them one by one so they are fresh in my memory. Also noted at the end of each mini-review will be an account of any disturbed sleep, bizarre dreams, or any freaking out that occurred after watching each respective movie, because I just know everyone will get a kick out of that.

Now, without further ado, the first on the list!
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Insidious

Picked from a list of the top horror movies on Netflix, Insidious is about a family who are perpetually haunted. They keep moving from house to house, keep seeing creepy shit, and can't seem to catch a break. We then figure out that it isn't the houses that are haunted, it's their eldest son who has mysteriously fallen into a coma. Yes, that might be a spoiler and its a pretty major plot point, but if the movie poster thinks its unimportant enough to say exactly that in the movie description, then I think it's fair to ruin it here too. OWNED. Anyways, Insidious then takes a very interesting path involving dreams, demonic possession, psychics, ghosts, and more!

My thoughts? This movie was awesome and well worth seeing. Did it scare me? Not really. I think the problem was the subject material: I am simply not scared of exorcism/possession type movies because I find the concept completely ridiculous. I will say that the subject is intellectually interesting (the different demons, the specifics of how one exorcises, the fighting of the subject to mentally overcome the spiritual obstacle), but frightening? Nah. But Insidious definitely kept me hooked, and its dwelling on how the family could overcome the evil was quite engrossing.

Also worth noting is that this movie has quite an undercurrent of humor throughout. At one point, a hapless comic duo of psychic investigators shows up to help out, and they are such a bunch of nerds that its hard not to laugh at what they do. They help prevent the movie from being a total Debbie downer, which is nice. In addition, there were a number of moments which were so surreal as to be more unintentionally hilarious than disturbing. Case in point, what the hell was up with the demon's house? Hell, anything to do with “The Further” reeked of funkiness. Good funkiness, mind you. Is there such a thing as 'good funkiness'?

Creepiest moment in the movie: Why won't anyone shut the curtains over the fucking windows?!

How Disturbed was the Loon: I'll admit, there was a moment when making lunch where my back was to a window and I checked a couple times to see if there was anyone watching me through it. There wasn't. Regardless, I moved to a position where I could face it. This movie and windows... *shudder*
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Poltergeist

This movie was actually mildly disappointing. It wasn't that it was bad, by any means, it was more that I was expecting to be completely freaked out after watching it. In all of the 'Top Horror Movie' lists that I'd read through, Poltergeist was supposedly so scary that the people writing these lists wouldn't even describe any of the scenes that were in it; apparently, they were that disturbing. I expected this to be the crown jewel of all the horror movies I would watch. … But then I saw that it was written by Steven Spielberg.

I'm sorry, but Steven Spielberg's brand of horror utterly fails. This is a movie where a tree attacks a kid and then gets inexplicably sucked into a tornado; the events are so far-fetched and the 'CGI' so kiddie that it's hard not to laugh at it all. So I did. From the squeaky-voiced psychic to the demon head in the closet, it was just impossible to take seriously. It wasn't a bad movie, by any means. It just inserted that Spielberg-ian sense of wonderment and magic that clashes too hard with a horror film. There was one moment where I felt a bit disturbed at what was happening on screen, but that was a moment where you could only hear a character panic but not actually see what was happening to them. The best horror movies have more of that: scenes where you don't entirely know precisely what form the horror is taking and thus have to have the imagination take over.

Creepiest thing in the movie: What the hell is happening to that dude's face?!

How Disturbed was the Loon: I didn't think this movie would affect me at all but then, when visiting a bathroom in a school building, I nearly jumped thirty feet in the air when the plumbing made a slamming sound after I turned on the sink. I won't lie; I half speed-walked half-sprinted from that little encounter.
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[Rec]

Now the Loon starts getting into some really creepy shit. [Rec] is a Spanish-made found footage type film about a reporter, her cameraman, and a crew of firefighters investigating a mysterious late night call in a tall apartment building. After they show up, increasingly weird things start happening, the tenants seem a bit off, and then they start attacking the firefighters. For reasons unknown to us, the Spanish police decide to cordon off the apartment, locking the firefighters and the reporter and her group inside. They then have to do their best to survive with the few remaining normal tenants within a warped hellhole of an apartment where everything just starts going very wrong.

Now, zombies don't really tend to scare me in horror movies, but whatever the fuck those things were in [Rec] were a whole 'nother level of disturbing. In fact, it wasn't even that the 'zombies' were bad, it was that found footage feeling that you were there and going through the same trauma as the characters you were watching. This movie is full of nasty, nasty moments. What's fun (and also disturbing) is that I learned that there is enforced method acting going on. The actors didn't even know in many of the scenes what exactly would happen, often making their terrified reactions very real. Possessed children coming out of nowhere, corpses falling down stairs, characters unexpectedly turning hostile... These are things that the actors had to deal with out of nowhere!

Creepiest thing in the movie: The Madeiros Girl. What. The. Fuck.

How Disturbed was the Loon: The weird nightmares began. I don't remember exactly what happened in them, but I remember fighting zombie dogs in one. Which is odd, as they aren't even zombie dogs in [Rec]. I also walked home reallllly fast after watching it. Screw it. You would too.
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The Others

Oh, man... This movie...

The Others is about a mother living in a mansion in the middle of nowhere with her son and daughter. A small family of caretakers move in with them. Then things start going strange.

The Others is sadistically designed to fuck with you. The kids have a disease that makes it so that light is harmful to them. Thus the light and the dark become scary. In addition, this movie really likes to mess with the viewer. Usually in a horror movie you expect that something bad is about to happen when the scary music in the background reaches a crescendo, but there are multiple times in The Others where it has that music pop up, only for nothing to happen. Its jump moments come when you least expect them, and the combination of the music's tricks, the uneasiness of everything going on, and the great acting of Nicole Kidman make it so that you are in constant tension. What's more, it is never exactly clear what is happening or why, which contributes the fear of the unknown on top of everything else.

What made this movie especially enthralling for me to watch was the fact that Nicole Kidman's character behaves precisely as she should in such a situation. I don't recall a single moment where she does something that I would not do if I were in her shoes. This is SO RARE in a horror movie. Because she's responding to the situation as rationally as she can, this makes what happens to her and the children all the more disturbing. Similarly, her daughter is absolutely fearless, which makes for an interesting situation when there are things happening that she should be frightened of, but isn't. This is a movie where the characters and their stories really got me into it.

Creepiest thing in the movie: The goddamn doors.

