Friday, June 29, 2012

Gus Cileone: Why I Love BRAZIL

BMFI will screen Terry Gilliam's cult favorite Brazil next Friday as part of The Late Show's tribute to "'80's Hollywood Oddities". One of BMFI’s most dedicated patrons, Gus Cileone, offers us his take on this bizarre sci-fi comedy. (You can find another perspective on Brazil from BMFI Programming Intern, Dan Santelli.) Check back for additional posts by BMFI staff and community members that explore the movies we love.

Why I Love Brazil
By Gus Cileone, BMFI Patron, Student, and Volunteer

Since I was a Federal employee with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 35 years, I am familiar with the machinations of bureaucracy. I experienced the crazy regulations and redundant procedures imposed upon me as a civil servant as I worked to finalize disability claims for veterans. Although one can experience the frustrations of the individual confronting large institutions in the private sector as well (anyone who has tried to get his or her cable company to fix a problem knows about that), the fear of a centralized, all powerful entity strikes totalitarian fear into those who particularly value personal freedom.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, left) arguing over bureaucratic issues with co-worker Harvey Lime (Brazil's screenwriter, Charles McKeown, right) at Information Retrieval.

So, it's not surprising that a movie like Brazil would draw my interest given my work background. Add to that the fact that I am a Monty Python fan, and Terry Gilliam is the director, and the deal is sealed. The film is a dark comic take on the plot of 1984, with a Big Brother government and modern technology that looks old (very much the way the future appears in Gilliam's 12 Monkeys). There is the dissatisfied worker, Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce), who is drawn into the resistance movement because of a girl (in this case Jill, played by Kim Greist). The individual is not successful here, either, at least not in the "real" world. The difference is that while 1984 is deadly serious, Gilliam pulls out all the stops and turns the cautionary tale into a satire.

Air ducts represent one of the primary visual motifs in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Probably the most effective images Gilliam employs in the movie are ugly air ducts that snake through every room in this brave new world. They look like the tentacles of a huge monster invading everyone's lives. There is a great scene where Robert De Niro appears as a renegade repairman dressed like a military commando. In it, he opens up the walls of Lowry's flat and the ducts expand and contract, as if breathing. This metaphor is an apt one showing the intrusion of the government into individual lives. This privacy invasion is also seen when the two main characters are physically prodded by machines as Lowry goes to his mother's party and Jill confronts a government official about the wrongful abduction of her neighbor. It also seems that the film is saying that the more mechanized our society becomes, the more chances there are for the machines to break down. There are numerous illustrations of this fact, what with Lowry's coffee machine pouring liquid on his toast, his air conditioning breaking down, and plastic surgeries becoming fatal. When "Central Services" is called to fix things, they are either unavailable, don't have the proper paperwork, or create more damage instead of repairing anything. The phones in the film have the most annoying ring tone around, sounding like a demonic dentist drill. Of course, the more things break down, the more the population is dependent on those in control of the systems in place.

Totalitarian regimes try to control their subjects by manipulating the outward appearance of the world in contrast to the underlying reality. The emphasis on having plastic surgery in the film illustrates this idea. Also, in the movie, the food at the restaurant served to each person is a yucky mush. But each plate is accompanied by a picture of a savory meal, implying that is the reality they are to buy into. And explosions are ignored as room screens are placed around the diners' table, promoting the idea that one should ignore the negative elements in the environment.

Lowry's boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), greeting his employees in the morning.

The paperwork here is labyrinthine, where you need a receipt to show proof that you have received a receipt. It is paralyzing and strikes fear into people (such as Lowry's boss, played by Ian Holm) if procedures aren't followed, which appears to be the goal of the organization. Gilliam seems to be saying that this type of world wants people to be frustrated and feel powerless. Another brilliant and devastating image occurs when in Lowry's dream state, the resistance blows up the Ministry of Information and there is paper everywhere. The paper covers and entangles De Niro, and he disappears in it, symbolizing how the individual is lost in the whirlwind of bureaucratic red tape. The effect of the dehumanizing bureaucracy is shown in the offices where Lowry goes after his promotion. There are numbers on office doors, not names. His office is so small it looks like a closet, or the size of a prison cell. People are seen as becoming diminished and restricted. But Gilliam never shows us any manipulating, all powerful heads of state. It’s as if this bureaucratic and mechanistic construct here has a life of its own.

One of the many propaganda slogans that indicate the skewed mindset of Brazil's totalitarian government.

