Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Best Movie Posters of 2013

If you've read any of my reviews or retrospectives, you'll probably notice that I have an interest in the design of film posters. As a result of this interest, I decided to put together a list of the best movie posters of the year. I've been collecting cool posters for months now and have had to do my best to whittle down this list to an acceptable number. In the future, I might turn this into a seasonal column, but for now enjoy my favourite movie posters of the year 2013!

Note: This list only encompasses films released in 2013, although some of the independent films may have been given a variety of earlier releases as well. So, as much as I want to put this amazing Godzilla poster on the list, I'll have to wait til next year. Films with a few notable posters have been grouped together. Also, click on any of the posters for a larger resolution image (otherwise this entry will be too damn long).

Honourable Mentions:
I had a pretty long list of posters for this list, so naturally not all of them made the cut for one reason or another: maybe they were only a special issue poster or a cool design that doesn't really do much to sell me on the movie. Maybe it was just not good enough to crack the top 10. Whatever the case, these are the posters that didn't make the list, but that I felt deserved some recognition.


I never saw this movie because, frankly, it looked a) like the very definition of a generic buddy cop comedy and b) really bad. However, if they had based the entire marketing campaign on Struzan-esque posters like this, I might have been first in line. Unfortunately, the rest of the marketing campaign relied on gluing glasses to Sandra Bullock and trying to make Melissa McCarthy go through lipsuction.


I thought this one was just cute, although it doesn't really tell me anything about the film. It's definitely indie, maybe it's quirky too, and there's about a 25% chance of hot dogs being involved somewhere in there. Still, very clever design work went into this one.


This one makes the list for its unconventional tactics. No, not The Big Wedding, look closer. This is actually a poster for You're Next, slipping a masked killer into the reflection (these were originally placed inside of bus stops... which is just awesome). Probably too subtle, but still a clever marketing tactic (and one which further ensures that You're Next is gonna be in my blu-ray collection soon).

10) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Admittedly I mostly picked these because of Jena Malone and Jennifer Lawrence, but the posters do a good job of establishing the characters and "epic" scale of the Hunger Games franchise. The one of Katniss in particular has very interesting colour grading, making it almost appear... dated in a sense. In any case, it's very well-composed and visually stunning. As for the one of Johanna, it does a good job of setting up this character as someone you don't want to mess with, largely due to Jena Malone's icy stare. The stunning subjects of these two posters really go a long way to cementing their exemplary quality.


9) The Wolverine
The Wolverine was a pretty mediocre film, but the posters marketing it were nearly all amazing. The high contrast water colour paintings of the characters are stunning and really helped to set this film apart from other super hero flicks which were going for flashy style over substance. Too bad the film couldn't have been this artsy... hell, if they made an animated Wolverine in this style, it would be gorgeous.

8) Mr. Jones
WTF? Nightmares indeed. I have no idea what this movie is about, but the poster is disturbing enough by itself. For some reason, I imagine the film itself isn't about how the ents get revenge on us, but I would bet that the movie is pretty harrowing.

7) World War Z
Much like The Wolverine, the black and white style really makes this poster standout. The fact that this scene is actually in the movie adds to World War Z's favour though. The poster promises an epic, blockbuster scale and that it will be unique - a feature which is crucial in a time in which we are exhausted with zombies. Of course, the movie ended up sucking, but at least the poster was awesome.

6) Machete Kills
Machete Kills was simultaneously exactly what I expected and very disappointing. It was incoherent and bloated, but it gained a lot of points in my book for how ridiculous it was - a feature highlighted very early by the marketing for the film. The poster of Sophia Vergara with the minigun brazier is hilarious and awesome and basically single-handedly won my ticket. The Lady Gaga poster is very intriguing as well. For one thing, I really don't like Lady Gaga, but the poster does a fantastic job of portraying her as both exotic and intriguing. If only they had integrated her into the film more naturally, it may not have been for naught...






















5) Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story
Like quite a few films on this list, I have no idea what this movie is about, but isn't this poster a thing of beauty? Based on the poster, I would assume it has something to do with racial conflict in America.















4) Would You Rather
OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH. NO. I can pretty much guarantee the movie isn't nearly as harrowing as this poster is. Gah, just the thought of sticking a blade near my eye like that just freaks me out. If I was caught in the Death Mask trap from Saw II and the only way I could live was to cut my eye out, I'd just sit down and die. Suffice to say, this movie poster gives me the heeby-jeebies and just makes me think of all the other sick stuff the filmmakers might have put into a film with this title.













3) Iron Man 3
It takes a lot for a second sequel to cause excitement, especially after following up after a really poor first sequel (Iron Man 2, obviously) and a really good spin-off of unprecedented proportions (The Avengers, obviously). The marketing for Iron Man 3 lives up to this task, showing us a vulnerable Tony Stark who somehow has to get out of what is clearly an extremely deadly situation which one-ups the alien invasion storyline of The Avengers. The poster featuring the stylized Iron Man suits is also noteworthy for its very cool-looking design. For some reason, it makes me think of anime/manga art.





















2) Gangster Squad
Gangster Squad had some truly exceptional posters perfectly capturing the spirit of pulp/noir gangster films. A lot of props have to go to the fact that Emma Stone is absolutely stunning in that red dress (hell, she carries her own poster and sells the film on that fact). Of course, the movie was an enormous disappointment, but between the trailers and the posters, the marketing for the film was undeniably brilliant.




















1) Spring Breakers
This poster (the one on the right) is just brilliant. It looks pretty serene at first, like a still from an inspirational drama or a chick flick. Oh look, it's a dude playing piano and serenading a trio of bikini-clad women in front of a gorgeous sunset. It's covered in a girly purple font. It almost looks like a perfume/cologne ad. However, it also manages to be subtly unsettling. What's up with the horror-esque font on the title and credits? And then you notice the girls surrounding the pianist are wearing ski masks and slinging rifles. Is this pianist just crazy or are the girls going to kill him if he doesn't play? When you look past the very basics of this poster, it gets really intriguing. I haven't seen Spring Breakers, but from what I understand of it, the poster captures the dichotomy of beauty and the threat of violence which really runs through the film.

