Thursday, February 28, 2013

Childhood Memories of the "Die Hard" Trilogy

SPOILERS throughout for the Die Hard series, mostly the first three movies.
The latest Die Hard wasn’t so bad that it killed the series, but it was enough to make me revisit the first three films and truly appreciate them.  I grew up with Die Hard and I believe that the first film set the standard for what a good action movie can be.  I continued to grow up with Die Hard 2 and realized what a sequel should not be.  And I watched Die Hard: With a Vengeance and realized that a series can change…and still be good. 
But back to the most recent two films first.  If you want to know what I thought was wrong with A Good Day to Die Hard, just click here.  As for the fourth installment, Live Free or Die Hard, I really enjoyed that film, and still hold it in higher regard than the second film.  I’m leaving it out of this because it came out just a few years ago and I had already established my taste in movies at that point.  For the record, I acknowledge how insane that film is, and I know some of the action goes against what makes a Die Hard film, but it was fun enough to forgive the change to the series.  Now on to the real Die Hard films.
Die Hard
I was allowed, as a child, to watch movies like Die Hard.  The first film came out when I was four years old, so I didn’t see it in the theatre or anything, but I do remember watching it on VHS very early on.  Not to get into a whole parents/FCC thing, but violent films (within reason) were not prohibited in my home.  But if any nudity showed up, then I was made to cover my eyes lest my fragile boyish mind be warped.  I blame the Puritans…  Anyway, I was allowed to watch the movie and I loved it…and I’m not messed up, at least, not because of that film.
Bruce Willis made that film work.  He introduced this everyman hero that was believable even though he was engaged in ridiculous action set pieces.  I know the latest movies have turned the craziness up well past 11, but let’s face it: the original Die Hard is no documentary.  Willis personified a man out of place going through a very bad day to perfection.  To this day I can’t think of an actor who can yell angrily quite like Willis.  When he’s yelling at the cops to pay attention to him or cussing out a bad guy as he kills him, I can’t help but smile.  (Okay, maybe these movies did mess me up a little…)
As a child, I just liked the film for the great action, the humor, and the more original elements.  Moments like McClane pulling shards of glass out of his feet.  Or the sight of a dead thug with “Now I have a machine gun ho ho ho” written on his shirt in blood.  (I nearly ordered a shirt that said that a while back before I thought better of it.)  And you have one of the all time great villains in Hans Gruber, who was really only great because of Alan Rickman’s awesome performance. 
Die Hard was just a fun movie for me for years.  Then I went to college.  I had a class called “After Vietnam” that dealt with politics and the changing culture of America from the end of the war to the late 90s.  I can’t remember exactly why, but watching Die Hard was part of an assignment.  It was something about the end of the 80s, the fear of Japan taking over, gender roles, etc.  It really opened my eyes, but sometimes I wish I could get them shut again.  I can still enjoy the film for what it is, but now when I watch it I can’t help but think about what statements the film is making or what McClane represents.  It’s nice to have an added layer to the film, though.
Die Hard 2
I’ll be honest; I have no distinct memory of watching Die Hard 2 for the first time.  I remember watching it later on DVD and hating it, but I don’t know what my initial response to this film was.  I guess the fact that I forgot about it says enough.  Revisiting it lately, I stand by my disdain for this film.  I have decided, however, that the latest Die Hard is much worse than this. 
I suppose I forgot about this one because it’s such a carbon copy of the first film.  You could just see the meeting that took place for this one:
“We need to make another Die Hard. Fast.  Any ideas?”
“How about Die Hard in an airport?”
“Brilliant!  Now hire some hack director.”
I know, I know.  The sequel is actually based on a novel and it was altered to be a Die Hard movie.  Fine, but they must have really altered that novel because this is so similar to the first movie that it’s boring.  Watching it again, I was just baffled by some of the film’s oddities.  Why is the bad guy doing naked aerobics at the beginning?  Why did McClane think he could just leave his car in front of the airport to pick up his wife?  (This isn’t Airplane!)  And why do all the Washington, D.C. police officers seem to be from New York? 
This film just had the same problem so many sequels have: new location, same story.  It even seemed to try to continue this “end of the 80s” theme that the first film had since a cocaine drug lord was the villain and the war on drugs was mentioned.  Honestly, the film was only interesting to me because of how different things were back then.  McClane smokes inside the airport.  There’s a shootout inside the airport and it’s pretty much just brushed aside.  McClane has a beeper.  Stuff like that. 
