• Cigarettes: I hadn’t seen the original Die Hard for years until I rewatched it again last night with my wife, who’d somehow never seen it, and a few friends. One of the first things that struck me, having not really watched any older action film in a while is John McClane is one smoke-happy action hero, pulling out a cigarette the moment he gets off a plane and smoking every chance he gets until the end. Typical of the film, which doesn’t let any element go to waste, his habit plays into the plot, allowing him to learn a bit about the bad guys based on the brand they smoke, and providing another way for the film to show the passing of time based on the number of smokes left in his pack. Bruce Willis smokes beautifully, too, letting his attitude toward the butt in his hand express his mood. It all plays into the film as a whole without drawing too much attention to itself. There’s a reason this movie got ripped off so much in subsequent years: It’s a model of how to make a tense thriller without losing sight of the characters, or why we should care about them.
• McTiernan: That efficiency’s there in the direction, too. There are a number of John McTiernan films I haven’t seen, including The Hunt For Red October, which people seem to like. But I don’t think too many object to the statement that this is finest hour. (Predator never impressed me that much, but I guess an argument could be made for it.) I’ve seen enough of his later films to know he lost the flair on evidence here, becoming just another competent-enough action hand who directs like he’s seen Die Hard a few times. What happened? Was it having Jan DeBont as his DP that made the difference? If nothing else, DeBont captures some the most apocalyptic-looking L.A. sunset I’ve ever seen.
• California: One trick the film pulls off with the same sort of efficiency is the way it slowly adds to its cast, bringing in cops, reporters, and FBI agents until it becomes a real Los Angeles movie. That all the action—and most of the movie—takes place in a single skyscraper helped make Die Hard stand out in 1988 but the way that location becomes the focus of the entire city over the course of the film makes the canvas feel much broader. So does MacClane’s New York-born distaste for casual California culture. It’s little more than a collection of eye roll-inducing California clichés floating through the ’80s (though, oddly, no sushi jokes), but Willis makes it work.
• Women: The background business of the movie is MacLane’s attempt to repair his marriage and I’d never noticed before how the first act of the film keeps throwing attractive women in his path only to have him notice them and pass them by. He’s got other business, not that the thought doesn’t cross his mind. (Even once the action starts, there’s still that nudie calendar posted in the back passageways that he uses to mark his place.
• The towering inferno: It’s not as easy to watch Nakatomi Plaza explode the as it was before 9/11. All those falling bodies and office paper floating against ash and smoke doesn’t quite look the same.
• The way of the gun: MacLane’s walkie talkie exchanges with LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) provide the film with some of its highlights. So do his talks with Han Gruber (Alan Rickman), and between the two ongoing conversations the film seems to be trying to work out some ideas about what an action hero was supposed to be in 1988. Gruber taunts MacLane with comparisons to John Wayne and Roy Rogers, but the taunts don’t stick. He digs those guys and the film posits him as a contemporary equivalent of their heroism, in contrast to Gruber’s effete, cerebral villain. As for Powell, he explains his humiliating desk duties as an ability to shoot his gun—this might be symbolic—after accidentally killing a teenager. At the tail end of the climax, he guns down a bad guy and McTiernan shoots the barrel of his gun with almost erotic affection. It’s, frankly, a little gross. Or maybe this film would find my machismo wanting, despite my deep affection for it.
• The end: I’m mostly okay with the Die Hard sequels. I remember Die Hard 2 as being a fun cartoon of a movie and dozing off during the fourth one, which was part of drive-in double feature. (The first part was Transformers. It wore me out.) I didn’t really care for the third one but it’s not terrible. None, however, are necessary. This is an almost-perfect self-contained action film that didn’t have to become a franchise. But such is the way of the times. Yippie-kay… I forget the rest.
I’ve been laid out flat with some kind of stomach virus all day, which I’ve treated as an opportunity to watch some of the screeners I’ve had laying around the house. First up was Only The Young, which snuck to the best films list of the publication I used to edit unexpectedly. Watching it, I can see why and wonder if it would have snuck on to my own list, too. A lyrical documentary co-directed by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, it follows a year in the life of some Christian skate punks living on crumbling edges of the north L.A. suburbs. It’s beautifully shot, delicately observed and I’m pretty sure I’m going to wonder about the goodhearted kids at its center for the rest of my life even though the film’s very much about a specific moment in their lives. Filmed across the year leading up to their high school graduation, it finds them making choices about who they are, who they want to spend their time with, and what one means to another as they wander a landscape filled with broken-down miniature golf courses and abandoned buildings. The setting is particular but the feeling of childhood drawing to an end feels universal. (I’m not sure if it’s still in theaters, but it’s worth catching on the big screen if you can. If not, as an Oscilloscope release it will likely turn up on Netflix at some point.)
Hitchcock, on the other hand… yeesh. I’d heard bad things but I didn’t expect this account of the making of Psycho to feel so thin. Hopkins’ impression is uncanny but it feels like the sort of thing that a good actor could put together just by studying Alfred Hitchcock’s old TV intros. (And, indeed, the film uses that as a framing device.) One scene—Hitch conducting the screams of an audience seeing Psycho for the first time—almost redeems it but this is otherwise a pretty half-assed attempt at Hollywood history.
As I mentioned on Twitter last night, last night my wife, as a surprise early 40th birthday present, rented out Chicago’s beautiful Music Box Theatre for a screening of my favorite movie, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, and invited a bunch of friends (including some who came in from out of town). It left me speechless in appreciation. I could wax poetic about that but I don’t want to get blubbery, so for those who were there or those who weren’t I thought I’d just share a sweet Louis Armstrong take on the movie’s most famous song, “I Will Wait For You.” (Accompanied, unfortunately, by a weird image of a woman holding a rose.) Thanks again, Stevie.
After 15 years of employment at The A.V. Club, eight as editor, Onion Inc. and I have come to a mutual parting of the ways. I’m proud to have worked there and proud of the work I did and the role I played in making The A.V. Club what it is today. I’ve loved the opportunity to serve as its editor, guide its direction, and contribute to it as a writer and relished working with many talented co-workers and contributors over the years, too many to name here. I’m sorry to go but no party’s too fun if you stay too long and this is my time to leave the party.
And so, moving on: Veteran writer and editor seeks new challenges. I have, as mentioned above, many years of experience, most of them spent shaping the direction of The A.V. Club as a print and online publication. I’m passionate about all things pop culture. Film is my first love, though television’s been awfully enticing of late and I probably know more about Guided By Voices b-sides, the different line-ups of James Brown’s band, and Superman than most people, to name a few areas of interests. Would you like to look at some of my writing clips? Here are a few you might enjoy:
“Opened in the early 1960s as a Hyatt before changing hands several times, the once upscale hotel boasted guests such as Roberta Flack, Perry Como and Barry Manilow. It was also the site of the January 1983 murder of insurance executive Allen Dorfman. In its declining years, police presence became more frequent.”
- The best paragraph from a Chicago Tribune piece on the hotel where my wife and I housed guests for our wedding in 2002
“Planet of the Apes,” which opened yesterday at the Capitol and the 72d Street Playhouse, is an anti-war film and a science-fiction liberal tract, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote “The Bridge on the River Kwai”). It is no good at all, but fun, at moments, to watch.”
- Renata Adler, reviewing PLANET OF THE APES for THE NEW YORK TIMES, 1968