One of the posted signs in the street says "Suspicion breeds confidence." People have been taught to suspect each other. That way, they will not band together, and become stronger. Later in the film, Lowry asks Jill to trust him, and realizes that he has to earn her trust if they are to succeed. There is another sign which reads "Happiness – we're all in it together," which is an anesthetizing slogan to placate the people. When De Niro says, "We are all in it together," it is genuine because it is in the context of the power of joined resistance to authoritarianism.

The soundtrack has the song "Brazil" being played. It is a Latin-infused, fun, liberating song that stands in contrast to the lives of the characters. Lowry escapes his claustrophobic, penal colony of a world by losing himself in a dream state. There, he flies on Daedalus wings in the sky, pursuing his blonde fantasy (also Jill), doing battle with the monsters imprisoning her. (Robin Williams lives in a similar fantasy in Gilliam's The Fisher King). In the end, when he is a restrained captive, Lowry's body may be enslaved, but his mind has escaped into the freedom of his imaginary world.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dan Santelli: Why I Love BRAZIL

BMFI will screen Terry Gilliam's cult favorite Brazil next Friday as part of The Late Show's tribute to "'80's Hollywood Oddities". BMFI's Programming Intern, Dan Santelli, tells us why he loves this bizarre sci-fi comedy. (You can find another perspective on Brazil from BMFI Patron, Student, and Volunteer, Gus Cileone.) Check back for additional posts by BMFI staff and community members that explore the movies we love.

Why I Love Brazil
By Daniel Santelli Jr., BMFI Programming Intern

One of the reasons I go to the movies is to see something I can’t see anywhere else. Cinema, like many other art forms, has the power to transport the spectator to another world and visualize sights beyond those of the real world and our imaginations. Even movies grounded in a realistic location possess the power to defamiliarize its setting when the narrative is injected with a heightened sense of fantasy (Leon: The Professional is a popular example, Eyes Without a Face a more obscure one). By the time I was eight, I’d made my way through classics such as The Wizard of Oz, The Night of the Hunter, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, King Kong, and Hitchcock’s Psycho—the latter without the consent of my parents. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I would encounter the wondrous cinematic nirvana that is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is showing at BMFI as part of The Late Show series on Friday, July 6 at 11:30 pm.

Sam Lowry: Dream warrior (Jonathan Pryce) takes flight in Brazil.

Nothing short of a masterwork, Brazil’s episodic narrative concerns Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a working-class, thirty-something, low-level government employee. He’s content with his position and frustrated by his friends' and mother's persistent attempts to promote him. His job becomes even more hectic when a faulty computing error sends out an incorrect arrest warrant. These conflicts combine to cause Lowry’s life and career to spiral out of control. His only escape into pure happiness is through his dreams, where he’s dressed in metallic armor and sports mechanical wings. The film is populated with an array of bizarrely wonderful characters, including Sam Lowry’s plastic surgery-obsessed mother (Katherine Helmond), Sam’s long-time friend, Jack (Michael Palin), and Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro, in a small, but pivotal role), a heating engineer/freedom fighter.

Noir-ish lighting greets Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), as he arrives for his first day of work at Information Retrieval in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Having grown up in Boardman, Ohio, I can say that it was, more or less, like being raised inside of a cardboard box. There’s little to do in the way of sightseeing and very limited opportunities for children to engage in activities outside of sports and the library. Being the son of a musician-turned-psychologist (Mom) and a steel engineer (Dad), it seems almost baffling that my principal interest would be movies. Furthermore, my insatiable desire for movies grew into a near unhealthy obsession, proved by my constant request to stay up late to watch Turner Classic Movies and my sneaking downstairs to watch my father’s video collection after dark on Saturdays—which is how I finally saw Brazil.

Viewing the movie in 1998 on VHS, I was confounded by the movie's politics, but entranced by the surreal visuals and sight gags. The sight of Robert De Niro wrestling through an endless maze of air ducts and wires was always a chief favorite. In fact, it inspired me to replicate the look of the Tuttle character for a failed Halloween costume. Even for a 132-minute film, there was never a moment in which I was bored and, more than any movie at the time, I identified with the plight of the main character, Sam Lowry.

Sam Lowry, slugging through yet another dull day of bureaucratic madness at Information Dispersal.

