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.

Best of 2016: Books

It was kind of a sparse year for books.  Most of my favorite authors and series were in between books this year unlike last year where I could have dropped a dozen recommendations on you.  Still, there were some gems to be found this is year.  Here were my three favorite books:

Dawn of Wonder (Jonathan Renshaw):  I was in the mood for some fantasy so based off a recommendation from a friend, I gave this one a chance.  The author was a former high school teacher who tried his hand at fiction and this book is his first effort.  It is raw but exhilarating.  Sure, the story is the classic coming of age fantasy story of a small kid with big dreams – the whole thing is ‘Heroes Journey 101’…but the guy made his character so likable and his prose is so good that it sucked me in and I had to get through it!  Great attention to detail, world building, and some of the most vivid fight scenes on paper.  I thought I was a little too old to be suckered in by stories like this but it turns out the magic is still there if the writing is good.  Recommended for all ages.

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The Nightmare Stacks (Charles Stross):  The Laundry Files series, now on its seventh book, is probably one of the most interesting series going.  It is about a group of modern day wizards who work for a division of British Intelligence and are fighting a losing battle trying to prevent the impending apocalypse.  Seven books in, their fight has become increasingly grim and desperate – and the main event hasn’t even started yet.  This isn’t a lighthearted series as horrible things can and do happen.  This is the book that everything finally starts to come apart.  A surprising and unexpected threat materializes in a big way and all hell breaks loose and if you ever wondered what a desperate magic and armored vehicle battle in the middle of a major city would look, here it goes.  The ‘dogfight’ between two dragons and a pair of RAF jet fighters is the best scene I read all year.

The Illuminae Files (Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff):  A new series of books I discovered this year – Illuminae and Germina are the two entries – and I’m glad I did because they are the first young adult series I have read since Harry Potter which I didn’t want to throw out the window.  These are science fiction books about teenagers having to save the day but don’t let it throw you, these books are among the most cinematic books I have read.  The world building is impeccable, the dialogue is good, and I became very invested in these characters.  The second book, set on a space station, is Die Hard meets Aliens meets Event Horizon – if a well-written mix of those three stories doesn’t thrill, I don’t think you love Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Book Review: Briar Lake

When you read as many books as I do, you begin to see the same stories again and again.  A couple of years ago, I figured out this was a function of the limited number of authors I was exposing myself – when it comes to science fiction/fantasy, I was reading the works of the same dozen authors.  I resolved to branch out and Amazon obliged with the self-published works of dozens of folks not picked up by the cutthroat business of print publishing.  The quality may vary but dig and you can find gems which rival the best of the more traditionally published work.

That is how I wound up reading horror novel, Briar Lake.briarlake

Briar Lake is a conventional tale of ghostly revenge visited upon an unfortunate descendant for the sins of the past, something which I have seen in print and on the screen before.  What was interesting about this novel – unique in my experience of reading – was the choice to make the cast of characters working class.  Instead of a plucky but adventurist college co-ed, a harried suburban housewife, or a crowd of dense but lovable tourists or campers, the author Cora Kane chose a group of people who you could have found working at a local factory, eating a meal at the local Waffle House, or tossing back some beers at the local bar.  It seems like a small thing but when combined with the setting of rural Virginia it adds a sense of verisimilitude to these characters and their dialogue which I often find lacking in these sorts of novels.

If I were to categorize my feelings about the book having finished it this weekend, I would call it a good campfire tale – the sort which is more unsettling because instead of a bunch of faceless pop-up targets ready for the slaughter, the people at risk here are people which I have known and shared time.  It personalizes the tragedy in a way most horror movies couldn’t.  There are things about this book which I’m critical – the ratio between horror and character building dialogue was unbalanced in the middle sections – but I read this book on a stormy night in Kentucky and I’m now unsettled by small rural lakes.

I would call it mission accomplished on the horror front.

Book Review: The Laundry and the Rook Files

I like James Bond.  I like Cthulhu.  Can I have both in a story?

It turns out you can totally have both in the same story!  Paranormal spy novels are a genre which has become increasingly popular, featuring mostly British spy agencies protecting the world from the entire array of supernatural threats.  Though there are more than a few series out there in the genre, the two I enjoy most is The Laundry Files series by Charles Stross and the newer Rook Files by Daniel O’Malley. 71QeSqfWziL

The Laundry Files is an ongoing sequence currently at seven books set in modern day London and centered on the Laundry, an arm of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who fight a variety of occult threats.  The series has a fascinating take on magic – solving series of extraordinarily complex mathematical equations can result in opening holes into other dimensions.  This allows for some cool tricks but occasionally, dark things can pop out of those holes and eat your face.   In this age, ‘wizards’ are generally high-end computer engineers who use technology to run the complicated equations.  The Laundry brings together SAS-type commandos and computer hackers together to fight the good fight.

Stross’s books mix in some very British humor focused on the mundane aspects of the job but make no mistake these are increasingly some pretty grim books.  The explosion of computers running complex programs and equations is fraying the boundary between the real world and the darkness and the entire world is racing towards CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN – the end of the everything.  These books really focus on the technical aspects of spy craft in this unique setting and they almost feel authentic – like if there ever was an organization who had to do this kind of work, they would probably look and act exactly like the Laundry.

51fhamZLiXLIf The Laundry Files is about the grim and technical aspects of spy craft, The Rook Files is about the glamorous adventures of James Bond!  The Rook is set in the modern day as well and is focused on a more fantastical organization of spies who also fight the occult.  The Laundry tried to offer a scientifically accurate explanation for ‘magic’ but the Rook pretty much doesn’t bother – their agents are born with their superpowers, raised and taught at their own Academy, and then sent on missions around the world to fight equally fantastical occult threats.  It is X-Men meets James Bond meets Lovecraft.  The lighter approach works – where I’m fascinated with the Laundry books and heavily invested in their race to impending doom, both Rook books can be more fun!

Which of the two do I recommend?  I would say both are great reads worth your time but at this point I’m more invested in The Laundry – I got to see if the world is going to end.  If you’re in the mood for a thriller X-Files style, The Laundry Files is what you want.  If you are looking for spy action with a wink and a smile, The Rook Files has you covered.  I read both and look forward to future installments and I imagine you would as well if you give them a try.