Monday, April 27, 2015

Movie Review: Nightcrawler

Sometimes, it takes a while for you to transition back to real life after a big event. Celia had an amazing 3-day trip to the beach a couple weeks ago, and last weekend we finally got back into what is our usual groove of hanging out and doing stuff.

I brought over two films for us to potentially watch. The first was "Bowling For Columbine." I picked up a used copy at FYE a while back because it was only like $3 and I don't remember the last time I had watched it. I was texting Celia that night and mentioned it. And she had no clue what I was talking about. I was dumbstruck that she had never seen nor heard of it and let her know that. She thought I was a little condescending (which I probably was), so she hates that documentary out of spite and wanted nothing to do with it.

My other option was "Nightcrawler," a drama starring Jake Gyllenhaall that came out late last year and had a lot of buzz for it. While the film didn't make a big dent during the "awards season," Gyllenhaall was nominated for a Golden Globe and the film was up for the "Best Original Screenplay" Oscar.

"Nightcrawler" is such an interesting character study into the psyche of a person who wants to succeed at all costs. Is he a good person? The movie opens with Gyllenhaall's character Louis Bloom stealing a chain link fence and attacking a security guard who stops him. When selling that fence and some other items he stole to a construction site, he inquires about a job, smoothly putting himself over as a hard worker who wants to succeed in an organization. When the boss replies with "I'm not hiring a fucking thief," Bloom give a smile as if to say, "Good point" and walks out.

Bloom sees a car accident on the side of the road and stops to observe. It is then that he sees some TMZ-style camera men known as "nightcrawlers," who basically scour the streets at night looking for news stories to record and sell. Bloom hears some dollar figures and decides that he wants into that lifestyle.

We get a humorous montage of Bloom learning police codes and attempting to record his first few police incidents. He races toward a domestic violence call. By the time he gets there, everybody involved is calmly standing around. He pulls up right next to them, almost hitting a police officer, pulls his camera out and starts filming. The cop asks "What the fuck are you doing?"

Louis Bloom eventually gets very good at his job and begins a relationship with one of the local news stations, headed by a lady named Nina, played by Renee Russo. She realizes that ratings are more important than ethics, as she allows footage to be shown that Bloom took after sneaking under police tape and going through a crime scene without permission.

And that's where the ethical dilemma comes into play. Bloom did that once and was rewarded for it. So, he begins to do it a few more times. He gets to a crash scene before the police and looks for the perfect shot. When he can't find it, he goes into the wreckage and moves the dead body into a better spot.

It all escalates from there. He has some issues with his competition that he takes care of. He gets to a home invasion before the police and sees some stuff he should have told somebody about. But he keeps it to himself because he can use it later.

The relationship between Louis and Nina is something that is hinted at, but it is left ambiguous as to whether or not it became sexual. He initially asks her out on a date, and she turns him down noting their professional relationship. He keeps it up and she brings up the age difference between them.

When she does eventually go on that date, Bloom propositions her with sex in exchange for continuing their professional relationship. While she is angered at first, as he talks and brings up her low ratings and how she needs him more than he needs her, her tone softens.

Nothing outwardly happens. There are two moments that lead us to believe something did, though. While having an argument later in the film, Bloom quickly says something about how he was in her apartment at one point. Again left vague, but they either had sex or he tried and she turned him down.

Near the film's climax, Bloom has the footage that will turn Nina's station around. Alone in a dark room, they have an exchange laced in innuendo. As they slowly creep closer toward each other, Bloom seductively asks about the footage, "How bad do you want it?" As she gets closer to him, she replies with a sultry, "Why don't you tell me how bad I want it?"

I guess the main issue with this film is ethics. Doing something unethical is different from doing something illegal. People do unethical things all the time to advance in their lives or careers. People have different sets of ethics. One person can think something is wrong and another will be okay with it.

Like the dead body that Louis moves into a better shot, was that wrong? He didn't kill the person. He just showed up. His job was to film the accident and get a shot of the body. He just couldn't get a good shot. The body was already dead and the ambulance people would have moved it anyway. Was he wrong to do that?

Was he wrong to correctly note that Nina's station was the lowest-rated news program and that he could sell his footage anywhere and that it would be beneficial to give him whatever he wants? Is it ethical to negotiate with sex?

It is a struggle for us at times, because some of us are sympathizing with him as a struggling small-time journalist going up against "the man." But, he is a thief who is willing to bend the rules to get ahead. How he deals with his competition is especially reprehensible. He is not a good person, or is he just a troubled man trying to do the right things?