Also of note are the less-artsy posters which made up the bulk of the film's marketing - they capitalize on pastel colours and sex, which might be selling the film a little deceptively but at least the posters look good. I chose to show the Ashley Benson poster because it single-handedly put her on my radar, haha.


And there you have it - my favourite film posters of 2013. I think I'll turn this into a regular column on this blog so be sure to come back for more in the near future! And be sure to add your favourite past and upcoming posters in the comments section below.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Retrospective: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Merry Christmas good readers, and welcome back to the Die Hard retrospective! In this entry, we're going to cover the fifth film in the franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard (ugh, stupid title). Just as a note, since the Die Hard franchise started out as a "Christmas movie" of sorts, I've intentionally lined up this retrospective to coincide with the holiday. I'm sure plenty of us will be watching the original tonight... I'd also like to mention that this blog is over a year old now! It actually hit that mark on December 4th, but I thought it was a little later than that. In any case, I'm glad I've been able to keep this thing going at a regular pace, and hopefully we can continue to do so well into 2014! Oh and thanks for reading and supporting I Choose to Stand! Anyway, I missed A Good Day to Die Hard in theaters and so went into this retrospective with a fresh view on the film. Does it live up to previous films in the franchise? Read on to find out...

Again, same template for the poster design. Not particularly innovative, although it highlights the characters and setting (via the humorously photoshopped Kremlin in the background).

Despite the financial and critical success of Live Free or Die Hard, production didn't begin on a fifth Die Hard film until 2010. Initially, the project was known as Die Hard 24/7, leading to significant speculation that the film was to be a crossover between Die Hard and 24. Supposedly, the film would have been pretty similar, with Jack McClane being replaced with Jack Bauer. Maybe John McClane would have been on vacation in Russia, which would make some of the film we got make a bit more sense... but anyway, this was never confirmed and the film was eventually retitled to "A Good Day to Die Hard". In any case, A Good Day is the first Die Hard film to start production as a part of the Die Hard franchise instead of another source.

Scriptwriting duties were given to Skip Woods... and his CV is a doozy. X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Hitman? Swordfish? The A-Team? His screenwriting credits read like a history of major failed blockbusters. The film was directed by John Moore, notable for such films as Max Payne, the Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen remakes and Behind Enemy Lines. While I haven't really watched any of his films, I am told that they tend to not be very good. That said, the trailers for Max Payne had a really strong, interesting visual element, so if nothing else then hopefully he could make the film look very nice. As for the cast, Bruce Willis returns (obviously), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a small cameo as well. Playing Jack McClane, John's estranged son, is Jai Courtney, known for Jack Reacher and Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Sebastian Koch plays Komarov, an imprisoned billionare who Jack has to defend. The film also features of few villains, although only a couple are notable. Radivoje Bukvic plays Alik, the main villain though most of the film. Yuliya Snigr plays Irina, the skanky chick from the trailer who acts as Alik's main henchwoman.


Moving on to the plot, A Good Day to Die Hard follows John McClane trying to reconnect with his son, Jack. He discovers that Jack has been imprisoned and is on trial in Moscow for attempted assassination. Travelling to Moscow to bail Jack out, he gets caught up in a terrorist plot to assassinate billionare Komarov who Jack has been assigned to protect - it turns out that Jack's actually a CIA agent and Komarov holds information which is vital to international security. As a result, John and Jack take the fight to the terrorists and bond in the process.

If it sounds like A Good Day to Die Hard has a pretty typical set-up for the Die Hard series, you'd be dead wrong. From the opening credit sequence, A Good Day feels very "off" from how a Die Hard film's tone usually feels. The opening sets up a self-serious political action-thriller story about how Komarov and Russian defence minister Chagarin had a falling out, and now want each other dead. Considering that this is the first film intentionally written for the franchise, it's very odd that they didn't nail the Die Hard tone at all. I should also mention that I honestly didn't really understand the plot all that much. It's not very well elaborated on or particularly interesting. Say what you will about previous Die Hard films, but at least they always kept their plots engaging and left the audience invested in what was happening - we may not always know what the villains are planning, but we have a basic grasp of what their current objectives are. A Good Day just doesn't really seem to care all that much about plot, just stringing together action sequences willy-nilly. Funnily enough, it feels like the sort of stupid action movie I would have filmed as a kid with my brothers, only with a $92 million budget (and no, that's not a complement).


Speaking of student filmmaking, the script really comes across as an amateur production. "Emotional" scenes are hamfisted and handled with no subtly whatsoever. Oh looky, McClane and Komarov are talking about how they wasted their time at work instead of spending it with their kids, and Jack happens to be listening in on them! How touching! Oh, or the scene where John tells Jack that he loves him, but sounds really bored while saying it. Then there's just tons and tons of action movie tropes, such as "the bad guy wants to destroy the world just because" and the generic "trapped heroes laugh with the bad guy while they hatch an escape" trope. Actually, they pretty much ripped that last one off of Die Hard itself. In fact, I noticed quite a few moments which were clear ripoffs of the original Die Hard, such as Jack and John defeating bad guys by "shooting the glass", one of the villains getting caught with his (metaphorical) pants down and pretending to be a good guy and the same villain looking in fear as he gets thrown off a rooftop.

On top of all of this, there are lots of just plain illogical and overly-convenient moments in the film. If you're getting shot at by a helicopter, is your first idea to run across the room and jump out the 20th story window? Luckily for John and Jack there was something to catch their fall, or they could have done their bonding... to the pavement. Why didn't they just head to the damn staircase? Or what about the fact that John and Jack seem to have unlimited ammunition? They obviously don't have spare magazines/clips, since they're picking their weapons up off of dead bad guys half the time. And then there's the moment where John sets off an incendiary grenade which (somehow) engulfs an entire lobby, and yet because Jack hides behind a skinny pole he gets through completely unscathed. I'd also be remiss to not mention the absolutely baffling moment where Irina gets her slightly damaged helicopter back under control and then decides to ram John and Jack with it in a display of helicopter suicide. The co-pilot screams "WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!"... at least I think it was the co-pilot, and not God himself every time that scene is played. Could they not have landed and then, I dunno, shot at the McClanes instead? This just reeks to me of a studio afraid to have their all-American hero kill a woman. In any case, this movie just feels like a video game... in fact, it would have been much better served as one, since the plot's about as good as the campaign in Battlefield 4 (read: horrible, but with gameplay it could be negated).

