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The White Tiger


The White Tiger (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.

Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” based upon the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga, is the type of rags-to-riches story that gathers quiet power. We know where it must begin—a poor child living in an obscure village who dreams of making it big one day—and where it must end—a man wearing an expensive suit and a solemn expression—yet when it is time to make a statement about modern India, particularly the ever-growing chasm between the privileged “masters” and the working class “servants” in relation to traditionalism, capitalism, political and moral corruption, it is consistently sharp, occasionally subversive, and surprisingly emotional. This is an angry picture that employs elements of feel-good entertainment as a mask.

Adarsh Gourav plays Balram who makes it his goal to become a driver for the family of a local coal baron—even though he does not know how to drive. Balram considers this job as a stepping stone for better opportunities therefore a means of pulling himself—and his family—out of poverty. Proving to be highly determined and a quick learner, Balram learns how to drive (with thanks to grandmother’s two hundred rupees) and is assigned as a chauffeur for the baron’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned to India, along with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), after having just finished his education in the United States. Balram looks to Ashok as a model for success: well-traveled, wealthy, educated; it is curious how this relationship develops. We know, too, how it might end for them.

Gourav portrays Balram with an infectious goodness and so we cannot help but to root for his success. But most wonderful about the performance are the quiet and telling moments in which those eyes remind us with stunning clarity that although there is an inherent lightness to Balram, he is an opportunist. This trait is ingrained in him because of where he comes from, the subconscious lessons he absorbs when the poor turns against its own, when even your own family can get in the way of your happiness and the great things you wish to accomplish. He is always watching, learning, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get ahead of the pack. Because we are provided a true understanding of Balram’s cunning nature, this character stands out from stories of this type.

The movie is not afraid to underscore the clear divide between the rich and the poor outside of where they live, the clothes on their back, the food they eat, and how dirty or clean they look. While also important, these are surface characteristics. Heartbreaking moments come in the form our protagonist time and again—like a dumb dog—somehow believing that he is considered to be a friend by those he serves because they have begun to treat him relatively well when things are good.

But when his masters feel the grip of their problems tightening around their throats, they lash out at the defenseless, at people like Balram who will take the blow—metaphorical and literal—because either they feel they do not have a choice (your replacement is always waiting) or that they feel it is simply a part of the job description. At times servants are treated worse than animals. I spent part of my childhood in Asia and I appreciated that this aspect of the story is observed with unblinking honesty without melodrama—as if to say, “Here’s the reality. Do what you want with it.” (The Chopra character, who grew up in New York City, provides the western voice/outrage, especially in regard to the employer-employee abuse.)

Although a rags-to-riches story on the surface, I loved how the picture does not necessarily leave all of us with a happy feeling. I think the final act’s emotional power lies in the sacrifices Balram has made to the point where we barely recognize the lively, optimistic boy we met in the village. Sure, he has the business, he has the clothes, he has the money… but what else? If your definition of being successful is divorced from money and luxury, the picture will leave you a sort of cold feeling. Balram may have pulled himself out of poverty, but it is demonstrated to us, in subtle ways, that perhaps he is stuck in another hole. Maybe he just doesn’t know it yet.

There Will Be Blood


There Will Be Blood (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.

Given the choice between money and family, Daniel Plainview is the kind of man who would choose the former almost as an involuntary reaction. It isn’t because Daniel is incapable of feeling love or affection; he simply prefers to make money because, unlike people, money does not disappoint, it requires no guessing game when it comes to its motivation or intent, it does not tell or ask Daniel what to do, it simply is. Like the air we breathe.

This is made resoundingly clear when the prospector, whose business involves stripping the land of its natural resources, namely oil, must decide whether to stay with his injured and utterly terrified son or to run to the derrick and help to put out the gas blowout. This is a man hardwired to perform two tasks: make as much money as possible and minimize the loss of it. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson observes with a most perspicacious eye.

Daniel Plainview is played by Daniel Day-Lewis whose talent is put to terrific use during stretches of long silences when the character is left to deal with his indefatigable thoughts, repressed guilt, and seething anger. We look into those eyes and we wonder about the circumstances in Plainview’s life that turned him into a vehicle of greed. Because the screenplay is elegant and subtle, there are no flashbacks to be had—the story begins in 1898 and we work our way up to 1927 when it ends. There is no weary narration that can be employed as a clutch either.

Instead, we explore by carefully noting which situations, topics of conversation, and personalities that tend to get under our protagonist’s skin. And because Day-Lewis’ eyes are constantly telling a story, it is an enjoyable challenge to sort through numerous possibilities. A ticklish consideration: Is our evaluation of the oilman, whose journey possesses the hallmarks of the so-called American Dream, a reflection of us? A case can be made that children of modern society are more or less a product of capitalism. Thus, is it inevitable that we judge this character from the prism of privilege? After all, life a hundred years ago was an entirely different terrain.

Regardless, the picture’s assured pacing is demonstrable. There is not one wasted moment. Information can always be gleaned, whether from what is expressed outright or merely implied; from utter silence or slight pause; how the physical distance between subjects and camera reflects how characters feel toward one another; how Jonny Greenwood’s score is harnessed and utilized to knock us off-balance. Clearly, those who have a penchant for looking deeply will be rewarded beyond surface entertainment.