How Disturbed was the Loon: Things got worse. I watched this in my home alone and then went to go take a shower after. When I got in and turned on the light, the bulb flickered. I shut the door and almost thought to lock it (despite there being nobody else in the apartment), but then decided against it because I didn't want to lock myself inside. During the shower, I admit to opening the curtain from time to time to peer at the door. This movie and its fucking doors. Afterward, I left home as soon as possible and went to work early so I didn't have to sit around the quiet, empty apartment by myself.
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The Descent

And then shit got even worse...

Being a fan of hiking and reasonably well-learned when it comes to movie know-how, I knew ahead of time that The Descent was probably going to freak me out. However, because I knew before watching that it involved monsters in a cave, I figured that that knowledge might sap any suspense from the movie. I also hardened myself against the idea of being so disturbed that I wouldn't want to go hiking afterward.

It didn't help. Not one fucking bit. The Descent was far more scary than I thought it would be. The freaky goblin creatures were one thing, but it was really the concept of being stuck in an unexplored cave that really got to me. Even with friends, that would be incredibly harrowing, and watching the bonds of trust between the girls crumble was awful to watch. This was so emotionally draining that throwing the creatures into the mix just made my brain go into OVERDRIVE. Some nasty, nasty shit goes down in this movie. Simultaneously, the girls kick a surprising amount of ass, making you root for them to get out alive. But, instead, they fall further and further down a slippery slope to madness and carnage.

So do I want to go hiking now? Fuck no! Thankfully, it's cold in Portland now, so that wasn't an attractive prospect to begin with. Still, the mischievous side of me likes the idea of watching this with a group of friends and then going to explore Ape Caves. Perhaps that will be a fun and potentially traumatizing idea for next summer!

Creepiest thing in the movie: Any scene with falling into a hole. Having nearly done that myself, seeing what happens to the characters that do is horrific.

How Disturbed was the Loon: As this is the last movie for this little blog event, it's the last thing I'm writing. I haven't had time for it to sink in and disturb me. Given how it involved a cave, I sort of doubt that I'll be particularly frightened by everyday life and all. But who knows? Perhaps the accumulated terror of having watched five horror movies in a short period of time will snap my brain into crazed overload. Time will tell...
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Conclusion

I wanted to watch more, but given that today is Halloween and I really won't have time to see more movies over the next few weeks, I figured I'd let it go for now. Others that I wanted to watch but will have to wait for a future list: The Grudge, The Omen, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween.

Which of these movies was the scariest? It depends on what you're looking for. I found The Others to have the most unsettling atmosphere and scares brought about by getting freaked out by the atmosphere. By contrast, [Rec] and The Descent tied for the most intense and gory affairs. Insidious was probably the most conceptually interesting. Poltergeist was a mix of the most disappointing and the most entertaining. Thus I feel like every movie here had an excellent part to play, and succeeded in freaking the Loon out quite a bit over the past week!

Any recommendations for next Halloween are always welcome. I think I might watch some Disney movies now to regain my sanity.

Community


By DionysusPsyche

Not a lot of my friends have seen Community. The critics like it enough. Bits of social media conversation have sprung up occasionally, individuals commenting on an episode here and there. One friend claimed it was the “best show on television right now.” I wasn't sure what that meant, because “right now” could mean that nothing else good is on or that something better may be around the corner. From what I gathered, this series got bundled with other shows, but wasn't a “must see.”

When I went to watch it, I was hesitant. While many are fans of Chevy Chase, I am not. I've seen him in movies, caught snippets here and there of the Vacation movies, but over all, he's never really wowed me. I've found people put him in a similar category to that of Bill Murray and Steve Martin, and although this critic finds no fault with enjoying the entertainment your parents do, I tend to fall neutral on the matter (although let it be known that my preferences lie with Murray and Martin, in that order). You shouldn't love or hate something just because everyone else does, nor should you necessarily judge an actor based solely on previous works. So I decided to put my opinion of Chase behind me and get down to watching the show.

The show initially appealed to me, because I've been to community college. I fit there, because I was working, covering my basics, and trying to figure it all out. In this way, the show really gravitates towards that. It has your types: overachiever with issues, jock who couldn't score a regular college, the crazy old man that no one wants to be in a group with, the empty nester, the socially awkward one, and the charismatic/jerk leader. They don't have majors yet. They're all different ages, but they all need to study and a shoulder to lean on.

Expectations vs. Reality
I expected Parks and Recreation or The Office (quirky) meets Glee (heart, emotion) minus the uncomfortable humor, drama, and singing. Not as dry and awkwardly funny as the former two, not as intense as the latter. Yet, it wasn't really any of those things. I watched part of first season, not sure how I felt, then moved on to some of the “best” episodes. The cast is a quilt of misfits led by an ex-lawyer, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). At the beginning of an episode, the set up is pitched, and then the gang either gets into a fight where they have to amend the breach by the end or they all get mad at one person and that person has to make apologies. Or both.

Half the characters are unlikable outright. She bristles to the touch, he's nails on a chalkboard, etc. The characters that are likeable aren't likeable enough, and no one is extreme enough to be funny in a terrible way or lovable enough to be funny in a wonderful way. They come off as cardboard cut outs waving in front of a screen. None of the cast that I've seen in other roles (Alison Brie, Ken Jeong) break out of their comfort zone. Which means that if you like these actors, perhaps you'll like them when they show up and almost read from the script onscreen. I do love Ken Jeong's character and Donald Glover who plays Troy (especially in the Halloween episode). It feels like the actors aren't acting, just talking (with the exception of Abed, the uncomfortable Indian obsessed with pop culture). Note: I just found "Best of Troy" on Youtube. I think I'm good for all I ever need to see of Community.

The episodes that are funnier than others are either borrowed from other movies or shows, and the funniest scenes do not make up for time lost. While there are other shows that frequently borrow or downright steal from other shows/movies, they make it really funny. Even when borrowing, the show still isn't great. Which is a shame.

Conclusion
This nearly humorless, waste of a time slot show is not something I would recommend to people. Quite possibly, I don't get the humor. The writing style is not meant for me. If you see clips of the show, and you like it, then more power to you! I have seen clips of the show I liked, and there are two scenes that make the time I did spend watching the show almost worth it. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. If you choose to take a chance on Community, I hope you fair better than I did.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

by DionysusPsyche

Stephen Chboski talks a lot about family. He illustrates their troubles, weaknesses, deep-seated issues although not in a psychoanalytical way. He speaks as the voice of a teenager--an empathetic, young man who tells and understands what others might miss.