Interestingly enough, it’s important to note that Sam Lowry is one of the few “reactionary” characters in modern movies. In a time when screenwriters and directors are consistently reminded that characters should act on personal motivation and in response to the actions of opposing characters, it’s a breath of fresh air to view this unusual characterization of a man who simply reacts to the situations around him. Sure, Sam Lowry’s objective could be labeled as “to achieve happiness”, but he’s already achieved it at the beginning of the picture. He’s a middle-class individual working as a low-level typist in a bureaucratic office, but persistently states that he’s content with his position. Only when he accepts promotion to Information Retrieval—because he wants to discover the identity of a mysterious woman (Kim Griest) in his dreams—is he bewildered by the increased workload and sinks into sadness. Lowry’s tendency to react, as opposed to act, resembles film scholar David Bordwell’s dictum on character psychology (identified as “psychological causation”) in art films in his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”:
“…whereas the characters of the classical narrative have clear-cut traits and objectives, the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent reasons (Marcello in La Dolce Vita) or may question themselves about their goals (Borg in Wild Strawberries and the Knight in The Seventh Seal). Choices are vague or nonexistent” (96).
Oddly enough, Sam Lowry is one of the film characters with whom I most identify. As a teenager, you’d find me seated amongst horror fan boys in the local movie house watching obscure Lucio Fulci movies. Other times, I’d simply be at home reading up on Freud, dutifully finishing homework, or attempting to crack the code on how to write a proper, filmic setpiece. Many of my peers might’ve perceived these activities as mundane, but, like Lowry, I stuck to what got me the most pleasure out of life. My attitude towards grade school was almost a mirror image of Lowry’s attitude toward work: make one’s way through the day and don't allow oneself to get involved in anything that would terminate one’s own happiness.

Dream warrior Sam Lowry unmasks the dreaded metallic samurai haunting his nightmares in Brazil.

I might not possess all the “reactionary” characteristics of Sam Lowry that I once did; I’ve since become someone who ambitiously pursues new opportunities and challenges. Nevertheless, I believe that any post-graduate in their early 20s can identify Lowry’s state of aloofness. No matter what someone’s plans, hopes, and dreams are, the life of a post-graduate is strange, mysterious, conflicting, and life-changing. You’re not sure what’s coming at you, let alone whether you can deal with it or not, and one simply tries make it through life one day at a time. Lowry very much embodies this: he is baffled by the society he lives in, the corrupt government, and, despite being in his thirties, is still unsure enough to state “I don’t know what I want” in one particular scene. As Sam Lowry, Mr. Pryce is eloquent and sincere, compelling yet vulnerable, and perhaps Gilliam’s answer to Woody Allen’s recurring central characters. He’s an idealist living in a world where every citizen’s future is mapped out from the get-go.

Sam Lowry's dream girl, Jill Layton (Kim Greist).

Having revisited Brazil at least a dozen times, I’m surprised at how fresh the movie after the 27 years since its release. While there is some material that is of its time, there is a timeless quality to the political commentary that makes the humor endure. I often find myself laughing hysterically at one particular bit when Sam enters his new office at Information Retrieval and engages in a tug-of-war over desk space with the conspicuous Harvey Lime (played by the film’s screenwriter and frequent Gilliam collaborator, Charles McKeown).

None of this would be possible without the directorial vision of Terry Gilliam, one of cinema’s great visionaries. He marries the melancholic tone of Orwell’s 1984 with the absurdist humor of Monty Python to create a poignant satire of modern society. His mannerist camerawork and staging border on feverish and hallucinatory, but that just furthers the effect. His most significant achievement was making a movie that is at once political, personal, and visionary—there’s no other movie that looks, sounds, or even remotely feels like it. It’s purely a tightrope act: Gilliam climbs the ladder, walks across the tightrope, keeps on going, and never looks down.

Director Terry Gilliam's surreal signature style envelops every nightmarish frame of Brazil.

Alongside David Lynch’s equally deranged and surreal Blue Velvet, Brazil remains, for me, the highpoint of 1980s cinema. Not everyone agreed. America’s most popular film critic, Roger Ebert, found the movie “very hard to follow” and claimed that it was “awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline.” Pauline Kael praised Gilliam’s vision as an “original, bravura piece of moviemaking,” but found the drama lacking and Pryce’s performance to be “charmless”. The film’s reputation and popularity have risen dramatically since its release; now it is a cult film favorite and considered a modern masterpiece. Even more so, the film’s satirical jabs at ‘80s politics and pop culture (Helmond’s plastic surgery process is simultaneously abhorrent and humorous) have positioned it in a pantheon alongside Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as one of cinema’s most potent satires. At the very least, Brazil is a visual feast for the eyes. At the best of times, it’s transcendent. As Ebert used to note, it’s the kind of movie you get when the inmates start taking over the asylum.

Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Look at The Late Show: '80s Hollywood Oddities

This summer, BMFI's The Late Show series is showing some true "'80s Hollywood Oddities", selected studio pictures from the decade of excess that have spawned cult followings and break the conventions of Hollywood. BMFI's Programming Intern, Dan Santelli, discusses the five films featured and what makes them unique.

A Look at The Late Show: '80s Hollywood Oddities
By Dan Santelli, Jr., BMFI Programming Intern

Beginning this Friday, the summer season of BMFI’s The Late Show series will kick off with an 11:30 pm screening of Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s dark fantasy, The Dark Crystal. The Late Show’s theme this summer is “'80s Hollywood Oddities”, a selection of some of the more offbeat outings from the American studios amidst a decade of excess, including films by American independent maverick John Carpenter, puppet wizards Jim Henson and Frank Oz, television-director-turned-studio-director Robert Greenwald, and Monty Python’s very own expatriate, Terry Gilliam. In each of their films, these directors were able bypass the studio’s ideology to produce films for mass consumption and create strange, perverse, and personal expressions that have stood the test of time. Even if the films’ box-office performance was mediocre at best—The Dark Crystal and They Live were the only two genuine hits—their idiosyncratic styles have garnered cult followings.

The evil Skeksis plan to stop Jen from accomplishing his quest in The Dark Crystal.

The 1982 feature The Dark Crystal follows the adventures of a “Gelfling” on a quest to retrieve the missing piece of a magical crystal. Finding the shard and completing the crystal is the only possible method of restoring order on his planet. What lies beneath the veneer of this "family-friendly," Tolkien-inspired fable is a bizarre, mythical tale featuring some of the strangest creatures ever to emerge from the Jim Henson Workshop and several set-pieces exhibiting an array of grotesque visuals—it’s not every day you see a vulture-like King crumble and fall apart postmortem in a movie purported to be aimed at children.

The samurai warrior blocks our hero's progress during a dream sequence in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

On July 6, BMFI will screen the director’s cut of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian, black-comedy Brazil. Running at 142 minutes, the director’s cut restores approximately ten minutes of footage (most of which expands the film’s nightmarish ending) and reconceives the film’s central dream sequence—in which our hero, bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), battles a giant, metallic samurai—as a full set-piece. The film’s many aesthetic pleasures and visionary depiction of a retro-future gone horribly wrong are enough to warrant a big-screen experience, regardless of whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Furthermore, Brazil’s critique of humanity’s dependence on technology and reworking of Orwellian themes has influenced a number of science-fiction films.

Men of the hour: actor Kurt Russell (left) and director John Carpenter (right) on the set of Big Trouble in Little China.

Two John Carpenter films, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China (showing on July 28) and 1988’s They Live (showing on August 24), will be screened as well. In Big Trouble, all-American trucker Jack Burton (Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell) finds himself in the middle of a mystical battle between ancient forces while helping to rescue a damsel-in-distress. All of which leads up to a climactic battle with the evil sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). While there may be little in the way of a sociological critique, director Carpenter’s sheer audacity to combine the spirit of Howard Hawks with martial arts, humor, and full-blooded action is nothing short of revelatory and an escape from mindless by-the-numbers formulas. A $25 million studio blockbuster, Big Trouble’s poor performance at the box office—due in part to poor marketing and being released amidst the hype of James Cameron’s Aliens—led Carpenter to return to his roots as an independent genre filmmaker.

The aliens would want you to leave your sunglasses at home when you come to see They Live.

Carpenter’s subversive cult classic They Live is a post-modern reimagining of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a blistering critique of Reaganomics and the excessive nature of the era. WWE’s Rowdy Roddy Piper stars as a wandering construction worker who, through the power of his magic sunglasses, discovers a group of aliens in disguise as the upper-class. Filled with cheesy fun, hilarious lines, and politically astute sensibilities, They Live is a hoot.

Speaking of cheesy, Robert Greenwald’s kitschy cult classic Xanadu, starring Grease’s Olivia Newton-John, will screen on August 7. Greenwald’s musical concerns Greek goddess Kira (Newton-John) and her influence on two men to transform an auditorium into a giant roller rink/nightclub. A flop upon its initial release, Xanadu, like all of the former titles, achieved legendary cult status due to repeat playing on late night television and a ‘90s VHS release. Featuring legendary star Gene Kelly in his final film role, enjoy the fun romp that is Xanadu.

