Coincidence and Tragedy

My favorite movie is and most likely always will be Die Hard, but if I had to pick a movie to call my second-favorite movie of all time, it would be The Dark Knight. I’ve seen the movie probably dozens of times since it was released way back in 2008 (the same year the first Iron Man movie came out) but it’s the kind of movie where you notice something new and different with every viewing.

dark knight poster

I re-watched the movie a little while ago after not having seen it for some time, and there were two big things (hint: see the title of this post) that really stood out to me that I wanted to talk about here.

The first is coincidence. I’ve read a lot of stuff in various corners of the Internet ever since The Dark Knight came out complaining about how the Joker’s various diabolical schemes in the movie don’t make sense, and that much of the plot is coincidental because there’s no way the Joker could have planned out every single thing that happens in the film. These complaints have always bothered me, and re-watching the movie recently helped me figure out why.

People always talk about how the Joker must be clairvoyant or something, because he always seems to know what’s going to happen. But the point of the Joker isn’t that he knows everything that’s going to happen, it’s that he’s prepared for every eventuality and he reacts according to what other people do.

Joker tells Harvey Dent that “I’m like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I caught one! I just…do…things.” The Joker doesn’t make plans. As he also tells Harvey, he’s the one who shows people how foolish their plans really are. He disrupts everyone else’s plans, and basks in the resulting chaos.

Also, think about one of the Joker’s first appearances in the movie, where he disrupts the meeting of the mobsters who are talking about what to do with their dirty money. The mobsters are all convinced to go along with Lau’s plan until the Joker shows up and tells them that there’s no way Lau’s so-called plan will be able to withstand Batman’s interference (and for the record, Joker turns out to be right about this).

DARK KNIGHT, THE

This also feeds in to Joker’s status as Batman’s foil. He’s the opposite of Batman, a dark, perverted reflection of everything Batman represents. Because if you think about it, Batman’s tactics when it comes to fighting crime are not dissimilar from Joker’s tactics of instilling terror on the citizens of Gotham. Both use unpredictability and fear as weapons. The people of Gotham are scared of the Joker just as criminals are scared of Batman.

Remember in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne tells Alfred that he needs to become a symbol? His words are something along the lines of, “As a man I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”

All of that applies to the Joker.

Just as Batman is the symbol of hope, the Joker is the symbol of terror.

batman joker

All of this is to say that it really does not matter if the Joker’s schemes in the movie don’t completely make sense. Do Batman’s actions completely make sense to the criminals of Gotham? Probably not. But we see the movie from Batman’s perspective, so his actions make sense to us, the viewers, while the Joker’s don’t always. The Joker is all about creating an air of panic and disorientation, and this applies to Gotham’s citizenry as well as the viewers of the film.

We see Bruce and Alfred talking about what to do about the Joker; we don’t see Joker and his henchmen talking about what to do about Batman. We see Joker telling the mobsters that they need to kill Batman, yes, but he doesn’t share the details of how they are going to accomplish that. This serves to keep the viewer in suspense, and it also serves to bait the mobsters into thinking what Joker wants them to think, so that when they get desperate enough, they’ll turn to him. Just like Leo DiCaprio in Inception (which Christopher Nolan made after The Dark Knight), Joker plants the idea in their minds so that when the time comes, it’s him they’ll be thinking of.

But even aside from all of this, put very simply, the Joker’s actions drive the story, and the details don’t really matter. The Joker is the main force driving the plot of the film forward, and the actions of all the other characters are based around what he does. Christopher Nolan (who also co-wrote the movie) doesn’t waste time getting bogged down in the details of the Joker’s actions, because he knows that that would detract from the story, and from seeing the story through to its incredibly tragic conclusion.

And this, in an extremely roundabout way, brings me to the second main point I want to discuss about The Dark Knight, which is tragedy.

Superheroes, at their core, are all about sacrifice. And The Dark Knight is a movie that explores this theme in ways that no other superhero movie really does.