Indelible images abound. How silver is mined from the earth. A proud-looking boy unaware he is being used as prop so that the oilman can be regarded as a family man. The aforementioned gas blowout and the flame that shoots into the sky as day turns night and back again. A jaw-dropping murder attempt involving fire as folks sleep. On separate occasions, two con artists being forced into the earth. A well-deserved humiliation in a bowling alley.

The film is also darkly comic. In particular, it is critical of religion as a concept, the hypocritical leaders, and the mindless sheep that follow. Events that cannot be explained or things that are out of one’s control are left for God to determine or decide. Coincidences or bad luck cannot be left as they are; they must be interpreted as messages that only the most faithful can accurately decipher. The insanity of the charade is underscored by hyperbolic dialogue and performances. So, in a way, the picture summons laughter—and bewilderment—as a means of exorcizing what must be purged. This is a bold and unforgettable piece of work.

Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Although Bev (Amy Adams) is shown to be an emotionally and physically abusive drug-addicted mother for almost the entire duration of this occasionally syrupy melodrama, the viewers still have an appreciation, however slight, of the fact that she loves her children. It’s just that there are times when she loves her demons more. “I’ve been doing real good. I just had a down month.”

“Hillbilly Elegy” is directed by Ron Howard, and just about halfway through one is forced to consider the possibility that he may not have been the ideal storyteller for the job. He is not comfortable in allowing the fangs sink in when rather grim subject matters, like addiction and abuse, move to the forefront. To circumvent this unease, Howard peppers the work with symbolic images of optimism—people touching each others’ hands just so, sunlight piercing through the darkness, a smile accompanied by a tear—that are so controlled, so calculated that we end up being reminded we are simply watching a movie.

The work is based upon J. D. Vance’s memoir and so it is supposed to be a personal and revealing look at white poverty, how your roots inevitably becomes a part of you, how your choices can have a direct influence on your future, and that family has the power to hinder or elevate you. On paper, the material hits every dramatic signpost designed to capture our attention and tug at our heartstrings. We wonder at the specific circumstances that led up to J. D. deciding to attend law school (adult J. D. is played by Gabriel Basso and young J. D. By Owen Asztalos). However, the picture fails to keep our interest. At times it comes across disinterested.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay is so busy laying out foundations of dramatic confrontations that it neglects crucial details. Other than the fact that J. D. has always been drawn to watching the news as child, what is it about law that drew him to study it? It is established that Bev has had a history of drug addiction, but when did it start? Bev’s mother, played by Glenn Close, also had her share of living with someone who was abusive. Naturally, we wonder about the flavor, strength, and elasticity of her relationship with her daughter. These are basic questions that must be answered on screen. Otherwise, what results are scenes of people raising hell but we fail to connect with them in meaningful ways because we are not provided the full context.

The story jumps between 2011 and 1997. It achieves a flow, and I enjoyed Basso and Asztalos’ performances. Notice that if you look at one actor long enough, you end up seeing remnants of the other—quite neat and amusing. Credit to casting director Carmen Cuba for choosing performers who evince a natural goodness. I wished Haley Bennett, who plays J. D.’s sister, and Frieda Pinto, as adult J. D.’s girlfriend, are given more to work with other than looking sad or concerned. Particularly interesting is the former, how Lindsay is able to overcome what she had to go through alongside her brother. In 1997, she emits so much light. In 2011, her light has dimmed but you can tell she’s still a fighter. She has the fight that her mother lacks. Thus, I wanted to know more about her story. Bennett is the quiet weapon here.

“Hillbilly Elegy” had the potential to become a potent portrait of poverty. When the end credits started rolling as photos and videos of the actors’ real-life counterparts are paraded on screen, my mind went to the idea of what filmmakers like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Mike Leigh, or Agnès Varda might have done with this particular story. These storytellers have considerable experience telling stories of the working class. More importantly, they have a thorough understanding of the value naturalism, the art of allowing or being. Instead, this movie is like a closed fist. The more curious bits end up trickling through its fingers.

Mulan


Mulan (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Niki Caro’s interpretation of the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan” is the kind of movie in which it takes no effort to spot the antagonists because they sport dark clothing and wear black eyeliner. Their skin lean toward darker coloration as well. I would be laughing if the film weren’t so insulting, reductive, passé, and, perhaps most importantly, damn boring. Although a Disney vehicle, it did not need to follow Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft’s 1998 animated feature in any way. However, it must offer something else—something special—in order for the journey on this new path to be considered worthy. On this level, it fails nearly every step of the way.

“Mulan” is a story of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to enlist in the Imperial Chinese Army following the Emperor’s decree (Jet Li) that every family must submit a son so that these soldiers can be trained to fight against foreign invaders. Although a curious premise, one in which a lot of fun could be had regarding mistaken identity and the like, the screenplay, helmed by four writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin), neglects to explore what’s compelling about it. Notice that once Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is in the army, there is a palpable lack of tension and drama. The reason is because the material relies upon one element: Mulan’s gender must not be discovered by her peers and superiors or risk expulsion. Cue lines of dialogue that involve bringing “dishonor to family” stated fifty different ways.

There is some humor injected during the training sessions yet the overall effect is negligible because the material fails to underscore the bond that Mulan forms with her supposed close allies. Only one is memorable because there is an undercurrent to the relationship: Honghui (Yoson An) who gets off on the wrong foot with Mulan (who names herself—cue forced deep voice—Hua Jun) but eventually grows to like her… or him? The rest of the recruits—Chien-Po (Doua Moua), Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), and Cricket (Jun Yu)—are given only surface personalities, merely there to serve as weak comic punches. Their jokes rarely land. When the lives of Mulan’s allies are threatened late in the picture, it is difficult to care because we did not get to know them outside of how they look, act, or behave. A cardboard cutout has more dimension than the four of them combined.

