Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Addams Family - Barry Sonnenfeld - 1991

Originally introduced as newspaper cartoons as far back as 1938 before appearing in both animated and live-action TV series in the sixties and seventies, The Addams Family have always occupied an eccentric niche in people’s subconscious that was ably served by this long overdue movie adaptation. Living in a dilapidated Gothic mansion complete with trapdoors, a very lively library and a handy disembodied hand, the family appear at first glance to have walked right out of a Hammer Horror film but the characters’ morbid obsession with all things supernatural and gruesome is balanced with a sweetness and warmth that quickly makes the family a delight to be around. Paterfamilias Gomez Addams (Raul Julia) is an old-fashioned swashbuckler who attacks everything in life with tremendous gusto whether it’s fencing with his accountant or wooing his elegant wife Morticia (Anjelica Huston) with whom he still has a touchingly funny and flirtatious relationship after many years of marriage. Seemingly borrowing her look from Vampira, the fifties horror hostess, Huston is perfect casting as the Addams family matriarch, delivering all her lines with a winning gentleness that belies her icy appearance and softly slipping in some hilarious innuendos that no normal character could get away with. The best lines however go to Wednesday Addams, the daughter of the house (ten year old Christina Ricci in her breakout role) who steals the show with her determinedly deadpan obsession with killing her brother Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), a project her parents happily regard as a harmless hobby. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who made his directorial debut with this film (and later carried a similar sense of humour into the Men in Black trilogy) deserves credit for reigning the weirdness into something like a coherent structure but given that the plot concerning the apparent return of long lost Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd hamming it up) is really only an excuse for a succession of quirky little episodes in the lives of this uniquely quirky family, The Addams Family is best regarded as a whimsical treat and as such it works perfectly.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Die Hard 4.0 - Len Wiseman - 2007

Twelve years after John McClane took down his third terrorist group in Die Hard with a Vengeance most moviegoers had long since let the iconic action hero recede into memory along with Bruce Willis’s hair and so the last thing anyone expected was yet another sequel, directed by, of all people, Underworld auteur Len Wiseman. And so how does everyone’s favourite wisecracking cop fare in the new Millennium?  In an effort to make the series feel hip and relevant and give McClane something new to complain about, the bad guys are now cyber terrorists, making dastardly threats from the back of a lorry whilst they bring the country to its news with a computer program. Cue much head scratching by the FBI (led by a very bored looking Cliff Curtis) and much sarcastic nostalgia from Bruce as he is forced to team up with a young hacker (Justin Long) in order to go on the road and do what he does best. With Timothy Olyphant quickly proving to be a non-event as villainous computer genius Thomas Gabriel, the onus is on Willis and Long and Wiseman is clearly desperate to recreate the mismatched buddy comedy that John McTiernan had such fun with in the last film but either because the writing no longer has the same verve that it did when the series began or because Willis, as appears to be the case in most of his new films, no longer cares anymore, the chemistry is muted and most of the gags fall flat. Willis does at least connect with Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing estranged daughter (replacing estranged wife) Lucy McClane, proving that someone still cares about keeping the character human but after so many Die Hard knockoffs in the intervening years the plotline sadly feels too derivative to really have an emotional impact. Willis does wade confidently through the generically impressive action set pieces but sadly the scenes are often burdened with cheap CGI, proving that Wiseman failed to understand the underlying brutality that made the original film so successful. Taking out a helicopter with a flying police car is unquestionably cool but now that McClane has become an invulnerable superhero leaping through the explosions all the tension is sapped out and Die Hard 4.0 is little more than a pale shadow of a great original.

A Good Day to Die Hard - John Moore - 2013

After Die Hard 4.0 proved to be one of the most underwhelming sequels of all time, it was hoped that that was the end of the misadventures of John McClane (Bruce Willis) but sadly it seems that the law of diminishing returns had not quite run its course. Debuting director John Moore attempts to put a fresh spin on the old formula by sending McClane to Russia, the first time in his career that he’s been abroad, but sadly this isn’t enough to hide the fact that Moore has learnt nothing from Len Wiseman’s mistakes last time round. Initially when McClane arrives in Moscow there are some amusing fish-out-of-water moments between McClane and a singing taxi driver but these are quickly pushed aside in favour of McClane yelling rudely at any foreigner who gets in his way whilst dodging CGI explosions and falling from improbably great heights. A brutally destructive car chase through a Moscow traffic jam comes close to recapturing the exhilarating excitement that the original trilogy captured so naturally but as soon as its over what passes for a plot these days kicks in and we’re stuck with tedious griping between McClane and his latest sidekick, his son Jack (Jai Courtney). In Die Hard 4.0 Justin Long got more irritating every time that he failed to be funny but at least his dweeby nerd was someone relatable; Courtney’s Jack is little more than a duller clone of his father, invulnerable to the point of unreality and incapable of saying anything remotely interesting. Bruce does at least find some odd moments to share McClane’s pain at his son’s rejection but given that he went through practically all of this with his daughter last time around, its becoming increasingly difficult to care about his failures as a parent. By the time the McClane’s have pursued the forgettable villains (oh for the days of Alan Rickman) to Chernobyl to find some of the most outrageous misapplications of basic science that the cinema has ever seen, we can only be thankful that Moore did not attempt to push for the normal two hour plus runtime, drawing the adventure mercifully short after a mere 100 minutes. Its not that the film is bad, it’s just that it’s so relentlessly mediocre compared to its predecessors that disappointment is inevitable. 