It's a great film. Nothing amazing, but it will definitely make you think. Check it out; you've got nothing better to do.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Rob Van Dam: Wrestling's Stoner Superhero

Today is April 20, which if we're writing the date out with numerals is 4/20, which is a marijuana term 4:20, which is sort of an unofficial "meeting time" to partake.

With marijuana legalization happening in several states and medicinal marijuana becoming much more widespread, the negative stigma about this drug is slowly starting to disappear. 

One thing I've joked about from being a professional wrestling fan for so many years is the additional knowledge I've picked up. I know a lot about knee injuries; the difference between the ACL and PCL. I can tell you information about the disks in your back. I know where the solar plexus is located because of wrestling. And I know what your epidermis is because of "The Simpsons," but that's another story.

I haven't felt a stigma toward marijuana largely in part because of watching Rob Van Dam be one of the most innovative and amazing professional wrestlers for 18 years. Rob Van Dam is also one of the most outspoken and informative proponents of marijuana legalization.

I first heard the phrase "4:20" because of Rob Van Dam. The most popular catchphrase in wrestling history at the time (and likely forever) was "Austin 3:16," the words made popular by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. At the time, Austin was involved in a program with Jake Roberts, who had revealed a religious element to his character. Austin, mocking Roberts, said "You talk about your psalms and John 3:16, well Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!" And a pop culture moment was born. RVD put his own spin on it over at Extreme Championship Wrestling with "RVD 4:20 says I just smoked your ass."

Who is RVD? In the late 90's, the mainstream wrestling world was divided between the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (which went out of business in 2001). There was an upstart third promotion called Extreme Championship Wrestling that featured a cavalcade of characters that either developed their skill sets they would take to the "big show" (Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Steve Austin, etc) or niche stars who made ECW their home (The Sandman, Mikey Whipwreck, Raven, etc).

Rob Van Dam was the biggest homegrown star in the history of ECW. He personified what that promotion was more than anybody else. ECW was "extreme" in every way; hardcore weapon use, profanity, bleeding... and what RVD had above all else, extreme athleticism.

RVD was so acrobatic, so athletic, so flexible, but he was also so believable. He had the look, the style, the cockiness, the total package. He started as such an asshole character, but he always backed up what he did in the ring that his attitude caught on with the fans. His cocky character went from being mean-spirited to having a fun side and his charisma caught on with the fans.

The first - and so far, only - wrestler to be on the cover of "High Times" magazine was RVD. The 1999 article was so groundbreaking, because it took the "stoner, slacker" persona that RVD had and really turned it around. He talked about medicinal purposes for it. Hemp was something that wasn't really as popular 15 years ago as it is now, and RVD championed the increased use of hemp.

ECW went bankrupt in 2001 and RVD moved to the only show left in town - WWE. He was supposed to be a "bad guy," but the crowd wanted none of that and regularly cheered for RVD over the other top stars he was fighting against: Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle, and The Rock, among the most notable.

WWE is not ECW and they really did not know what to do with RVD. They knew that they had an impressive physical specimen with a unique charisma, but other than that they seemed lost. He became a secondary, almost comical character. His interviews were peppered with "Cool" and "Whatever," and other stoner stereotypes. But he wasn't portrayed outwardly as a stoner; the "4:20" aspect of his character was no longer allowed in the corporate-PG environment of WWE.

A DVD of the rise and fall of ECW was released in 2004 and quickly became one of the biggest-selling documentaries in WWE history. This led to a lot of interest in the seemingly dead promotion. A 2005 reunion show titled "One Night Stand" was planned for the summer of 2005. There was only one small problem... Rob Van Dam had knee surgery earlier that year and wasn't medically cleared to compete.

In true ECW fashion, RVD showed up to the event wearing a knee brace, picked up a microphone, and proceeded to vent the frustrations of both he and his millions of fans. That WWE didn't know what to do with his character, that he was capable of being so much more than a comedy "stoner" and so forth. It generated a lot of buzz, yet RVD wasn't able to return for nearly 6 more months as an active performer.

The following year, the ECW nostalgia craze returned and the second "One Night Stand" reunion show featured Rob Van Dam challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship. This time, ECW was going to be more than a one-night deal, as WWE had brought the promotion back as a full-fledged brand with a one-hour weekly TV show.

In front of one of the most polarizing, anti-Cena crowds in WWE history, RVD won the WWE Championship and was then awarded the ECW Championship as well. His moment had finally arrived. He was the WWE Champion and the ECW Champion and was going to be one of the top stars in wrestling.

Oh wait...

