Friday, December 20, 2013

A Very Die Hard Christmas


"What is the greatest Christmas movie of all time?"  Why Die Hard of course, followed closely by The Ref, and yet this year, for some inexplicable reason, it seems people have begun to question Die Hard's status as a Christmas movie.

I imagine this is just some attempt to troll people who don't think A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life should be in the top spot, but it's been a while since I wrote a post and it's a good a reason as any.  The fact is Die Hard is unquestionably a Christmas movie.

Critics of this classification boil their argument down to two points:
1. Die Hard was not released around/marketed towards Christmas
2. Die Hard is not about Christmas

That first one seems reasonable enough, except for the fact that the release and marketing of a movie are not bound by what's in the movie or by the people who made the movie.  For example, Miracle on 34th Street,  a film I doubt anyone would question is a "Christmas movie", released on May 2nd, hardly in or around Christmas.  Even the vaunted It's a Wonderful Life didn't see actual full release until two weeks after Christmas (and then it bombed.)

So clearly the release date (and thus marketing) isn't a particularly good indicator, especially if a movie has since come to be played a lot around Christmas in spite of it, as Die Hard is now.

That leaves us with whether or not it's about Christmas.  "About Christmas" is a very loose phrase that, depending on your definition, could easily exclude classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and A Christmas Story, so it makes more sense to ask whether Christmas is part of the plot of the movie or merely the time of year in which the movie takes place.

Well, the entire opening act of Die Hard relies upon the fact that it's Christmas. It doesn't just happen to be Christmas; Christmas actually informs the actions of the characters.  McClane was perfectly content to wait and hope that his wife's new job wouldn't work out and she would come crawling back to him, and based on her name change, she was perfectly content to forget about him too.  They can't even go ten minutes without fighting once he gets there. (Note that her name is *Holly* by the way. You know, deck the halls...)

So Holly's not going to invite him out there on a whim, and even if she did, he's going to make excuses as to why he can't come.  To do otherwise would be to give ground on their age old argument, and these characters are too stubborn for that.  Then Christmas comes along, the season of giving and forgiving, of bringing people together, and making people believe in magic again, and it gives both John and Holly the rationalization they need to put their pride aside, since if nothing else, they want their kids to have a merry Christmas.

At the same time, the villain's plans hinge on the setting Christmas provides. The building is empty because everyone else went home to their families.  The people who remain are clustered on one floor at the Christmas party, and thus are easy to corral as hostages.  Security is light, and nobody is monitoring the computer codes or the vault.  (Also, given the incompetence displayed by the cops, all the actual experienced and useful officers are probably at home with their families too.)

Thus, pulling Christmas out of Die Hard means changing some characterizations and/or creating a more convoluted setup.  Can it be done? Of course, but A Christmas Story could be re-written to be about Ralphie's birthday, the family in Home Alone could be going to Disney World during one of the winter school breaks, and Miracle on 34th Street could be about a guy who thinks he's the Easter Bunny or Jesus.  Would the films still work? Yes, but they'd lose something, just as Die Hard would, so yes, Christmas is integral to Die Hard.

"But those other movies have Christmas themes," chant the naysayers.  Well, what are the three things pretty much every Christmas movie ever made revolves around?  Recognizing the importance of family, overcoming an obsession with material things, and believing in magic and redemption again.  Die Hard actually has all three.

Clearly Die Hard quite easily fits the bill in that first one. A husband and wife are trying to reconcile and reunite their family because it's Christmas.  Moreover, the experience gives McClane a new appreciation for his wife.  He recognizes that he's been an idiot this whole time, that Holly was "the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me." "She's heard me say a 'I love you' a thousand times. She's never heard me say 'I'm sorry'," he laments, "Tell her that John said he's sorry."  They might as well have had him find Holly and kiss her under the mistletoe after that line.

What about overcoming some hang up with material wealth? Well, Holly has chosen to pursue her career rather than stay with her husband, to the point she won't use his name because it might endanger said career.  Classic Christmas setup right there.  Beyond that, one of the first things that happens is that Ellis tells her to show off the expensive watch he gave her to rub it in John's face.  That could have been a total throwaway, except that at the end of the movie, that watch is the difference between all of them dying or just Hans. He catches it as he falls you see, and it gives him enough leverage to pull her with him and turn to fire at McClane. Once McClane manages to release the watch from her wrist, thus discarding that symbol of materialism and Holly's pursuit of her career to the exclusion of their marriage, Gruber falls to his death.

Of course there's Hans himself, who is ready to kill a bunch of people and blow up the top of a building just so he can get rich.  His Christmas miracle is the vault opening.  He's the bad guy. Rejection of obsession with material wealth, much?

How about Christmas magic and redemption?  Al Powell can't bring himself to draw his gun anymore because of the tragic mistake he made.  In the end, through the magic of having bonded with a voice on the radio, he redeems himself by shooting the last baddie before he can kill John and Holly.  Are not Christmas movies rife with tales of someone having made a mistake and given up something precious to them, only to get it back as the Christmas magic brings them together with someone who can change them for the better?