Easy reads are out there. Well-written literature overflows from libraries. The author stays true to his character, and he also manages to make even the worst main and secondary characters somewhat lovable.

"Some people have it worse," he writes at the beginning, and it really sets the tone. He's a good, smart kid. The kind you hope you were. The kind you hope you have.

Charlie is incredibly close to two of his friends, although the general feeling is that Charlie is still removed from the present. He does and says things that others don't do and say. His friends love him for who he is, but that doesn't inhibit them from wanting to tune in him ways to make him more understanding of human nature. Yet, Charlie is what he is, and as a narrator, he does a great job, even if we don't feel like we get the full impression of what's going on.

As someone who had a preference and received superior grades in Language Arts and writing, I make notes as I go along. I used to only read books and occasionally take notes, but I began realizing that I had to read all my books twice. This was stressful, so eventually, I just kept notes within the novels (in pencil, calm down, and I owned them). I once loaned a book to a friend, and he said that the best parts were my notes. I think of that whenever I read and write in the margins.

The primary reason I keep notes, is because I like keeping track of quotables. There is a main part of this novel that I had to contrain myself to keep from underlining.

Cons
The book is melancholy, and downright depressing at times. It feels like Charlie is both much older and much younger than is the case, and I, as a reader, couldn't grasp as to why it felt this way until the end. He looks at things in a way I'm not sure high school kids do. this is one of the few times that Charlie feels different. This continued throughout the second half of the novel, though it did significantly improve from the middle portion.

Conclusion
I haven't seen the film, but I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a good book. It's interesting, and there are some twists you don't see coming. At times, the main character feels a little like Forrest Gump, but in a good way.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

8 Halloween Movies for the Easily Scared

by DionysusPsyche
Only one of these makes the list

When celebrated properly, Halloween is a great holiday. This means candy, costumes, parties (if you're social), haunted houses, pumpkin patches, corn mazes (okay, where I'm from, this is a thing), and scary movies. Any combination of these in some form of participation means that you're doing something right. Combine all of these for a potentially awesome holiday.

Beyond the holiday itself (which doesn't appeal to everyone as per the conversation I had about two weeks ago), let's get down to the real deal. Scary movie marathons. Now, some people don't like scary movies, and some people love them. There are people who would watch fright flicks every night of the week. Living for the thrill. Going to bed scared. Or just getting a rush or laughing and sleeping it off. Other people hate these films. They feel squeamish or adamant about not watching them. The aura of evil soaks up everything in the room, and it's downright terrible experience which will result in sleeping with the light on for days and weeks and jumping at nothing. They've also no doubt had someone grab them while watching one, and subsequently this ass hat got added to the List of People Who Suck.

I fall in the middle. I don't love scary movies, but I think that Halloween has some pretty essential films that make the holiday great. So when I watch movies on Halloween, I pick them pretty carefully, and make sure the people I'm with make me feel safe.

Warning! The below mentioned films are not all for kids. When I say “Easily Scared” that does not imply children as I know kids that are braver than many adults. However, kids can watch about half the movies I mention. Seeing rating scale for particular film to judge.

Scream

Scream was the first scary movie that my friends convinced me wasn't scary that lived up to their claim (I was twelve). They were always egging me on (and I was scared of freaking Hocus Pocus, mind you!), and even fell asleep while I watched Tommyknockers alone at 3am. But I digress.

Sidney, played by the super foxy Party of Five, Neve Campbell is still getting over the murder of her mom. They live in a small town, so everyone knows about it, and the media is still covering it. It's coming up on the anniversary of her death. But is the killer really put away? The town issues a curfew when two people from the high school end up dead.

This means all the popular kids have a party at a huge house with underage drinking to celebrate the shut down of school for the investigation.

Why This Film Applies
Sidney defies early fright film main characters (which is explained by one of guys in the movie in case those at home are not familiar with the classics). She's tough, kick ass, and can take care of herself. She's also smart and sassy. Plus, it includes some awesome actors such as Matthew Lillard, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Drew Barrymore, Henry Winklet, and Rose McGowen.

This movie is both hilarious and spooky with some of the best scary movie lines. It's the “where's the killer?” movie, but you can still go to bed in relatively okay fashion. It also has some sexy and romantic moments. Now divorced, Courtney Cox and David Arquette who were together for quite some time, met on the set, so while their romance feels real, it actually is real. Plus, David Arquette with a 'stache playing a country cop is just fun.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
Kick ass characters. Weapons. Brains. There's a cop handy. Your mom's not a whore.

Nightmare Before Christmas

This is a children's movie, but it has good lessons. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King lives in a world of Halloween. His fellow town folk spend 364 days a year prepping for Halloween to make it the most EPIC holiday ever. Yet, Jack has done this too long. He's growing tired of his job. He longs for adventure and newness.

That's when he falls into Christmas Town and decides that he and Santa should switch shoes and try out each other's lives.

Why This Film Applies
Although creepy at times, this cartoon is not as scary as some of the childhood movies I watched that weren't intended to frighten kids (Fern Gully and Secret of Nimh anyone?). There's romance, humor, and Jack is a great protagonist. He's lost that loving feeling, and Christmas brings him back to life taking the rest of his cronies along with him. It was inventive back when it was released, and I still love it today.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
Singing and dancing. Cute little goblins. Also, it's a cartoon about a made up world.

Shaun of the Dead

They made it as a parody romance film, but this is a film about zombies. While all zombie movies are about the conformity of society, consumerism at its worst, and being a herd of sheep, this humorous romp takes it to the next level.

Shaun (Simon Pegg), dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), lives with his best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), and is stuck. He goes to the same pub, drinks the same beer, and hangs out with the same friends. He is more or less a zombie, as are the other characters. Yet, Liz wants Shaun to get off his duff, get serious, meet his mum, and move forward. Shaun and Ed's other roommate wants Ed to move out. And Shaun...can't do anything. Not until there's a zombie apocalypse.

Why it Applies
The first zombie they assume is “drunk.” Shaun and Ed are the ultimate duo. They make the end of the world so funny that the first time I saw the film, my best friend and I were doubled over with laughter during some of their back and forth wit. If I don't watch at least part of this movie every Halloween...well, I don't know what would happen, but I can't NOT watch it. Killing zombies becomes a skill and a sport, and Shaun the “do nothing,” becomes the unlikely, fearless leader of a band of friends. There is even a cameo by his old shared television series (Spaced) actress, Jessica Hynes.

