The Wickiness

John Wick has a delightfully simple premise: Retired assassin lives okay life. Punk kid steals retired assassin’s car and kills his puppy (that was given to him by his recently deceased wife). Retired assassin un-retires and goes on a  brutal rampage of revenge.

Simple, effective.

And honestly, when so many action movies are trying to be super smart with overly complex plots and schemes, “dude gets revenge for dead dog” is wonderfully simple. It harkens back to classic action movies like Die Hard, Predator, or even Commando where a straightforward plot serves primarily to deliver thrills. Die Hard’s concept of a New York cop as the sole defender of a captured skyscraper is fantastic and the film uses it — crawling in the ducts, elevator excitement, parking garage fun — to a wonderful extent. The titular alien of Predator makes for a challenging fight in the jungle. Kidnapping John Matrix’s daughter is just Commando’s excuse for Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill bad guys in inventive ways. A hallmark of these classics is a focus on the action over the effects. The Predator might be a stealthy alien, but its final showdown against Dutch is much more about the fight itself than it is a spectacle of effects. John Wick is a movie like these, replete with that personal sort of action, but, y’know, modern.

It certainly helps that John Wick is no slouch in the mythology department. John may be an assassin, but he’s not just any assassin: he’s a member of a secret society, a group with their own rules, currency, and even a sanctuary of a hotel in New York. We’re not told terribly much about this underground world, but we get to see much of it, and a lot more is certainly implied by characters’ responses and actions. The world feels massive, one with reams of untold stories that echo more the Marvel movies or a Sergio Leone western than a typical action movie. John Wick manages to perfectly combine mythmaking with 80s action thrills to create one of the best series of modern action movies.

It’s a step above similar contemporaries like The Expendables and The Transporter, two movies which are great, dumb fun with their own interesting worlds, but don’t quite deliver on the same exhilarating thrills that the John Wick movies do. The fights in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum are not only wonderfully choreographed, but they’re shot in long, wide shots that allow the audience to watch the fights play out and the skill of the fighters. Void of staccato jumpcuts, Parabellum plays out like a classic Jackie Chan flick, where there’s such emphasis on the artistry of the fight. It helps that these fights are straight up creative. Parabellum features a fight in the New York Public Library (books are lethal) and another where the combatants are surrounded by cases full of knives (which are quickly broken open and so ensues a knife fight). One of the final fights sees Keanu Reeves squaring off against Indonesian actors Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman — guys from the fantastic action movie The Raid. But it ain’t enough to just have these exceptional fighters throw down, Parabellum sets this fight in a glass room with glass walls, floors, and cases. It’s beautiful and decidedly unique.

So much of this relies on how slick the movie is. The John Wick movies have a very clear idea of what they are and it’s played to the hilt. Russian, Japanese, Latin, and Indonesian are all spoken in the movies and have subtitles — that often emphasize words by coloring them in neon purple and making them triple the size. The operators of the assassins’ network are dressed like ‘50s secretaries, but decked out in punk tattoos and piercings, but still using typewriters, switchboards, and old computers. I’ve seen the movies described as neo-noir, and that is certainly true, but toss in influences of every action genre — from anime to westerns to martial arts — and you’ve a fuller picture.

All this to say that John Wick fills a particular niche that we didn’t even know we need, a hyper-violent action movie that pairs its blood and guns with fantastic, imaginative craft. Give me more movies with this Wicky sensibility!

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Here Comes The Ending

In many ways, I’m super jealous of the writers behind the Game of Thrones tv show. Over the years, they’ve built up an array of excellently developed and flawed characters, well-rounded, conflicted people who are often their own worst enemy. It’s Jon Snow’s loyalty to his homeland that makes his relationship with the Free Folk so fraught, but it’s that relationship that ends up saving his life. Petyr Baelish is delightfully conniving – he’s someone who wants power and will double cross anyone — even himself — if it gets him there. They’re complex, with shifting and conflicting loyalties that mean that sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. The show gets a lot of mileage from throwing curveballs at these characters and watching what happens.

But then, I’m really happy I’m not writing Game of Thrones. Part of every story is its ending and I really don’t want to have to figure out how to bring that behemothic narrative to a resolution. Where do these characters’ arcs have to go? How will these myriad conflicts be resolved? What’s up with the White Walkers? There’s a lot going on.