Oh looky, someone has seen a Tarantino movie before.

As for the acting, the movie colossally screws this department up as well. Bruce Willis looks and sounds bored throughout the entire movie. Gone is the wit and humour of John McClane of old - in this film, John actually manages to be annoying. Seriously. He does all sorts of quips like he used to in previous Die Hard movies, but they fall flat and I end up yelling "Shut up John, no one can hear you and you're not being funny". Most grating of all of these is the "I'm on vacation!" line which McClane throws about as a mini-catchphrase. I think it's supposed to be hilarious, but it's just stupid because dammit John you're not on vacation. Who considers "picking up my son (who has been accused of attempted assassination) from a foreign prison" a vacation?! How the hell do you screw up a Die Hard movie so badly that John McClane, a hero whose longevity has stemmed from his charisma and smart ass attitude, ends up being one of the most irritating aspects of it? In fact, I'd only say a couple of characters were passable. Jai Courtney's Jack McClane is okay, but he has absolutely no material to work with, so I can't really fault him. Irina's also alright, although she ends up as little more than eye candy (funnily enough, that stripping scene from the trailer doesn't even show up in the movie).

As for the villains, they're easily the worst in the entire franchise. The main bad guy is Chagarin, the Russian defence minister. He basically does nothing the whole film, seemingly orchestrating an assassination on Komarov by being a political dickhead. There's one part where I literally burst out laughing when they show him walking in a crowd in slow motion as he takes off his sunglasses and grins. The actual main bad guy is Alik, a villain who they barely even bother to give any sort of personality. He's "supposed" to be eccentric. He "intimidates" the main characters by eating carrots and... uh... dancing in front of them. Yeah, I'm not kidding, it's as goofy as it sounds. Plus he literally says that he "hates all the Americans"... what is this, a Cold War propaganda film? Suffice to say, Alik sucks, and is nowhere near to the villainous standard set by previous films. I just didn't give a half a shit about him at all.


Oh wait, it turns out that the actual actual villain was Komarov all along! He was orchestrating everything that happened to break himself out of jail and then get to Chernobyl so he could steal weapons-grade uranium and sell it on the black market to terrorists! Who saw that coming!?


Oh wait, that doesn't make a lick of sense. Remember when I said that plot conveniences just riddle this movie? Everything revolving around Komarov is basically a plot convenience. For one thing, wasn't there an easier way to pull this sort of thing off? It seems like everyone except Alik and Chagarin were in on it, so why not just get the bad guys to break Komarov out straight away and then head to Chernobyl by yourself? Why did he have to involve the CIA and his sworn enemy in the deal (not to mention putting his daughter at risk)? Doesn't that just complicate things, like, a lot? Didn't he think things were getting really bad when he was getting shot at, or blazed through incoming Moscow traffic at high speeds, or when he got freaking shot? Apparently that was all part of the plan. Seriously, the whole Joker-izing of villains is just stupid and has only ever worked in The Dark Knight. Hollywood hacks and Academy Award-winning screenwriters alike - stop using the Joker as inspiration, thank you. Komarov isn't nearly as bad as Alik, he's just bland and the unfortunate subject of most of the scenes which rip-off the original Die Hard - which just go to illustrate how woefully he measures up to Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber. In fact, the only good thing about him in the movie is his death, where he's thrown from the roof in an uninspired, rip-off manner... until he gets sucked into a helicopter's tail rotor and evicerated. Holy crap, that was an epic, brutal death and a good send off to damn near any villain in my books.


I want to be done complaining, I really do, but there's just so much to bitch about in this film. For one thing, John Moore decided to film the movie in shaky cam style. Now I'll admit, he actually has some justification for using this style: "McClane is in a strange world, with little or no initial control over his environment. He's unable to anticipate things as he normally might. He's caught off guard, and we want the camera to mimic that surprise and confusion." Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. Action scenes get the shit shaken out of them, and even dialogue exchanges get bobbed back and forth, especially evident in close-ups. The fact that we don't really relate to McClane in this film either just exacerbate the problem. Now I'll admit I don't hate shaky cam - I think it's well-used in the Bourne films - but A Good Day to Die Hard is a bad example of the process in action. It also features slap-dash editing, mashing together images at rapid-fire rates. Hell, there's even a conversation between Jack and John in a car where everytime one of them goes to speak, the camera angle shifts... every... single... time... one... of... them... speaks. It's noticeably distracting. All-in-all, the movie feels outdated, like it was supposed to be released five years ago on the coattails of the successes of Bourne.

Poor editing also takes a toll on the action scenes. Early on there's a car chase that is actually pretty good in spite of the filmmakers' efforts to make it as incomprehensible as possible - the camera shakes like hell, the editing is full of garbled quick cuts and the shots never really cohere into a proper string of events. What happened to epic, well-choreographed sequences like the amazing car chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark? There's also a couple moments with some misjudged editing choices in my opinion - during a couple scenes, the audio is cut out entirely. This is supposed to be a stylistic choice to make the scene more "epic" or "cool", but it doesn't really work... and in one instance, it actually derives the film of a chance to get the audience up to speed on what's actually happening. There's just a distinct lack of ambition permeating throughout the film - it's just content to ease back and let a hundred years of action movie cliches play out on screen for 95 minutes without adding any new ideas or mining its settings for anything beyond the conventional.


It should also be noted that while it is not as over-the-top as Live Free, A Good Day is still pretty ridiculous and nowhere near realistic. If anything, John McClane is knowingly indestructible, charging in headlong without even a worry about dying. He spins out and then flips a transport truck a dozen times without sustaining a scratch and falls from great heights on a couple occasions with Jack without being killed. Hell, I don't think John or Jack get shot once this whole movie either. Also, while this film is rated R, it's easily the tamest film in the entire franchise. There's barely any swearing (even less than Live Free) and the violence is pretty tame as well (well... except for the helicopter blade death I suppose, but that could probably still get by on a PG-13).

