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Die Hard – a movie list challenge

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Die Hard

Rank: 82
List Appearances: 3/10
Average Rank: 45
Highest Rank: 20, on Empire‘s The 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 1165.5

There are five movies I consider to be perfect action movies. Those include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight, Die Hard (though technically an action/triller), and The Professional. What does it take to mark a perfect film? Good characters, a story that hits all the most important tonal marks (love, high stakes, high emotion), and relatively believable (and preferably explosive) action sequences. Die Hard as a franchise may not play by these same rules, but the first film absolutely does.

It’s be a few years since I last watched Die Hard, and I was surprised at how many details were done in the movie. I love that the first conversation of the movie introduces John to walking barefoot, and how that one seemingly inane detail plays out through the entire movie. We meet John McClane (Bruce Willis) as his plane lands in LA. He stands in the airport holding a teddy bear half as big as he is. His limo driver is a chatty man who helps build a picture of why John is here and what choices have led him to this particular juncture. John and his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), are estranged. Her career took off and left him in NYC while she moved to LA to pursue what appears to be a high-ranking position in her company.

Die Hard is one of a few movies in the late 80s and early 90s that focused on working women and the ever-changing dynamic of the family model. Holly is the only working person left in an office full of men and some women who are partying on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile their children are at home with a in-home housekeeper/nanny. It would have been seen as extreme in the year it was made, but now, it seems like it was just progressive, since that’s really the norm.

Not long after Holly and John meet in her office, the group of “terrorists” arrive, and the story shifts to a one-man army. The group are led by the amazing Alan Rickman (RIP), in his feature film debut. It’s hard to believe that last part, because his performance is polished. Bruce Willis looks the action hero part, but he was not the first choice for John McClane. He was more known for his work on comedies, so it seemed like a bit of a stretch, which is equally surprising considering how well he donned the tank top and blue jeans.

As with all action movies, there is a suspension of disbelief on the physics of the action, but not nearly as much as there is in later films. The action is top-notch, with explosions, shattered glass, and ringing gunfire to remind you both the bad guys and John mean business. But what I truly appreciate is the fact that after every encounter, McClane looks a little more broken. He’s able to do incredible feats at the start, but he limps into rooms in the end, bloody and bruised from a few hours of extreme violence. He’s clever, though, and that is what really keeps him alive.

I love Die Hard, and no amount of bad sequels will ever change that.

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The Empire Strikes Back – a movie list challenge #24

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rank: 24
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 21
Highest Rank: 2, on Empire’s The 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 6285

Last week I mentioned that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film to Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and I meant it. Legendary writer, Lawrence Kasdan, took George Lucas’s first film and built on it, with bigger character development, better conflicts, greater stakes, and more expansive worlds. It is easily my favorite Star Wars movie of all time.

I love that Empire gives the audience a lot of firsts, but it doesn’t necessarily throw its originality in your face. From the icy world of Hoth to the swampy, reptile-infested Dagobah System to Lando’s Cloud City, there is a lot of scenery to look at and enjoy.

From the moment you get a glimpse at Luke on the surface of Hoth, you can almost feel the chill. The unpleasant and cold terrain sets a tone that permeates through the this section. There are a lot of moving pieces, with Luke’s being dragged to a cave and eventual rescue, Han’s plans to leave the base, and Leia coming to grips with that decision, but every single thread holds the same amount of weight and shares the same amount of screen-time. We are finally getting to know these people just that little bit better, and it’s clear they have spent quite some time together as well. It all culminates in the incredible Battle of Hoth, showing Luke commanding with confidence and Han whisking Leia away from her command post.

By contrast, the Dagobah system looks humid and unrelenting, an odd choice to remain when the rest of your people have been obliterated. Yoda trains Luke, and there are some amazing sequences showing him climbing, doing flips, and general awesome feats that are meant to symbolize his strength with the Force. I still love the sequence where Luke moves the ship only to be certain he can’t, which causes him to fail. It is a perfect metaphor for everyone’s lives, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Yodas in our life to prove us wrong either.