Overall, not as bad as I remember, but Die Hard 2 is still a boring sequel that attempted nothing new.
Die Hard: With a Vengeance
Die Hard went on hiatus for a few years and returned when I was eleven years old with Die Hard: With a Vengeance.  Actually, I’m just going to refer to it as Die Hard 3.  Let’s face it, fans and non-fans alike wish this series never went down the path of non-numbered sequels.  This film brought me back into the fold.  Watching it again recently, I still consider this the second best of the series.  This film stuck out to me back when it first came out not just because it was a funny action film, but because it dealt with social issues in an upfront way that actually made my eleven-year-old self think a bit. 
The film contains this subplot about racism, actually reverse racism, that I had not seen before.  That said, if I was to watch this for the first time today, I’d probably be groaning at the heavy-handedness of it all.  For example, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Zeus, asks his nephews, “Who do we not want to help us?”  They respond in unison, “White people!”  Zeus laughs and says, “That’s right!”  I’m not saying that his character can’t think like that, it just seems like there could have been a more subtle way of conveying that character trait.  I suppose the choice to make McClane wear a sign proclaiming “I hate n*****s” in Harlem wasn’t subtle, either.
The film handles the racism in a realistic way.  In many ways, this was a post-racial film, even though a post-racial world is pretty far away.  Instead of McClane and company treading lightly with Zeus, they roll their eyes and dismiss most of his claims of racism.  At one point, McClane finally breaks and calls Zeus a racist.  That was certainly the first time I had seen a white man call a black man a racist, in film or in life in general.  Now, whether or not any of this is a proper way to address race relations is up for debate.  The point is that it made me think about real issues at a young age.  Can’t fault a movie for that.
The race stuff has led some viewers to complain that Zeus is an annoying character.  I can see that, but I loved the dynamic of Willis and Zeus.  Their insults and back and forth just seemed natural.  Yeah, it’s pretty much Sam Jackson yelling for two hours, but I like it when Jackson yells at people.  And Bruce Willis as a hungover McClane reacts perfectly to it all.
This film works mainly because they changed the formula, which is something that has irked some fans ever since.  This is the movie that turned Die Hard from a “wrong guy in the wrong place” series to a “kill all the bad guys” series.  I agree that the first scenario is the better one, but I want to see more adventures of John McClane.  To do that, he needed to become a bit more than an unlucky guy.  To be fair, he’s still thrust into these events against his will.  It just seems like he’s a little more invincible this time around and he has begun to treat these outlandish events as just another day on the job. 
Die Hard 3 marked the beginning of McClane’s transformation into the kill-crazy sociopath he becomes in Die Hard 5.  Let’s look at this realistically (ha!) for a moment.  What else could this character turn into?  He either accepts that he is the unluckiest guy on the planet and sinks into a deep depression, or he embraces the hero that the world has turned him into, going so far as to actively search for bad situations he can insert himself into.  (Disclaimer: This does not mean that I am backing down from my Die Hard 5 criticism.  I still dislike that movie very much.)
The videogame
The completion of the trilogy was culminated with a Playstation game called, appropriately, Die Hard Trilogy.  I bring it up because it’s definitely part of my childhood and I have to comment on the videogames based on all three of these films.  It was one of those games that I remembered loving, but when I replayed this game a few years ago, I realized that it had not aged as well as the movies.  I will say that it was ridiculously difficult (or I just sucked at it), and I remember gaining most of my enjoyment by running down pedestrians in the Die Hard 3 section just so I could see the blood wiped off the windshield followed by McClane yelling, “Sorry!”  Random, I know, but it stuck with me.  Back to the films.
Final thoughts
The journey of John McClane throughout the Die Hard trilogy was a very important part of establishing my film knowledge.   It showed me that a great action movie has to be slightly plausible, well acted, quite violent, and fun.  It showed that a character needs to change or things can get pretty boring.  And it showed me that an action series can address actual issues. 
John McClane, for better or worse, is a character from my childhood.  Because of two of those first three movies, he’s a character that will never grow too old to enjoy.  The new films may never be able to create that experience I had as a child, but what childhood favorites entirely survive into adulthood?  I’ll always have Die Hard and Die Hard 3.  No matter how much I change, I know I can always go back to those films and be a kid again.  And isn’t that the feeling all action movies are trying to evoke?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Less Reviews, More Crap You Might Actually Want To Read

