Movie Review: John Wick 2

(No Spoiler Review)

I am a guy and I grew up in the eighties.  That meant that I grew up loving action movies.  Arnold Swarzennegger and Bruce Willis movies were the films I enjoyed the most.  Over the top gunplay, witty dialogue, and lots of explosions were the rule of the day and those films delivered.  One of my favorite memories was skipping school and going out with a friend to see Total Recall.  I paid for it but so worth it.

Then I grew up and stopped loving action movies.  As my tastes got more sophisticated, I began to realize the vapid nature of many of the ‘stories’ and the physical impossibility of many of the actions I was seeing on the screen.  As weapons became part of my life, I started to see the patent ridiculousness of the firearms usage.  Worst of all was the sameness of every story I saw.  In the middle of explosions and gunplay in lieu of story, I paradoxically realized I was bored.  Because I was bored I stopped watching.

Then I saw the first John Wick and was floored.  Finally, an action movie with style.  The story was minimalistic but every scene was shot with loving care.  Keanu Reeves, a guy with much presence and limited range finally found the perfect role – an antisocial killer quietly grieving his lost wife.  And the gunplay – I was thrilled to see a movie with realistic magazine changes, firing technique, and authentic fight scenes.

I'm thinking he's back.
I’m thinking he’s back.

I pleased to say John Wick 2 delivers more of the same while fleshing out the mythos.  The first movie introduced a world of contracted assassins and a baroque system of sanctuary, obligation, and a code of honor among the killers of the world.  It didn’t go into much detail but it was there and the second movie expands on it in major ways.  Instead of a personal struggle, you quickly realize there is a larger story of dueling assassins attempting to either save their system or tear it down.  It is an added layer which elevates the movie.

The strange thing though is how JW2 approaches the new layer – it doesn’t talk about it much.  The director keeps the focus on John’s journey and is content to let the larger story inhabit the background where it can be seen and heard but not overpower the real reason why people came – to see John Wick kick ass.

It is clinched to describe well-choreographed fight scenes as ‘ballet’.  I rather think of the scenes here as opera – an intricate stage play of drama, physicality, and setting where every single shot is packed with interesting details, lighting, and dense with background information.  The technical aspects of gunplay and hand to hand fighting are as exceptional as they were in the first but the increased focus of luscious sets and larger drama create a tapestry which was fascinating to behold.

I won’t spoil the movie at all except to say you need to see the first movie if you haven’t seen it.  This is clearly a middle movie and the ending is a cliffhanger for the expected third part of the projected trilogy.  As for me, I don’t think I have changed my opinion on action movies as a whole – but I have all the time in the world for this story and I highly recommend you make time for this film.

TV Review: The Expanse Season 2 Premiere

<Minor spoilers ahead>

Last year, SyFy channel brought James S.A. Corey’s science fiction series, ‘The Expanse’ to television.  ‘Expanse’ is a very popular science fiction book series which just completed its sixth novel in a project series of nine books.  As far as science fiction goes, it isn’t particularly deep – but it is fun and cinematic and filled with charismatic characters cracking one liners as they fight a political and corporate conspiracy which soon explodes into an intergalactic adventure.  SyFy channel, looking to finally find a replacement for its acclaimed ‘Battlestar Galactica’, could rest easy as the show gained positive buzz and had a very successful first season.

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Season two premiered this week with two episodes and I’m happy to say the high-quality acting and sequences from the first season are back.    Rather than a full in-depth review, here are some thoughts on what I saw:

  • The chemistry of the crew of the Rocinante continues to be a high point of the show. There is now a love interest between Holden and Naomi and Alex continues to be good comic relief without being immature or annoying – the guy pilots a starship, he isn’t an idiot. But the best character continues to be the sociopathic Amos.  It is clear the man is a killer whose only anchor appears to be Naomi.  How long will that situation remain stable?
  • Miller continues to be brilliant. The death of Julie Mao has clearly put him officially in the ‘no fucks given’ category.  His actions in the explosive ending of the episode was pretty much the biggest mic drop moment of the entire series.
  • These first two episodes are where the politics of the Solar System really come into play and I thought the show knocked it out of the park by making the Martian-Earth stand off over Phoebe riveting. Chrisjen Avasarala and Fred Johnson were good last season but it is clear they are now going to be center stage in either preventing or starting a war.
  • The introduction of the Bobbie Draper and the Martian Marines is a good counterpoint. Bobbie was pivotal in the books and it appears they are making her a bit more militant than in the books.  The show so far has kept close to the books but I’m curious if they diverge a bit here.
  • The final action sequence of the second episode, the assault on the space station and the accompanying space battle were extremely well known. The Expanse has been great about giving us a different and perhaps more realistic form of space battle and they really delivered here with the cat and mouse game between the Rocinante and the Stealth Ship.

The third episode airs later this week and I look forward to seeing the political and interpersonal fallout from the space station raid.  Bottom line:  It looks like this show isn’t going to have a sophomoric slump and if you have been waiting for a great science fiction show to pop up, this is one you should start watching.

Video Game Review: Total War Warhammer

For a computer gamer, one of the most magical times of the year is Christmas.  It is when we get to experience something called, ‘The Steam Holiday Sale’!  For the uninitiated, Steam is a digital delivery service for PC games – there are a few others but Steam is by far the largest.  Popular new PC games can cost upwards of sixty dollars but a couple times a year Steam has a sale and it is possible to get sixty dollar games for a fraction of the price.  If you’re ever on the fence about a game and don’t want to pay full price, Steam sales are a great time to take the plunge.