Going back to what Honghui and Hua Jun share, I get it: this is a Disney-produced movie and, for some reason, there is this nonsensical notion to “protect” younger audiences from the idea or mere suggestion of homosexual feelings in 2020. Look closely. Because the screenplay tries its darnedest to circumvent the precise nature of the relationship, later events whereby Honghui tries to show overt affection to Mulan (after, of course, she is revealed to be a female), like giving a knowing glance or softly touching her hand, are awkward and laughable. There is irony: If the relationship were dealt with honesty in the first place, then the romance as a whole would be considered true. It is clear that this is a movie so afraid to take risks it fails to consider what is right for the story being told. Authenticity is nowhere near it.

Another underwritten and underutilized character—in connection with Mulan—is a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who works with Böri Khan (Jason Scott), leader of the Rouran army and hellbent on killing the Emperor. Xianniang is a clear foil for Mulan. Both characters are demanded to suppress their innate abilities in the battlefield (“chi”) because only boys can wield such power. However, the work forsakes to detail how the two women ended up on opposite sides. It is not enough to say, “I was abandoned, I had no home, I had no one.” That insults the intelligence of all viewers. How about people in the audience who were abandoned, who had no home, who had no one there to support them and yet were able to come out the other side without hatred in their hearts? Here is a movie that functions in black and white.

For the reasons detailed above, it is without question that this live-action “Mulan” exists simply to rake in money. Word has it that there were plans of making the movie since 2010. They had nearly a decade to get the screenplay in order and yet we get this… whatever this is. Not even the action sequences are memorable. The war between the Rouran and the Imperial Army looks and feels small in scope. The film’s imagination, vision, and execution is limited across the board.

Fire in the Sky


Fire in the Sky (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right at the end of the opening credits, “Based on a True Story” appears on the screen. But what’s brilliant about Robert Lieberman’s “Fire in the Sky,” based upon the novel by Travis Walton, about an alleged alien abduction that took place in the White Mountains of Arizona in 1975, is that it doesn’t matter whether the viewer thinks that the events portrayed on screen actually happened. What counts is the picture’s terrific ability to make us not want to look away from its images, with or without an extraterrestrial being front and center.

A forestry crew of six are hired by the government to clear trees next to an Apache reservation. Six go up the mountain in the morning, but only five make it back down by sunset. Mike (Robert Patrick), David (Peter Berg), Dallis (Craig Sheffer), Greg (Henry Thomas), and Bobby (Bradley Gregg), clearly in shock, enter a restaurant and decide to call the police about what they witnessed: That their friend Travis (D.B. Sweeney) has been abducted by aliens. This is a strong way to start the film. Although there is a sense of urgency in the action, it is played quiet. Voices increase in decibel, especially when a person is taken for a fool, but the score never penetrates the conflict. Thus, the portentous atmosphere is amplified.

The initial report is so bizarre that the local sheriff (Noble Willingham) feels compelled to request the help of Lieutenant Frank Watters (James Garner), an investigator with a record of having solved all of the cases he’s been assigned. Little do these men know that this missing person case is about to capture the country’s wildest imagination. The story goes for the expected trappings of family members, friends, and other community members’ suspicion and disbelief, but the central performance by Patrick, who plays the leader of the crew, elevates the otherwise tired and predictable dramatic parabola. He plays Mike as a man who wishes to do the right thing even though he is flawed and conflicted. Mike, after all, was the driver when the group decided to leave Travis in the clearing as light from the spacecraft rendered him unconscious.

When focus turns back on the five being pressured to change their story for the “actual” one, the film is gripping. Surprisingly compelling is the lie detector scene. We hang onto every word of each question, fearing that it might be misleading. We stare at the polygraph and the marks made by the examiner. What does a single line mean? A double line? A cross? “M”? Should the examiner be trusted? We have reasons to doubt because it seems as though the investigators, who picked the examiner, have already made up their minds about the case and the men involved. Is confirmation bias at play here?

“Fire in the Sky” offers a most memorable sequence of a man waking up inside a spaceship and enduring all sorts of horrors. We see the aliens eventually, but notice how they’re not front and center for very long. Instead, attention is on how a person processes what’s happening to him: what he sees when he wakes up in a claustrophobic cocoon, how it must feel like to have jelly-like substances on his back and hands, how he struggles to move in a zero-gravity environment. Clearly, the work is concerned with providing details, which do not always have to be gruesome, and commands great control of timing.

Words on Bathroom Walls


Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is a moment in “Words on Bathroom Walls” when I knew it is a superior film about mental illness. Yet this exact point in time is only tangentially related to our protagonist, Adam (Charlie Plummer), having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Instead, the focus is on Maya (Taylor Russell), a classmate and private tutor whom Adam has developed romantic feelings for, entering her home and realizing that her secret—that she comes from a poor family and that she lives in a small house in a bad neighborhood—is out. The camera remains still as we capture her wrestle with utter humiliation but at the same time she must retain her composure because a boy she really likes is standing a few feet away. This moment is special because it is a rare instance in which we are taken out of Adam’s head… yet Maya’s situation is strongly connected to Adam’s own struggle as a young person who is deeply ashamed of something that he cannot control.