As much as I enjoy superhero movies, I can definitely concede that they tend to be predictable in terms of plot. Villain tries to destroy/take over world, hero stops him, day is saved, everyone is happy, everything is okay.

But at the end of The Dark Knight, everything is NOT okay. Yes, the Joker has been captured, and the immediate threat he poses has ended. But the crime-fighting trifecta of Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent has been irreparably damaged. Not only is Harvey Dent physically dead, but so is his reputation. He pulled a full-blown Anakin Skywalker and descended into murderous madness, only to meet his end while in the process of attempting to murder Commissioner Gordon’s children. How many other superhero films end with a previously-heroic character pointing a gun at a child’s head? I sure can’t think of any.

batman triumvirate

The Joker has been stopped by the end of the film, but Batman, Gordon and Dent have had to sacrifice so much of themselves in order to accomplish that that it ends up being a Pyrrhic victory. They’ve all had to sacrifice their integrity on so many different occasions that it’s a wonder they have any part of their souls left at all. Take, for example, Batman using Fox’s sonar device to track every cell phone in the city. He knows it’s wrong to spy on so many people, but he does it anyway because the Joker has backed him into a corner and he has no other choice.

The Dark Knight is a movie in which so much more is at stake than the physical well-being of the characters. The characters’ very souls are at stake, making the movie as a whole about so much more than just saving a city from a madman.

The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. I admit that it’s not perfect, despite what I said about how the feeling of disorientation is intentional to some extent, I will agree that the film’s storytelling is a bit muddled at times. For example, I still don’t really understand the whole bullet-reconstruction sequence, that part of the movie has never made much sense to me. But I have come to accept it for what it is, which is a way to advance the plot. The specific details are kind of irrelevant.

And if the Joker’s actions don’t always seem to make sense, it’s because the Joker isn’t a typical villain and his actions aren’t driven by the kind of motivations that you would expect. Remember the scene where he burns the huge pile of money? He does that because he doesn’t care about money. He’s not motivated by it.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to pass off the movie’s flaws by saying they’re all intentional. The film does strain believability a couple times, and the action sequences can be hard to follow. But the acting is tremendous and the ending is devastating, and it’s the most moving superhero film I’ve ever seen.

I still think it’s absurd that the movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, if ever there was a superhero movie that deserved to be nominated for Best Picture it’s this one. The stupid Academy of Motion Picture Snobs and Douchebags seems to enjoy stiffing Christopher Nolan, since they snubbed him for Inception and Interstellar as well.

Oh, well. The Dark Knight is still a masterpiece, and it’s a movie that has remained in the public consciousness for very good reason. It’s kind of amazing that Warner Bros. had the balls to let Christopher Nolan make the movie the way he wanted to, but it’s a gamble that paid off big time.

After 75 years (he celebrated his 75th anniversary last year), Batman has proved that he is still relevant. And it is a great time to be a fan of the Caped Crusader. I can’t wait to play the upcoming video game Batman: Arkham Knight (I’ve put off buying a next-gen console until Arkham Knight comes out) and everyone has an opinion about Zack Snyder’s Batman/Superman movie due out next year. Batman is the greatest superhero of all time, and his many fans still have a lot to look forward to.

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Gentlemen Can Be Badasses, Too

I am very proud to report that I did not see 50 Shades of Grey over the weekend. I have never and will never read the books, and I have never and will never see the movie. I take great pride in both of these facts. I spent my movie theater time last weekend watching Matthew Vaughn’s extremely entertaining and vastly superior Kingsman: The Secret Service.

kingsman-secret-service-most-poster

I can think of three ways to best describe Kingsman. The first is that if Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost were to make a spy movie, it would be pretty similar to Kingsman. The second is that Vaughn’s film is kind of like a Sean Connery-era Bond film on crack and/or steroids. The third is that the Kingsmen are kind of like British G.I. Joes, a secret agency of world-saving badasses.