The show’s finale airs tomorrow night, after a truncated season. It’s been rough; a lot of character arcs have been quickened in an effort to get everyone where they have to be before the end. Some have gotten the short end of the stick, some others have been given their moment to shine, and most have gotten some combination of both. There’s a lot in this season that I like, if not necessarily its execution.

Endings are hard.

I’m one of the few who adores the conclusion to Lost. After six seasons of mysteries and lore building, the series needed to come to a satisfying conclusion. And boy howdy, there were a lot of questions. Who put that wheel there? How’s time travel work exactly? Why did that bird screams Hurley’s name? Questions.

I figure the showrunners of Lost realized early on that short of an FAQ session, there was no way to answer every single question. So they wisely decided to hone in on the characters of the show and give them the resolution they needed. Some mysteries were solved, sure, but the focus was more on giving closure to the characters.

Take Sawyer, unapologetically my favorite character alongside Desmond and Ben. At the start of the series, he’s nothing more than a selfish jackass who wants to be hated. But as the series progresses, he discovers a gentler, protective side of him. Naturally, the culmination of it all has Sawyer making choices that are a testament to how far he’s come and finally, finally getting his happy ending.

Not all of our questions are answered — we never found out what the deal was with that dang bird — but by the time the final episode’s credits rolled I felt satisfied, I felt like my investment in Lost, its world, and its characters had all been worth it.

Honestly, that’s what really matters. Was it worth it? I have seen some awful movies in the past, but I remember more than a few of them fondly because of the circumstances of my viewing (like running a commentary with a friend in an empty theater). Lost was worth it for the journey it brought me on, for the characters I met and loved. I have no doubt that the ending to Game of Thrones will be far from perfect, but I think I’ll be happy so long as I get my closure, as long as l feel like my time with the show has been worth it.

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Where’s My History Lesson?

The Assassin’s Creed series might be my ultimate guilty pleasure of a video game. Some of them are really good (II and Brotherhood), some… less so (the original and, honestly, III). Then there’s one like Black Flag which has a really cool central mechanic (ships!) but really accentuates the worst parts of the series (missions where you have to follow someone and then not be seen… and failing makes you have to slowly walk with the followee again). Then there’s the overall lack of polish: Edward clips through the ship’s rigging when he runs along the bulwark, something you will do several times when you sail up to an island and run to jump off into the water. I’m hesitant to call them really great games, but they are fun, especially when III and Black Flag gives you a pirate ship.

Given that the succeeding games did not give you any pirate ships, I didn’t play any past Black Flag in 2014. Eventually, I finally came around and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because not only does the game give you a pirate ship (sorry, a trireme), but at long last, the game finally gives you an option for the player character to be a woman. And something about RPG elements being a big part of it too.

Anyway, I’m days into the game, though I’m not sure how far into the actual story I am — I keep getting distracted fighting soldiers and sinking ships as my badass warrior pirate lady. Odyssey reminds me of why I enjoy these games so much, they’re fun, a little ridiculous, and there are few things as great as staking out a camp and then one by one killing the soldiers within before they know you’re there.

But, I’m kinda bummed that Odyssey has kinda lost its history lessons. Part of the whole schtick of these games is that you’re someone from present day reliving the past via the Animus and genetic memories. The framing device means other characters from the present can provide you with information about places and people you encounter. This means there’s a whole bunch of reading you can do about historical people and places you see. Running around Renaissance Italy and see a funky tower? Here’s some history! Wanna know what the big deal about the Hagia Sophia is? Here you go! What’s up with Colonial Boston? History! Yes, it’s kinda like homework to read through these database entries, but it really adds to the overall sense of place.

But this info is nowhere to be found in Odyssey. Islands in the Greek archipelago are just islands, places and temples are just places and temples, with little indication of their importance of factuality. Early on the game, you visit Ithaca and the ruins of Odysseus’ home. Which is awesome because, hello, The Odyssey! But without a measure of familiarity with Homer’s epic, you wouldn’t realize what a big deal it is. I’ve recently met a historian by the name of Herodotos who’s helping me with my quest, but the game itself has given no indication about the lasting reputation he’s had on the modern world. When I vied against the Borgias in Brotherhood it was an added bonus to know that these were, to an extent, actual historical people. Losing that framing robs Assassin’s Creed of one of its fun — and surprisingly educational — aspects.

