Reviewing the old school: Die Hard (1988)

So I wanted to do a Christmas movie this week since, y’know, Christmas. Took me a little while to decide which one, since there are quite a few of them (many of them actually pretty shit). Then I remembered I hadn’t watched the original Die Hard in a while, and the choice was made. I procured a copy, ordered a curry and sat back to watch what remains one of my favourite action movies ever.

Released in 1988, the film stars Bruce Willis as John MccLane, an NYPD cop visiting his estranged wife at her work Christmas party (in an incomplete skyscraper in Los Angeles). Then a bunch of mostly European thieves masquerading as terrorists take all the party guests hostage. Hijinks ensue.

But you should already know all this, because you should have already seen this movie by now. In all honesty this should be on that 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list if it isn’t already. It’s a classic action film that holds together incredibly well nearly three decades later (holy shit Die Hard turned 27 this year). The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the set pieces are spectacular and the coincidences never feel as contrived as they do in a lot of other films (including, if I’m being honest, Die Hard 2). The music, as well, is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t really paid much attention to until I rewatched it this week, but it manages to add tension in the necessary scenes and avoids the unnecessary synth-rock that’s left the soundtracks to so many other movies from the 80s so dated. Best of all it manages to keeps a Christmas theme going throughout the film.

It’s little stuff like that which makes this movie so much fun and the it never treats the audience like an idiot. It talks through particular scenes without feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us through Bruce Willis’ conversations with the Hans Gruber (the villain), Al Powell (his lifeline on the outside) and himself (you’re only crazy if there’s someone around to hear you). It also has a surprisingly high opinion of intelligent characters. John MccLane is not an idiot. He’s good at improvising and working through problems. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is witty and charming, very capable of getting his hands dirty, able to think clearly, rationally and keep an eye on the prize throughout. Idiotic behaviour, however, usually results in the death of that idiot, as we see with Ellis and the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Going in guns blazing doesn’t work, and I wish more action movies would take this lesson to heart.

There are flaws, of course. Holly Gennaro, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has little to do aside from being someone for John MccLane to save. Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sergeant Al Powell tells a story about shooting an unarmed 13 year old boy, meant to garner sympathy for the cops, comes off a little sour given recent events (and probably should have given contemporary events as well). Some guns never seem to run out of bullets until it suddenly ‘matters’. The territorial police commissioner trope, furious about property damage and glass, is a little overdone. As is the henchman who just will not fucking die.

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws. Especially ’cause this movie gave us Alan Rickman. I mean, yeah, Bruce Willis was also a fairly fresh face known for his TV and commercial work propelled to Hollywood fame by this film, but he didn’t play Severus fucking Snape in the Harry Potter films. Without Die Hard Rickman may have remained a relative or complete unknown. And that would have been tragic.

So, yeah, watch this film if you haven’t already. But I expect just about everyone likely to read this already has, so, watch it again I guess? Yeah, watch it again.

Have a Happy Christmas (or Chanukah or Winter Solstice or just a grand public holiday for the many people who don’t celebrate it). Let’s see if I can think of a good New Year movie for next time.

Reviewing the old school: Troy (2004)

Mate, there is so much wrong with this film. I think the worst part is that it could have been so much better if they’d actually used the source material properly. Y’know, with all the gods and magic and not trying to make us sympathise with Paris of Troy. Seriously, you read the Iliad? You know what we’d call that guy in the modern parlance? A date-rapist. Doesn’t matter that he had help from the Goddess of Love instead of roofies, he still fucks Helen without her conscious consent. That ain’t right.