The main difference between the Kingsmen and G.I. Joes is that, while the American world-savers are of the more rough-and-tumble, down-and-dirty persuasion, the British world-savers are consummate gentlemen in exquisitely-tailored suits.

kingsman suits

The film’s main character is Harry Hart, code-named Galahad, played by the wonderful actor Colin Firth. Other members include Merlin, played by Mark Strong, and Arthur, the head of the organization, played by Michael Caine (because who else could it be?).

The plot concerns Eggsy, a young man recruited by Harry to join the Kingsmen. The film splits its time between Eggsy’s training and the efforts of a rich madman named Richmond Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson, speaking with a lisp and wearing an array of multicolored New York Yankees baseball caps) to exterminate most of mankind.

I won’t go into much more detail about the rest of the plot, but suffice to say that Valentine’s evil plan involves mind-controlling everyone on the planet to basically get them all to beat each other to death, which leads to a couple of brutally hilarious scenes late in the movie in which people on the streets of London and the beaches of Rio are all beating the absolute hell out of each other.

And speaking of beating the hell out of people, director Matthew Vaughn has a real eye for fast-paced, brutal action. His previous films include the comic-book adaptations X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass, as well as the bone-cracking crime thriller Layer Cake, which gave Daniel Craig one of his first starring roles.

With Kingsman, Vaughn perfects his particular style of hyperkinetic action, producing wickedly fast-paced, intricately-choreographed, and at times shockingly violent fight scenes. The standout fight takes place in a church where Valentine tests his mind-control apparatus, which leads to an incredibly violent sequence in which all the occupants of the church, including Harry, all go insane and murder the hell out of each other, with Harry as the only survivor due to his lethal spy skills.

kingsman church fight

The experience of watching Colin Firth kick ass is pretty awesome. Matthew Vaughn seems to specialize in making action stars out of people you would really not expect to be action stars, and watching Firth, a 54-year-old actor known mainly for romantic comedies and serious dramas, beat the hell out of a whole building full of people reminded me of watching then-13-year-old Chloe Moretz kill waves of mobsters in Kick-Ass. It also reminded me of watching Liam Neeson beating Albanian sex-traffickers to death in the original Taken.

Kingsman is heavily reminiscent of Sean Connery’s Bond films (which are directly referenced at one point in the movie), except with a much higher body count and many more f-words. I don’t know why, but hearing people with very proper-sounding English accents say f*ck and sh*t a lot is always endlessly hilarious to me.

The spy gadgets used in the film, which include such gems as cigarette lighters that double as hand grenades, bulletproof umbrellas that shoot various projectiles, pens that can be used to poison people, watches that fire sleeping darts, and knife-tipped shoes, are all the kinds of things that Q would supply Bond with back in the 60’s and 70’s (the knife-shoes, for example, are straight out of From Russia With Love). And of course, those finely-tailored suits are also bulletproof.

Don’t go into Kingsman expecting a serious spy thriller in the vein of the recent Bond films, go into it simply expecting to have a good time and you will not be disappointed. It’s based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar, who also wrote the graphic novels that were the basis for the films Wanted and Kick-Ass, and if you’ve seen either of those films you have a general idea of what kind of insanity to expect from this one.

I mean, the villain’s henchwoman has prosthetic razor-blade legs, which is every bit as insane and ridiculous as it sounds, and also allowed the marketing department for the movie to spoof the famous poster for the 1981 Roger Moore Bond film For Your Eyes Only (which, for the record, is my favorite of Moore’s Bond movies).

kingsman bondkingsman spoof

See what they did there? I mean, who doesn’t remember that Bond poster? I wasn’t even alive when that movie came out and even I remember that poster.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s not perfect of course. The plot follows a lot of very familiar beats and I had issues with the unsatisfying and anticlimactic death of a major character, but as a whole the movie is still very enjoyable. It’s a whirlwind blend of hyperkinetic action, over-the-top spy shenanigans, and some really great British actors. Colin Firth in particular looks like he is having a great time, and you probably will too.

 

The Worst House Guest Ever. Of All Time.