All-in-all, I can count the things I liked in A Good Day to Die Hard on one hand - the Moscow car chase was cool at times (if badly shot), the bad guy getting thrown in a propeller blade was awesome and the slo-mo exploding helicopter jump was ridiculous, but cool... and that's it. A Good Day to Die Hard is a dull, generic B-movie... which, if you'll remember waaaaay back to the first entry in this retrospective, is exactly what Die Hard was created to not be. A Good Day to Die Hard is a total shame worth of the scorn placed upon it.

3/10

With the shit stain that is A Good Day to Die Hard now inked on the franchise, is there any real future for John McClane? Well, yes actually. Bruce Willis wants to give the character a final send-off... and I'm hesitant at this point, but I think this actually makes sense. Look at it this way - Live Free or Die Hard began a new trilogy that I dub "The Redemption of John McClane". The first three movies saw John's life more or less fall apart as he constantly screws up. Since Live Free, John has been reconnecting with his estranged children and rebuilding his life. If there is another Die Hard, John has to reconnect with Holly and finally live in long-deserved peace. It looks like this is the direction the series is headed in. Remember Ben Trebilcook, who I mentioned wrote two scripts for Die Hard 4, both titled Die Hardest? Well idiotic title aside, these seem to be the basis for the sixth film in the franchise, which will see the return of Zeus Carver as well. Bruce Willis seems pretty adamant that Die Hardest (sigh...) will be the final movie for John McClane, but of course that leaves the door open for Jack and Lucy McClane to take the reins. I had the feeling that they were testing this approach during A Good Day to Die Hard, but I can't really see it taking off - people love John McClane, they don't really have any reason as of yet to care about Jack or Lucy on their own adventures. In any case, A Good Day to Die Hard has shaken many peoples' faith in the franchise, so if Die Hardest were to be cancelled right now, I wouldn't be too torn up about it.

This is how I would rank the series from best to worst:
1. Die Hard
2. Live Free or Die Hard
3. Die Hard with a Vengeance
4. Die Hard 2
5. A Good Day to Die Hard

Thanks for getting through this retrospective series and as always feel free to comment and give suggestions for future franchises for me to review! Oh and have a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Retrospective: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Welcome back to the Die Hard retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the fourth film in the franchise, Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0 as it is known internationally). This was actually the first Die Hard movie I saw, and as of right now, it's the newest entry in the franchise that I've watched (of course, that'll change next week when I finally see A Good Day to Die Hard). After a 12 year absence, audiences thought that Die Hard was a thing of the past - could a fourth Die Hard movie give the franchise a second life? Read on to find out...

Basically the traditional Die Hard poster design. Not one of the more interesting uses of the design, but decent enough.

Live Free or Die Hard started life as an article called "A Farewell to Arms" in Wired, a theoretical piece on how modern day America's entire infrastructure could be crippled by cyber terrorists. The article was adapted into a movie called WW3.com and was supposed to be released in the late 90s to capitalize on all the paranoia surrounding computers and the Internet in the new millennium. However, the movie ended up getting delayed and then was shelved all-together following 9/11. There were a couple of attempts to get the movie off the ground again, but it wasn't until the movie was picked up as a Die Hard sequel that it finally gained traction. The modified script went through quite a few rewrites, with writers such as Doug Richardson (who did Die Hard 2), Mark Bomback, Kevin Smith (celebrity geek who appeared in the film itself) and William Wisher. At the same time, two other Die Hard sequels were being optioned, both written by Ben Trebilcook and both titled Die Hardest (remember this, it'll be important later), but they were passed in favour of the WW3.com script. Eventually the script was retitled "Live Free or Die Hard" as a play on the state motto of New Hampshire, although it was decided that it should be titled Die Hard 4.0 in international markets since they wouldn't "get it" (that said, as a Canadian, I didn't "get" it, but there's no denying that Live Free or Die Hard is a bad ass title... even if the movie doesn't take place anywhere near New Hampshire).

The film was directed by Len Wiseman, who at the time was a pretty big name in Hollywood, having directed the very successful Underworld (although he had just come off of the major disappointment, Underworld: Evolution). Of course, now adays Len Wiseman is largely considered to be a reboot of Paul W.S. Anderson, since they are both known for making crappy films and the fact that their love lives are damn-near identical. Bruce Willis makes his return, obviously, although considerably more... bald than in previous Die Hard films. The villain, Thomas Gabriel, was played by perpetual up-and-comer Timothy Olyphant (seriously, outside of TV he just can't seem to get that major break). Playing the role of McClane's tag-along/"buddy" in the film is Justin Long as Matt Farrell, a computer hacker tied into the terrist attack crippling America. Probably best known at the time as "The Mac Guy", which actually helps sell him in the role better. Also making an appearance is Retrospectives favourite Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane. She has a relatively small role (basically little more than a plot device) but it's actually considered her most famous performance. In any case, she does a good job convincing us she's the utter bad ass daughter of John McClane, despite the limited screen time. Also worth noting is Maggie Q as Gabriel's lead henchwoman, Mai Linh, who is pretty kick ass, if robotic.


The film takes place in the aftermath of a cyber attack on the FBI. The director of the FBI decides to track down the top hackers in the country who could have pulled this off, but it is discovered that all but one of them have been systematically murdered. John McClane is sent to pick up the last one, Matt Farrell, but a shootout ensues. McClane is forced to protect Farrell as cyber terrorist Thomas Gabriel launches a "fire sale" attack, crippling American society with coordinated, systematic hacks on key parts of the nation's infrastructure. Of course, it's up to John McClane to stop the bad guys and save the day...

Based on the above synopsis, it's pretty easy to see that Live Free or Die Hard has some pretty big problems. For one thing, John McClane has pretty much been transformed from a vulnerable, realistic man thrown into a bad situtation to a T-800. McClane jumps from speeding cars, jumps from a freaking exploding F-35, jumps from an exploding power plant... okay, he does a lot of jumping, but that's besides the point. McClane gets run through a gauntlet of death and just walks away from it all with a bit of blood and maybe a minor bullet wound to show for it. It carries on the legacy of With a Vengeance, but then takes it to the next degree of ridiculousness with plenty of unbelievable scenes. McClane himself has lost a lot of his character from previous films as well. While he's still highly invested in his family, his character has basically been boiled down to "smart ass old guy with a gun". No longer does McClane run from danger, he drives from Washington DC to West Virginia to find it. McClane doesn't worry about getting hurt anymore, he'll actively shoot himself to kill a bad guy. On one hand it makes sense for McClane to be somewhat transformed considering how much crap he's been through over the years, but Live Free could easily be a stand-alone action movie if they just changed McClane's name and no one would notice.