Even the score fits these thematic elements, being a Chistmasy mix of Ode to Joy of all things.  So looking past the action movie trappings reveals a film that does indeed reflect the spirit of Christmas. Come to think of it, looking past base appearances to see the truth of something is one of those Christmas messages too, isn't it?

Finally, there is one overriding factor that makes Christmas essential to Die Hard being the classic it is today.  Consider that the most famous quote from the movie, aside from McClane's "Yippe Kay Yay Motherfucker" catch phrase, is "Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho."  Would anyone still be repeating "Now I have a machine gun. Gobble Gobble Gobble"?  Would the line be funny if the movie took place in the middle of the summer and the terrorist didn't happen to be wearing a Santa hat?  I don't think so.

So this Christmas, make some fists with your toes and enjoy the epic Christmas movie that is Die Hard.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Woulda Shoulda Coulda

Nothing plagues the human mind so much as "What if?" What if I had chosen to study law instead of business?  What if I had told that girl how I really felt about her?  What if I had just kept my mouth shut and gone home? What if I had made that left at Albuquerque?

With the George Zimmerman case, there have been all forms of malpractice by the media and certain folks with agendas, but the most reckless and infuriating of them all is damning Zimmerman because "if Zimmerman had just stayed in his car, Trayon Martin would be alive."

In point of fact, Trayvon Martin's death is the result of a chain of events, any one of which changed ever so slightly may or may not have affected the outcome.  In hindsight, we can say George exiting his vehicle to follow Martin contributed to this chain, but it's absurd to point to an event so ambiguous in its outcome as getting out of one's car to continue observing a suspicious person and call that the deciding factor.

For example, what if Trayvon Martin was not skipping home with his Skittles like a perfect little Cherub as he has been portrayed, and George's decision to follow led him to catch Martin burglarizing a house, such that the police could arrive, arrest him, and use Zimmerman as a witness at trial?  Would we call the decision to leave his vehicle overzealous and foolhardy, or a brave choice by an upstanding, observant citizen?

On the other side of the coin, what if George Zimmerman had stayed in his car, and the person that Trayvon ultimately confronted turned out to be a police officer, wherein the events played out exactly as they had for Zimmerman? What then, do we say of George?  That if only he had followed the officer with his smart phone we'd know exactly what happened?

Or quite simply, what if Zimmerman had exited his vehicle and not walked quite as far, such that the two men never see each other again?  Then what would we say of his choice?  Nothing at all since it would never have come up.  It would've been just another day in the lives of two random Floridians.

The fact remains that nobody alive but George Zimmerman knows what happened at the actual critical point, the interaction between the two men.  If we take Zimmerman at his word (and what little evidence we do have supports him), the decisions that had the best chance of changing the outcome were Trayvon's, to not go home, to punch Zimmerman, to pin him to the ground, to continue assaulting him even when the neighbor said to stop.  And yet, it would still be foolish of us to point to any of those things and declare "If Trayvon had only...he'd be alive today. Thus this is all his own fault."

It's clear the jury, at least, understood that no matter what they thought of George's decision to follow Martin, laying this incident at his feet for that one decision is not justifiable.  In any case, it makes about as much sense as a tornado full of sharks to turn this case into some kind of sociopolitical racial battleground over the idea that a guy getting out of his car constitutes hunting down another human being and killing him.

So I ask...what if we all just let this go and move on?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Man of Lead


Bet that knee's starting to hurt.


 
So DC and Warner Bros. have finally gotten around to re-rebooting live-action Superman with Man of Steel, and it's taken me about a week to figure out how to sum up my thoughts on this movie because I didn't hate it, I was entertained most of the time, and yet I didn't like it either. Ultimately, the redlettermedia.com guys crystallized it for me with a part of their discussion of the movie.

They were talking about how one of the scenes felt like it was just trailer fodder, and to me, the whole film feels like it was made just so they could then cut really awesome trailers from it. Everything looks great.  The cast fits and acts well.  The score is excellent.  ...if you cut it into a 2 minute trailer of the highlights.  The fantastic bits are perfect out of context, but in context they are unearned, disconnected, and undermined by the rest of the movie.

I lay that problem at the feet of the "grounded in reality" trend Nolan started with Batman Begins and no doubt brought to this movie. That approach is fundamentally incompatible with Superman.  You cannot make Superman "grounded in reality" because his entire existence is the very opposite of reality, combining the fantasy of having unlimited power with the impossibility of absolute moral goodness. Superman is fantasy incarnate.

I've often complained about the Dark Knight franchise's focus on having the "real world" Batman because in the real world, the news reports billionaire Bruce Wayne was found dead in an alley shot three times in the back, and for some reason was wearing a rubber batsuit.  So the movie constantly has to break its own rules to keep the story from grinding to an immediate halt as the inconvenient questions from the real world pile up.

