The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 24

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It’s Christmas Eve once more and therefore logic would dictate that it’s time for the final entry in The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) Films.

A year ago we rounded off the first James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) Films with the awesome movie that is Die Hard.

It therefore only seems appropriate that this year we complete our festive film journey with the sequel to that film, the not-quite-as-awesome-but-still-really-good Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

The Die Hard franchise is one of diminishing returns as a general rule. It’s a big ask for any sequel to live up to the 1988 original, which is more or less perfect, but to be fair to 1990’s Die Hard 2 it’s probably the closest. It does at least feel like a sequel, unlike the subsequent efforts which seem more like generic action films starring Bruce Willis as ‘generic action hero’. I quite like 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance – it’s a really good film, possibly a better film in many respects that Die Hard 2 but, although it pays lip service to the original by having Jeremy Irons playing ‘Simon Gruber’, brother to Alan Rickman’s iconic ‘Hans Gruber’ from the first film, the character that Bruce Willis is playing doesn’t really seem to be John McClane any more. At least not the John McClane we know from the first movie.

And aside from the Gruber connection, none of the supporting characters who contributed to the awesomeness of the first Die Hard turn up.

But they do in Die Hard 2.

Bonnie Bedelia’s ‘Holly McClane’, William Atherton’s ‘Richard Thornburg’ and Reginald VelJohnson’s ‘Al Powell’ are all back, and even if none are quite as central to the action as in the first film they all have their roles to play. Moreover, Willis’ ‘John McClane’ seems like he is pretty much the same character as in the first movie. Indeed his reconciliation with Holly seems to be going really well, aside from the intrusion of heavily armed bad guys. Although Die Hard 2 is set in Washington Dulles International Airport, we know that McClane has given up his life as a New York Cop and is now an LA Cop, working alongside Al. Clearly this isn’t going to last as by the time we get to Die Hard With A Vengeance he’s again separated from Holly and living in New York. Which is kind of sad, but not relevant to this film.

The return of familiar characters, alongside McClane is a nice touch. Given the location of the events the story didn’t need the other characters to turn up but they all add to the narrative and make us feel very much that this is a true Die Hard film.

Die Hard 2 does make the classic mistake that many sequels make, in trying to be bigger and bolder than the first movie, it loses its way at times. In particular a scene in which an aeroplane is brought down by the bad guys (who are way less fun than Hans Gruber) and killing 200 innocent people completely jars with the popcorn action flick that this is supposed to be. After a  tragedy of that magnitude there is no way that anything McClane does is really going to ‘save the day’ but by the end of the movie everyone seems to have forgotten about that particular mass killing and there are smiles and jokes aplenty.

If you can ignore these moments of absolute horror, (and there are other scenes that are just a brutal, albeit on a smaller scale) then Die Hard 2 is a more than a creditable sequel to the greatest action film ever made.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s the only Die Hard sequel that is set at Christmas and as with the original, Christmas is totally relevant to the plot. Indeed Die Hard 2 might even be a tad more Christmasish than the first movie because it also boasts an abundance of snow. An chaos at an airport, which is definitely a hallmark of Christmas.

Films I Watched When I Was Younger – Issue 5: Under Siege

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1992’s Under Siege is that rarest of things, a good Steven Seagal movie. It’s oft described as being ‘Die Hard on a boat’ and that’s not an entirely unfair description.

Except it’s not as good as Die Hard.

Mostly because it has Steven Seagal in the lead role rather than Bruce Willis.

Furthermore, while Seagal’s character, Casey Ryback, shares a similar fate to Willis’ John McClane insofar as he is unexpectedly caught up in a situation where only he can defeat a load of bad guys who have taken everyone else hostage, he does seem to be slightly more equipped to cope with the situation being an ex-navy seal (who for fairly spurious reasons now works as a chef) rather than an off duty New York cop.

Indeed he dispatches henchmen with consummate ease for the most part and there seems little doubt that he will, eventually, save the day.

The action sequences are fine, but the story is predictable and formulaic, and Seagal does very little to enhance the movie. It’s probably his finest on screen performance and he’s basically OK at best.

What does raise Under Siege above the realms of bog-standard Die Hard rip-off is the performance of the villains. And that is villains plural. If you can’t have Alan Rickman playing the antagonist then Tommy-Lee Jones is not a bad substitute. But good as he is, the plaudits really go to Gary Busey  whose manic performance as the sociopathic Krill means he steals just about every scene he’s in.