The film's plot should also be mentioned for being pretty ridiculous. Many, many articles have been written about how Live Free is basically the apex of Hollywood treating hackers like basement-dwelling Level 99 wizards. In fact, everything with computers in the film is basically just Hollywood cliche - everyone has a dozen monitors for each computer, laptops capable of magically hacking into US government databases instantly, hacking all of the US television networks simultaneously, sexed-up/impractical futuristic work stations for government security workers and instantly finding Farrell because of software analyzing all the voices on radio broadcasts... It's pretty clear that very little actual research was put up on screen - well, except for when Gabriel manages to remote access Kevin Smith's webcam, although at this rate that was probably just a lucky fluke (and yes, your webcam can be used to spy on you... sleep tight).

I'd also be making a mistake if I didn't mention the MASSIVE controversy which was Live Free or Die Hard's PG-13 rating. Hollywood wanted to maximize profits on the film, which was fairly highly-budgeted at $110 million, and so cut out all of the f-bombs to avoid an R-rating (since PG-13 films tend to make more money than R-rated ones). Fans spewed vitrol over this decision, since bad language is considered a hallmark of the series, and the fact that John McClane's own catchphrase is "yippee-ki-yay motherf--ker"... it's just not something that you can do in a PG-13 movie. For that matter, Die Hard just isn't really PG-13 material, although the fact that they managed to easily secure the rating by simply cutting out all instances of "f--k" (simply replacing them with more "minor" swear words which actually accumulate to a level equivalent of the first Die Hard) and removing a tiny bit of CGI blood says more about the MPAA's standards than anything I suppose (the film easily has R-rating levels of violence fully intact, it's just not bloody/gory). That said, this review is based on the Unrated version, which restores all of the cut language (maybe around 20 f-bombs) and blood, although the differences are really negligible - if you're a hardcore fan who froths at the mouth at the thought of a Die Hard movie without at least one f-bomb, or hates any sort of compromise, then the Unrated version should sate your appetite in that department.


I've been intentionally front-loading all of the complaining in this review, and that's because Live Free or Die Hard is a hell of a lot of fun. I know I'm probably going to get a lot of shit for this from Die Hard fans if any bother to read this review, but I really like Live Free or Die Hard. Len Wiseman isn't a good director by any means, but this is probably the second best thing he's ever done (really only rivaled by Underworld and surpassed by his coup to marry Kate Beckinsale). While the film is totally ridiculous and over the top, literally every single action scene is just plain kick ass. Seriously, I was listing all of the awesome scenes in this movie  for the review until I realized that I had written down every single action scene to that point. The movie is ridiculous and fun that it puts movies which are supposed to be over-the-top action fests, like RED, to shame (without dipping into parody for that matter too!). There are so many awesome moments throughout the film that it's hard to pick a true standout moment (although the car killing a helicopter is certainly the most iconic moment from the film). This is in part due to the fact that barely any CGI was used in the film (in fact, nearly everything that looks like CGI was either composited, such as the scene where McClane and Farrell are nearly crushed by a flying car, or used miniatures, such as the F-35 chase). It is also due to Len Wiseman, er, wisely deciding not to shake the shit out of the camera during action sequences. Bourne was becoming very popular at this time, and so studios were jumping on the bandwagon by trying to emulate its shaky-cam style... but they did a horrible job at it, making many movies just plain incomprehensible (see Quantum of Solace and Battle: Los Angeles). There is a tiny bit of shaky cam present in Live Free, but it is not distracting and plays second fiddle to steady, well-shot footage which presents epic action moments to us in all their glory.

Adding to the fun are the assortment of "talented" bad guys who shake up the action at times. The first of these is the random parkour villain (dubbed "Hamster" by McClane) who flips, shoots and does all sorts of crazy shit, which is a joy to watch in spite of its ridiculousness (even if he's basically a rip-off of the parkour bad guy in Casino Royale). Maggie Q also shakes things up by kicking McClane's ass with martial arts in a rather entertaining fight sequence which culminates with McClane deciding to fight kung fu with an SUV (although McClane's misogynist taunting is a bit off-putting, but I suppose it can be justified in the context of the film). Sure, these characters are pretty flat and make the film all that more ridiculous, but at least they're far more visually interesting that the faceless goons McClane wipes out in the previous two films in the franchise.


And speaking of goons, Thomas Gabriel's a pretty good villain. Sure a lot of his threat comes from his unrealistic hacking skills, but it makes him a legitimate threat in the film. In any case, Timothy Olyphant's performance is quite menacing, even if he doesn't live up to the same level as either of the Gruber brothers (mostly because the script makes Gabriel's character somewhat boring). Meanwhile, Matt Farrell is the "ordinary guy", sort of like Zeus Carver was in With a Vengeance. He's the character the audience relates to, a sarcastic geek who can't hope to be as badass as John McClane... actually, he basically embodies a modern day version of the whole "every man" aspect that defined the original Die Hard. Live Free would be much weaker (and far less funny) without Farrell and McClane's dialogue playing off of each other, representing the past vs the present, a criminal vs a policeman, etc. Of course, Farrell himself isn't just a foil, he actually gets to use his tech savvy to help McClane, who would be utterly lost without his expertise. Farrell sort of represents the bridge between the Die Hard films of the past and this film, since computers have become ubiquitous since then. There are also quite a few in-jokes in the film which also bridge the 12 year gap between this film and the last Die Hard, most of which are quite subtle. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more, but I noticed that there was an FBI agent escorting McClane called "Agent Johnson", McClane saying that he was afraid of flying until he took some piloting classes and an off-hand comment about "taking it under advisement". For my money, this is how references to previous films in the franchise should be handled, rather than employing the Predators or Rise of the Planet of the Apes model where they basically pull you out of your seat and go "HEY! DID YOU SEE THAT? THAT WAS A REFERENCE TO ANOTHER MOVIE! AND WE WROTE THE WHOLE PLOT TO ACCOMMODATE IT!" These were very well-done, subtle references which can easily go over your head and make subsequent viewings more enjoyable.


