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Summer of ’90 Die Hard 2

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Summer of ’90: Die Hard 2

20th Century Fox

Summer of ’90: Die Hard 2

“What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: ’This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence—and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!’—Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: ’You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!’” — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882, trans. Thomas Common

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice???” —John McClane, Die Hard 2, 1990

Most sequels try to hide from their derivative essence. This holds especially true for action sequels in the 1980s and 1990s, where plots, characters, and especially catchphrases are recycled once, twice, even five times, exalting in the security of their cookie-cutter form while pretending their predecessors hadn’t done it all before. The Rambos of the world seemed to fit the latter answer to Nietzsche’s hypothetical; eternal return gave them superhuman power, and big box-office revenues. What’s one more sequel if it means a profitable new Paul Kersey adventure? But Die Hard 2 is no ordinary sequel. In almost every way, it embraces the former answer to Nietzsche’s question. Die Hard 2 and its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), both revel and despair in the poetic absurdity of the story’s premise.

Summer of ‘88: Die Hard

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>

The following Alan Rickman quote appears in the text commentary on one of the many DVD versions for John McTiernan’s Die Hard: “People get involved here, and that’s the thing. If people are patronized, if a film is geared toward a short attention span, then it’ll have a short shelf life. Films that involve that audience and embrace that ’once upon a time’ principle have a chance of lasting…We’re storytellers and we forget that at our peril.” When Die Hard exploded into theaters in the summer of 1988, I didn’t rush to see it. The reviews were mostly mixed to negative, and the action films of that era were low on my priority list (especially since, back then, I had to pay to see movies). When I finally ventured out to see it, it had moved to a dollar theater and a group of my bored friends and I decided to check it out for lack of better options. We arrived late, so it wasn’t until seeing the film again on video that I caught the foreshadowing of the airplane passenger advising John McClane (Bruce Willis), as they’re arriving in L.A., that the best way to readjust to Earth after a long flight involves removing your shoes and socks and making fists with your toes in carpeting. It takes more than one viewing of Die Hard to truly appreciate how much work and thought went into its construction and composition and to catch all the allusions (not just the obvious ones) to classic films.

Much of Die Hard’s criticism focused on how the film turns those who should be in a position to help McClane from the outside (the LAPD, the F.B.I., etc.), once they become aware that Hans Gruber (Rickman) and his gang have seized the building, into a hindrance for the New York cop trying to stop “the terrorists” from the inside. However, a great deal of the film’s appeal lies in watching an isolated McClane battle the bad guys, while the minor characters on the outside behave as imbeciles. In fact, their behavior makes the audience root for McClane, and part of the film’s subversive nature even makes the viewer unconsciously cheer for Hans when he succeeds in his quest to open the vault. While Gruber might be the villain of the piece, he also happens to be more charming and more fascinating than anyone on screen.

On Trend Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero

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On Trend: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero
On Trend: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero

You might have noticed that Hollywood’s superhero well is running a little dry. If a comic book legend hasn’t made it to the multiplex, he’s found a home on the small screen (see The CW’s Arrow), and high-flying favorites who only just resurfaced are getting pushed back through the sausage factory (see The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel). Box-office returns are surely holding steady, as The Avengers’ $600 million-plus is history’s third-biggest domestic haul, but this party can’t last forever, and Tinseltown knows it. As usual, the dwindling resources have left industry bigwigs scrambling for the next bankable formula, and in a rare twist, one such formula involves ditching fresh faces for weathered ones. Thanks to the success of the Expendables franchise, which Sylvester Stallone fashioned into a frat party of over-the-hill meatheads, yesterday’s action stars are back in vogue in a big way, as proven by all the over-50 fare that’s followed Stallone’s guns-and-grunts series. The world needs new heroes. Will its old ones suffice? What can be learned from their resurgence?