Under Siege is not likely to change your life if you’ve never seen it, but as nineties action movies go, it’s worth a watch.

 

The James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 24

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It’s Christmas Eve, which is the day before Christmas Day and therefore the day on which one should open the final door of a standard Advent Calendar.

And The James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) Films is no exception to that rule, and so today we must bid adieu to my Christmas Countdown of festive films.

If you’ve missed the previous 23 posts then “welcome to the party pal”.

Also worry not.

Because today’s post features the only Christmas(ish) film that you really need to watch.

Which is 1988’s Die Hard.

Die Hard is definitely my favourite Christmas(ish) film.

Indeed it’s probably my favourite film ever that doesn’t have anything to do with George Lucas.

Die Hard begins with our hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) arriving in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife and kids. As his plane lands he is given some advice by a fellow passenger with regards to his antipathy towards flying.

According to this know-it-all, the key to surviving air travel is to take off your shoes and socks upon arrival at your destination and to walk around barefoot on the carpet making ‘fists with your toes’.

I saw this film for the first time in my early teens, just months before embarking upon my first ever flight. I held onto this advice and followed it to the letter when I had completed my journey. To what end I still don’t know – it’s not an unpleasant thing to do, but I can’t see that it serves any purpose.

I occasionally still indulge in the practice. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

Alas the answer is all too clear. Armed men could invade the building I am in, taking everyone else hostage and leaving me alone to combat them. With bare feet. Which would definitely put me at a disadvantage I’d say.

Of course this is exactly what happens to poor McClane, shortly after being reunited with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at her place of work, the Nakatomi Plaza, thus highlighting the danger of accepting unsolicited advice from strangers on planes. It’s also an example of just how coherent the plot of Die Hard actually is. Seemingly throwaway moments come back to impact on the narrative all the way through the movie, be it the ‘fist with your toes’ advice ensuring McClane is vulnerable to broken glass later in the story or the seemingly irrelevant machinations of reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) ultimately resulting in Holly being put in unnecessary danger and thus setting up the climax. Every moment in the film, however inconsequential, further develops the narrative in some way yet none of it feels artificial or particularly forced.

Strong though the storytelling is in Die Hard though, it is first and foremost an action film and on that score it never disappoints. It’s a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, with some superb set pieces. It’s fast-paced, dynamic and violent but nothing feels gratuitous and ultimately it all feeds into the narrative.

Willis, in his first action hero role, is superb. McClane is a man out of his depth, struggling to stay afloat against overwhelming odds but ultimately destined to succeed because of his resourcefulness, quick thinking and resolute refusal to actually die. The title of the movie is completely appropriate.

Of course he is still good in a fight, but not so good that you don’t feel he could lose at any point. One of Die Hard’s strengths is the vulnerability of its hero.

Good though Willis is however, the real standout performer is Alan Rickman. His character, Hans Gruber, is, quite possibly, the greatest screen villain of all time. He is the ultimate foil for McClane, cold, calculating and ruthless. His dispassionate execution of Holly’s boss, Takagi (James Shigeta) sets the tone and significantly elevates the implicit threat he poses to the rest of the hostages. But Gruber is a complex, nuanced character, and Rickman plays him with a wit and charm that makes us, almost, root for him. Ultimately we want McClane to prevail, but in an alternate reality, a version in which Gruber comes out on top might still be a great movie.

Although action is very much the main ingredient to the film, there are plenty of laughs to be had, The dialogue is sharp, and both Willis and Rickman have some great one liners but there are plenty of other fun, seemingly innocuous, moments dotted throughout the film, some more explicit than others. For example, during an ill-fated rescue attempt, which has some of the most dramatic scenes and stunning visual effects, scenes where we see both Gruber’s utter ruthlessness and sadistic nature and McClane’s resourcefulness and desperation to preserve life, during these tense and significant scenes we also see a member of the SWAT team accidently prick himself on a bush. It’s a throwaway moment that you could easily miss but catch it and it lightens the mood and reminds you not to take things too seriously – it is just a film after all. Moments after that we catch one of the bad guys, a man who is playing a pivotal role in the ongoing stand-off with the police, deliberate over whether or not to steal a chocolate bar from the concession stand he is using for cover. That he ultimately succumbs and we catch him munching on a Nestle Crunch in a later scene is just another reason to love this movie.

