I'll keep this brief.
Even taken at face value as a stand-alone film, unconnected to a franchise, "A Good Day To Die Hard" just plain doesn't work. Reverse-engineered to try to duplicate some of the key pleasures of the original film, now 25 years old, the film breaks the cardinal rule of action movies: it's boring. Worse than boring. It's one of those films where every time they explain more exposition, I found myself more and more disconnected. The basic idea here is that John McClane has to get closer to his estranged son, and he flies to Russia to help him when he learns that John Jr. (Jai Courtney) is in prison. Mayhem happens, and male bonding follows in its wake. Those bare bones could work, but first, I'd have to care about John Jr. as a character, and since the script never seems to figure out who this guy is, there's nothing to him onscreen. Courtney seems to carry himself well enough, but there's almost nothing here for him to actually play.
Bruce Willis isn't on autopilot here. I think he's genuinely still interested in playing McClane and making him human-scale and playing the ridiculousness of the situation with a wry observational wit, and all of that is fine. But what made the first "Die Hard" great, and what's been missing in almost all of the sequels, was the sense that there was a game being played here that McClane doesn't fully grasp at first. The really wonderful thing about the first film wasn't just the "trapped in an office building" conceit, but the way the film slowly unpacked its surprises. Every supporting character had a purpose, played some part, fit into the larger overall picture.
I'll keep this brief.
I don't know how they do it.
I am impressed each year by each of the festivals I attend because of the sheer scale of the enterprise. Sundance is this crazy sprint in the snow where way too many people descend on a fairly tiny little ski town to mainline movies. Cannes is this decadent sun-soaked beach party. Toronto is very no-nonsense and stripped down, films and films and more films. And Fantastic Fest is… god, how can you describe Fantastic Fest? It's like a time machine full of midget humanoid rabbits that enter a battle of the bands against a six-headed mutant that shoots saw blades out of its lady parts. But with a lot of booze and barbecue.
SXSW, though, has to be one of the most complex assemblages of moving parts that I have ever witnessed. In addition to the crazy crazy crazy of the film festival, there's the crazy crazy crazy of the music festival, and the Interactive side of things has blown up and now the comedy side of things also appears to be blowing up, and it's so much energy and so many interests all jammed into one big elaborate thing now. The last batch of titles and the full schedule were released today, and it's looking like it's going to be a sensation year for them.
We're going to see all sorts of people wearing Iron Man suits in the upcoming "Iron Man 3," and we've already had a quick glimpse of Don Cheadle in the suit as Iron Patriot. Today, though, we've got a great new one-sheet that gives us an even better look at him in what may be the most outrageous costume in any of the Marvel Studios movies.
A few weeks back, I had an opportunity to see a chunk of the movie and talk to several of the key players in bringing this latest sequel to the screen. That full conversation is still embargoed, but I can tell you that unlike "Iron Man 2," which sacrificed a fair amount of running time to helping lay groundwork towards "The Avengers," this is a Tony Stark movie first and foremost. This allows the filmmakers to refocus on Tony and his great supporting cast of characters. Jon Favreau, for example, has perhaps his biggest and most significant turn yet as Happy Hogan, and Gwenyth Patrow is front and center again as Pepper Potts.
Richard Matheson deserves his status as one of the biggest names in genre history, a phenomenal writer who would be a legend if only for his work on "The Twilight Zone," where he helped define the series as much as Rod Serling did. He wrote some of the very best original films for television, like Steven Spielberg's "Duel" and "The Night Stalker" and the wildly effective "Trilogy Of Terror." His novels have been adapted to the screen by him as well as other writers, and it seems like every few years, someone takes a new crack at "I Am Legend," one of his most widely-read works.
Adapting one of his own books was what got Matheson into movies in the first place. He turned his novel The Shrinking Man into a script, and Jack Arnold turned that script into "The Incredible Shrinking Man," one of the great science-fiction films of the '50s. There is a powerful sadness to Matheson's story, something that is a big part of his entire body of work. He finds the melancholy in these high concepts he creates, and that's one of the reasons I think his work pierces in a way that many genre films don't. Check out his "Somewhere In Time" for a great example of that. Just a few years ago, one of his short stories was the inspiration for "Real Steel."
It doesn't surprise me that Jim Hill is the one who connected some pretty obvious dots on "Tomorrowland," the mysterious new Brad Bird film that was formerly known by its working title, "1952."
After all, if there's anyone out there who has written more about the business of Walt Disney over the years, I'm unaware of them. Hill's been doing this for years, and he knows more about the parks and the studio and their history than almost anyone. He has a deep abiding love of Disney's work, but he's also more than willing to be critical of the way the brand has been managed over the years.
In March of 2012, he wrote a piece about an interview with Ward Kimball, one of the legendary animators who helped define the studio. In that interview, Kimball talked about being approached by the U.S. Air Force which was looking for a Hollywood partner to help them produce a documentary that would help acclimate the United States to the idea that UFOs were real.
Charlie Brooker is one of those UK wonders who hasn't made the jump to American audiences yet, and that is a damn shame.
Wildly prolific, Brooker seems to produce about 600 hours of new television every year, shows like "How TV Ruined Your LIfe" and "Them From That Thing" and "10 O'Clock Live" and "Newswipe" and "Screenwipe" and the oh-so-fiendish "Dead Set," and he's the author of the blisteringly funny "Pedophilia" episode of the great "Brass Eye." Brooker is an astute media critic as well as a wicked wit, and that's a combination that I hoped would have made him much more famous on this side of the Atlantic as well.