This isn’t really a big knock against Odyssey. Like I said, it’s a really fun game, even with the small bugs (that may or may not be features). It’s an open world game, a genre which I have mixed feelings about, but there’s a lot to do so it stays pretty fresh. Plus, I bought a skin from a blacksmith that turns my horse into a unicorn, so at the end of the day, I’m okay with a little lack of history.

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Of Places Good

I’m not great at watching tv. The act of putting aside everything to sit in front of the television (or, let’s be honest: my laptop) makes me antsy. Watching it with someone’s better, since then I feel like I’m spending time with a friend and so not just sitting around. Point is, all this means binge watching shows isn’t something I’m good at – it notoriously took me four years to ‘binge’ Breaking Bad.

However, building with LEGO makes me feel like I’m doing something, and watching something on Netflix at the same time somehow justifies it in my mind. Usually.

That long preamble is to say that when I’ve found a show where I really wanna hit “next episode” it’s something that’s particularly excellent.

Right now, that show is The Good Place. Recommended to me by a friend, I finally started watching it while folding laundry (see? being productive). I’m halfway through the first season and having an absolute ball.

The show is smart, sharp as a blade, but also one that doesn’t feel the need to flaunt it all around. It’s a show that’ll merrily name drop Emmanuel Kant and Machiavelli one moment and make a joke about the less-than-stellar quality of Floridian DJs the next. Though an understanding of the ethical philosophies upheld by the mentioned thinkers isn’t necessary to get a joke, they inform the plot of the show and individual episodes. Basically, The Good Place is a sitcom that explores ethics and morality not through people monologuing and debating, but instead through actual plot points.

For example, Kant said that the real judge of the morality of an action is its motivation, not the result. When Eleanor, the show’s protagonist, tries to prove she’s a good person to get ahead, she realizes she’s failing because what she’s doing is not truly altruistic. By crafting narratives around thorny philosophical questions, The Good Place is able to explore the ramifications of certain ideologies, while still propelling characters and making jokes about cacti. The show doesn’t need to flaunt its intellectualism around; its stories do that for it.

It helps that The Good Place takes after showrunner Michael Schur’s other shows (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) by featuring characters who are well sketched out and, though flawed, fundamentally nice to each other. These aren’t characters constantly trying to one-up each other and narrative conflict doesn’t arrive by pitting them at odds. It leads to interesting setups, where the central thrust becomes how do these goofballs solve the problem before them.

Its sense of fun and big heart gets combined with a love of moral philosophizing to make The Good Place a delightfully watchable show. Which isn’t something I say a lot.

Anyway. That’s the blog post, time to enjoy my Saturday by building something with LEGO while watching more The Good Place.

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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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It’s The Endgame

It’s wild to think that when I started this blog seven years ago The Avengers was only just about to come out. There’s been a regular deluge of movies since taking place in The Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s all coming to a head this weekend with the release of Avengers: Endgame. It’s hard to overstate just what Marvel Studios has managed to pull off here; 21 interconnected films with crisscrossing characters and story elements.

I still remember when Iron Man first came out. I was in high school and really wanted to see it opening day, but I was taking the SAT the next day and the plan was to watch it after that exam. Iron Man had always been one of my favorite superheroes, owing in no small part to a particularly wonderful cartoon I watched as a child. In any case, the movie was fantastic, a kickass superhero movie with a warm, human core. And then the post-credits stinger rolls around and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury tells Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative.

As someone who grew up with the superhero osmosis in the ’90s, I knew that these Marvel characters teamed up. Captain America had shown up to fight Red Skull in a Spider-Man cartoon; Daredevil and The Human Torch were both in a Spider-Man video game (Spider-Man got all the good stuff in the ’90s). That’s, of course, not counting the comic collections I’d flip through at Barnes and Noble. So naturally, the idea of the Avengers meant something to me and it meant something very cool.

Think again of how absolutely unheard of the idea of a superhero team-up movie was ten years ago. The Spider-Man and X-Men movies existed in different spaces, and Batman and Superman teamed up, but only in the cartoons. Movies crossing over was limited to the likes of Alien vs Predator. Iron Man teaming up with the Hulk and who-knows-who-else was such a cool, idiosyncratic idea.