There are, to be fair, bits about Die Hard  that could be better. Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is a huge part of the story, his dialogue with McClane adds a warmth and humanity to the narrative that is often absent from action movies. However, the clichéd backstory about his own personal tragedy is unnecessary and his redemption, which ultimately involves him shooting and killing a man, albeit a very bad man, is a bit unsettling really.

It could also be argued that the authorities in general, and in particular Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson (Robert Davi and Grant L Bush) are just a bit too stupid to be plausible. I’d argue, however, that in a world where far too many people are promoted to their own level of incompetence, Dwayne T. Robinson is unfortunately all too credible as a character, but more to the point, the relative stupidity of the police is fine because Die Hard is a work of fiction and best enjoyed as pure escapism. Take Die Hard too seriously and there are all kinds of holes to find in the plot, but everything makes sense within the reality of the movie, and that’s all you can ever truly ask of any action flick.

There’s a nice interchange between Holly and Hans during the film’s climax. Realising that Gruber’s objective all along was to steal a fortune in bearer bonds Holly snipes “After all your posturing, all your speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief”. Gruber’s rebuttal is swift, “I’m an exceptional thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.”

And to be fair, if, in spite of everything, Die Hard is just another action movie, it is an exceptional action movie.

Score For Christmasishness

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I love this film so I’m inclined to be generous, but actually it really is quite Christmassy. I suppose McClane could be flying in to visit his family for any major holiday, but Christmas does seem like the most appropriate. The office gathering which permits the bad guys to seize the building relatively unchallenged makes the most sense as a Christmas party, and the festive season does explain the slow response of the emergency services to the hostage situation.

Also, unlike a lot of action movies with a festive backdrop, Die Hard  never really forgets that it’s Christmas and takes every opportunity to remind you of the fact. A good example if this is demonstrated through McClane’s macabre humour – he sends a message to Hans by dressing up a recently dispatched henchman in a Santa Hat and writing a bloody but festive message on the sweater of the deceased mercenary. “Now I have a machine gun – Ho Ho Ho” has inspired a multitude of ‘alternative’ Christmas jumpers…

There are other Christmassy moments throughout the movie, not least McClane’s creative use of Christmas gift wrap to conceal a firearm at the denouement,  but my favourite is when Gruber reassures one of his minions that his plan is going to work in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

“It’s Christmas Theo,” he grins confidently, “it’s a time for miracles.”

You probably could enjoy Die Hard at any time of year, but you shouldn’t. It’s definitely a Christmas(ish) film.

 

And that’s it for this year’s James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) movies. I’ll no doubt be writing a few festive posts over the next week of so, as I tend to do at this time of year, and then it’ll be back to normal in 2018, whatever ‘normal’ is. Although I have enjoyed doing the film reviews, so that might be something I do again in the future. I’ll definitely be doing another Christmas(ish) film themed Advent calendar next year – I’ve already identified more than enough films that I didn’t manage to get to this year, including the excellent-but-not-quite-as-good-as-the-original follow-up to Die Hard, which is also a Christmas themed festival of mindless action.

 

The Super Duper Looper – It’s the Only Way!

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And so this is Christmas – almost.

Around this time every year I try and cram watching as many Christmas films as I can before the ‘big day’.

I enjoy a good festive flick but it’s a weird little idiosyncrasy of mine that I refuse to watch Christmas films after the 25th December. Even though I’m off work until early January and there’s a whole week of ‘not doing much’ between Christmas and New Year (that some people refer to as Twixmas) which would be perfect for sitting around and watching Christmas-themed films, I find that if I haven’t watched a Christmas film by Christmas Eve, I’m probably not going to watch it until next December.

But from mid-December up until Christmas Eve, I do like to watch as many as I can. There are, of course, too many cherished festive films for me to watch all of them every year, but equally there are some that, if I don’t get to watch them, then, while it might be an exaggeration to say Christmas would be ruined, I would certainly feel more than a little put out.

And the thing is, they aren’t necessarily the best of the genre. Indeed, although some are indeed fine examples of exactly what makes a great Christmas film, others make the list because of a mawkish nostalgia – I watch them because I’ve always watched them but these days I’m no longer certain that I actually like them all that much.

Still I watch them nonetheless. Continue reading The Super Duper Looper – It’s the Only Way!