Three weeks after the greatest moment of Rob Van Dam's career, he was leaving a show in West Virginia and traveling with fellow wrestler Sabu. After crossing into Ohio, Van Dam was pulled over for speeding. The officer smelled pot and did a search. He found a small amount of marijuana and a smoking device on RVD and a couple pills on Sabu that he didn't have a prescription for.

That happened on a Sunday. On Monday, RVD showed up on Monday Night Raw and lost the WWE Championship. The next day, RVD defended his ECW Championship on that brand's show and lost that title. Then he was suspended for 30 days.

Ultimately, nothing really came out of the charges. I believe he paid some fines. But, professionally, his main event run was over. He was suspended in the summer of 2006 and was gone from WWE by the next summer.

After leaving WWE, Van Dam did a lot of interviews about his life and career, and he never shied away from his arrest for possession. He used it to help paint a better picture of getting rid of the negative stigma. He was an athlete who excelled at the highest level and was more than just a lazy slacker.

After a few years of spending time on outside interests (movies, radio show, convention appearances) and a brief stint in the smaller "Total Nonstop Action" promotion, RVD made his long-awaited return to WWE in 2013.

At 44-years-old, Rob Van Dam is no longer a full-time performer. His contract is set up into 90 day increments. He appears for 3 months, then takes time off and does it again. He came back for an amazing run in 2013 where he was treated like a legend; performing in the main event and stealing the show. His 3-month stint in 2014 was a little lackluster, as WWE didn't really seem to have a direction for him. He hasn't been back since, but the relationship is still there.

He has gained the respect of wrestling fans by always being one of the best. It took the major wrestling promotions some time to come around, but they have realized the respect he deserves. He gets treated like a legend and still performs at a Hall-of-Fame level. He has done all of that while advocating a pro-marijuana agenda and defying every negative stereotype that lifestyle brings to it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Monday Musings

That's one of my favorite Stone Temple Pilots songs. I like the meaning behind it.

The weather is getting warmer. I might start riding my bike again. Last spring, I became a vegetarian and started riding my bike a lot. I had a friend ask me if I was doing drugs. I guess the weight loss was kind of sudden. And then I stopped riding my bike and eventually stopped being a vegetarian. And now I look like I did before all of that happened.

I have a picture on my phone of me standing in front of my mirror, shirtless. It was going to be a "Before" picture of my transformation. I never followed up with it and never took the "After" picture, so it's just a random picture I show my friends sometimes.

I have a new best friend. It's the Books-A-Million at the mall. I got my discount card and I've been buying books and shit. It's been fun. As we saw from my last blog post, I have gotten back into comics and have picked up a few graphic novels.

Speaking of comics... Celia and I went to a comic book store in Beckley sometime last week. I was in awe of seeing so many nerdy comic book stereotypes in one room. There was the obese, unkempt proprietor. Just like the one from The Simpsons. We had the guy with the awkward, scraggly goatee and a fedora playing a card game. And there was the guy with the nasally, high-pitched voice explaining the rules of some dice game. 

In hair news: I dyed a portion of my hair pink recently. I don't really know why. It seemed like the thing to do. I have been thinking about getting a hair cut and decided to experiment with it a little bit. People have seemed to like it. I enjoy it.

That's my life for now. I'll be back with more later.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: Batman: The Killing Joke

Back in the day aka 20 years ago (ugh...), I used to be a comic book fan. I enjoyed elements of both DC Comics and Marvel. I loved Batman. I loved X-Men and Spider-Man. But, Batman was a favorite. The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, he was my go-to superhero. 

As I grew up, I got out of comic books and video games. Now, don't get me wrong: I didn't get more mature or anything lame like that. I just stopped keeping up with the genre as much, and as a result, I wasn't as up-to-date with what was happening. Funny books, as my grandpa called them, are basically a long-running soap opera with multiple arcs and storylines. Taking a few years off really put me out of the game.

Without the widespread advent of the Internet and whatnot, it was hard to find everything out about comics and the heroes. If I want to find out the history of Batman now, all I need to do is a simple Google search. At the time, I went with what was current and I tried to fill in the history based off of that. I remember Batman getting his back broken by Bane and the exploits of that. I loved the "Zero Hour" series and what it did to the DC Universe. Then my grandpa bought a bunch of Batman (and Archie) comics from the 1970s at a flea market and I had a bigger back story.

Fast forward to present-day 2015, in Small-Town, America. The local mall has recently acquired a Books-A-Million store and I pop in for the first time. I'm walking around and find the comic section. I had wanted to get back into comics for the last couple years and while perusing the aisles, I figured that this could be my chance.