Shaun of the Dead gives you hope that when the zombie apocalypse comes, you, the blob, directionless goon will fly into action and start throwing your bad records (No! “that's the first one I ever bought!”) at zombies' heads, save your mum, your best friend, your significant other, and outwit the brain-hunting fluff monsters.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
We just went over that. You're the unlikely hero. Now there is some gore, but it's not that bad. It's okay enough for Ed to take pictures, so I think you're safe.

The Thing
Not sure why Kurt Russell looks like a depiction of Jesus, but he wants you to "stop, collaborate, and listen"
Kurt Russell and his team of crack scientists are stuck in the arctic doing research when a...a...thing takes over the unit. It slowly infiltrates, but the gang is basically ready. In fact, they can study it while they kill it! Double bonus for the smarties out there!

Why it Applies
Kurt Russell uses a blow torch a LOT. This is awesome. I distinctly remember a rollerskating dude. It's psychological, because you're not sure who to trust, but do you ever know who to trust in a scary movie? In addition to being a good Halloween classic, this film is prepping you for all the winter parkas you'll need to wear and the snow that's coming (unless you live in the South or a Southern Hemisphere continent).

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
It's eerie, and there is one part that's really intense, but other than that, it's a good movie. Kurt Russell totally has your back. Just don't go to the arctic, and if you do, always bring a blow torch.

Arachnophobia
More lessons in weapon use
Unless you have a really bad case of the above mentioned, you can watch this film. If you are deathly afraid of spiders, then move to my other suggestions.

A wild spider sneaks its way into the U.S. and mates with regular barn spider to create...super babies! Jeff Daniels, who hates spiders has to face his fear of them when his house (farm?) is overtaken with them.

Why it Applies
Again, you're on the edge of your seat and creeped out, but unless you're really afraid of spiders, it's just a thriller. Jeff Daniels has to overcome his fear, and that's all of us. If I remember correctly, I think 8-Legged Freaks scared me more than this did (and that's the parody), but it's been awhile.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
You can kill a spider. If you watch the making of this movie, it makes the movie itself less frightening. The main spider is basically one of those grabber/reacher puppets. Spoiler alert...the spider DOES jump out of the fire. Just be prepared for that.

Jurassic Park
The outstanding graphics of the '90's still hold up over time
In case you hate spiders (and because Jurassic Park is a must-see), let's exchange them for a currency of dinosaurs! Billionaire philanthropist creates a park on an island with dinosaurs which have been made from the juices of a frozen, Mesozoic (era?) mosquito. A bunch of people, including Jeff Goldblum, fly to the island to experience and judge the park to help with logistics before it's opened to the general public.

Why it Applies
Jeff Goldblum is a big-headed actor. Sam Neill and Laura Dern and a couple of kids try to survive the dinosaurs when they get trapped in the park. But Neill and Dern's characters are the Indiana Jones of dinosaurs. So they can totally do this! I just wish Jeff Goldblum was in this movie more. Although, his character is annoying, so maybe not.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
They can't actually bring dinosaurs to life. Newman is in it (he's more likely to sit on you than you are to come in contact with prehistoric creatures). If you get scared, you can watch the Rifftracks version with Weird Al.

The Addams Family

They're creepy and spooky, but they don't keep you awake after you see them. In fact, they're touching, especially Thing, their pet hand. This is a kids film, but Gomez and Morticia Addams (Angelica Huston) are romantic, their kids (Christina Ricci could not be more perfect as a creepy little girl) are charming, and Gomez's brother (Christopher Lloyd!) has returned to the family.

Why it Applies
A happy romp that goes hand in hand with Nightmare Before Christmas, this is Jack and Sally's future.

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
This is one film that hits the nail on the head. Every family is different, and they may be odd-looking, but they're wonderful at parties.

Alien

Classic film about space aliens starring Sigourney Weaver, the mother of all alien movies. Investigating a nearby planet, a team of space researchers uncover a signal that's meant as a warning.

Why it Applies
Okay, okay, it does get a little bit scary at parts, but again, that's mostly just gore. It's more psychological than anything. Weaver rocks in her role, and you're on her side. Close the mother [bleep]ing doors! You've been exposed. No need to risk the lives of others. Which brings us to a quandry: when do we help our teammates and when do we let them die in space? (Also a question for watchers of The Thing.)

Why it Shouldn't Scare You
Why are you going into space to find aliens if you're afraid of this movie? Answer: if this movie does frighten you, just don't take the job. Problem solved.



Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ironclad



The Magna Carta is an important document. This is pretty much all that we learn and retain from our middle and high school years. But why was it important? This is something that movies, books, and TV shows rarely go into. Ironclad is one of the exceptions to this rule.

In Ironclad, we learn that the Magna Carta was a document signed by the dastardly King John of England, of Robin Hood fame. In it, he made official the rule that kings, while still retaining immense power, could not exercise arbitrary power over their subjects. You couldn't get taxed for shits and giggles. You couldn't be ordered to run a lap around Great Britain just because the king woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Instead, it was made clear that the king's duty was to uphold the law of the land; you could be punished or controlled only insofar as you broke the rules. Granted, this still allowed a great deal of leeway, but it reduced the legitimacy and likelihood of petulant rulers exerting dictator-like power without justification.
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Ironclad begins by showing us King John signing the Magna Carta under duress. King John's a rotten bastard, so the only way the barons of England can get him to sign the document is by holding him at swordpoint. After this, the barons renew their oaths of fealty and loyalty to the crown. Being a freaking nutcase, King John waits until everyone leaves him alone and goes back to their castles. Then he brings in an army of Danish mercenaries, tells everyone that the Magna Carta was a meaningless paper only good for wiping his ass with, and then goes positively berserk all over the countryside.
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Pictured: King John losing his shit
Specifically, Ironclad shows us the siege of the castle Rochester, a strategic lynchpin that commands the southwest part of England. We follow a member of the Knights Templar, Thomas Marshall, basically a supremely badass knight of the cross who fights against King John in order to secure the rights granted to men through God. Swiftly realizing that castle Rochester must be held from King John at all costs until French reinforcements arrive, Marshall gathers a highly bizarre and eclectic mix of crazy medieval bastards who gleefully spend the entire movie killing hundreds of King's John army as they slowly seize the fortress. Think Kingdom of Heaven meets The Alamo meets Seven Samurai, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this movie has to offer.
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Dramatis Personae

For a movie I randomly discovered on Netflix, Ironclad has a LOT of recognizable actors in it. James Purefoy (the Knight Templar) was Mark Antony in HBO's Rome. Paul Giamatti is King John. Brian Cox is the head baron. Charles Dance (Game of Thrones' Tywin Lannister) is a sympathetic archbishop. Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Underworld: Evolution) is lord of castle Rochester. And more! It made me quite surprised that I'd never heard of this movie prior, and that I'd never seen a trailer of it before.