Friday, 13 December 2013

Die Hard - John McTiernan - 1988

The action movie that defined the genre and by which all other action movies since are measured, Die Hard is still as exciting to watch today as it was over twenty years ago. As terrorists take an office building hostage during a Christmas party and the now legendary John McClane (Bruce Willis) is the only cop left inside, the film follows all the action narrative beats that have become Hollywood second nature but with enough style and panache to make them seem fresh again after numerous rip-offs. Predator director John McTiernan makes inventive use of every inch of the tower block – basement, rooftop, elevators and ventilation shafts – for well-paced action scenes that successfully walk the line between bloody realism and explosive imagination and most crucially are always in service of the plot, rather than (as is so often sadly the case with action today) inserted for the sake of it. Willis, in the role that made him a star and became the mantle he has never really escaped from, wisecracks with the best of them but most crucially takes one hell of a beating; where other action heroes mow down armies with nary a scratch, Willis ends up so beaten and bloody that at times his survival is actually in doubt – a rare feat of audience empathy that most action films (including a lot of Willis’ later work) could never achieve. The film also takes time to develop a genuine relationship between McClane and his wife Holly (Bonne Bedelia); with the terrorists interrupting before the couple have time to resolve their issues, McClane’s quest to rescue his wife adds an extra human dimension to the drama that adds immeasurably to the tension and the suspense. Although most of McClane’s opponents are one-dimensional Teutonic musclemen, their leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) more than compensates for their lack of personality, with a gloriously insane malevolence that has permanently sealed his place in the Hollywood villain Hall of Fame. Making his Hollywood debut as the villainous Gruber, Rickman chews up henchman, hostages and scenery with equal relish and although he is hardly a physical threat the diabolical gleam in his eye gives Rickman a dangerous edge that is almost more exciting to watch than Willis. At over two hours Die Hard is unusually long for an action film but then with so much going on here Die Hard isn’t just an action film, it’s a true classic.

Die Hard 2 - Renny Harlin - 1990

The sequel to the classic action movie that sealed Bruce Willis' reputation as an action star, Die Hard 2 is happily one of those rare sequels that matches the original almost every step of the way. Incoming director Renny Harlin keeps things fresh by moving the setting to an airport which succeeds in both upping the ante – the hostages are now trapped in planes unable to land – and increasing the scope for action as John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to now chase terrorists through terminals, baggage processors and runways using his brain as well as his muscles to track them all down as they hold up the airport remotely rather than simply march in all guns blazing like before. Fear not though for these villains are possibly even worse than before. Where Alan Rickman's mastermind occasionally slipped into ham, William Sadler plays disgraced paramilitary Colonel Stuart with deadly seriousness, making him an even more frightening adversary for McClane and raising the stakes even higher when it’s established in one sequence, likely to have the audience clenching their buttocks in anger, that he has the power to drop planes out of the sky. The downside of this though, something exacerbated by the fact that McClane and Stuart barely share any screen time, is that the film loses something of the fun that Rickman bought. Sadler gives a suitably grim performance but without the flamboyant edge that made Hans Gruber so popular he is a far less memorable presence than Rickman ever was. Of course Bruce is once again in fine form, punching and quipping his way through the usual line up of terrorists and unhelpful officials and getting even more battered than before as he struggles to save his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) from certain death, floating over the airport in the obnoxious company of reporter Richard Thornberg (William Atherton, cementing his career path as a massive jerk), returning from the first film to annoy the characters and the audience even more. It’s true that Harlin’s direction largely apes the enhanced realism style of the first film but given the excesses to which both Harlin and the franchise would later sink this can hardly be cause for complaint. Since the first film is now an acknowledged classic, Die Hard 2 with its even bigger twists and turns, surely also deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.