This past Christmas, I took the plunge on a game called Total War Warhammer (TWW).  The Total War franchise is a series of popular strategy games which have been around for about fifteen years.  There is a grand campaign strategic campaign, but the real draw is the tactical battlefield where you can control thousands of warriors in gloriously detailed mayhem.  Rome, Feudal Japan, and the Middle Ages have gotten the Total War treatment.

On the surface, TWW represents a departure from the formula.  Where the other games were grounded in history, Warhammer is a popular fictional fantasy universe.  Unlike Tolkien’s better known fantasy world, Warhammer is a grimdark universe where a marginally bad xenophobic theocratic empire is the only thing that stands in the way of the evil forces of Chaos and a host of other baddies.  Warhammer tabletop games are all about the horrifying spectacle of bloody warfare where the question isn’t ‘are you going to die?’ It is how gruesome is the death going to be.

In other words, it is the perfect world to get the Total War treatment.

For followers of the series, the gameplay isn’t remarkably different than what has come before.  It has been refined though to the point where an enthusiast can jump right in and feel at home within five minutes.  For the newcomer, the campaign mode can be a bit overwhelming at first with tons of options thrown at you.  It doesn’t help that the sides in the conflict are asymmetrical so there is a lot of nuance one must learn to effectively execute their strategy.  I could get it after a few tries but I think a newcomer might bounce off this level of the game.

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But really none of it matters once you get down to the tactical battles and this is where TWW excels.  The controls are quite intuitive and within a few moments, you are maneuvering hundreds of soldiers around the battlefield.  The asymmetry and loads of options which are aggravating on the campaign level become interesting tactical problems at the battle level.  TWW rewards good tactics and employment of forces – I couldn’t just throw everyone at the enemy, I had to consider where to place the spear wall, when to disengage the skirmishers, and when to launch the cavalry charges.

Ultimately, the highest praise I can give TWW is that it stayed in my mind long after I finished it.  The atmosphere, terrain, graphics and detail all combined to lead into a gaming experience where instead of playing the game, I felt like I had lived the battle.  I may have been in my living room but for a moment, I was on the side of a hill behind the shield wall repulsing the charge of the hordes of Chaos, arrows and musket balls whistling past me as the guttural war cries of the enemy signaled yet another charge.

Movie Review: Split

Once upon a time, there was a director I really liked named M. Night Shyamalan.  He made a movie called ‘The Sixth Sense’ and it was a hit.  It had atmosphere, suspense, and a cool twist.  The movie was very popular and the country was divided into people who were surprised by the twist and those who lied about seeing it coming.  His next film, ‘Unbreakable’, was one of my favorite superhero movies of all time precisely because no one knew it was a superhero film until the very end.  And then he made ‘Signs’ featuring a mopey Mel Gibson and had the result of making me afraid of corn fields at night.  M. Night Shyamalan became a director, much like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whose films I marked on my calendar as must watches.

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And then it all came apart.  ‘The Village’ wasn’t so much bad as it was underwhelming but everything afterwards was increasingly awful.  What happened?  I honestly couldn’t tell you.  Perhaps it was the stories became increasingly pretentious.  The actor choices became erratic.  The cinematography remained great and the usage of sound and camera angles, a Shyamalan hallmark, were impeccable but his movies became soulless and rote.  With the release of ‘After Earth’, it became official – M. Night Shyamalan was a hack.

Then a curious thing happened.  He made a good movie.  ‘The Visit’ wasn’t high cinema and had its flaws but for the first time in a decade, Shyamalan made something that was interesting and worth watching.  Once again, what happened?  I tend to believe Shyamalan had gotten lazy.  The studios let him make a movie but they took away his budget and gave him young unknown actors who were hungry.  They told him to shut up and work and I think it made all the difference in the world.

So where does that leave Shyamalan’s new movie, ‘Split’?  Is this low-budget movie the hungry Shyamalan or is it the lazy indulgent Shyamalan?

I’m happy to say it is a lot of old Shyamalan with just a hint of indulgence.  ‘Split’ tells the story of a guy with dissociative identity disorder whose mental illness results in twenty-three different personalities.  He kidnaps three teenage girls for a very specific reason and the movie is about how they must joust with the various personalities to survive.  There is a side story of the guy’s interaction with his therapist, a story which gives several clues as to where the movie is ultimately going.

Tonally, the movie shares a lot of similarities with last year’s excellent, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’.  It is mostly claustrophobic but the setting matters less than the interplay of the various characters.  It is really James McAvoy’s movie and it he tears into his role with relish.  Why wouldn’t he?  He gets to play two dozen different characters and it is quite clear he is having a good time and I really enjoyed watching him chew the scenery.  I wasn’t as impressed with the performance of the chief protagonist, one of the teenage girls with a bit of past in her past.  I initially thought her performance wasn’t energetic enough but in further reflection, her performance was subtle and restrained as befitting a character with her background.

Is M. Night Shyamalan back?  Can he sustain this second wind?  I think time will tell but I think studios have cracked the code.  Give him a smallish budget and force him to improvise and innovate – his technical expertise is as good as it has ever been and it appears he is back in the business of building chemistry with his actors again.  This is a movie worth seeing.

Oh by the way, there is a Shyamalan twist to this movie.  The only thing I will say is that he better be serious or I will kill him slowly.