Live Free is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it isn't a proper Die Hard movie at all, but it is a really kick ass action movie. However, if you watched it and would only be satisfied with a movie in the Die Hard mold, then that won't matter to you. The movie is totally over the top, but it's consistently and entertainingly over the top (whereas With a Vengeance became over the top halfway through after being relatively grounded in its first hour). The movie's PG-13, but it's still quite violent and has a lot of swearing - just no f-bombs in the theatrical version. "Yippee-ki-yay" gets cut off (in the theatrical version), but the moment it happens is easily the best usage of McClane's catchphrase since the first film. You may not like where the Die Hard series has gone in this film, but this is what Die Hard is now (if my impressions of A Good Day to Die Hard are correct anyway). Hardcore fans seem to hate the movie, but it's the highest praised film in the franchise since the original.

For my part, I really like Live Free or Die Hard. It doesn't really fit the Die Hard franchise particularly well, it's a hell of a lot of fun and way more consistent than any of the previous sequels (including With a Vengeance, which many fans dub the "only good Die Hard sequel"). If you can get over the fact that it's a new, different kind of movie with the title of "Die Hard" then I'm sure you'll be very entertained. If not, then you're entitled to that opinion, but I can't say I agree with you or will step down from my own assessment.

7.5/10 (oh yeah, I'm definitely going to be receiving hate mail for that)

Be sure to come back soon for the fifth, and final, part of this retrospective series with A Good Day to Die Hard!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Retrospective: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Welcome back to the Die Hard retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the third film in the franchise, Die Hard with a Vengeance (which started the annoying trend of the franchises' sequels shoehorning Die Hard into a phrase for the film's title)! Die Hard 2 was a rather lazy rehash of a sequel, but the producers seemed keen to not make the same mistake. Could the third entry in the franchise bring back the series' AAA reputation, "with a vengeance"? Read on to find out...

Again, a nice poster with the prominence going to both its star (at his most bad-ass looking, I might add) and its setting.

Production on a sequel to Die Hard 2 stalled a bit after the entire premise became the template for every action movie of the 90s. Die Hard 2 was lucky enough to have the turn-around time to beat out a rival "Die Hard in an airport" movie (although technically it's really just a canonized "Die Hard in an airport"), but by the time the third movie went into production, the premise had already been significantly mined. How many interesting, confined locations could be used when rip-offs had already had to resort to having terrorists on a bus? Well Fox decided to go back to the old well of unproduced scripts to find one to adapt. One of the early scripts they were interested in was called Troubleshooter, and would have seen McClane fighting terrorists on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. If this sounds like the disastrous Speed 2: Cruise Control... well, that's because the script was the basis for that movie. The Die Hard producers passed on Troubleshooter after hearing about a similar-sounding film called Under Siege (aka, Steven Seagal's entire career), but the script would later be picked up as the basis of Speed 2.

Quite a few scripts were optioned, but the one which would become Die Hard with a Vengeance wasn't even supposed to be a Die Hard movie. A script by Jonathan Hensleigh called Simon Says was originally intended to be the fourth entry in the Lethal Weapon series (it certainly would have been better than the Lethal Weapon 4 that we got anyway...). However, this did not come to pass, and so the script was reworked to fit into the Die Hard mold. That said, there are still obvious parallels between this film and the Lethal Weapon series - in a lot of ways, the film feels more like a Lethal Weapon and less like a traditional Die Hard. The film is also notable for having a heist scheme which was so clever that the FBI investigated Hensleigh to ensure that he wasn't actually planning on pulling it off (because, y'know, turning your plan into a major motion picture is the perfect way to get away with it).

John McTiernan made his return to the director's chair, taking the reins back from Renny Harlin. He had just come off of the rather infamous Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was looking to get into the studio and audiences' good graces once more. Of course, Bruce Willis also returned as John McClane, although he is the only member of the original cast to return (aside from a very limited vocal cameo by Bonnie Bedelia... although I can't even confirm that it's actually her). Two major new faces were added to the franchise in this entry. The first is Samuel L. Jackson's Zeus Carver, an electrician who becomes McClane's unwilling sidekick throughout the film. The second is the film's villain, Simon Gruber, played by Jeremy Irons. Simon is the brother of Hans Gruber, giving the villain's motivations a personal vendetta as he matches wits with McClane. There are also a host of minor supporting characters, but they aren't really worth noting - this film is held up by its major players.


The film opens with a literal bang, as a bomb unexpectedly goes off in the middle of downtown New York. It's quite a surprising opening and certainly gets the audiences' interest immediately without cheaply throwing us into the action. Anyway, it turns out that the bomber is threatening to detonate more explosives across the city if John McClane doesn't obey his wishes. Along the way, McClane accidentally ropes electrician Zeus Carver to come along with him, and the pair are sent on races across the city to defuse bombs before they can detonate. However, McClane gets the sneaking suspicion that there's more going on here than meets the eye...

As you can probably tell, With a Vengeance throws away the whole confined setting aspect of the series, as the film takes place all across the city of New York. It's not necessarily a terrible decision, but it certainly makes the film feel extremely different than previous films in the franchise. I'm not sure why, but the film also looks very different than previous Die Hards... maybe it's the lighting, the film stock or the lack of confined space... if I were a film student I could probably pin-point it, but the filming technique seems vastly different than any other film in the franchise to this point. I should also mention that I'm kind of annoyed that Holly has separated with McClane at the start of the film, but at least this makes McClane down on his luck again.