I have never watched the TV show Downton Abbey, but I know quite a few people who have, including my parents, and I know that there was quite an uproar a while back when (spoiler, I guess) a major character was killed off. The actor who played that character is a fellow by the name of Dan Stevens, and one of his first roles post-Downton was in a little movie called The Guest.

the guest poster

In The Guest, Stevens plays a man who shows up unexpectedly at the door of a perfectly normal family on a perfectly normal day. The family is the Peterson family, who are recovering from the loss of their son/brother Caleb. The man who rings their doorbell introduces himself to Laura Peterson, the mom of the family, as David Collins, and says that he knew her son Caleb in the army and was with him when he died, and that before he died, Caleb made him promise that he would look after his family and tell them he loved them, which is what David is there to do.

Laura is understandably taken aback by this, and when David tells her he should be moving on, she insists that he stay with them for a while. David initially resists (though not too much) but agrees to stay for a few days. Laura even gives him Caleb’s old room.

This is a basic plot setup, but if you think about it, it’s a plot that could go in any direction from here. The direction in which it ends up going is unexpected, and while I thought it was awesome in a twisted kind of way, I can understand how it might turn off some people.

After we meet David and Laura, we meet the rest of the Peterson family. These include Spencer, the dad, Anna, the daughter, and Luke, the younger son. David inserts himself into their lives and becomes part of their family unit. Laura likes him because he helps out around the house and because he reminds her of her deceased son, Spencer likes him because he makes a good drinking buddy, and Luke likes him because he’s kind of a surrogate older brother who beats up a couple of bullies who picked on Luke at school.

the guest david

The only one who’s not really buying it is Anna. She knows something’s up when she calls the military base David claimed to be from asking for information and they tell her the man she’s asking after is dead. This allows some shady government types to get wind of the fact that someone might have information as to the whereabouts of one David Collins, or, perhaps more accurately, someone claiming to be David Collins.

Anna tries to warn her family that David is not who he says he is, but by this point he has managed to worm his way into their family so thoroughly that Anna’s parents and her brother don’t believe her.

Throughout all of this, there are warning signs. David’s preferred drink is a fireball (cinnamon schnapps and Tabasco sauce, which sounds revolting), which he pays for at a bar with a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills (“Cash is easy to come by,” he says smoothly when Luke asks him where he got it). He carves a jack-o-lantern using a butterfly knife, and he asks a guy if he can get him a gun (when asked why, he replies effortlessly “I’m a soldier, I like guns”). Most troublingly, Anna overhears him talking on his burner cell phone to a guy where he says something about how he’s lying low but there may be people looking for him, and a couple of people around town mysteriously turn up dead.

The problem is that despite these warning signs, the viewer can’t help but like David. He’s a charming, handsome guy, and there’s something very appealing about him.

THE GUEST

Dan Stevens is fantastic in the role, and though I know he’s a Brit his American accent is good enough that I probably wouldn’t have guessed that he’s a Brit if I hadn’t already known that beforehand. He’s incredibly slick and well-mannered, and he’s as good at seducing the viewer as he is at seducing the Peterson family into believing that he is someone he’s not.

Also, there’s this scene (WARNING TO LADIES: INCOMING BEEFCAKE ALERT):

the guest beefcake

There’s a pretty hilarious bit of backstory to this particular scene, which you can read at the movie’s trivia page on IMDb, which you should really do because like I said, it’s kind of hilarious.

From this point on, I have no choice but to completely spoil the rest of the movie. Most of the time I try not to do this, but there are some things I want to talk about with regards to this film that I just can’t talk about without spoiling the movie’s tumultuous final half-hour. So, consider yourself warned: things are about to get spoilerriffic.

So one day, when David is helping Laura hang the laundry out to dry, two black SUVs full of men wearing body armor and carrying machine guns show up, asking for David. When David sees them, he promptly pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head. An epic firefight ensues and the Petersons’ home is thoroughly shot up. When Laura asks him what’s going on, he apologizes to her and then stabs her dead with a kitchen knife. He kills all of the gunmen except for one, then crashes his car into Spencer’s head-on and apologizes to him as well before shooting him dead.

the guest KILL

Then he goes to the diner where Anna works. Upon not finding her there (the lone survivor from the shootout at the house, who turns out to be a military policeman named Carver, reached her first), he kills Anna’s friend Kristen and, with a look of regret, tosses a couple of grenades into the diner to take care of the rest of the witnesses.