Han, Leia, Chewie, and C3PO (thankfully with reduced screen-time this time around – did I mention 3PO reminds me of my grandmother, fretting about every little thing? No. Well, he does, the less I hear him the happier I am.) escape the Empire twice once leaving Hoth. The asteroid chase sequence proves how great Han and Chewie are at flying, and Han’s ability to think on his feet. The Exogorth (the giant asteroid worm) sequence is horrifying, complete with suitably terrifying jump scares as well. They entered the cave out of necessity, but left out of even greater need. Apparently there’s a whole history about these space slugs, but I’m pretty happy to know as little as possible. I can’t imagine being stuck in another creature’s body. *shudders*

The highlight of the film is Lando’s Cloud City. It is a gorgeous locale with rich, vibrant colors to contrast the extreme climates of the other two locales. The introduction of Lando Calrissian is perfect, and he fills the screen with as much charm, and perhaps more, as Han. His betrayal and subsequent reverse betrayal seem characteristic of the qualities Han may well have possessed in the first film. He protects his people, first and foremost, and in a way that seems heroic. Cloud City also features the best dual of the trilogy and the upsetting freezing of Han.

I could gush about the movie for hours, but I think it’s pretty obvious I love this movie.

 

Next up on my review list is Die Hard. Geez, that’s going to be a tough one to watch. (hahaha)

Casablanca – a movie list challenge #2

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Casablanca

Rank: 2
List Appearances: 10/10
Average Rank: 20
Highest Rank: 4, on Metacritic‘s Best Movies of All Time
Total Final Score: 15750

In 1940, two playwrights wrote a play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, over a year before the United States would enter the war effort of World War II; it was unproduced and the skeleton of one of the biggest classics of all time, Casablanca. In December 1941, Pearl Harbor happened, and less than a month later, Warner Bros bought the rights to the unproduced play. Production began in May 1942, and initial release of the film landed in November 1942. It is one of the rare movies that was shot in sequence, primarily due to an unfinished script.

Casablanca would win three of the major awards the next year, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay. Its star, Humphrey Bogart, was nominated for Best Actor, as well as Claude Rains, as the police chief, for supporting actor. Inexplicably, Ingrid Bergman received no nomination for her Ilsa, but she sets the emotional tone of the whole movie. She is its heart.

Casablanca is the perfect example of a Hollywood movie and benefited greatly to perfect timing. Multiple endings were discussed, and it was a stroke of luck that they decided to go with the iconic finale. Any change made to the film would have discredited its important message. Roger Ebert once said about Casablanca, “the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.” I could not agree more.

I have watched Casablanca at least a dozen times. My grandmother loved it for the romance, but even as a child, I thought that was secondary to the main story. It’s a war film first and foremost. There is no grand battlefields, just words between men who think they are doing what they can to either stay alive or fight the oppression. The tone of the movie is both cynical and hopeful. Rick (Bogart), ever the cynic, is always saying that he will stick his neck out for no man but also has a history of supporting lost causes. His past is shrouded in mystery, but there are enough hints at him through his character and the way he interacts with his patrons.

Rick is the saloon owner in Casablanca, Morocco. The bustling city is a bridging point from occupied territory to Lisbon and then to America. Germans and French occupy the city, and tensions are often high. People land here to gain passage to Lisbon, through whatever needs, from selling diamonds to bribing officials. In the opening scene, the camera stops at tables to hear them barter their lives, gamble, and drink. Rick is firmly established as neutral, showing no allegiance to any cause. When one of his patrons begs for assistance as he runs from the police, he holds the man to allow the police time to capture him.

The first 25 minutes of the movie establish the setting, the history, Rick, and lays out the initial set pieces, including two travel documents which would be worth tens of thousands and earmarked for Victor Laszlo, the vocal member of the French Resistance. It is at this point that Ilsa (Bergman) enters, with Victor at her side. Her appearance shows a new side of Rick. His emotional distance and natural cynicism is replaced with anger and disbelief (“of all the gin joints”). There is a history between them, but neither are willing to acknowledge it fully. It opens old wounds and old love. Bergman delivers her lines coolly but her eyes and posture show turmoil. She still loves Rick, after all these years, and she despises her decision to leave him, vowing to never leave him again.

Sitting down to watch the movie again, I was surprised to see my own emotions building when Ilsa walks into the saloon and when she talks to Sam (the entertainer), but that peaked as Rick cast his first gaze on her. It’s easy to understand his pain, and it’s easy to understand hers. But the most powerful scene to me in the movie happens 3/4ths of the way through. Victor exits Rick’s office after begging him to give him the documents and three German soldiers are singing their national anthem. The moment stings Victor. He enters the crowd and bellows out the words of the French national anthem. For a moment, both German and French songs can be heard, but the French outnumber the Germans and their singing soon overpowers. Tears flood the eyes of the French as they become emboldened to show their patriotism. The song ends and there are cheers all around, “Viva France’!”

The movie is ultimately about sacrifice and patriotism. Rick was right, in the end, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” It cannot be easy to be faced with a decision for love or for country, but in the end, Rick does the right thing. And the writers did the right thing letting her go.