Based on the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the screenplay by Nick Naveda is peppered with disarming honesty, from the way Adam sees himself, how people who love and care about Adam sees him, to how Adam perceives how others might see him. It is a complicated romantic drama, certainly mature especially given its target audience (late teens), and I admired its willingness to challenge our notions about the sub-genre: syrupy, unrealistic, pregnant with easy answers. Notice that the point is never about delivering a sad or tear-jerker moment; it is required that we have an appreciation of the tricky why’s and how’s, that people are in conflict—sometimes with themselves—because they are human. And being human comes with certain rules or expectations, especially in regard to the concept of normality or social belongingness.

Plummer proves once again he is one of the best performers of his generation. Those familiar with his work already know he excels in dramatic pictures, but I say this role is different for him. In his prior films (“King Jack,” “Lean on Pete,” “The Clovehitch Killer”—intimate dramas one way or another), his characters are thoughtful in a quiet way. Pauses between words, subtle changes in the eyes, and body language communicate plenty. In this picture, his character is thoughtful in a verbal way. Through the way he outwardly expresses Adam’s thoughts and longings, Plummer makes us care for Adam as if he’s a friend we’ve known since childhood. And so when the inevitable psychotic episodes occur, we can discern between the hopeful young man who dreams of becoming a chef and the mental illness of which there is no cure.

CGI is employed at times to create a portrait of Adam’s visual hallucinations, the kind that you might encounter in superhero flicks where glass come flying at the audience and the like. Yet ostentatious visual effects do not get in the way of telling this tale because of Thor Freudenthal’s assured direction; he never forgets that this is a story of a person who has schizophrenia and so every decision, however wild or—yes—humorous (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian play visual hallucinations with distinct personalities), must circle back to to the subject’s painful personal experiences. What results is a confident and heartfelt work that inspires viewers to consider, “Is this how it might be like to have schizophrenia?” In addition, the material is not afraid of staring into dark corners, of acknowledging the reality that, according to “Schizophrenia Research,” suicide rate among people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders is one hundred seventy times higher than the general population.

I admired “Words on Bathroom Walls” because you can feel its intention to provide a complete picture of schizophrenia: its positive and negative symptoms; the stigma that comes with it as a concept and when someone is diagnosed; the effects of standard medication and experimental drugs. Do not expect a clear-cut story of love swooping in to save the day. Love is but one aspect. And because this is so, sometimes this alone may not be enough. Illness, wellness, hope. This film shows, quite astutely, there is no linear trajectory; they’re intertwined.

The Frozen Ground


The Frozen Ground (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie that tells the capture of the most notorious serial murderer in Alaska, “The Frozen Ground” is bland, uninspired, a bad compilation of detective movies set in snowy small towns. There is a disconnect between its cold but unimaginative approach and its subject matter that inspires outrage. After all, since it is based on a true story, we know that to this very day corpses of young women remain buried across the state. A case can be made that although the killer, Robert Hansen (John Cusack), died in prison due to natural causes, he went to his grave victorious. And so why isn’t the film more layered, more haunting?

In the middle of it, I couldn’t help but wonder how the film might have turned out differently had a director like David Fincher been at the helm. While Scott Walker, in his debut picture, proves capable of presenting relevant facts and moving important figures across an event board, there is a lack of flavor in his approach. Particularly noticeable is a lack of rhythm between suspense and thrills. Observe how something must always be moving—the camera, the characters—for the movie to command a semblance of tension and excitement.

This is a problem considering that following subtle clues and paperwork is critical. A standout scene, for instance, involves a prolonged search for hard evidence in Hansen’s house, but it contains a wrong approach: For the most part, it places viewers out of the action. A director of high caliber, like Fincher, would likely have chosen to place us in the middle of that search, with emphasis on desperate hands of those performing the search.

Switching perspectives between state trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), two weeks from retirement due to his occupation taking a toll on his family, and Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a seventeen-year-old prostitute who passes as twenty-three, is often rushed and off-putting. Although the screenplay briefly touches upon the relationship through the lens of a substitute parent and a child who lost her way (but wants to be found), there is a lack of realism in their interactions. When all else fails, it is ensured that we catch the teardrop rolling down one’s cheeks. I snickered at its blatant approach.

Cage and Hudgens are committed, but the dialogue is like pulling teeth at times. It feels like every small but deeply personal moment they share functions as setup for the next chase or big plot development. As a result, we regard the cop and the prostitute as mere chess pieces to picked up and dropped off rather than real people who are desperate for closure. Cindy should have been especially compelling considering the fact that she is the only woman to have escaped from Hansen’s clutches. What makes her special?

Even the movie fails to reach a boiling point when Cage and Cusack are finally in the same room. Here are two performers who can read the same lines in a hundred different ways. But line readings that made it onto film are generic, occasionally boring, colorless. At least the actors retain genuine emotions in their eyes. When all else fails, I found myself looking into their eyes and I felt as though I knew precisely what they characters wish to express despite a limited script. At the same time I felt the leads wanting scream and break out of the shackles that hinder them.

I think the writer-director wished so badly to make a movie that passes off as respectable to the point where nearly all of its life marrow is sucked right out of it. Debut features that fail to take risks are almost always dead on arrival. There is some interest here—why Hansen is drawn to prostitutes, placing us into the mindset of a victim who knows she’s about to die, the many frustrations (and dangers) of gathering physical evidence—but these moments are pushed to the side just when things are getting interesting.