There’ve been plenty of articles on the internet about how singular an achievement the MCU is, and as much as I’d like to, I don’t think I can write as good an article in a single afternoon. Leastways I don’t have much new to bring to the discussion that hasn’t already been said a dozen times.

On the other hand, there is the whole idea that Endgame is very much going to be the end of an era. Sure, Spider-Man: Far From Home is coming out afterwards, and there are a bunch of movies in development like a Black Panther sequel and the announced Shang-Chi movie that are yet to be given release dates. But the Avengers as we’ve known them for the past ten years is very much coming to a resolution. This may well be the last time we see characters like Iron Man and Captain America on screen for a long time, and it’s up to this movie to give a fitting farewell.

I’m curious, naturally, as to what form it’s gonna take. There’s a lot of stuff we know, of course. There’s gonna be an inevitable rematch with Thanos, and I’m willing to put money on a big team up with every single Avenger, especially given that Infinity War didn’t feature that moment. Seriously, there has to be a call-back to that iconic shot in The Avengers. But there is the big question of how it’s all gonna look when the dust settles. Will Tony and Steve pass on the mantle of leadership to Captain Marvel? Is someone else going to take up Cap’s shield at the end? What comes next?

Pulling all that off is going to be the real trick of Endgame, but if there’s one thing producer Kevin Feige has proven during his showrunning of the beast that is the MCU is that he’s warranted our trust. In light of that, I cannot wait until Thursday night.

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Star Wars Trailer

There’s a new Star Wars trailer, for Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and naturally, I am very excited. Because, y’know, Star Wars. There’s so much I dig about it (Rey’s fantastic new outfit, Poe and Finn on adventures, Leia!), and I’m fully aware that this is because it’s Star Wars and these movies will forever delight me no matter what. But here’s the thing, the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker is an essentially perfect example of how to tease a movie.

Right off the bat, we’re treated to a sequence of Rey in the desert, staring down an incoming starfighter. There’s essentially no plot to this sequence; we don’t know whose TIE it is (it looks somewhat like Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer from The Last Jedi, but the cockpit is different), and we have no idea where or why Rey is where she is. But what’s clear is Rey’s come a long way from the scavenger on Jakku. This is her thing.

The next chunk of the trailer is checking in with the other characters and what they’re up to. We see Kylo Ren and his stormtroopers fighting their way through a forest against an indistinct enemy (is that a Knight of Ren?) while someone repairs Kylo’s helmet. Poe Dameron and Finn are off on some high-speed adventure alongside a long-suffering C-3PO. BB-8’s got a new droid buddy, and Lando is back in the Falcon’s cockpit. Also, Leia’s there as a comforting presence and a medal from the end of A New Hope is back too. That middle chunk of the trailer basically lets us know that all those characters we know and love are back and there’s adventure waiting in the wings. Yes, it’s the sort of thing that really does go without saying, but it’s undeniably cool to see them all — we care about these characters and want to see what happens to them in the next stage of their journey.

And that’s where the final sequence of the trailer comes into play. Rey, Finn, and Poe are adventuring somewhere together (the sequel trilogy’s power trio in the grand tradition of Star Wars trios). This gives us some vague idea of at least part of the movie: there’s something that needs to be done and it’ll be done by these three. Past that though, not much is clear. Cue the Death Star wreckage sitting in a sea. It’s a delightful what-the-heck moment that offers up many more questions than it answers. Why are the three looking for the Death Star? Or why did they find it? Who knows?

As if that wasn’t enough, the trailer ends with the very familiar cackle of Emperor Palpatine, adding another ingredient to the mystery stew.

The best thing is that even after the trailer had run its course, we don’t know anything about the plot! Is Kylo Ren still the villain? What’re Rey and company up to? How’s Lando figure into it? Rather than giving us a blow by blow of the story, the trailer instead focuses on invoking a specific mood; we know how the movie will feel instead of what’ll happen. It’s an epic adventure, the sort that Star Wars is known for, coupled with a bunch of mysteries that need to be uncovered. By throwing so many elements into the mix, especially ones with no easy explanation like the Death Star and Palpatine, the trailer effectively whets our appetites to find out what happens next.

In summary: It’s a really good trailer that I’m gonna be rewatching a lot because dude it’s so cool and Jedi Rey gives me life.

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