Thursday, February 14, 2013

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A Good Time to Cry Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard [zero]

Ever since the announcement that John Moore would be the director of A Good Day to Die Hard (and in the subsequent interviews he gave about the film and the tweaks to the template that would follow) I wondered how much Moore actually knew about the franchise as a whole, and if he thought the problems of one film-- to my mind, the fourth-- belonged to the series as a whole (he seems to speak as if the entire franchise is problematic and he has the cure). The film’s full length trailer made me hopeful that despite Moore’s interviews (and apparent lack of understanding the series) he might have it in him to make something worthy of bearing the Die Hard name. What’s not to love about two generations of dueling McClane’s bickering because they are so attitudinally alike? It seemed like, and I know this is a big thing to lay at a film’s feet based on the trailer, if they could get the junior/senior dynamic just right then this would be the Die Hard film we needed, if not the one we deserved. Turns out, we didn’t need this shit. Because we’re too old for this shit.

John Moore promised us a Die Hard film that would be devoid of mirth and good cheer. Moore, a British filmmaker, stated in an interview that the climate of America seemed to necessitate a different kind of franchise entry. That America wasn’t in the mood for jokes and all the usual Die Hard rigamorole so he created something tonally different and finally made John McClane a fish out of water in a bigger more radioactive pond (i.e. Russia). All of that is a very loose paraphrasing of Moore’s words, but it underscores a couple of things: 1) As a Brit he’s in no position to pass judgment on America’s tenor or most beloved franchise; 2) he’s an idiot if he thinks that laughter and escapism isn’t good for the soul of a nation that feels as out of sorts as he believes us to be; and 3) if you want entertainment to be relevant and resonant in a post 9/11/economic recession world then leave that shit to the actual filmmakers, not the yous of the world; 4) while we’re on the subject of relevance-- try not dusting off a hoary old plot point like Chernobyl. If you’re going to do that you might as well shove a literal and proverbial hammer and sickle up the audience’s ass.

All of those misgivings aside, A Good Day to Die Hard fails on some more fundamental levels. The film’s biggest misstep is in its refusal to clearly designate a villain for the film. We spend half of the film thinking that the true villain is a government official who betrayed a business partner, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who finds himself in need of the McClane’s help when he suddenly grows a conscience and wants to turn state’s evidence. It’s one thing to have an additional villain (or a secret one), but it’s another altogether to insist that one of your villains is not the film's bad guy, and then attempt to humanize him and bond him with McClane. It can be done, but it’ll take more than what’s on offer in the screenwriting department to pull of that feat. This kind of writing would be displayed in a weaker episode of 24 in which precious moments of Jack Bauer’s power hour would be lost to padding for length and wasting time on developing a character only to have him serve the most obvious ‘shocking’ function imaginable.

At this point, we may as well continue with the spoilers:  As it turns out Komarov is the film's real villain, after all, but his old partner, Chagarin, is also a screwhead red herring whose ambitions are more political than apocalyptic (Chagarin wants the secrets he believes Komarov is hiding away, secrets that Komarov locks in a vault and presumably would keep a hard copy of if they were real. Which begs the question: why not e-mail them to yourself or keep them on a USB drive? Why hard copies? You can at least shove a key or a flash drive up your ass, the paper's just gonna be a mess. Also, what Komarov is really hiding is weapons grade plutonium and he's got an elaborate plan to get it back-- it's a super obvious one involving pretend kidnapping, BTW) And young Jack (Jai Courtney) was trying to effect a rescue that was poorly planned, and had a solid cover story about being a screw-up that causes his dad to come barreling into the country demanding answers and butting into a situation that luckily involves his son and his mad heretofore secret CIA agenting skills.

It's a shame that Koch is so thoroughly wasted. He has the look of a born franchise villain, but is stuck with ferocious genericism that makes Timothy Olyphant's villain look like Hans Gruber himself.

The film also evokes 24 in the manufacture of a magical spray that neutralizes the nuclear threat of Chernobyl. This device exists because the McClane’s, impervious to everything else so why the fuck not, must saunter into a building (unHAZMATsuited) to save the day and not die of extra arms or some such nonsense in the years between adventures. The audience should probably count itself lucky that the McClane’s weren’t the ones with this magical item because, well, that would just be fucking silly (and I don’t mean regular silly, I mean, ‘Christopher Henderson gave me a hypothermic compound and I survived biological weapons poisoning’ silly). All I’m saying and I’m certainly not saying it as concisely as possible, is if all the films subsequently strain credibility to the breaking point this one ties it down, fucks it, makes it carry it to term and names it A Good Day to Die Hard.