Why is this the case when specificity is the life blood of procedurals?

Pieces of a Woman


Pieces of a Woman (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Sometimes a baby just… dies and there is no medical explanation for it. “Pieces of a Woman,” based on the stage play by director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, is an examination of what happens when a couple is unable to face this reality and move on from their loss as a unit. They cannot comprehend it. Or don’t want to comprehend it yet because the experience is too raw, too painful, out of their control, insurmountable, and perhaps there is a bit of shame there. Here is a film that asks, “What’s wrong with that?” and moves forward.

Although a story of loss, it does not dictate how a person should grieve; it is uninterested in showing what is right or what is wrong; and it does not bother when to separate order from the chaos for the sake of the next plot development. In a way, everything bleeds together. I felt a freedom in this work that I wished were more prevalent in American films.

Everybody wants to talk about the twenty-three minute, single-take birth scene, how impressive it is technically. What’s funny is that I didn’t even notice until the scene is nearly over because I was so engrossed with what was happening: Martha (Vanessa Kirby) going into labor at home while her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), telephones Barbara, their midwife. It turns out that Barbara is helping with another labor and thus unable to make it. And so a back-up midwife named Eva (Molly Parker) is sent in her place. Blame will be placed on Eva for the death of the infant.

Because Eva is not the couple’s first choice, the scene becomes an examination. I found myself watching like a hawk, noting every single thing—right and wrong—that may possibly lead to the death of Martha and Sean’s daughter. Tension-filled right from the moment Martha announces she is feeling intense contractions, the work does not bother to mask its final destination. The intrigue, you see, is in the details presented within the single-take, not the fact that the technique is employed or the technical maneuverings themselves. The point is the experience—the terror and beauty of it—and Mundruczó places us right in the middle of the action. We observe, helpless.

What happens after is equally curious, days later and then weeks at a time. Because we are provided mere snapshots of the physical and mental states of Martha and Sean, I found it almost impossible to take sides. Discerning viewers will likely remind themselves that they are not being provided a complete picture. At times it is up to us to fill in the gaps and so we put a bit of ourselves, our experiences, into the work so we could have something more to work with while considering the big picture. As a result, your interpretation of a character will be different from my interpretation of the same character.

Consider: it is clear that the couple is so different from one another, almost polar opposites. On the one hand, Martha comes from a wealthy family (Ellen Burstyn), clearly well-educated and well-connected. On the other, Sean is poor, ill-tempered, a former drug addict, and, in his own words, boorish. We never meet his side of the family. We watch how they cope not only in regard to their child’s death but also when it comes to their withering partnership. Just about every snapshot is an opportunity to observe their defense mechanisms in action.

What I found fresh about this couple is that it comes across as though the director did not bother to capture the performers having or sharing chemistry. I appreciated this laid back approach because if you take a real close look all around you are bound to find more than a few couples who choose to be together even though we, as outsiders, feel they do not have or share chemistry. Or much in common of anything. But the more we observe Martha and Sean, together and apart, we come to appreciate small details that may illuminate why they forged a relationship. But this isn’t to suggest that the screenplay goes easy on either character. I loved that it is more interested in their shortcomings than their triumphs.

Some tools of manipulation are overt: the camera panning over dead or dying plants in the household, a melancholy score that never lets up, a mangy dog making its way through the snow and the character it makes eye contact with is meant to be informative. But because I was able to get into the picture’s unusual rhythm early on, I didn’t mind so much. There is a genuine sadness to this story I was able to connect with on a gut level, and I was always curious as to how Martha might make it out of her silent rage, her crippling depression, her private shame.

The Comfort of Strangers


The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Naive viewers who walk into the picture thinking it is yet another story of a beautiful couple on a European holiday are in for a vicious surprise in Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers,” based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan and adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter, a thriller so carefully calibrated that the experience of watching it is like figuring out how to solve a Rubik’s cube. You think you know where it is heading but, just like the labyrinthine city of Venice, there are paths that may or may not lead anywhere. And because of this, the work is not for most audiences. It is, however, for those who crave intriguing character studies.

We look at the couple in front of us, and we are inspired to make numerous assumptions. It isn’t that the screenplay is opaque. On the contrary, it is so detailed and confident in regards to what it is really about that we entertain any and all possibilities. It is obvious that Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are well-to-do, educated, and worldly. We get a feeling they’ve known each other for a long time. We feel they care for one another… but we question how deeply when the two don’t even share the same bed. Is this the only type of room or arrangement that’s available in the hotel?

Mary calls home, talking about missing her children. We look at Colin. We study his face. He looks disinterested, perhaps even exasperated with the fact that he and his lover are on vacation yet she keeps bringing up the fact that she misses her kids. So then we ask ourselves what exactly is the nature of Mary and Colin’s relationship. We see them in gorgeous Venice, but might the more interesting details be found in the home, back in England? I admired that the material is so rich, it inspires the viewer to consider alternatives, what we don’t see on screen, how the characters really are when not visiting a foreign country.

There are questions in regards to the central couple which is made more complex when they meet a man named Robert (Christopher Walken). Unbeknownst to Mary and Colin but known to us, Robert has been following them around the city and taking their pictures. Eventually, Robert slithers his way into their lives, regaling with them stories about his childhood, particularly how his father, whom he admires, ruled his family with an iron first. Walken is terrific as an enigma who employs his talent for storytelling in order to lower his listeners’ defenses. There is a darkness in Robert that I found to be alluring, which perfectly complements the light from his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren).