Anyway, beyond the intangibles, the realism of previous Die Hard movies is absent as well. At times the movie makes Die Hard 2 look totally plausible. Seriously, people crap on Live Free or Die Hard for being over the top, but that really just carried over from some of the ridiculous stuff on display in With a Vengeance. It starts out fairly innocently: McClane drives like a total nut, but somehow manages to avoid getting in an accident or killing anyone, he jumps onto a moving subway car, etc. This sort of thing is certainly straining believably, but it's not exactly off the rails... no, that comes when McClane surfs a freaking dump truck to safety and then gets shot out of a water main right in front of Zeus (who just so happened to be passing by at the time). It's such a ridiculous scene that it's impossible to take the movie seriously beyond that point. It reminds me of a friend who said that he saw a movie called Escape from LA where a guy chases after one of the bad guys by catching a random tidal wave and surfing onto the guy's vehicle. It's the sort of scene that just sounds so implausible that you can't believe it's real, but it totally is. Anyway, the movie really jumps the shark at that point, culminating with McClane and Zeus surviving jumping from a ship just as it explodes into a giant mushroom cloud... yeah, so much for the grounded action franchise, With a Vengeance basically just moves into typical action movie territory.

Okay, I may be ragging on With a Vengeance for being over the top, but that's not that big a deal in all honesty. To be fair, the film is a ton of fun. For one thing, it recaptures much of the humour of the first film. The whole situation where McClane is forced to go into Harlem with a racist sign is just a funny situation and shows that Simon Gruber is a troll. There's also quite a few occasions where random douche bags in New York interact with the main characters, almost always provoking laughs. Of course, the interplay between McClane and Zeus also is a major source of humour - Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have a lot of chemistry and it shows on-screen.


Also contributing to the fun factor is the script - for most of the runtime, the plot is very tense, the villain is great and the main characters are a lot of fun. The whole "Simon Says game" aspect of the plot is a very clever way to drive the plot forward and keep it engaging, especially when you consider that about a third of the movie boils down to "John and Zeus drive around New York". Before the "game" can get repetitive, the heist aspect of the story falls into place, and it really is ingenious. Seriously, the master plan of this film more than lives up to Hans' heist in the original Die Hard. It should also be mentioned that Simon Gruber is a great villain in his own right, basically a "bigger and better" version of Hans (although he's not quite as memorable). Seeing McClane trying to unravel Simon's plans is a joy in itself as he kicks quite a bit of ass as can be expected.

That said, while the plot quite fun, it also has some rather gaping holes in it. For one thing, how the hell did Simon manage to get financial backing for his heist? It's sort of implied that a foreign nation is funding it, but I don't think the movie bothers to dwell on it. In any case, Simon's packing some expensive hardware and probably is managing a hundred baddies. There's just so many intricacies that it's hard to think that the plan only ever gets messed up when McClane's involved (eg, they leave briefcase bombs in the open in a busy park, how is it that no random bystanders came along and stole them?). There's also the fact that everyone's travelling all across the city in no time at all due to the magic of editing, much like in Die Hard 2.

While I may gripe about plot holes in the film, I'll be honest - they're all pretty minor. The major issue with With a Vengeance is that it starts to rapidly lose steam around the 40 minute mark. For one thing, you can tell that the film wasn't really figured out at this point. The aforementioned scene where Zeus just so happens to come across McClane shooting out of a water main just reeks of slap-dash editing. There's also the fact that Simon Gruber plants a bomb at the school Zeus' kids attend. When Zeus discovers this, he says that Gruber was doing that to keep him involved in the game. However, this was clearly just thrown in there to try to justify adding some more tension, because it makes no sense whatsoever. How did Simon know Zeus had kids? Are you telling me he didn't plant his bombs until after his plans were already being set in motion? How is secretly planting the bomb in Zeus' kids' school going to keep him in line? Hell, why does Simon even care if Zeus stays involved (he doesn't have a vendetta against him after all)? Anyway, it's contrived and cliched stuff like this which make the final 40 minutes far less compelling than the preceding hour and a half.


Of course, none of that compares to the abysmal ending. It turns out that the original ending wasn't very well liked - originally, McClane's life was going to be ruined by Gruber's antics. As a result, McClane hunted down Gruber to play some Russian roulette... with a rocket launcher. It's kind of a ridiculous scene, but it wasn't liked for how it made McClane look un-heroic. As a result, we ended up with the dud of an ending which we have been cursed with: McClane and Zeus (for some reason) travel to Quebec and make a bunch of wisecracks until Simon shoots down their helicopter. Then McClane shoots a power line, destroying Simon's helicopter. That's it. Simon dies like a total bitch and the whole plan unravels in about 5 minutes. What a major letdown. There's also a really awkward and completely random sex scene thrown in there for absolutely no other reason than they could, which doesn't really help the ending any. Whatever the case though, this is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it's nowhere near as thrilling as the climax of the previous two movies. Hell, pretty much every action set piece in this movie is better than its ending. It's just completely half-assed, and it really shows.

Overall, I want to love Die Hard with a Vengeance. For much of the first two acts, it is absolutely the sequel that Die Hard deserves which lives up to its legacy. However, the final 40 minutes just kill it and the ending in particular leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Die Hard 2 may be a worse film overall, but at least it improves in the last half hour and leaves a better impression - With a Vengeance just makes me feel disappointed when all is said in done. Many fans of the franchise cite With a Vengeance as being the only good sequel to Die Hard, but I think they're being too forgiving - it's about 2/3rds of a good sequel. It really is a shame that they couldn't have worked out a proper third act and ending before commencing filming, because there really isn't all that much holding With a Vengeance back from being a great action movie. As it is, it has to settle with being the film that fumbled it in the third act.

6.5/10

Be sure to come back soon for part four of this retrospective series with Live Free or Die Hard.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Retrospective: Die Hard 2 (1990)

Welcome back to the Die Hard retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the second entry in the franchise, Die Hard 2 (aka Die Harder). When Die Hard revolutionized the action genre and made a hefty profit, a sequel was an inevitability. Could Fox make lightning strike twice? Read on to find out...

This poster's much like the original Die Hard's, with a similar layout telling you pretty much everything you need to know. The whole "just like the original!" aspect is a bit of a trend though, as we'll get into soon enough...