Greek muse Kira (Olivia Newton-John) sings 'n skates her way through Robert Greenwald's Xanadu.

These pictures, for better or worse, are representative of a time when the Hollywood studios dared to produce or distribute a product that today would be considered “unmarketable”. It has been twenty-two years since the end of the ‘80s, but the decade lives on in each of these films, subversive time capsules that reflect the changes in ideological beliefs, bygone trends, or the once lenient limitations of what constituted a children’s movie.

Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Andrew J. Douglas: Three Reasons Why I Love DIE HARD

Yippee-ki-yay! Bryn Mawr Film Institute kicks off its Summer Classics series tonight with Die Hard at 7:00 pm! The film will be introduced by our Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., and our Programming Manager Valerie Temple, M.F.A.  Keep reading for three reasons why Andrew loves the '80s action classic.

Three Reasons Why I Love Die Hard
By Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., Director of Education, BMFI

There are lots of reasons to appreciate Die Hard. Its witty repartee, modest twist, soundtrack that incorporates both Beethoven and Run D.M.C., and initiation of the slick, eurotrash phase of Hollywood villainy all deserve mention, as do a few other, more analytical reasons that we’ll be discussing in the class I’m co-teaching with BMFI programmer Valerie Temple, M.F.A., Action Films as Art, beginning tonight—the very night BMFI is screening Die Hard on 35 mm. But for now, I’d like to focus on three other reasons this movie holds a special place in my heart.

Without Die Hard, we wouldn’t have...

1) ... THE GLORIOUS CAREERS OF Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, John McTiernan, and Reginald VelJohnson, who would not be where or who they are today without their work on Die Hard.

Bruce Willis, co-starring in Moonlighting (1985-89) with Cybill Shepherd, was a roguishly charming television actor (back when they didn’t jump to the movies all that often) who’d starred in two duds for waning comic genius Blake Edwards, Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988), in which he played a man on a very bad date with Kim Basinger (redundant?), and silent-era western star Tom Mix solving a mystery alongside James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, respectively.

The Lone Ranger: John McClane (Bruce Willis) on the look out for terrorists in Die Hard.

But when Die Hard was released in on July 15, 1988, his career changed forever. While he would remain with Moonlighting for one more season, the success of Die Hard meant that the rest of Willis’s career (other than the occasional cameo on a show like Friends) would be in the movies. So, you can thank Die Hard for Willis’s work in Death Becomes Her, Pulp Fiction, Nobody’s Fool, 12 Monkeys, Armageddon, The Siege, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable. Of course, you can also blame it for Look Who’s Talking, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, Striking Distance, Color of Night, and many, many more. Actually, I really like Hudson Hawk, but that’s another blog post for another day.

Alan Rickman spent the decade before Die Hard came along carving out a nice little career for himself on the British stage and small screen. But after Die Hard came his wonderfully dastardly turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), his romantic role in Sense and Sensibility (1995), a hilarious performance in Galaxy Quest (1999), and some work in a few movies about a child wizard that I never saw and have no interest in seeing. Why? That’s another blog post for another day.

Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) wants to know where his detonators are in Die Hard.

After graduating from the American Film Institute, John McTiernan wrote and directed the utterly forgettable Nomads (1986), and directed the ludicrously fun—and quite profitable—Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Predator (1987), before taking on Die Hard. After its success, McTiernan’s next film was The Hunt for Red October, which is, for my money, one of the best cinematic adaptations of a (dense, jargon-laden, at times dry) novel ever made in Hollywood. He would also go on to make the second best film in the series he began, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and the Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo version of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), which, while flawed, is highly entertaining. Of course, he also unnecessarily revisited Rollerball (2002), brought the sickly Medicine Man (1992, launcher of a thousand poor Sean Connery impressions, including my own) to the screen, and helmed Last Action Hero (1993). This last film, despite having a reputation as one of the biggest bombs ever, actually has some things to recommend it. But that’s another blog post for another day.

Director John McTiernan (right) preps actors Rickman (left) and Willis (center) for battle.