Now, you can kinda get away with it with Batman because the dark, brooding atmosphere that comes from the real world fits with a character who uses fear as a weapon and hangs out on the edge of what's plausible.  You cannot get away with it with Superman because a real world Superman is going to be more terrifying than even Batman.  Either he will be a huge hazard to everyone around him or he will be a tyrant. Maybe both.  (Absolute power corrupting absolutely, and all.)

Man of Steel goes with the hazardous Superman.  By the end of this movie's interminably long action sequence that is the film's climax (seriously it's so long it actually becomes boring), he is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands to maybe even millions of people depending on the population density of Metropolis.  Would a world that saw the first "mission" of Superman result in that much death and destruction accept him as their savior and "give the people something to strive towards" as Jor-El puts it? No, he'd give the people freaking nightmares.  "Mommy, I'm afraid Superman will throw a car into our house!"

Superman has to have the callous disregard for the lives around him we see in the movie because it would be impossible in the real world to save them all or to avoid collateral damage.  He'd go insane if he allowed himself to care about people as much as the Superman we know and love does, which kind of undermines that whole "absolute moral goodness" thing that is a hallmark of the character.

It's also why their Jonathan Kent cannot be the folksy moral center for Superman in this movie, as any parent in the real world would be terrified their adopted super alien son was going to wind up in a government lab being experimented on for the rest of his life.  Or they'd try to exploit him for their own ends, but thankfully the movie isn't stupid enough to go that far.

Thus, their story is totally at odds with itself, with a Superman who wouldn't and couldn't be Superman.

Even some of the film's technical problems can be traced back to "grounded in reality."  For example, they do the whole Krypton thing and then they jump to adult Clark and use flashbacks to tell the part in between.  That was a neat approach, but it's totally botched by the fact that the flashbacks are completely random and out of order, because we're supposed to be seeing Clark's memories, and in the real world, those do not happen in a convenient, story building order.  They are triggered by random stuff, and so that's how it is in the movie.

The introduction of shakey and out of focus cam during simple dialog exchanges only makes sense if you're trying to make people feel like they're watching found footage from someone's smart phone, rather than shoot a movie.

The climax has to go on forever because in the real world a normal human can take multiple bullets to the chest and keep moving, so nigh-invulnerable super powered aliens that are constantly recharging from the sun are going to take a while to beat each other into submission.

In the end, you end up with all the technology and money and talent to create a superb film, but those things cannot substitute for a good story or great characters.  They can only elevate a bad story or stupid characters for a few scant moments, which means all you're really left with is one really awesome movie trailer spread out inside a pretty awful movie.

(P.S.  It probably goes unspoken, but I'd probably avoid taking the kids to this version of Superman if you want to see it, especially given something near the end I can't explain without spoilers.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Long-Term Togetherness

The Gay Marriage Debate in this country is the one I find the most eyeroll-worthy because ultimately, it’s a debate over not just semantics, but legalese semantics. It’s about what, if anything, we’re going to call a little piece of paper you can get from the government that 1. acts as a series of default partnership contracts such as shared assets, next of kin, etc. and 2. puts a couple in a special tax status.

Gays can already do the actual marriage part. You know, it’s that part about vowing to stay and live together as a couple, in sickness and in health till death do them part. As such, it’s not a question of civil rights, since nobody is looking to stop that (save for maybe the crazy Westboro baptist people that we all despise), and it’s not a question of morality or the end of our culture as we know it because it already is permitted by our society. (Unlike say pre-civil rights interracial relationships, wherein a black man could be hung in some places for so much as looking at a white woman in the wrong way, never mind trying to court or marry her.)

Instead we’re talking about that little piece of paper from the State and its two particular functions. As far as the tax function is concerned, that isn’t about rights so much as it’s about how we use our tax code. The government can, and does, carve out all kinds of exceptions that require very specific requirements to be met in order to receive them, so if you have a problem with one group getting a special bit of treatment than another group, we should be talking about tax reform instead, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t agree the tax code sucks.

That leaves us with the series of contracts. Gay marriage proponents want the little piece of paper that represents these contracts to be called a “Marriage License” like the hetero folks get so they don't feel discriminated against, and opponents want it to be called something more like a “Civil Union” to denote the slight distinction between a same-sex and a hetero-sex union so that religious institutions can continue to provide the piece of paper as part of their service. This slightly different name is utterly meaningless outside legalese because really, if you get a Civil Union and you go around telling people you’re “married”, is anyone seriously going to stop and correct you on that? Do people go around correcting CEOs if they refer to their company as a “corporation” and not something more specific like “S-Corp”?

Neither side is willing to budge on this, and the gay marriage proponents are unwilling to allow individual states to decide what they want to call their piece of paper because they keep losing whenever they put it to a vote. Given this stalemate, it seems the only solution to this problem is to just straight up get government out of marriage entirely. No tax breaks. Everyone handles their own contracts, and if you want to get “married”, that’s between you, your partner, and the officiating person of your choice.