Soon after the success of Die Hard, production on a sequel began. Rather than write an original script, the producers decided once again to borrow from a pre-existing source. This time, the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager was selected, since it had a very Die Hard-esque premise. From what I understand, the novel and film are both fairly similar, with John McClane and a couple other characters being substituted or added in to please fans of the original film. Of course, Bruce Willis returns as John McClane. Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton and Reginald VelJohnson also reprise their roles. Playing the leader of the terrorists was William Sadler (not a big name to us, although he has shown up in a variety of roles that you've probably seen him in, including The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist and Iron Man 3). Most of the rest of the cast are unnotable, although two of the minor terrorists would become known actors later: John Leguizamo (Sid in Ice Age) and Robert Patrick (T-1000 in Terminator 2... in fact, he's badass enough in his 30 second screen time in this that it's kind of distracting).

John McTiernan did not return to the director's chair, going on to do The Hunt For Red October instead. Replacing McTiernan as director was Renny Harlin, who had achieved success with the well-received Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. The name sounded familiar to me, and that's because Harlin was one of the many people who were brought in to direct Alien 3 - however, Fox passed on all of his ideas rather quickly, offering him Die Hard 2 instead.


Exactly two years after the original film, John McClane's waiting at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. for his wife to arrive for Christmas Eve. Coinciding with this is the arrival of extradited South American drug trafficking general, Ramon Esperanza. A team of terrorists, led by rogue US Army colonel, Stuart, seize control of the air traffic control system, effectively holding all the planes in the airspace hostage unless Esperanza is set free. Of course, John McClane isn't going to let a bunch of pansy-ass terrorists put his wife's life get in danger. Pretty conventional set-up for a Die Hard movie... of course, that's because the movie is pretty conventional itself.

Die Hard 2's script can be pretty convoluted at times and just doesn't make a lick of sense when you put thought to it. The script is definitely the biggest issue in Die Hard 2 for a number of reasons. First of all, how can you justify the exact same situation happening to the same guy on the same day of the year twice? The movie tries to lampshade this by having John acknowledge it, but it's still clear that they don't bother to chalk it up to anything other than coincidence. Credibility get stretched even further by the fact that Holly and scumbag reporter Thornburg happen to end up on the same flight by mere chance, despite the fact that Thornburg has a court-ordered restraining order against her. Then there's also the question of how the hell everyone keeps getting into the damn air control tower, although that's a smaller "JUST BECAUSE!!!" issue in the grand scheme of things...

Then there's just the fact that the plot isn't paced very well. The opening scene doesn't ease you into the plot, it plops you right into John's shitty day. I almost wonder if the editors cut out a longer opening, because the opening scene just feels so stilted. Die Hard had a good 20 minutes of set up to get you up to speed on the situation and characters. Die Hard 2 has 3 1/2 minutes before the villains show up and start doing dastardly things. The first gunfight is only around 10 minutes in. Yet, in spite of all this, literally the first 30 minutes are incredibly dull to watch. The next hour has moments of interest, but the movie lacks a lot of the tension that the original had in spades. I mean, sure, there's only 90 minues left til airplanes begin falling from the sky, but we rarely feel the urgency of this fact, in part due to the fact that everyone just sits around until John McClane decides to do something. Seriously, John McClane is apparently the only competent person in the whole airport - he must have run a few marathons over the course of the movie with all the footslogging he does while everyone else shoves their thumbs up their arses. It's not until the last half hour that the movie finally starts to get legitimately fun, kicking off with a rather surprising (if cliche) twist and ending with an exciting, explosive climax.


Then there's the fact that the characters in this film just aren't anywhere near as good as they were in Die Hard. John McClane stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Colonel Stuart's not a bad villain, but he doesn't hold a candle to Alan Rickman... plus he really doesn't get all that much to do anyway. Bonnie Bedelia's given a leading role in the film, but her contribution is minimal and it makes her role feel like little more than an over-glorified cameo. Then there's airport security captain Lorenzo, whose only real job is to antagonize McClane incessantly, which gets grating quickly. Whereas the terrorists in Die Hard were all pretty distinguishable, the terrorists in this film all blend together (except for the aforementioned Robert Patrick, although that's because he had an iconic role later in his career). Other than that, supporting characters such as Sam Colman (played by Sheila McCarthy, who fellow Canadians might recognize from Little Mosque on the Prairie) are basically useless and contribute practically nothing to the plot. The lines they get to spout aren't that great either - Die Hard had some fantastic one-liners, but nearly every attempt at a one-liner in this film falls flat. For example:

McClane: Hey, Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first? The lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?

Umm, what? Does anyone know how that's supposed to make any sense? I mean sure, it's kind of insulting, but usually you want your insults to actually make sense...


Oh and I think I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the incredibly random and awkward scene early in the movie where Colonel Stuart practices martial arts in his hotel room... in the buff. The whole point of the scene is to provide an exposition dump from a news reporter on the hotel TV, but it's completely distracted by the fact that there's a naked guy practicing punching people the whole time. If there was ever a movie scene that made me feel like a closeted homosexual, it'd probably be this one. Anyway, this scene also makes me wonder if Die Hard 2 beat Game of Thrones to the punch with the whole "sexposition" thing...

Sure I've beat up the plot quite a bit, but there is one legitimately surprising and ballsy moment in the movie when the terrorists decide to bring down one of the circling planes. It's pretty disturbing to watch the people on board unwittingly head to their deaths while the air traffic controllers are helpless to stop them. The crash itself is pretty spectacular, although the size of the fireball's probably excessive considering that the plane was "running on fumes"... but whatever, I can let a minor detail like that slide.


Then there's the campy tone of the film. The original film was a lot of fun, but it tried to have a generally realistic tone. This film seems to play yup the campy angle with a bunch of silly moments. For example, when a bad guy goes running away across the tarmac, McClane grabs a kiddy bike and chases after him. Then there's the above screen grab, where McClane escapes the bad guys by firing an ejector seat just before the plane blows up. Just from the way it's shot, it comes across as being an extremely silly moment. Everyone has an infinity bandana too, because the number of shots that come out of the characters' single clips is just ridiculous.

Overall, I've been ragging on Die Hard 2 quite a bit, because it really does have a lot of problems and is clearly inferior to the original film. However, it is a fairly fun movie, which exonerates it to a point. That said, it's basically just a generic, mindless action movie hardly befitting a sequel to one of the greatest action movies of all time.

5/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 3 of this retrospective series with Die Hard with a Vengeance.