An amusing, and perhaps disappointing, facet of the film, though, is that the cast doesn't really need to act that much. This is an action movie first and foremost; most of Ironclad is essentially a drawn out siege battle that serves to show off a gigantic and realistic medieval warfare reenactment. But, in a sense, it works out perfectly. The incredible choreography and authenticity of the gritty combat takes up half the film, allowing the quieter moments to be dominated by the talented actors everywhere. But, really, we know the truth. You just know that they all accepted the roles so that they could dress up in chainmail and whack at each other with stunt swords.
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Knight, Outlaws, and Monarch

What about the characters? Thomas Marshall, Knight Templar, is convincingly aggressive and withdrawn. This is not somebody you want to run into in some alleyway. His devotion to the philosophy of the Knight Templar is clearly defined and is shown to give him immense drive. This is part of what makes one of his character developments so funny. See, the lady of the castle is married to a man who is far older than her; she hasn't gotten laid for quite some time. Thus, the moment the Knight Templar arrives, she is constantly after him, despite clear indications from Marshall that it would interfere with his focus if he forswore his vows. Nonetheless, she just does not lay off. Consequently, a good part of the movie is this sideplot that involves her trying really hard to get in his pants. There's even a scene where he lets her touch his sword despite his obvious reluctance. Freudian subtext much? Needless to say, this is one part of the movie which kind of failed to engage me seriously. It was just too hilarious to watch and, after a while, you actually start feeling sorry for the Knight Templar. It was that bad!

Aside from that, the rest of Marshall's merry band of killers is such a silly mix of nutjobs that they're always entertaining to watch. You've got the horny stealthy psycho guy. You've got the fat guy who apparently spends all of his time laughing madly while he kills people. You've got the Legolas stand-in. A couple others. Then there's the squire kid. Seriously, where'd they get this guy? He looks like Elijah Wood's clone. Anyways, he spends most of the movie as the intellectual college guy out of his depth; he quotes Latin and provides a firm defense of why they should be fighting for the Magna Carta and what it is while simultaneously being the combat newbie and nearly getting himself killed a lot. But, in his defense, he never comes off as annoying. And he undeniably serves as the heart of the team. Go Frodo.

Finally there's the big players. Brian Cox's Baron Albany is great, though holy shit; I've never seen a more gruesome death in any movie ever. Derek Jacobi is suitably lordly. Paul Giamatti's King John, however... He's in a league of his own. Paul Giamatti manages to make us feel for the King while simultaneously loathing him. His outburst of a monologue on the absolute power of kings was epic. Loving the role, Paul Giamatti decides to play King John as if he must have a CRAZY temper tantrum every ten minutes or else someone has to die (and does!). It's priceless, stunning to watch, and worth the price of admission alone.
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Conclusion

All in all, Ironclad was awesome. But let me clarify something: my tone throughout this review, while humorous, should not be taken to mean that this movie is some comedic medieval satire. By contrast, this movie is gory as all hell, ridiculously dark at times, and is one of those war films where just about everyone is dead by the end of it. You can guess that by watching a trailer and reading a plot summary, so that's no huge spoiler. They hold castle Rochester at all costs, creating a Dark Ages bloodbath worthy of Kill Bill.

This is a guy movie through and through. If any of this appeals to you, go for it. And, though the Magna Carta is a highly important plot point within Ironclad, don't expect this to be an effective history lesson on it. It just isn't that kind of movie. What it is is an old-fashioned brutal fight with a purpose, reminiscent of Braveheart, Gladiator, and more.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim



Once upon a time, there was a game called The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Based upon some fantasy books I'd never heard of, Morrowind offered my younger self hours of exploration, surprise, and entertainment. It's hard to overstate how much I look back fondly on that game. Morrowind offered a unique world full of things I've never seen before. Gigantic mushroom trees, flowing volcanoes, flora and fauna beyond count... This game was a mixture of weird and absolutely real. What impressed me most of all, though, were all of the things you could do. You didn't have to explore the myriad caves, dungeons, temples, and forgotten ruins of the world; you could choose whether you wanted to help the Mage's Guild, the thieves, the different noble Houses of the land, random strangers needing help, or more. What's more, the game was steeped with an immense history that added weight and wonder to everything you did. Hundreds of books, rare and common, were scattered throughout the land for you to read and collect as you desired. The primary quest involved a foe whose story was steeped in the mythology of the world itself. You, yourself, were the central part of a prophecy referenced by important characters, lore, and architecture within the game. Everything in the game contributed powerfully to the sense that the entirety of the world was yours to explore, control, and experience.
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After countless hours with Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came along. And, sadly, Oblivion was more disappointing. While it continued the trend of giving you a massive landscape to play around with, its tone was more bland. Where Morrowind had such bizarre structures as buildings made out of the backs of giant crabs, Oblivion took a more stereotypical tack with the goal of reaching a broader audience. We were introduced to a more generic fantasy setting with horses, stone houses, elven armor, forests, and more. It didn't feel as original and, what's more, the dialogue, background story, and quests were dumbed down. Our character, instead of being involved in some dense epic where the good and bad sides aren't exactly clear, goes through a painfully simple save-the-world quest without ambiguity. Everything felt less. Oblivion still was a serviceable game; it just didn't feel all that special.

Then The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim arrived.
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Sojourn to the Icy North

Do you remember that first moment reading about the Wall in A Game of Thrones? Do you remember seeing the immensity of it for the very first time in the TV series, manned by tiny Night's Watch figures small as ants, looming over a frozen wilderness? Now imagine that first moment as a child when you discovered the wonder of snow. Remember it falling on your open palm? Remember feeling the small surge of cold water against your tongue as you opened your mouth to the whiteness of the sky?