Caroline, too, is a mystery. A case can be made she is the more poisonous of the two considering her skill for detailing her vulnerabilities. I was excited by Mirren ability to talk and act a certain way, Caroline’s eyes always possess a curious hunger. What does she and her husband want from the British couple? Their beauty, their way of life, their passion? It’s really puzzling because I think what Robert and Caroline share is already an exaggeration of what Mary and Colin have—or seem to have. So they must want something else… Right?

Surface-level viewers will summon the word “perversity” to describe either the picture or the contents within. But I think “The Comfort of Strangers” is a portrait of an all-consuming passion, how it spills and causes a flood. And sometimes how it has the power to touch other people’s lives and infect them—which has its advantages and disadvantages. It is a not a reductive predator and prey story; I think it is a more nuanced work in that it is willing to show that monsters can possess humanity, too, and there is something about the insane—the extreme—that is enticing. Not only do I consider that message to be honest, I think it is brave.

Antebellum


Antebellum (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ “Antebellum” makes a statement that although African-American slavery is bound in history books, racism and racial inequality persist to this day, that systematic oppression of non-whites, especially the black community, is embedded in our nation’s marrow. While the intention speaks many painful and angering truths about where we are as a modern American society when it comes to race, it cannot be denied that the film is plagued by missed opportunities. For one, it relies too often on plot twists to shake the viewer out of ennui—ironic because it commands puissance when it simply focuses on how slaves are treated in a plantation run by Confederate soldiers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Robert Aramayo).

It is near impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, but I will tread carefully. The thesis of the picture involves ghosts of the past having the power to linger and haunt the present. We follow Veronica (Janelle Monáe) in the plantation as she witnesses her neighbors being shot after having been captured for trying to escape, black bodies being cremated in a brick outhouse that’s smaller than a shack, whites exercising their power in every look, breath, and implication. Notice that during these moments the camera possesses a certain level of alertness, so much so that it brings attention unto its itself. But why?

This is because although the surface is a drama, there is something far more sinister at play here. It is a horror film because it holds up a mirror on who we are as a twenty-first century society. Black people may no longer be picking cottons in the field till their backs are raw, black people may be able to participate in elections and hold positions of power, and black people are no longer whipped unconscious for simply giving a white man a certain look. But it doesn’t mean racism has been uprooted. It’s just that oppression has evolved, took on a different form. And so the movie changes form, too. When it does (without giving anything away), intrigue is thrown out the window.

I found it has nothing compelling to say about race or race relations. People of color live and breathe images that are portrayed on screen and so there is nothing surprising or revealing about them. In other words, the screenwriters have failed to relate or connect the movie’s second form to its original state in a way that serves as a shock to the system. In fact, it does the opposite. The pacing gets mired in languor and the tone’s urgency is spirited away. It becomes a struggle to care. It shouldn’t be this way considering that fact that when you turn on the television these days, there is constant reminder that black lives are worth less than white lives.

“Antebellum” is a movie of the moment, but it lacks special insight that allows it to stand strong alongside, for example, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Remi Weekes’ “His House.” Showing brutality is not enough nor is providing a clever plot twist or two. Although it showcases beautiful cinematography, particularly outdoor shots of the plantation, this alone isn’t enough either. The positive elements must be put together in a way that is rewarding and satisfying as a movie and as a statement piece, especially when its goal is to incite conversation.

The Pale Door


The Pale Door (2020)
★ / ★★★★

It looks and feels like everyone on screen simply puts on costumes of cowboys and witches, and somehow the fashion show is supposed to be enough to get us to care about its characters, to be curious of the mythos involving the American West and witchcraft, and to be entertained just because there is a body count. “The Pale Door” is an insult to the horror-western sub-genre; not only does it lack the fangs to compel the viewers into paying attention, it lacks the bite in order to allow the work to stand out from its contemporaries and leave a positive, long-lasting impression.

The screenplay by Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, and Keith Lansdale offers plot but no drama, dialogue but no conviction, conflict but no reason. It creates a depressing film, the kind that pushes you deeper and deeper into the couch until you nod off and dream about something else far more interesting. This is a positive alternative considering that being awake and trying to pay attention breeds confusion, frustration, anger, and—eventually—total surrender. As I turned off the television, I felt a pang of regret. “Why didn’t I turn it off halfway through?”

Still unconvinced? Then let’s go on. A gang of thieves, led by Duncan (Zachary Knighton), are hoping for a massive payday. According to their intel, in which Wylie (Pat Healy) is in charge of, a train is transporting a safe that houses great riches. But once the thieves manage to get aboard, there is no safe. Instead, there is a chest… and something appears to move inside.

This so-called train heist is executed so poorly, for a minute I had to convince myself it wasn’t a spoof. There is no energy, no excitement, no semblance of tension. We hear gunshots going off (with the occasional blood spatter on the window), but the film offers no discernible choreography. We have no idea from which angle the thieves are shooting from, for instance. Targets simply drop dead as if they had brain aneurisms. It’s so laughable and silly… until you realize there is more than an hour left of the picture.

It doesn’t get any better. Soon one of the thieves is gravely injured. They are informed there is a town a nearby. Perhaps there is a doctor there who can help. This is where the witches come in. Although I admired the look of their true form—diseased and rotting, as if they’ve been burnt, dumped in a well, and marinated there for weeks—there is nothing about them that’s unique or interesting. To make them modern-scary, these animalistic witches are capable of climbing walls and ceilings. But why? It isn’t enough that they do not die when shot in the head and the like. They are required to behave like zombies and Japanese ghosts. What is the inspiration for this drivel? It comes across as though the approach is simply to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But it is not done in a fun or joyful way; it reeks of lacking concrete ideas.