If this film is a warm up to the final act, where Jai Courtney’s Jack McClane will take the reins of the franchise from his father, it should be noted that the film doesn’t see Jack as prepared to inherit the throne. The villains are faceless and less competent, this group of bad guys might be smaller than Gruber and company, and Jack is clearly an idiot lacking in good instincts even if his muscles are impressive. If you’re paying close enough attention (and you’re not because you’re bored) this movie says that Jack McClane makes John McClane suck. And honestly, not all of those assertions are the fault of super terrible screenwriter Skip Woods. He just happens to have written a product bad enough to make all of these things true. What he has written is, in fact, so bad that director John Moore’s hideously ugly visual style could be seen as a cheeky commentary on the script’s thoroughly shitty murkiness but since Moore did interviews we know that he genuinely lacks an eye or understanding for anything worth putting on film, least of all action. There’s nothing in here worth engaging in for a minute, so how the editors of the trailer were able to find as many workable seconds that hinted at a genuinely developed relationship between the two McClane’s is a question best left for the ceremony wherein the editors are given a medal and then summarily executed.

There’s nothing good about today, we bore witness to the international tragedy of what happened to a once great franchise. If the box office receipts are plenty it will live again (and may even redeem itself) but here and now it sure died hard.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Stormare is coming.

The Last Stand [***] / Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters [**1/2]
While there is very little doubt that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is as anachronistic as movies can get, it's tougher to say whether the same can be said of The Last Stand. Stand is a film rife with the excesses of an 80s action picture and I think the desire to label it as anachronistic stems from the fact that it actually works as a relic from that time and not as a vague notion of what makes those kinds of movies appealing [cough]The Expendables[cough]. It boasts a star who understands his appeal both inside and outside of iconic characters and a director who respects the art of action and the clarity needed to make action art. So again, there is a second hash mark for why The Last Stand feels so out of time and place. And it also flopped...bad. I guess no one knows what to do with an action film when you do it right and it doesn't have superheroes.

The plot is simple stuff: Arnold is the Sheriff of a sleepy Arizona border town who along with his deputies and a couple of local ne'er do wells must defend the town from villains led by Peter Stormare, who are paving the way for their boss' daring escape into Mexico. A couple of things about this scenario are cool: 1) the boss is driving himself from Vegas to Arizona, 2) the FBI agent played by Forrest Whitaker is kind of a big shot, but he's not a prick. He just thinks that with more resources at his command, he knows better of what he speaks. But when Arnold dares to disagree with him he doesn't really go pulling rank. He just happens to be at an advantage as it regards resources and technology. He's also grateful and non-dickheaded at the end.

The action scenes are clearly and crisply shot by director Kim Ji Woon, an Asian action specialist, the man never shies away from headshots or violence in general. A shootout in a stairwell is one of the film's action highlights. It's a tightly enclosed space but there's just enough room from the vantage point of all the participants that any one of them could come out the victor. It's the best usage of such tight space since Iko Uwais hid in the crawl space in The Raid: Redemption. My only wish is that The Last Stand had one more hand-to-hand tussle. Perhaps Schwarzenegger is limited by his age, but it was a nice display of submission holds, punches, stabbings and power bombs. I suppose this is exactly the mentality that one develops when they're finally seeing a new player in action cinema emerge and then an icon decides to saddle up with the right people and do it right.
If there is one arena in which The Last Stand could have taken a cue from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters it would be in trimming the fat off of an already lean premise. The Last Stand feels about ten minutes too long while H and G remains blissfully unfettered in that regard and many others. As you may have guessed, after killing a witch as children Hansel and Gretel find that they have a natural affinity for it and continue doing so in their adult years. What you may not have known is that they have at their disposal crossbows, machine guns and muskets to augment their pursuit of justice. They also have a surprising command of modern day profanities and exclamations. In particular, their usage of fuck, which serves as a middle man to cut exposition and/or save the audience the trouble of having to be audibly exasperated. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say this disparagingly, but it'll sound that way. I appreciate that the film knows what the audience will say or is thinking and decides to meet you there while ultimately giving zero fucks how serious you are or aren't taking it.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton make no attempt at sounding German (this is a brothers Grimm story after all) or even vaguely European. In fact, they both sound like non-descript Americans. But they aren't being lazy, they're just having fun killing witches and Arterton in particular gets to break Peter Stormare's nose and hang out with an awesome/adorable/murderous CGI troll named Edward. I can only hope that in the sequel that Edward and their young charge/ reporter Ben (Thomas Mann) are able to turn their affections for her into a love triangle. It won't make sense but it will be awesome. Renner isn't given quite as much fun stuff to do as Hansel, but it is always interesting to see him be incredibly chaste and modest in front of beautiful women. Until he murders someone in front of them, then he tends to get a raging boner. For both Arterton and Renner the film seems like a working vacation, they have fun without straining themselves to do so and the results are pleasant.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters shares yet a few more similarities with The Last Stand because they both employ Peter Stormare, who, unsurprisingly, hams it up like a boss, does a lot with a little and dies awesomely. It also serves as an example of a premise done right. This film's director Tommy Wirkola previously missed the mark with the Nazi skeleton zombie comedy Dead Snow, yet here he nails absurdity of tone and premise. Both films ultimately live as examples of getting more right than wrong and making movies in January a bigger blast than you might have rightly expected.