Skyrim seizes on these feelings and holds you spellbound. On one side, you have the forbidding awe that comes from traveling and exploring a land that you have never truly seen and do not fully understand. On the other, you have that sense of fascination and glee that is both new and familiar. You get the sense that this game, vast and dangerous as it is, is full of such surprising things that you can (and probably will) spend days inside of it. You'll keep on searching every nook and cranny. You'll see the top of a mountain and dare yourself to look out over the world from the peak of it. It's hard to capture into words precisely what it is about Skyrim that keeps you thinking about and coming back to it.
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From Barrow to Ruin

In terms of the setting, Skyrim brings to the plate a world worthy of Morrowind. It's funny; I look at them as equals, yet Morrowind offered something that Skyrim did not. See, as I mentioned earlier, Morrowind's world was wholly unique. Mushroom forests surrounded a spectral fence enclosing the ruins of an ancient civilization within a dormant volcano. It's hard to make that shit up, and it has next to no bearing on anything I've seen before in a fictional world. By contrast, the setting of Skyrim, while definitely interesting, is clearly based on our idealized notions of ancient Scandinavian tribes and clans. The Nords are a thinly veiled pastiche of the Vikings of the real world. They worship pagan gods. They believe that, upon dying, their spirits will go to a warrior's rest (much like the Valhalla of our Norse mythology). Their weapons, their architecture, their combative spirit... Everything about Skyrim and the people that live within it usher in a memory of Earth's north European medieval past, from the ribald songs of warrior poets to the sharpened iron axes of raids and wars to come.

However, what makes this so engrossing is that, even though Skyrim provides an environment that we have some familiarity with, it is also a fantasy setting and era of history that not many games, movies, books, or TV shows have put much focus on. Even though it isn't unique, we still feel like we have a great deal to discover about it. Thus, even as you can logically predict that the most powerful warrior chieftain will be buried in the back by all of the loot within a Nord barrow, you still feel wonderment and caution when poking around the place.
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Backstory

One aspect of these games that is important to me (that might not be important to anyone else) is the existence of a strong and deep backstory. The reason why Morrowind was so incredible to me and maintained such lasting power was the fact that, due to the referencing of past events and the expansive histories behind factions and powers, I felt like there was always something more to discover behind it all. Tolkien knew the power of this when he wrote Lord of the Rings; you don't even have to explain precisely what has happened or could happen with events tertiary to the story, you just have to hint that they're there. The easiest way to conceptualize this is to picture a glacier. You get to see and experience the tip of the iceberg. But everything below the surface is what really fires the imagination and makes you yearn for more.

Skyrim does this admirably. With every city you visit, multitudes of quests have you investigate this or that ancient tomb or longstanding disturbance. When exploring the countryside and the mountains, you are able to find crypts and ruins that speak to events that happened there in ages past. Hundreds of books are littered throughout the game and, whether you read them or no, they contribute to the construction of a powerfully thick mythology that makes you feel like you're in a living, breathing, and evolving world.
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Plots in Parallel

One odd thing about Skyrim, though, is its plot. It isn't bad, by any means; in it you are the prophesied Dragonborn destined to save the world from an armageddon of resurgent dragons. It is the predictable mix of epic tale and power fantasy perfect for a sweeping video game. My confusion arose from the other plot going on.

You begin the game as a man or woman being sent to the executioner's block. On the way, you discover that Skyrim is in the thick of a civil war. On one side, we have the Empire: the ruling administration over the Nords of the land. On the other hand, we have the revolutionaries of Ulfric Stormcloak: a charismatic rebel who thinks that the Nords would do better as an independent nation. You are about to be executed because the Empire thinks that you're associated with the rebels and doesn't know what else to do with you. Yet suddenly, by the powers of deus ex machina, you are inadvertently saved by the attack of the first dragon the world has seen for hundreds of years. You are then set off on your quest of discovering what your relationship is with the dragons of the world.
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This pretty much sums up the problem. For whatever reason, Skyrim decided to go with two major story arcs and then sideline one without warning. I get the feeling that this wasn't originally the plan. The Civil War plot permeates every city and most every conversation in the world of Skyrim. Though it could have been simplistic and two-dimensional, it is actually fleshed out to the point where it is genuinely difficult to choose between which side to support. The Empire believes that it must bide its time in the short term and concede to the excesses of an outside power, only so that it may wait and muster arms until it can realistically oppose said power. By contrast, the Stormcloaks believe that surrender, even feigned, is a betrayal of the Nordic morality system and way of life. They view the Imperials as interlopers and stand behind their desire to defend their home, even to the death. It's a tricky balance. It boils down to compromises vs absolutes. Secularism vs faith. There is no right answer and, no matter who you side with, you're destined to make some decisions along the way that make you realize that maybe the other side was the better choice.

Yet I have to point out that this dilemma, prevalent as it is, has next to nothing to do with the 'main' plot. It's like the developers looked it over, at a plot spanning the entirety of the game's geography, and was like, “Screw this. We need some dragons!” Granted, dragons are pretty damn awesome, but it's interesting to note that the Dragon plot isn't nearly as multifaceted as the Civil War plot. Your enemy is pretty clear and stereotypically evil in the Dragon plot. The lines are nowhere near as defined in the Civil War. Altogether, the confusing and mixed importance set to the two different plots added a discordant note to an otherwise flawlessly decorated masterpiece. It was akin to reading a fantastic book and then getting dragged out of it because you noticed a particularly nonsensical and glaring typo.
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Conclusion

I could talk about the gameplay, but I don't get quite so much out of talking about such factors. In brief, Skyrim's gameplay improves upon the excellent examples set by its fellow Elder Scrolls predecessors. My only complaint is that your followers still act retarded and the melee weapon system still makes it feel like you're flailing about wildly most of the time. These are small complaints and nowhere near enough to detract from playing the game, but they are definitely worth noting as areas to improve upon in the inevitable Elder Scrolls VI.

All in all, this is one of the best games I've ever played. Given that this game has received its fair share of love and praise over the past year or so of being out, this probably comes as no surprise. It offers a playing experience with an astonishing amount of depth. It boasts a world that never ceases to amaze. And it offers so much to do within it that it truly boggles the mind.

Monday, October 15, 2012

One Day



I've a weird fascination for romance stories and romantic comedies. I say weird because, as a guy, it isn't considered socially acceptable. Guys are supposed to be nonchalant, perpetually tough, and unwilling to show emotion. To do otherwise would be to fail what is expected of us. I see the draw of that image, just as I simultaneously reject it.

I like romances because they delve into the psychology of people at their most vulnerable. We've all felt the feelings before: lust, infatuation, insecurity, a yearning for more. Through romantic stories we are able to view the complicated nature of how we, as humans, embrace companionship or reject it. Is love real or imagined? Is there such a thing as 'the One', or does life hold many different possible partners, none of which are perfect or ideal? Are people really meant to spend their life with just one person? How does idyllic love measure up against the hard reality of seeing your partner once again leave hair all over the soap in the shower?