He then heads to the high school, which Luke is helping to decorate for the fall dance, and where Anna and Carver have gone in order to find Luke, since Carver tells Anna that David has been programmed to not leave any loose ends and is systematically killing off anyone who might be able to identify him. At the school, David kills Carver and faces off with Anna and Luke, who manage to finish him off after shooting him several times and stabbing him several times with his own butterfly knife.

“You did the right thing,” David says to Luke. He gives him a thumbs-up, croaks, “I don’t blame you”, and finally dies.

In the aftermath, Anna and Luke are being tended to by paramedics, when Anna spots a fireman walking with a distinctive limp, just like David had been earlier after being shot in the leg. The camera zooms in on the fireman and, though his face is partially obscured by an oxygen mask, David’s killer eyes stand out. Anna shouts “What the f—k?” and the movie ends.

Well.

The Guest is a movie that defies easy classification. In my opinion, it’s a family drama/action movie/slasher flick/black comedy. I hope it’s not too weird that I find it darkly funny that David ends up killing like 20 people. It’s also sad that he does that, I mean, I liked the Petersons. They were a little clueless to be sure, but they were good folks, and I felt bad when David murdered the parents. Although I was also chortling in a Holy-shit-is-this-actually-happening sort of way.

I also liked how the movie takes certain tropes and turns them upside-down. In most movies, when government agents unexpectedly show up and try to kill somebody, it’s because they, the agents, are evil, and are trying to kill the protagonist for their own nefarious purposes. But in this movie, the agents are actually the good guys and are there to kill David because he actually is a dangerous psychopath. I love that because it is the exact opposite of what the viewer expects, and it’s refreshing to see a movie go in a direction that is completely different from the one you expect.

the guest MURDER

It can be a bit jarring when a movie tries to juggle as many different genres as this one does, but in my opinion it worked really well. The pacing is very good as the movie barrels towards its spectacularly violent conclusion, and is helped along by a funky retro soundtrack that gives the movie a kind of throwback 80’s vibe which I really liked.

I also really liked the ending. It’s a classic horror movie twist ending that pulls the rug out from under you, where it turns out the killer ISN’T ACTUALLY DEAD AND HE’S STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU. I can understand how such an abrupt ending would tick off some people but I just loved the sheer audacity of it. I also liked how the film’s story gave some explanation for David’s incredibly violent behavior, while still leaving his character open to interpretation, which ensures that David remains mysterious and doesn’t turn into just another Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees clone.

The movie was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, whose previous collaboration was a slasher flick called You’re Next, which is one of the best names for a horror movie ever. I kind of want to see it now because I liked The Guest so much, even though I don’t usually go for slasher flicks. But Wingard and Barrett clearly know what they’re doing, and I think we can expect some really cool stuff from them in the future.

The Guest is a movie that won’t appeal to everyone but if you have an idea of what you’re in for and keep an open mind, you might really enjoy it. I did.

Keanu Kraze: John Wick

John Wick is one of the best American action movies I’ve seen in a long time that absolutely any fan of action movies should seek out immediately.

john wick poster

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as John Wick, a retired hitman. He got out of the murder business when he got married. At the beginning of the film, his wife has recently died of a terminal illness, and he is mourning her. For the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie, you could even forget you’re watching an action film. At first, it could be a movie about a man trying to come to terms with his grief. But then, bad guys show up, and the movie kicks in to high gear.