The heart of the picture is supposed to be the relationship between two brothers, Duncan and Jake (Devin Druid), orphaned at a young age due to intruders having broken into their home in the middle of the night to kill their parents. However, neither of these characters are written in such a way that we feel their humanity during quiet moments. They speak of their dreams, their goals, and their love for one another, but not once do we get a chance to feel their resolution since the work does not possess the ability to show how drama unfolds. Just because there is something being shown on screen does not mean there is actually something occurring.

Tenet


Tenet (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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It is ironic that although Christopher Nolan’s latest project is propelled by big ideas—so-called inverted entropy, reverse chronology, how we perceive the flow of time, cause and effect versus fate or destiny—not much of value can be gleaned out of it. Because given the choice between patient analysis (whether in regard to the paradoxical concepts it broaches or the curious characters we end up following) and spectacle, the screenplay almost always chooses the latter. Halfway through, I couldn’t help but wonder how the picture might have ended up differently had the writer-director been given only ten percent of its two hundred million budget. By the end of it, it made me yearn for the Nolan who helmed the excellent “Memento” and the humble but terrific “Insomnia.” At least these projects come across as though they’re actually about something.

“Tenet” is a showcase of special and visual effects. This is a fact that cannot be denied. Nearly every other scene must offer something eye-popping, luxurious, beautiful, expensive. An early standout involves a scientist explaining the concept of inverted entropy through an example—how an object that possesses such a characteristic, when in action, is perceived to be traveling backward in time instead of forward. Thus, a gun that is shot (forward) is actually a bullet being caught by the gun (backward). Watching this sequence is like sitting through a neat magic trick; it made me smile. However, the more it is exercised, our curiosity and excitement tend to wane.

The reason is because not much is done to explore this fascinating phenomenon. We are provided rules but not exceptions, a fairly labyrinthine plot but not a convincing, involving human drama. It were as if Nolan had forgotten one of the basic tenets of science-fiction: That underneath the most complex ideas, mysterious alien worlds, and unimaginable unknowns must lie humanity so bright, flaws and all, that it outshines—no, overpowers—every other element that can be bought by money. Notice that if you strip away this picture’s spectacle, it is reduced to a series of expository dialogues backed by an out of control score designed 1) to drown out the boredom and 2) to create an illusion that something monumental is transpiring on screen. Discerning viewers will not be fooled by such decorations.

The endgame is as tired as they come: prevent the end of all humanity. To achieve this, a CIA agent is recruited to uncover the source of items that possess aforementioned inverted entropy which are becoming more prevalent by the day. It is believed that these items come from the future. Our lead character is known only as Protagonist (yes, this cringe-worthy decision deserves an eye-roll) and he is played by John David Washington, a performer of considerable talent who is stuck playing a one-note caricature of a hero. (Observe, for instance, that not once are we given a glimpse of what he thinks of the mad journey he is thrusted into.)

Although Washington shares chemistry with his co-stars, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, portraying Protagonist’s handler and the wife of a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh), respectively, the material never bothers to slow down and dig deep so that we are provided a thorough understanding (and appreciation) of their relationships and motivations, individually or as a collective—strange because it is required that they work as a team during the third act to accomplish their personal and professional goals. And because these connections are tenuous at best, would-be heart-tugging moments during the movie’s closing minutes come across disingenuous, forced, fake. It is clear this is not Nolan at his best as a storyteller. Nor is he at his most passionate as a filmmaker who wish to take his craft to the next level.

I’m not sure who the movie is for. It is not for viewers who love science or science-fiction. The universe presented here is not detailed enough to be worthy of close inspection. It has nothing of value to say about us as a species or as a modern society. It is cerebral-lite, one cousin removed from being a dullard. It is not for viewers who love visceral action movies either. Aside from a plane crashing into a building, most of the stunts are too choreographed, clean, offering minimal risk or danger, simulated or not. And it is not for viewers who wish to experience a new angle regarding time travel. In fact, a handful of themes and ideas here are better examined—and played with—in a Netflix original series called “Dark” co-created by Boran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. In short, there is almost no joy to be had in “Tenet,” a project of half-cocked ideas, generic execution, and empty dynamism.

Die Hard 2


Die Hard 2 (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

It cannot be denied that “Die Hard 2,” directed by Renny Harlin, is bigger and more elaborate than the original in terms of special effects, stunts, chase sequences, and villainous takeover. But it isn’t necessarily better. For one, believability is thrown out the window—so much so that even our hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), now an L.A.-based cop visiting his in-laws in the East Coast for the Christmas holidays, acknowledges the near impossible odds of he coming upon yet another terrorist plot. You’d think that its self-awareness would be charming—and it is once or twice—but after such one-liners are uttered, the picture reverts to by-the-numbers and occasionally thrilling action.