As I typed my review of A Good Day to Die Hard, something occurred to me: I didn’t want to write it.  It’s not that the film was so bad it didn’t deserve criticism (although I did find it to be generally awful), it was mainly because of the futility of my review.  I am not delusional; I am aware that barely anyone reads my reviews.  I’ve been at this for a few years now and nothing has really come of this amateur movie critic job I’ve created for myself.  Sure, at first it was quite rewarding.  I was published (and still am) in the local newspaper, and I even got a link posted on IMDb’s homepage (back when they still had a list of links at the bottom of the page).  After a year or so, I joined the Indiana Film Journalists Association, which has allowed me to feel legitimate as I get screeners and invites to early screenings.  But now it’s starting to feel a little pointless.  I’ve felt this way for a while, but I decided to keep trudging on, even though less than a dozen people read each review (trust me, I’ve checked my hit count).  After I finished that last review, however, I decided that it’s time to change.
First off, I will still write normal reviews when I feel like I have something interesting to say.  If I find the film mediocre and no one seems to care about it, then I won’t write anything.  To be honest, I’ve started to do this a bit already.  It’s just that if I don’t find my writing interesting, then why should anyone else?  So, only interesting reviews about interesting movies from here on out.
Secondly, I don’t like reading reviews, and I’ve started to understand just how pointless they are.  This is not an attack on film criticism.  I believe that films should be analyzed and discussed at length.  The idea behind reviews is simply wrong.  Reviews were originally intended to let the reader know if a movie was good or not.  Years ago, maybe that was the case, but in today’s world, reviews only serve to enrage or placate fans who have decided for themselves if a movie is good or not.  Now you only hear about reviews for inane reasons.  For example, Rex Reed’s Identity Thief review was talked about because he resorted to name-calling instead of actual analysis (of course, how you can analyze comedy is up for debate anyway).  Aside from that, the only time I see that people have commented on a Rotten Tomatoes review is when the movie is immensely popular and someone wrote a negative review.  Remember how the internet commentators freaked out when a few early Dark Knight Rises reviews were negative?  People were freaking out about a negative review for a movie they had not seen.  Is this the point of criticism? 
This is why I’ve become so burnt out by it all.  It seems the only way to get notice is to get gimmicky or be the first person to review a highly anticipated film.  The problem is that I live in southern Indiana, many miles away from any theatres that screen films early.  This is why nearly all of my reviews come out days after the film is released.  Also, I can’t get on Rotten Tomatoes.  My small town newspaper isn’t recognized by them and I was turned down by the Internet Film Critics Society and to be honest, I haven’t put forth enough effort to be considered by them again when I’m eligible for another application.
So what now?  Do I just fade away, writing one review every couple months?  That simply will not work.  I still have a strong desire to write about movies.  I’m just freeing myself from this personal obligation to review nearly everything I see in a theatre.  I used to write essays about certain films, and those essays produced the most feedback.  My essay about John Carpenter was what got me on IMDb’s home page.  My friends told me they enjoyed the essays more than the reviews, anyway.  I should have listened to them long ago.  The problem is that my few loyal readers follow the same rule that I follow: watch the movie, then read the reviews.  Many of them simply do not watch many of these films, so why should they care what I think of them?  I don’t read reviews of stuff I haven’t seen, and I certainly don’t read reviews of films I have no interest in seeing. 
Which brings me, finally, to my plan of action.  I am starting a new series of essays about movies I loved during my childhood and/or films I think have become unfairly forgotten.  I’m going to reminisce about the films that turned me into the movie buff I am today.  Sometimes I’ll just write my memories of the film, other times I’ll revisit the films and possibly offer a new opinion.  Most importantly, the films I will discuss will be films that have been out for years.  This way I can write about them in spoiler-filled glory, and my intended audience will most likely have already seen the movies.  These essays will be about films that I love so I won’t feel obligated to write about them; I’ll actually want to write about them, and, hopefully, people will want to read them.  I’m not too worried about that, though.  I’ll have no problem with a small hit list on my site because that’s not my goal.  My goal now is to write amusing and interesting articles about beloved (or possibly hated) films from the past. 
In a few days, I’ll be publishing the first of many articles about older films that I first watched, and loved, when I was a kid during the 90s.  I think it’s fitting to begin with the Die Hard trilogy.  So check back later for my article, “Childhood Memories of Die Hard.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Yippee Ki Y- Oh, Who Cares Anymore?