Reginald VelJohnson starred in the saccharine sitcom Family Matters (1989-98), which ran for eight seasons on ABC and one on CBS for a total of 215 episodes. It gave the world Urkel, and also is, at least according to Wikipedia, “the third-longest-running U.S. sitcom with a predominantly African American cast, behind The Jeffersons and Tyler Perry's House of Payne.” I find this piece of trivia troubling on a few levels, but that’s another blog post for another day (and probably another blog, as well).

2) ... DIE HARD II: DIE HARDER (1990), DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, AND LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), none of which is as good as the original, are all entertaining and all have something to recommend them.

The sequel to the original lives up to its unofficial subtitle by raising the stakes and painting on a bigger canvas. While this eliminates some of the tension and intimacy of the original, it allows for bigger action, grander set pieces, and more colorful characters, like Dennis Franz, the blowhard police chief of Dulles International Airport (where the bulk of the film is set) and Fred Dalton Thompson, the Foghorn Leghorn-like Chief of Operations at Dulles. There are also snowmobiles, exploding jetliners, John Amos, and William Sadler (Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption) doing martial arts while naked. Why is this worthy of praise? That’s another blog post for another day.

By 1995, the careers of both Bruce Willis and John McTiernan had cooled. Sure, Willis was acclaimed for his smaller turns in movies like Pulp Fiction and Nobody’s Fool, but he’d been starring in dreck like Striking Distance and North, and very few people had the refined taste needed to appreciate his so-called vanity project, Hudson Hawk. McTiernan had scored with The Hunt for Red October, but then proceeded to damage his reputation by directing Medicine Man and Last Action Hero. The (relative) career desperation that led this pair to re-team for Die Hard with a Vengeance was a blessing for fun-loving movie fans everywhere. While this second sequel raises the stakes yet again and uses an even larger canvas (Manhattan), it recaptures some of the magic of the original by:

  • pitting McClane against another euro-baddie, this time deliciously played by Jeremy Irons
  • combining the narrative duties of Al Powell and Holly into the alternately combative and supportive Zeus (a refreshing Samuel L. Jackson)
  • staging and shooting the action in a fresh and exciting way, which is one of the things McTiernan brought to the original and Renny Harlin couldn’t find (with a map and a flashlight) for the first sequel. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the dynamic camera movement during the high-speed chase/shootout on the parkway, or the cab ride through Central Park, which also features one of the best-delivered mime jokes of all time. Why is disregard for mimes a touchstone that, in this case, is used to signal the working-class, everyman nature of John McClane? That’s another blog post for another day (and probably another blogger, as well).

Twelve years later, Willis would return as John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, directed by the whiz kid behind the Underworld movies, Len Wiseman, whose real claim to fame is that he got Kate Beckinsale to marry him. (I don’t think the magnitude of this achievement requires another blog post or another day to establish or explain, at least not to anyone who’d be reading a very lengthy blog post on Die Hard.) The stakes don’t seem quite as high in this one (it’s about a cyber-attack on the U.S. infrastructure, which is only slightly more engaging than a trade embargo), and the canvas—the whole Northeastern U.S.—is too arguably too big, but there some things worth recognizing in this third sequel:

  • The family is brought back into the mix, in the form of McClane’s now college-aged daughter, after sitting out the 1995 installment. This is a key ingredient to the appeal of the series, and one that was almost entirely overlooked in the second sequel.
  • Kevin Smith has a small role as a geek who lives in his mother’s basement. This shockingly bold casting choice here is worthy of praise in and of itself.
  • Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q, as the two main baddies, were surprising choices for these parts, and they add some class and grace to the proceedings.
  • It has one of the best titles possible for an action movie. Not only is it patriotic, and not only is it an ultimatum, it is also a state motto—New Hampshire’s motto, in fact. I think there should be more movies with titles derived from state mottos and nicknames (that AREN’T directed by Zach Braff), and I have some ideas on this front, but that’s another blog post for another day.

3) ... (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER) SPEED, UNDER SIEGE, PASSENGER 57, THE ROCK, AIR FORCE ONE, TOY SOLDIERS, EXECUTIVE DECISION, while certainly having their share of flaws (and in some cases, more than their share—I’m looking at you, Passenger 57), are among the (variably) entertaining movies that are undeniably derived from Die Hard. What makes each of these movies entertaining to one degree or another? Once more, with feeling: “That’s another blog post for another day.”

Dr. Douglas received his Ph.D. from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He will introduce BMFI's 35 mm screening of Die Hard tonight at 7:00 pm and is also co-teaching the four-week class Action Films as Art (with Valerie Temple), which begins tonight.