What elevates the predecessor is style. There is a foreboding feeling about it even before terrorists set foot inside the Nakatomi Tower. The group leader was played by Alan Rickman, commanding a genuinely ominous presence, so controlled and calculating. We are reminded of the antagonist’s cold-bloodedness every fifteen minutes. Here, the man who takes over the airport is played by William Sadler, the character being a former colonel in U.S. Special Forces working for a deposed dictator (Franco Nero) currently on his way to the United States. Sadler is physically fit and his expression is stern, but his presence is not imposing. He fails to put a stamp of originality to his character. I felt the actor delivering a performance instead of being. As a result, when McClane and Sadler are finally face-to-face, there is only minimal tension. Because we know that the villain is one-dimensional, there is no surprise in store that may blindsight McClane.

I enjoyed the realistic look of the airport. People look as though they intend to get somewhere; holiday cheer can be felt in the air. It is so crowded, you believe the story really is taking place amidst the holiday rush. When a chase gets busy, for instance, McClane and his target can readily disappear into the sea of sardines. They trip, fall, and get funny looks when they bump into someone. I enjoyed it most when the picture forces us to pay attention to the action, not necessarily in terms of who lives or dies, or even the level of creativity of the sequence. By simply making the eyes dance, we feel we are a part of whatever is going on.

However, minimal time is spent on terminals. Instead, much of the action unfolds in and around the communication tower where air traffic flight director Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson) and airport police captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) struggle with how to regain control of the hacked systems. Humor, I guess, is supposed to be had between McClane and Lorenzo butting heads but I found it to be more of hindrance, a nuisance, in a film attempting to establish a sense of tone and urgency. I yearned for the predecessor’s quiet moments in which McClane is forced to observe the things he has no control over. Death contributes to his guilt, but it also strengthens his resolve.

There is something personal at stake for McClane, but the execution is lacking. His wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), is on her way from Los Angeles. Because the communication tower is compromised and the guiding lights on the landing strip are turned off, planes are unable to land safely. It is only a matter of time until fuel runs out. Bedelia’s talent is wasted here. She is stuck on the plane with an opportunistic TV reporter (William Atherton) who has placed a restraining order against her for having punched him in the face in the previous picture. But nothing of interest is done with either character. For the most part, it feels like a waste of film. The whole thing is a tired setup for the hero and the belle to hug and kiss once the day has been saved.

“Die Hard 2” stands in the shadow of its predecessor, and it shows. Perhaps the better choice would have been to overhaul the formula and establish new rules and expectations. What’s at offer is tolerable and occasionally terrific—like McClane attempting to stop a plane from taking off late in the picture and the tight-lipped colonel’s idea of “punishing” those in command of the communications tower for insubordination—but it fails to take the franchise to the next level.

Die Hard


Die Hard (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If a movie is only as good as its villain then “Die Hard” is exciting, amusing, always one step ahead, patient when necessary but more than capable of delivering maximum damage at a moment’s notice. Alan Rickman plays Hans Gruber, leader of a German terrorist group that seizes a Japanese corporation in downtown Los Angeles during Christmas Eve. When this well-dressed and enigmatic figure is introduced, he doesn’t say a word yet manages to communicate plenty. Those eyes are sharp, studious, polished, always in control. He commands the posture of a tactician, clearly an antagonist who is equal to our hero, John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, an NYPD cop with plans of spending the holidays with his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and two children. Unlike Gruber, McClane is rough around the edges, physically fit, charming and warm. Their single commonality is a high level of focus on getting the job done. Which one will prevail?

We know the answer and so that question is not compelling. Worthy of considerable attention, however, is how action sequences are setup and heat up to boiling point. Notice the surreptitious takeover by the villains, for example. We see their faces although their expressions are blank. When they kill, it is matter-of-fact, business as usual. Their experience lies in their confidence. Thirteen people manage to lock down a forty-story building in a matter of minutes. We do not hear terrified screaming until there is no hope for escape. This sequence, and others like it, would have been reduced to a typical shoot ‘em up in the hands of lesser filmmakers. But director John McTiernan understands the value of mystery and suspense in an action film.

The goal of the villains is not revealed until deep into the picture. No ransom is made; in fact, they do not wish for the police to be alerted of their presence. This paves the way for well-timed comic moments involving McClane’s desperation of getting the LAPD into the action. He knows he is no action hero who can bring down over a dozen men packing serious fire power. McClane bleeds, he is bruised, he gets tired. And he is not above being paralyzed by fear on occasion. (He doesn’t even have shoes on.) What makes the character relatable and worth rooting for is that he knows he is one person facing impossible odds. Still, he endures because he has a job to do. Key is Willis’ portrayal of McClane as an everyman, not an action figure.

But the tug-of-war between Gruber and McClane is not the only angle of entertainment. An LAPD cop named Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) forges a connection with McClane over radio, almost poetic in that these are two men of the law based on opposite coasts. They josh, reveal aspects of their personal lives, encourage each other when things turn grim, and do their bests to prevent the situation from spinning further out of control. Although McClane is married, unhappily for the time being, the relationship between Powell and McClane is the closest the picture gets to romance (“bromance”). Another source of amusement: bureaucracy from the LAPD deputy chief (Paul Gleason), FBI agents’ hubris (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush), and scoop-hungry members of the media. Whether we are inside or outside of the seized tower, the film remains crackling.

What of the action scenes themselves? They are not repetitive. We are provided three or four shootouts but they do not last very long. Hand-to-hand combat between our hero and a brutish antagonist, check. But most engaging and fun are moments in which our protagonist must slither his way in and out of vents and atop elevators. We learn about his level of resourcefulness, that he himself thinks that what he is doing is preposterous. “Die Hard” is a prime example of an action film teeming with personality. And that is why it is memorable.