I don’t get why they cut all the supernatural stuff out of the story. It certainly wouldn’t have made the movie any worse, and it certainly could’ve made the story a whole lot more interesting (imagine Sean Bean’s Odysseus having a D and M with Athena, the Goddess of Just War and Wisdom herself, on the beach beside his ship, or perhaps Ares, the God of War, stalking the battlefield with a leering smile at all the carnage). Could’ve been epic. And it’s not like we’d have a problem with the whole ‘Gods and goddesses interfering with the lives of mortals’ thing. I mean, The Mummy and it’s sequel came out five and three years before, respectively, and they did pretty well with the whole weird foreign supernatural thing. Hell, bloody Disney went and covered the same sort of ground as Troy, but including the divine intervention, with its animated film Hercules (and the great spin-off series about his high school years).

Maybe they were worried that if there was too much Deus Ex Machina going on we wouldn’t be able to take Brad Pitt’s flowing golden hair or Eric Bana’s tinted curls seriously. Maybe they were worried that they’d have to make Orlando Bloom the bad guy who dooms his whole city because he just couldn’t keep it in his pants when he met a hot girl who wasn’t interested. Maybe I’m giving the rest of the film too much credit and it would still be shit anyway.

Probably that last one, but the point still stands.

The acting isn’t great. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ham it up with that weird pseudo-English accent that non-English actors are expected to put on whenever they’re in a historical period earlier than the 1600s. While Brad Pitt never seems to take it seriously (understandably), Bana actually seemed to get better as the film went on and I think he was the right choice for Hector, noble and doomed and the only one with the common sense to say “let’s just give Helen back to the Greeks, Paris will get over it and even if he doesn’t it isn’t worth going to fucking war over.” There’s a lot of great actors in this film, and they do their damned best with the material. Special props to Brian Cox who plays the role of the villainous, prideful, megalomaniacal Agamemnon with a surprising amount of subtlety. Sean Bean’s Odysseus seems woefully underused. I mean, they don’t even kill him. How you can put Sean Bean in your movie and have him play the one character that everyone knows is gonna survive?

The direction and editing are an overlong mess. It’s a two and a half hour long film and not nearly enough of that is filled with the kind of character moments to actually make us care. Some of it just seems painfully unnecessary. Case in point, the film opens with a map of the Aegean. No voice over, no music, no intro credits. Just a fucking map on the screen for like thirty seconds to a minute. Maybe that minute could have been spent fleshing out Ajax a little more, so we actually give a shit when he dies. Patroclus’ character could’ve been fleshed out a little better as well. I think fantastically named director Wolfgang Petersen was trying to channel old classics, the grand Biblicals and biopics like Ben HurSpartacus and Julius Caesar but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and not nearly as epic as we’d come to expect by then.

For all its flaws, and it has a lot of flaws (a lot of flaws) I absolutely love this film. My mates and I can basically communicate in movie and television quotes. Simpsons make up the bulk of our source material, with the two Hot Shots! films, the two Airplane (Flying High!) films, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings trilogy filling out the rest of our situational conversations. Troy occupies a special place for us as being the soundtrack for some of our most (or, I suppose, least) memorable nights of drunken debauchery. Someone refusing another beer would be met with a bellow of “Drink you lazy whore! Poles are sobering!” (several of my friends being of Polish origin). Midway through the night you’d likely hear a cry that “The taxi waits for us, I say we make him wait a little longer!” Someone skoling back beer after beer would be cheered on with “The man wants to die!” There was more than one occasion where we’d take Achilles’ speech at the prow of his ship before hitting the beach of Troy and adjust the wording, to fit our school and desired outcome “…my brothers of the schooner… do you know what’s waiting on the other side of the bar? Immortality! Take it, it’s yours!” I watch this film and I’m not thinking about the acting or the plot or the story, the dramatic lines are triggering memories of long nights and close friends.

So yeah. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but I love it dearly. Still, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it and might sour you on a couple of great actors. Read the Iliad and Odyssey instead. They’re classics for a reason.