I was introduced to One Day through the movie. The movie version, to me, was a horrific superficial mess. I can honestly say that it was one of the most depressing and annoying romantic dramas I've ever seen. It featured a girl meeting a guy. The girl is obsessed with the guy; the guy is a flippant, self-absorbed prick. I spent most of the movie with my jaw hitting the floor, unable to understand what she saw in him. Two thirds of the way through, I turned it off. I just couldn't see anything there. I witnessed a selfish man fall to pieces, a doe-eyed woman following him all the while. I hated it. It was shallow. I was given no reason to care about these people, characters who seemed to be going out of their way to implode without reason, longing after each other without rationale.

Something was missing.

A Better Day

Then my girlfriend read it. Lo and behold, the novel seemed to have redeeming value. She shook it cutely in my face, said that I'd love it, said that I should read it. I was resistant, though, for quite a while. I presented my reasons for hating the characters. I explained why it was stupid for Emma to like Dexter at all. I pointed out how, if the movie was that godawful, how could the book do much better? But my girlfriend's responses threw me for a loop. It seemed like there was more depth, more reason, behind the actions of the characters than I had thought. They (*gasp*) had motivations beyond the surface level.

Really, I should have caved earlier. It seems ridiculously obvious. Of course the book would say more about the characters and the events of the story than the movie ever could. I just hated it so much. Perhaps it was Jim Sturgess. I don't know what it is about that actor, but I always get to a point where I really want to slap him, no matter what movie he's starring in. Alternatively, it could have been the cynical nature of the plot and what happens in it. No matter the reason, I tried it. And, while I can't say I loved every minute of it, reading it was infinitely more rewarding than I had expected it to be.
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Premise

In brief, what makes One Day unique is its choice of how to tell the story. We can already assume that 'one day' these two, Emma and Dexter, will get together. But, instead of proceeding exactly chronologically like we might expect, David Nicholls only shows us where Emma and Dexter are at on the same day every year. The first chapter starts on July 15th, 1988. The next chapter is July 15th, 1989. This continues right up to the end of the novel. Thus every chapter skips an entire year of their lives.

This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, this choice allows us to see these two people change over a great deal of time. It allows us to skip over a lot of unimportant details. And it gives us a snapshot of important moments in their lives, allowing us to see their victories, worries, and uncertainties from their early twenties to their forties. On the other hand, there are times where I felt like I had to make a leap of faith. Having a full year happen from one chapter to the next occasionally made it feel like I had missed too much. There are a few times where I was completely floored by how differently one of the characters was acting from one moment to the next. Granted, a lot can obviously happen in a year but, sometimes, it felt like I had no warning that something would occur.

Tortured Souls

But regardless of the premise, what made One Day really engrossing was the characters and what they go through. I feel like it is normal for authors to cultivate characters who are more admirable than the average person, people who we can aspire to become. But, in Dexter and Emma, David Nicholls creates two people that are so flawed, so human, that you pity them. It made me want to strike out and realize my dreams and desires because, for the greater part of the book, these two characters are completely unable to. Even at their happiest, they question whether there should be something better. They think of childhood dreams or the live-life-to-the-fullest philosophy of their college years, look at their present, and find it wanting.

Essentially, this book serves to slam the reader repeatedly with aggravatingly nasty and real existential questions. What happens if you discover that your lifelong passion isn't going to work out? What if the person you're with isn't the one you want? What if you just aren't ready to be a mother or father? What do you do if you continue disappointing your friends or family? What if you are too tempted to do something that you shouldn't? What if who you are is unrecognizable from who you think you should be? The questions go on and on and never relent. What results is a romantic story that is as poignant as it is realistic. It is subject to the caprices and unpredictability of life. And we see the ups and downs of their romance with others and each other, full of heightened passion at one moment and then merely comfortable and content the next.
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Dexter and Emma

I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but I did want to touch on what makes the characters of Dexter and Emma so interesting to read about.

Dexter is a player. He's self-absorbed, happy-go-lucky, and always at his most charming. Constantly flirtatious, constantly pushing the limits, Dexter is the epitome of the social butterfly. This is a guy who you look at and think, “He must get all the ladies.” He does. He's got a zest for life that everyone wants to be a part of. His sheer confidence is hard not to admire.

However, he is also completely unable to figure out what to do long term. He lives in the moment to such an extent that he's unable to compensate for actual goals. Part of him thinks he shouldn't have to, that such a laissez faire attitude is so encouraged and embraced by society that he should be able to live like that forever. Part of him resents his parents, who believe that Dexter should be able to just decide on a career path and make it happen. Another part of him fears that he just doesn't have what it takes to be as successful in life like everyone else.

Emma, by contrast, models herself on being a productive, intelligent, and active woman in life. She's bookish and well-read. She makes constant references to classic literature and defines herself on her creativity and smarts. She's the woman you look at and think, “She has it all together.” She's capable, funny, self-deprecating, witty, and loving. She has heart and spirit, and the determination to use both, be it in her friendships or in the public sphere.

However, she is also hard on herself to the point of being a mess. Her self-image isn't there, and it's hard for her to think of herself as beautiful. Similarly, though Emma has the vigor for it, she doesn't believe that she is an interesting person. Her standards for herself are so high that she dooms herself to failure. She also lacks the confidence that she needs in order to be more assertive, both professionally and personally. She's shy and, when she fails to live up to where she wants to be, she attacks herself with such fury that she comes off as morose.

Compatible?

One question that I found myself asking continually throughout the novel was whether Emma and Dexter are good for each other. On the surface level, it's like asking if the smart creative quiet girl in the corner is a suitable match for the partyer prom king popular guy. It's a simplification but, just looking at the two, it's hard to pick out what they see in each other.

But, when you delve in further, there's more to it. I found myself thinking of two puzzle pieces. As mentioned just before, Dexter yearns for a solidity and responsibility that he can never seem to reach. Emma craves confidence, the freedom to recognize that she's beautiful, and a desire to be able to let go and have fun. In a sense, they fit together perfectly. Dexter is able to give Emma the release and wild adventure that she wants, just as Emma is able to give Dexter the focus and drive that he needs to succeed. Perhaps it is as simple as that. Opposites attract and, by offering one something that the other doesn't have, they complete each other.