Oscar Prospects: Looper

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Oscar Prospects: Looper
Oscar Prospects: Looper

Does Looper have a prayer in the Visual Effects race, where tigers and hobbits and Avengers will be sprinting, neck-in-neck? Before the film’s release, the answer would have likely been a resounding “no,” as the throwback panache of Rian Johnson’s aesthetic isn’t even trying to compete with all the 3D bells and whistles of the spectacles above. But with a rapturous response from critics (RT score 94 percent and holding), Looper has the buzz and support to step into some serious contention, if not in the major races, then in tech areas that previously seemed beyond its reach. That is by no means to say the movie’s tricks are not impressive. A near faultlessly calibrated slice of futurama (err, future drama), Looper is 2012’s action flick to beat in terms of quality, and its old-school restraint has a contrasting lure that might make it a viable slot-filler (think the annual foreign trend in the Animation category). There must be scads of Academy members tickled by the dirty realism of a beat-up, flying crop-duster, or effectively unnerved by the rapid, Cronenbergian disappearance of a marked “loop’s” appendages. This wouldn’t be the title to declare where the industry stands today, but it would be the one to give the category an added touch of class.

Cannes Film Festival 2012: Moonrise Kingdom

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Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Moonrise Kingdom</em>
Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Moonrise Kingdom</em>

Moonrise Kingdom’s opening scenes are vintage Wes Anderson. A series of pans and lateral tracks explores the Bishop household in studied tableaux, each isolated member of the family captured in their native habitat, while on a 45rpm record a disembodied voice guides listeners through the works of Benjamin Britten. Likewise, there’s a narrator (Bob Balaban) to guide us through Anderson’s film, in just one of many recursively referential—and, at times, painfully self-aware—touches. Examples could be further multiplied, but let’s stick with the Britten: Not only does his music recur in the epilogue that effectively bookends the film, but Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, itself based on a medieval mystery play (see the Chinese puzzle box pattern emerge?), serves as an objective correlative for the acts of God or nature that dominate the second half. As the recorded voice intones late in the film, “Britten has taken the orchestra apart and now puts it back together again.” Much the same could be said for Anderson’s direction and script work with co-writer Roman Coppola.

15 Famous Fights to the Death

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15 Famous Fights to the Death
15 Famous Fights to the Death

Nearly two dozen teens bite the big one in The Hunger Games, sure to be cinema’s most popular source of adolescent bloodshed. There’s no darker vicarious thrill than watching someone perish on screen, as many an action junkie will certainly tell you. In light of Jennifer Lawrence’s blockbuster standoff against her oppressed peers, we’ve got 15 Famous Fights to the Death, which, together, should sate even the bloodthirstiest film fans.

15 Famous Kids with Bikes

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15 Famous Kids with Bikes
15 Famous Kids with Bikes

Pedaling its way into theaters this weekend (and surely a lot of hearts too) is the Dardenne Brothers’ beautiful and poetic The Kid with a Bike, whose red-shirted, redemption-bound lead, Thomas Doret, should be penciled onto your shortlist of Best Actors for 2012. They may not be as common as the boy-and-his-dog tale, but stories about kids and their bikes have long been hitting screens (as evidenced herein, the 1980s, in particular, had a bike-film free-for-all). So before you check out this new can’t-miss slice of cycling cinema, dig into our list, likely the only one to put Nicole Kidman in the company of Lori Loughlin.

No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka

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No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka
No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka

A man meets a woman, and we’re not even five minutes into the running time of Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka before they are having sex on the floor of her rented apartment. Immediately thereafter, this man is revealed as an anthropology professor excited by the discovery of a mummified shaman. The primal act of sex and the mysticism of the strange religious-historical find are the engines that drive this strange, often hilarious, frequently brutal genre film. It’s an art film about sex and sweat, one that seems to have emerged from the guts as opposed to intellectual game-playing, or in the bleakly absurd streets of mid-1990s post-Communist Poland. It’s fast, frenetic and seems to have been made either by a young man bursting with fresh energy or an old man who films every moment as if he might never get another chance to work.

As it happens, both are kind of true. Zulawski was, in fact, middle aged and soon to cut his directorial career short in favor of writing books. He had not made a film in his native Poland since his work was banned in 1976, and he vowed never to work again under the Communist regime. Szamanka was an independently funded production outside of the state. Most noted in America for his “video nasty” horror project Possession, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as a married couple descending into a hellish spiral of rage and carnal despair (and that’s before the monster shows up), Zulawski’s work is often about the painful relations between men and women.