Reviewing the old school: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I’ve struggled a bit writing this. I hadn’t watched this film in a while, and it seemed like a decent choice for an old movie review. It’s bloody fantastic. Problem is, to be honest, just about everyone probably already knows that. It’s Hayao Miyazaki, often cited as the first of Studio Ghibli’s long run of amazing films (even if the company hadn’t technically started yet). Of course it’s good. Of course it’s been praised, dissected, critiqued and analysed by a million others before. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Fucked if I know, but maybe if I ramble on for a bit I’ll think of something.

So, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (or Kaze no Tani no Naushika). The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic world a thousand years after industrial human society had been destroyed in the “Seven Nights of Fire” (this being a Japanese film, titanic organically grown robots with surprisingly uncreative names were involved). Much of the planet has been claimed by the Toxic Jungle, that releases poisonous spores into the air within and around, and is gradually claiming human settlement after human settlement. Nausicaä is a princess of the kingdom known as The Valley of the Wind (hence the title of the film). Far and away one of the hardest bastards in the film (there is one other character who kicks as much arse and he needed to be voiced by Patrick Stewart to do it), she’s also a committed pacifist with a talent for calming, charming and redirecting the deadly insects that protect the Toxic Jungle rather than following the trend in other human kingdoms to kill everything remotely threatening with fire. Aside from a dying a father, everything’s going pretty sweet in the valley until an enormous airship from a neighbouring kingdom, Tolmekia, crashes into the valley and just ruins everyone’s day. Partly because it was carrying spores from the toxic jungle. Partly because it was carrying a foreign hostage who died after the crash. Partly because it was carrying the… embryo… of one of those giant robotic killing machines that I mentioned destroyed the world earlier, that the Tolmekians want back. Anyway, several hopeful anti-war and environmentalist lessons later, everything turns out relatively alright.

It is a beautiful film. The animation is smooth and hold up well for a thirty-one year old film. The art-style makes intimate moments seem grand and grand moments feel intimate, as well as finding the beauty in in what are honestly some fucking horrific-looking beasts. There’s this scene early in the film, when Nausicaä is searching a cave for resources and she discovers the shell of an enormous insect called an ohm. Like, really bloody enormous. It’s presented like a religious experience, a pilgrim entering a cathedral and seeing light fall upon an altar. A lot of blue and white in this moment. A few minutes later the beast that left the shell behind is a nasty, snarling monster chasing after that character voiced by Patrick Stewart (an unforgivable offense in my book, but Nausicaä’s a far better person than I am). Red eyes and a black shell, stark in the desert outside of the cave. Another minute later and the monster has been calmed and is heading home with a surprising grace. Red has been turned back to blue.

Given this focus on colour, the cinematography, the characters and the message that humanity’s best chance of not killing itself is strong anti-war and environmentalist leadership (not to mention the post-apocalyptic setting), I kept comparing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to, of all things, Mad Max: Fury Road. No, seriously. There’s a tonne of parallels there that I don’t have the time to go through in order to get this up before a self-imposed deadline, but if I ever meet George Miller I’d be inclined to ask how much of an influence Hayao Miyazaki is on him. I might even write a much longer post on the subject sometime in the future. We’ll see. I’m not saying that if you enjoyed Fury Road you’d enjoy Valley of the Wind. Except I actually am. And vice versa.

So, have I added said something interesting in all of this? Maybe. That last bit sounded good, even if it was a bit short. Fuck it, that’s good enough. Point is, if you haven’t seen Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before, you should definitely watch it. If you have seen it before, well, you should watch it again.

Leave a comment. Thoughts are always appreciated, ideas for future Old School Reviews will be politely considered.

Reviewing the old school: Young Einstein (1988)

I like the odd bit of alternate-history fiction. Usually the more serious stuff, where you take a particular historical conflict and basically go “then the aliens attacked” or “but actually there were magicians there too” or “suddenly, time travel!” Serious stuff. Young Einstein (written, directed by and starring Yahoo Serious – probably not the name he was born with) takes a more comedic route by asking its own grand question: what if, instead of Germany, Albert Einstein was born in Tasmania to Aussie apple farmers?