Directed by John Moore, written by Skip Woods, starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Cole Hauser - Rated R

The Die Hard franchise has been ripe for parody since the first sequel.  After Bruce Willis, as Detective John McClane, wondered in Die Hard 2, “How can the same [thing] happen to the same guy twice?” it was obvious that the audience should accept the ridiculousness of the franchise and just go with it.  I’m okay with that, but I have a couple issues.  First, you shouldn’t necessarily take any advice that comes from the script of Die Hard 2.  Second, and most important, John McClane needs to continue to be that “same guy.”  Also, how unfortunate is it that the sketch from “The Ben Stiller Show” called “Die Hard 12” is starting to seem like a possibility?  (Haven’t seen that sketch?  Watch it now.)


Yes, Bruce Willis is still cast as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard (I would prefer something less stupid for a title, by the way, like Die the Most Hardest or something), but he is a mere shadow of himself.  Willis’s portrayal of McClane is what makes these films great.  His exasperated tone, his quick wit, and his laughter as he takes a beating.  That stuff sort of exists in this film, but it seems so forced that it doesn’t matter.  Not to mention McClane has changed over the years.  He went from a reluctant hero forced into a situation he wants to avoid into a kill-crazy vigilante who rushes into violent situations for little or no reason. 


Perhaps it’s the setting.  Moving John McClane to Russia just seems wrong.  For starters, this isn’t 1985 and McClane isn’t Rocky.  This plotline about Chernobyl and nuclear weapons would have felt lazy in the first Die Hard film, much less the fifth one.  The story felt more at home in a direct-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.  Wait…is this the plot to one of the Universal Soldier DTV sequels?  (Sadly, I’m not joking.  Check out Universal Soldier: Regeneration if you don’t believe me.) 


So the setting sucks.  There’s still a slightly interesting bad guy for McClane to banter with, right?  Nope.  The villain is vague to the point that I couldn’t tell which plain, middle-aged Russian man was “good” and which was “bad.”  Maybe that’s the point, but it made for a lame story.  McClane does cross paths with a dancing bad guy at one point, but their banter is more head-scratching than knee-slapping. 


But there must be a sidekick along for the ride, right?  Die Hard With a Vengeance set the bar high with the tumultuous team-up with Samuel L. Jackson, and Live Free or Die Hard gave us the timely and surprisingly amusing duo of Willis and Justin Long.  Good Day introduces the barely talked about son of John McClane played by Jai Courtney.  Courtney previously played a thug in Jack Reacher, and that’s pretty much all he’s good for at the moment.  There is just nothing interesting about this guy, whether that’s a character or acting fault is irrelevant.  I didn’t want to see these two teaming up for anything, especially since the new character is barely established and we’re given almost no explanation for their hatred for one another aside from the fact that it must be hard to be the kid of an action hero. 


The upset kid dynamic just makes no sense for a film like this.  The audience has almost no knowledge of this son character, so we’re with McClane all the way.  We’ve been through four movies with this character, so if we’re taking a side, guess which one we’re going with?  On top of that, we don’t know specifically what McClane did to upset the kid, so the son comes off as an ungrateful jerk.  Who thought it was a good idea to try to get the audience to hate the main character for being a dead beat dad?  I hope this duo isn’t the future of the franchise.  Actually, after this, I’m not sure I want a future for this franchise.


All of these major elements aside, this is still Die Hard, and that name has become synonymous with crazy action (whether or not that’s a good thing is beside the point now).  If the action holds up, then this film could be barely worth a watch.  The action is…crazy, sure, but it doesn’t save the film.  So much of it seemed like it was pointlessly trying to be insane.  Did you hate the sight of McClane on a fighter jet during the last film?  Then you won’t care for this one at all.  As for the style of it, I didn’t know what to think once it was over.  There were so many strange, extreme slo-mo moments.  Slow motion explosions?  How is that impressive?  And who wants to see two people falling in slow motion for what seems like five minutes?  Upon research, I found that director John Moore had also made the abysmal Max Payne, and then it all made sense. 


After all of this bashing, though, I can’t tell the die hard (pun totally intended) fans to skip this one.  It’s still Bruce Willis and he’s still John McClane, kind of.  Some fans are bound to like it.  I really wanted to, but I can’t ignore the utter disappoint I felt walking out of the theater.  If you’re on the fence, maybe this will help you: I am now going to re-watch Die Hard 2 because I think I might like that sequel more than this.  If you’re the same type of fan as I am, then that should tell you how much I disliked this movie.  Watch at your own risk.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Seen "Side Effects" Yet? Don't Read This if You Haven't.


Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum - Rated R

A good psychological thriller is hard to find these days.  This might be because when one hears “psychological,” they automatically assume there’s going to be a twist ending or something, and because of this, the writers try to throw nothing but curveballs at the audience, which leaves everything a jumbled mess (kind of like this sentence).  Thankfully, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns don’t try to mess with the audience too much with Side Effects.   Instead, they provide a finely crafted thriller that will leave you guessing here and there, but will never make you feel cheated.
Side Effects marks the end of Soderbergh’s directing career (I don’t buy it, but that’s the story), and if it is, then it is a fine end.  The film is all over the place in a good way.  At times I thought it was a condemnation of any number of things: pharmaceuticals, psychologists, Wall Street, and/or our justice system.  The argument could be made that the film is about any single one of those things.  That doesn’t mean Side Effects is some sloppily pieced together political message movie; it just means that it makes you think and keeps your attention. 
The film, without delving too far into spoiler territory, is about a depressed woman (Rooney Mara) who becomes the focal point of a debate about antidepressants after an incident.  Her doctor (Jude Law) comes under scrutiny because he prescribed the pills, and he basically turns into a conspiracy theorist trying to figure out what went wrong. 
The film is much denser than that synopsis, and that’s the point.  Soderbergh puts together the film in such a way that it feels natural for it to shift around because we’re shifting with the characters.  He films depression in a very effective way.  The use of lighting, focus, and camera angles convey a troubled, distracted mind without being too showy.  In fact, this film could have been just about a depressed person and it would be worth watching for the style of it alone.  The labyrinthine plot allows the film to be more than that as the viewer goes along with Jude Law as he unravels it all.
Style and plot can carry a movie just fine, but the acting has to be up to the challenge as well.  Luckily, Side Effects has a very talented cast.  First, Mara, who has already proven herself with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, channels a depressed, damaged person to near perfection.  Her performance is actually quite layered for a role that could be a plain, weepy part if handled differently (I’ll explain more in the spoilers section).  Jude Law is always good, but I really enjoyed this performance because it allowed him to be a bit crazy, and he excels when he gets to be unhinged.  Current do-no-wrong superstar Channing Tatum continues his streak here.  And Catherine Zeta-Jones rounds out the cast nicely as a slightly mysterious psychologist.
All in all, Side Effects was a very pleasant surprise amid the usual crappy/boring material released during this time.  If Soderbergh does truly leave the director’s chair, then this is as good a film to go out on as any, but I hope he’s not finished.  Side Effects doesn’t strike me as the work of someone at the end of their career.  This is a film that shows the prolific Soderbergh has hit his stride, but he’s decided to stop running regardless.  It’s too bad, because I want to see more films like Side Effects.  Having your head messed with can be fun sometimes.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I nearly didn’t write this review because of the possibility of spoiling the film.  This is why I’ve waited so long to publish the review, as well.  When it comes to films with genuine surprises, even a vague review can ruin the experience.  I went into the film knowing very little and I’m sure that’s why it worked for me.  Hopefully, you’re only stumbling upon this review after you’ve seen the film. 
Anyway, now that you’ve seen it, you know why Mara’s performance was, in fact, layered.  She was never depressed, but only faking it.  This is an easy role to defend, of course.  If she did terribly, then that was on purpose because her character wasn’t actually depressed.  Or if she did it well, then that shows her character was a good actress, much like Mara herself.  I’m going with the latter because she had me fooled.  I totally bought her depression, much like everyone onscreen.  I was shocked when she stabbed Tatum, and I was equally surprised when it became more and more evident that it was premeditated murder.  I went through the exact same feelings that Jude Law’s character must have gone through.  That is why I loved this film.  The filmmakers put me through the experiences of the characters on an emotional level.  Sure, action directors place you in the action all the time, but it is rare for a viewer to be on the same level as a character in a psychological thriller.  Usually, you’re able to be at least one step ahead of each character in a film like this, but I certainly was not.  That just made this film immensely enjoyable for me.  It truly surprised me, and I feel like it’s harder and harder to be surprised by movies. 
Of course, maybe I’m just an idiot.  Regardless, this film was smart enough to truly keep me guessing.  If I had known it was a film like that going in, I think I would have figured it out and enjoyed it much less.