I had never read a graphic novel before, but it's basically a series of comic books put together into one book. I noticed one called "Batman: The Killing Joke" and it popped out at me. One, it was written by Alan Moore, and I knew his name from other popular works. I read the description of the comic, how it gave a back story to The Joker and so many different sources were calling it one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. This was reportedly what Heath Ledger read in order to get in character for his performance in "The Dark Knight. " In short, I had to have it.

What separates "Batman: The Killing Joke" from a lot of other graphic novels is that is was actually written as one novel-like piece. It is not a larger collection put into one book. It was a collaboration between Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, a popular artist who has since gone on to become one of the most sought-after cover designers in the industry. It was first published in 1988 and what I read was the 20th anniversary re-release.

There are three great elements to "Batman: The Killing Joke" and we're going to look at those:

1) The story

2) The back story

3) Batman and The Joker

By themselves, they are all amazing. But, combining all three together really makes "The Killing Joke" something special.

The Story:

The general premise of a Batman vs Joker scenario is "Joker escapes from the insane asylum and chaos ensues." That is again the case here. But what The Joker does and what he sets out to prove is what makes this tale brilliant.

From knowing a general history of the Batman universe, I knew that The Joker shot and paralyzed Batgirl. That happens here. It is not mentioned in this story, but Barbara Gordon - daughter of police chief Jim Gordon - is Batgirl. Only Batman knows that.

The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in front of her father. He then captures Commissioner Gordon and, through a series of twisted events, tries to make Gordon go mad. The Joker wants to prove that somebody can have one horrible day and be insane for the rest of their life, just like what happened to him.

Which leads us to...

The back story:

Interspersed through the tale mentioned above are several flashback sequences showing who The Joker was before he became The Joker. He is not given a proper name here, but it has since come out that it was Jack. In this back story, he is a struggling stand up comedian trying to make a happy life for he and his pregnant wife.

It has always been hard to make The Joker a sympathetic figure. "The Killing Joke" does that, to an extent. One of most famous episodes of the early 90s Batman animated series was the episode that introduced Mr. Freeze and showed that he was a flawed man trying to save his wife. Everything he did that was considered "bad" really seemed good from his point of view.

We understand why The Joker hates the world. We can sympathize with him from that angle. But we can't sympathize with him in regard to why he wants to kill people. After everything that he has been through, The Joker is allowed to be mad. But he takes it too far and uses his rage for evil instead of good.

Which leads us to...

Batman and The Joker

One of the more poignant moments of "The Killing Joke" is when we examine the relationship between Batman and The Joker. As Batman says at one point, "I've been thinking lately about you and me. About what's going to happen to us in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?" Later, in a moment of personal reflection, Batman ponders "How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?"

The Joker, without really knowing much about Batman, is correct in guessing a key element of his life. "You had a bad day once, am I right? You had a bad day and it drove you as crazy as everybody else. Only you won't admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there's some point to all this struggling."

As we should know by now, Batman dedicated his life to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered in front of him as a child. Batman had a bad day and decided to dedicate his life to fighting evil. The Joker had a bad day and decided to make everybody as miserable as him.

They parallel each other in the sense that Batman is the extreme good, but who is deeply troubled and The Joker is the extreme bad, who is also deeply troubled. I think that's why "The Killing Joke" doesn't end on a violent note; it's not a fight that closes this out, but rather a conversation between two men who know how much they have in common.

* * *

"Batman: The Killing Joke" is a great piece of work that really stirs the emotions. You feel sympathy for The Joker as a person for the first time. You see what motivated him into a life of madness and evil. We also get a look into the deep and complex relationship between The Joker and Batman, two men who are more alike than they would care to admit.

The 20th anniversary special is somewhat different from the original version. Brian Bolland, who illustrated the story, did not color it. He drew it and it was colored by another artist. He writes about it in a special afterword for the book; he was not happy with how bright the colors were and felt it did not convey the proper mood. For this version, Bolland colored it himself; creating a darker element. For the flashback sequences, he took out all of the color except for a few elements he kept red. It makes sense once you read it.

"The Killing Joke" was indirectly in the news in March of this year. A special edition of the Batgirl comic was released with several different covers illustrating a key point in her career. A cover was made that referenced her shooting at the hands of The Joker. A large backlash occurred online when people thought it was too graphic and scary-looking, especially considering the lighter tone that the Batgirl comic takes. It is below:

Overall, "The Killing Joke" is a great read for anybody who wants to get a deeper look into the mind of a character. Fights and explosions aren't a key point of this book. This is a story about exploring the human condition. I like it.