Well, for one, he still develops the Theory of Relativity in this version of reality, but its first application is to split a beer atom in order to carbonate his dad’s pint. Having succeeded in creating bubbly beer (something apparently impossible to do without causing a small atomic blast) Albert packs his bags and heads to Sydney via Uluru (dammit Jim he’s a physicist not a map-reader!) in order to patent his idea. He runs into (and falls in love with) the lovely Marie Curie (played with some fantastic expression by Odile Le Clezio) who has gone to study physics at the University of Sydney (USYD represent!) for some reason, has his idea stolen by foppish villain Preston Preston of the Perth Prestons (played by John Howard – the actor not the Prime Minister – who is wonderfully pompous, cowardly and greedy), invents rock’n’roll music, then uses rock’n’roll music to diffuse an atomic bomb (saving the lives of thousands, including an apparently still kicking Charles Darwin).

Yeah, you shouldn’t think about it too hard. Or at all. Very little of it makes a whole lot of sense. The plot doesn’t. A fair bit of the physics related dialogue doesn’t. But I like it. And if you don’t think about it too much you might like it as well.

As bonkers as it is, Young Einstein does have a colloquial charm. John Howard hams it up fantastically as Preston Preston in what I’d be willing to call one of his best and funniest roles. The idea that everyone would give so much of a fuck about putting bubbles into beer that the scientific community would give out a Nobel Prize for the effort is so bloody Australian it was probably born in New Zealand. Once he gets out of Tasmania, Yahoo’s young Einstein manages to mix the traditional Aussie stereotype of the self-reliant bushman out of his depth in the big city with the broader stereotype of socially-oblivious genius more easily than you’d expect. The plot might not make any fucking sense, but the fact that everyone seems to rather like the kid does.

Thing is, I can’t bring myself to recommend this film to anyone. It took me a little bit to decide why, mind you, but I can’t. Not to an Aussie audience, not to a foreign audience. The problem is it hasn’t aged well.

So much of the humour is, essentially, a piss-take of what people from outside Australia thought the country was like. Weird puppet Tasmanian devils that can take bites out of metal shovels, wallabies hopping around the Sydney Uni campus and (as mentioned above) indicating that a trip from Tassie to Sydney would require hopping on a train in the red centre. Thing is this may have been how people viewed us nearly thirty years ago but other people have done a better job of having a go at these stereotypes since then, and (if nothing else) the number of Australians traveling around the world (yours truly included) and people who have travelled to Oz has dispelled a lot of the more ridiculous of the myths made fun of in Young Einstein. A fair few of the jokes are winks and nudges at the Australian audience going “how funny is it that dumb-arse foreigners think this is what we were like!” Now we’d just point out that the rest of the world just thinks we’re a bunch of drunken, sports-mad brawlers with a talent for killing spiders and sharks in between smashing back tinnies.

As a result a lot of the humour falls flat. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the more noticeable cultural references aren’t all that recognisable (I might know that a shot of Einstein riding a horse down a steep slope is a reference to The Man from Snowy River but I doubt that any of my siblings would).

Honestly mate I watched this film for nostalgia purposes. I remember watching this film as a kid. There’s this point at the end where everything’s about to explode and everyone’s losing their shit. Einstein, calm as you like, takes a bite out of an apple and says “Just a moment Marie, I’m having an idea.” I love that calm thoughtfulness. The problem with the rest of the film might be that it’s too goofy. Everything from the high-pitched inflection of the narration to the costuming to the sound effects is played for the easiest kinds of laughs. But this one line, played perfectly straight, eating an apple, it embodies my own sense of humour and how I try and handle a stressful situation. Funny what sticks with you.

So yeah, I like this movie. Is it great? Not really. Should you watch it? Probably not. Hell, I wouldn’t even recommend a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. But if you do, remember to take it for what it is. It’s a relic of what we all thought you thought about us back in the day, true or not. And it’s a bit of clean, stupid fun.