Yet the novel doesn't leave it at that. It is one of the strengths of the book that it offers such depth and analysis of the characters and their relationship; we are never able to walk away and definitively say that, “Yes! Of course they're perfect together!” Though Dexter and Emma seem to complement each other well, they also aggravate the shit out of each other. Dexter lacks the drive to stay on top of current events or act responsibly, which Emma can't stand. On the flip side, Dexter is continually frustrated by Emma's inability to act with spontaneity or impulse. It teases at the quintessential relationship question: is it better to be with someone like you or somebody completely unique from you?
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Conclusion

It's hard to say that I loved One Day. A good deal of it is goddamn depressing; it hits on the existential life questions with such bluntness and frequency that it's hard not to lash out at it and turn on a Disney movie. I self identify as someone who is passionately optimistic about life, and this book is written by someone who just isn't on that level. Yet that is not to say that it is all a downer. The chemistry and banter between Emma and Dexter is often invigorating and exciting. Similarly, though the ending is bittersweet, it does express hope for the future. Finally, I naturally was very much absorbed in the questions raised about the psychology of people in relationships and how relationships work. The teasing, the touch and go, the expectations and frustrations... This novel is extremely effective at nailing just about every phase of infatuation, love, break-up, and more. It is not the type of book that is about riding off together in the sunset, but it still captures enough sweetness about how we love each other for me to appreciate it for what it is. A story of two people, how their lives become embroiled together, and what happens when they dare to try their hand at loving each other. For that, it is worth the read.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The War of Wars: The Great European Conflict



In movies, there has always been an enormous passion for period pieces. Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth. The Count of Monte Cristo. Gone With the Wind. The Great Gatsby. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. What all of these films have in common is a romantic recreation of the past and what it was like to live in them. Yes, most of these movies don't shy away from some points where we see how nasty it could be to be around in these periods but, without exception, we are asked to follow characters who are most able to enjoy their surroundings and the benefits of their time. In Elizabeth, we witness the travails of a princess who will become queen. In Master and Commander, we follow the friendship between a distinguished ship's captain and a skilled doctor. In Pride and Prejudice, we watch an upper class girl try to avoid arranged marriage in order to marry a man that she can respect and love. First world problems much?

The point is that we have a fascination with the past, one that is particularly focused the people with the most freedom in their respective eras. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. But, as a whole, we love reading stories of those who have the immediate power to change their surroundings. We are fascinated with times foreign yet familiar to our own, awestruck that these periods once existed. This isn't fiction; it's real. And, while we may focus on the stories of characters and events that are fictional within these eras, it does not take away from the truth that these dramas could have happened, and that the settings were once vivid reality.
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The Meteoric Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Though I'm here reviewing a book and not a movie, that introduction is perfect for describing the tone and power of The War of Wars: The Great European Conflict 1793-1815. This book is a history, a grand drama of a twelve year war, a massive tome capable of knocking out any nearby housecat. It's about an era that, for some reason, we never really see in movies. Whenever I've shown this book to people asking about what I'm reading, the result is immediate disinterest and surprise that anyone would read such a gargantuan book about a long past conflict. And yet, despite all of these negative factors, I'm here to tell you one thing:

This book fucking rocks.

The War of Wars imbues its time period with vigorous life. Have you ever wondered how it feels to be a frigate captain at sea? This book is filled with the grandeur of a life in the navy, storming the crests of high waves in pursuit of the enemy. Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a diplomat in Paris? There's so much political intrigue and shenanigans in this book that it is beyond compare. At every stage, we are given a retelling of events from the French Revolution to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, from the cat-and-mouse naval chases of the Caribbean to the epic battle of Waterloo; all fully factual, all possessed with a page-turning narrative worthy of an award-winning novel. After reading this book, I was frankly astonished that I've never seen a movie about the Napoleonic Wars before. How have filmmakers missed this? This era is filled with such drama, heroism, and conflict that it's preposterous that it has not yet been immortalized in modern film.
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Dynamic Personalities

But if there's one thing that makes this book great, it is the way the author brings the personalities of the various figures into life. As hinted in my introduction, this book focuses primarily on the statesmen, commanders, and leaders of the period. Yet, despite a vast cast of characters stretched across dozens of years, I never got lost. Just about every man and woman is memorable. What's more, we are given a balanced view of them. It is very easy for historians to get caught up in the near-mythic brilliance of Napoleon, but Robert Harvey manages to hit both his highs and his lows. We are able to appreciate Napoleon's genius intensity, his quest for recognition, and determination to succeed. Yet we are similarly able to witness his lack of self-control and uncontrollable megalomania. Through this we get a multifaceted perspective of Napoleon and many, many other 'great people' besides. Even with those that the author obviously admires (such as Pitt the Younger and Thomas Cochrane), we are shown their failings, petulance, insecurities, and more. This serves to create an incredibly deep and interesting cast of characters, unforgettable figures set amidst the dramatic backdrop of Europe's first truly global war.
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Critique

The first thing one should know going into this, though, is that it is a general history meant to be enjoyed by those who aren't fussy professors. Essentially, it is (in my opinion) a well-balanced story of the Napoleonic War brought to life but, if you're seeking more specifics about this or that conflict, then it's best to look for a more focused book. You'll get a superb overview of every single stage of the war here, but you might come away wanting more. Perhaps the best way to put it is that this is a great introduction to the Napoleonic War for anyone who hasn't read of it before, a Napoleonic War 101 course, if you will. For me, that was perfect. But for anyone looking for a deep exploration of this or that battle or conflict, it might be best to look elsewhere.

Aside from that, I'd point out that some of the land battles and naval engagements were kind of hard to follow. But, really, this is totally my own fault. There are a great deal of detailed maps at the beginning of the book and, sloth that I am, I found myself far too lazy to flip back to the front in order to visualize what I was reading on the page. Regardless, I never felt completely lost.

My last critique is that, like I pointed out at the beginning, this history falls into the period piece trap of focusing largely on the 'big' 'important' upper class figures of the time. Unlike, say, the histories of Max Hastings, we only occasionally get the perspective of the average citizen or soldier of the time. This may damage its credibility as a truly effective history. But I can honestly say that I just didn't care. I was having too much fun. And at no time in this book did I feel like I was wasting my time or getting too incomplete of a picture.
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Conclusion

Thus it is that, in order to shower praise upon a history with an exciting and sweeping narrative that is perhaps a tad light on substance, I've created a review that only sings lustrous praises and calls attention to dazzling adventures. I didn't call much attention to the specific figures, I didn't really talk about the incredible events, I didn't assess the immensely interesting effect the Napoleonic War had on the world, ramifications that we still feel to this very day. Perhaps I'll have to write a follow-up to do that.

But for now just be assured that, if you've ever had any passing interest in learning about this era of history, this is the book to start your journey with. I can't emphasize enough how excited this book makes me about teaching history and calling attention to the spectacular events that have happened in the past. And that's worth sharing.