But before that happens, John gets a dog. The dog was a gift from his late wife, and it is just about the most adorable little puppy dog you’ve ever seen. One day, John is out cruising around in his totally kickass Mustang and bonding with his new furry friend, when he stops at a gas station to fill up the aforementioned kickass Mustang. Also at the gas station are a couple of rather unpleasant fellows with Russian accents, whom the viewer can clearly tell are bad dudes. One of them tries to buy John’s car from him, an offer which is refused.

john wick car

Later that night, the Russian scumbags from the gas station break into John’s house (mistake), beat him up (BIG mistake), steal his awesome Mustang (REALLY big mistake), and, most heinous of all, KILL HIS ADORABLE PUPPY DOG (GIGANTIC MISTAKE).

So yes, dog lovers be warned, the adorable puppy dog meets a tragic end. The act itself isn’t seen directly (thank goodness), but it’s still a hard scene to watch.

john wick dog

From this point, I firmly believed that the Russian scumbags absolutely deserved whatever horrible vengeance John freaking Wick had in store for them.

Turns out that Iosef, the ringleader of the puppy-murdering scumbags (played by Alfie Allen, better known as Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones), is actually the son of Viggo Tarasov, a seriously bad dude who is the head of the Russian mob in New York, as well as one of John’s former employers.

Viggo (played by Michael Nyqvist, a Swedish actor known for playing Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies, as well the villain in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol) is not happy when he learns what his son has done. He gets my favorite line in the movie when he tells his son that “I once saw John Wick kill three men in a bar…with…a…pencil.”

He tells his foolish son that they used to call John the Boogeyman, and that he was one of their best assassins. He even helped Viggo gain control of the mob by eliminating all of his former rivals, a task so daunting Viggo had thought it to be impossible, but John Wick is such a badass that he did it single-handedly.

Viggo knows that John will not sit idly by and allow Iosef’s actions to go unpunished, and he’s right. John unleashes a whirlwind of murderous vengeance that is awe-inspiring to behold.

But I know what you’re thinking: he goes on gangster-killing revenge spree because of a dog?

Well, yes and no. It’s because of a dog, but it’s not just a dog. Aside from the fact that pretty much any reasonably sane human being would be rather upset if someone murdered their dog for really no reason at all, the dog is representative of something bigger. The dog was a gift from his late wife who was delivered to him after she died, the dog was his only link to her, and, as John tells Viggo late in the movie, the dog meant that he did not have to grieve alone.

And see, that, to me, is powerful. What’s the only thing worse than mourning the loss of a loved one? The prospect of having to go through the rest of your life without that person in it. The dog meant that John wouldn’t have to do that, and a bunch of punks took that from him.

The scene where John explains this to Viggo is, I think, probably the best acting Keanu Reeves has ever done. He gets a lot of flack for his acting being flat, which sometimes it is, but this movie shows that there are some things he’s really good at. Watch the scene on YouTube here and decide for yourself.

And speaking of Reeves’ performance, he is awesome in the action scenes. He has a real physical presence, the way he moves and fights and fires weapons is completely believable. He moves with a sort of practiced ease, and I never had a problem believing that used to be this unstoppable killing machine, because, clearly, he still is.

john wick keanu

Reeves’ performance is complemented by the way the movie’s many action scenes are filmed. The movie was directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (although only Stahelski is credited for whatever reason), both veteran stuntmen making their feature-directing debut. And based on the evidence this movie provides, I am 100% in favor of the two of them making more action movies, since they are clearly very good at it.

All of the film’s action scenes are shot in a way that makes it easy for the viewer to follow what is going on. Modern action films get a lot of criticism for using shaky camera work and really fast editing, but Leitch and Stahelski don’t do either of those things. Their camera movements accentuate Reeves’ movements and actions in a way that is never hard to follow, and absolutely thrilling to watch. The nightclub shootout in particular is the best cinematic nightclub shootout since Michael Mann’s Collateral (and reason #67 why I don’t go to nightclubs).

It’s just a really awesome action movie. Good acting from Reeves and the supporting cast (which also includes Willem Dafoe and the guy who plays Mayhem in those Allstate commercials), simple but interesting setup, and extremely well-choreographed and well-shot action sequences make this a film that should immediately go straight to the top of any action fan’s must-see list.

john wick badass