He's got a good shot with a deal that was announced today, at least in terms of establishing a beachhead. Robert Downey Jr. has optioned one of the episodes of "Black Mirror," a show that Brooker created, and if it helps to get the original series (now in its second season) released here in the US, that would be tremendous. Each of the episodes of the anthology show deals with television as a social force, and Brooker really digs into the dark and horrible side of media consumption. The first episode, for example, "The National Anthem," looks at the moral dilemma that is created when one of the Royal Family is kidnapped and one demand is made: the Prime Minister has to pork a pig on television to get her back. No negotiations. No half-measures. No time to come up with a CGI option. Pig. Sex. TV. Go.
It's funny to see people talking now about Pixar as if they've toppled in some way over the last few years. In the lead-up to "Cars 2," they seemed invincible, the golden hit-making machine that somehow managed to pull off quality every time while also making choices that kept racking up ginormous international box-office.
"Cars 2" seemed to shake some people's faith, though, and the general reaction to this summer's "Brave" seemed to be indifference among most people I spoke to. For the first time, the big brains at Pixar seemed human-scale, and there's been a subtle but genuine shift in the tenor of how people write about them. Gone is the reverence, and maybe that is, in the end, better for everyone.
After all, being on a pedestal is hard for anyone. It almost guarantees a fall at some point. The crushing weight of expectation can get into an artist's head, even a team as confident as the storytellers at Pixar, and the yips almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while. Because it is inevitable everyone eventually screws up, you end up waiting for that moment.
Is it cool for a filmmaker to fight back?
I know there are film critics who genuinely enjoy writing bad reviews. Hell, I've met film critics (and music critics and TV critics and book critics) who seem to live for that moment when they get to roll something over, find the soft spot, and tear the stomach out completely. The taste of blood is the thing that keeps them going, the thing that really turns them on as a writer.
I would not say I enjoy writing a bad review. I certainly don't walk into films looking to hate them. I will say that when a film is particularly hard to sit through, there is a satisfaction that comes from drawing a little blood in return, and some films seem to have such naked contempt for the audience that I don't mind returning some of the same to them. And while there is something about the relationship between critics and filmmakers that has to be contentious, just by its nature, should it ever reach the point where Joe Swanberg or Uwe Boll are climbing into a boxing ring eager to actually hurt a critic because of something that was written?
At the end of this year's Sundance Film Festival, I was asked (along with all the other critics who were there as part of our team this year) to contribute both my favorite and my least favorite titles from the fest for a gallery that we publish each year. At the time I submitted it, I had not written a formal review yet for Calvin Lee Reeder's "The Rambler," one of the midnight titles, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was my least favorite film from the fest this year, and I included it in the two picks that I sent. I still planned to write a review, and when it got added to the line-up for SXSW Midnighter, I made short mention of it. I certainly didn't take a big pointed shot at it. I think it's better to explain yourself fully when you really didn't like something, especially when it's something personal like the work of Reeder so far. Like it or dislike it, I can appreciate that there is something very specific he's trying to do.
If this is how Steven Soderbergh decides to go out, let it be known he was playing games right up till the bitter end.
One of the interesting things about Soderbergh's career has been how low key the marketing on many of his films has been. Considering how prominent he's been in the Hollywood landscape since "sex, lies and videotapes" first vaunted him to fame, Soderbergh's films often feel like stealth events when they arrive in theaters. Considering this is the last theatrical release he's supposedly ever directing, "Side Effects" arrives in theaters with surprisingly little fanfare, and when I walked into the theater, I hadn't seen anything. Not a photo. Not a trailer.
I've said before that there are two different versions of a film. There's the version that is seen by the audience that has seen the trailers and the clips and the commercials, who walks in with a certain degree of the movie spoiled because that's how we sell movies these days. They're the ones who walked into "Terminator 2" knowing full well that Arnold was not only back, but that he was the good guy this time. They're the ones who sit through movies that have twist endings waiting for the twist ending. Even if they don't know what it is, they know it's coming. Then there's the version of the film that someone sees nine years later when they're at home one day and they see that the next thing on cable is called "Side Effects," and they've never heard of it, but they see that it's a Soderbergh film with Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in it, and they decide to watch it, and whatever the narrative does, it hits them cold and the script works the way it's supposed to work in a vacuum. If you see "Terminator 2" and you somehow haven't been spoiled at all, the first time Arnold appears, it looks like he's the bad guy again. There's no indication that he's anything but The Terminator until he fires past John Connor and hits Robert Patrick. That's the beat where suddenly the first film implodes and we realize something else is going on this time. If it can work on you in that perfect vacuum, without being ruined at all, it's a very special narrative experience, and I value them when they occur.
This is a long episode of the podcast. It sort of had to be.
Consider this: Scott Swan and I met when we were in high school. We moved to Los Angeles in 1990. For much of the time since then, we have worked together daily, sometimes for up to ten or twelve hours. It is safe to say that there is no other person who I have had more conversations with other than, perhaps, my parents, and even then, I think Scott may still be the winner in terms of sheer hours logged.
I'd wager that about 85% of that time spent talking to Scott had something to do with "Star Wars."
Even so, because of the way things work these days, when the news that JJ Abrams is directing "Star Wars" broke, I was on my way home from Sundance. I was at the airport. I wrote about it that night. I've written about it since then. But for one reason or another, I hadn't spoken to Scott about it. Not in e-mail. Not by text. Not on the phone. Not at all. And I realized that if we were going to talk about it, we should do it for the podcast.