Holiday Film Review: I Believe In Santa Claus (dir by Christian Gion)

Santa Claus vs. Joseph Kony!

That’s one way to describe this rather odd French film from 1984.  It’s not entirely accurate, of course.  Though this film does feature an African warlord who appears to use child soldiers, it was made long before Joseph Kony came to prominence.  (Speaking of which, whatever happened to Kony?  Ten years ago, everyone was a Joseph Kony expert and now, he’s rarely mentioned by anyone.  It’s almost as if people moved on once they realized it wouldn’t be as easy to stop Kony as the YouTube video made them think it would be.)  Add to that, Joseph Kony was active in Uganda whereas this film features Santa and the Good Fairy heading to Senegal.

The scenes of Santa (played by Armand Meffre) and the Good Fairy (Karen Cheryl) getting chased by an alligator and being held hostage by the Konyesque warlord actually were filmed in Senegal.  Of course, as befits as film about Santa, the movie takes place all over the world.  

It begins in France, where young Simon (Emeric Chapius) is upset because his parents, who are in the diplomatic corps, went to Senegal and promptly vanished.  He’s even more upset when he learns that they’ve been taken hostage and they probably won’t be home for Christmas.  Simon is obviously not having a good holiday but no one at his school seems to care.  The maintenance man (Dominique Hulin) throws paste at him and Simon’s teacher (played by Karen Cheryl) won’t stop singing songs about stopping all the crying.  Even though the film was made in France and most of the dialogue is badly dubbed, the songs are sung in English because the film itself was expected to be a big hit in America.

During a field strip, Simon and his friend, Elodie (Alexia Haudot) board a plane for Finland because, as everyone knows, Santa lives in Finland.  Simon’s hope is that he can convince Santa to bring his family home for Christmas.  Amazingly, upon landing in Finland, Simon and Elodie simply walk out of the airport and stumble through some snow until Santa shows up with his sleigh.  Santa takes them back to his workshop, where the children meets the Good Fairy and also listen to a bunch of non-union elves bitch about how hard they have to work all year.

(Boo hoo!  Get those toys made, Winky!)

Santa and the Good Fairy decide to head to Senegal so that they can rescue Simon’s parents.  Fortunately, the Good Fairy has a wand that she can use to transport anyone to anywhere instantly.  Unfortunately, she loses the wand in Senegal and, unless she can get it back, Santa’s not going to be able to make his Christmas deliveries.  Santa also ends up getting chased by an alligator at one point because apparently, alligators don’t celebrate the holidays.

While this is going on, Simon and Elodie are abducted by the Ogre (played by Dominique Hulin) who lives in the woods near Santa’s workshop.  The Ogre makes plans to eat them and Santa’s puppy….

This is a sincerely messed up Christmas film.

That said, messed up or not, it’ll make you laugh.  It may not make you laugh in the way that the filmmakers intended but seriously, how can you not smile at a alligator trying to eat Santa?  There are just so many weird tonal shifts in this film that it becomes rather fascinating to keep track of them all.  It starts out as a typical children’s Christmas fantasy and suddenly, with just one wave of a wand, Santa and the Good Fairy are dealing with civil war and child soldiers.  It’s hard to know who this film was made for.  Children who still believe in Santa will be totally traumatized by the Ogre threatening to eat the children.  Adults will wonder why no one in France appears to be concerned that two unaccompanied children have snuck off to Finland in the middle of winter.  It’s a very strange film and, as a result, it’s also far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

You can find it on Tubi.

Holiday Film Review: Christmas Twister (dir by Peter Sullivan)

The 2012 film, Christmas Twister, is about an outbreak of tornadoes that hit Fort Worth two days before Christmas.  We’re told that, normally, there aren’t any tornadoes in December but that’s been changing due to …. wait for it …. climate change!  Now, with tornado after tornado hitting Granbury, Fort Worth, Lake Worth, Stephenville, Dublin, and a lot of towns in Texas, Casper Van Dein is on a mission to save his family and make sure that everyone knows that the threat of tornadoes is real!

Because, you know, if there’s anything that Texas is famous for, it’s for blowing off the threat of tornadoes….

There’s an actual scene in Christmas Twister in which Victoria Pratt, playing a TV newswoman who is married to Van Dien, tries to convince her station manager to allow her to interrupt regular programming to announce that there might be a tornado on the way.  That station manager says that interrupting programming could cause a panic and, since there’s already been three tornadoes that day, people are probably tired of hearing about them.  As a result, no one leaves the mall when the tornadoes hit. 

Of course, anyone who lives in North Texas knows that there’s little that our local stations enjoy more than interrupting regular programming to talk about the weather.  Seriously, our meteorologists live for the chance to get on TV, talk about the storm systems that they’re watching, and tell everyone that, “You don’t need to be out in this, folks.”  Our local stations would happily interrupt the President himself if a wall cloud appeared anywhere near I-35.  

Biden: “I was wearing an onion on my belt, as was the style at the time….”

Dallas anchorman Steve Eagar: “Folks, we’re interrupting the State of the Union address to keep you informed about a storm system that we’ve been watching….”

It doesn’t even have to be a tornado for our newspeople to interrupt regularly scheduled programming.  It can just be hail.  It could just a hint of snow.  You know that King of the Hill episode where it barely snows and Hank announces, “Texas isn’t ready for this!”  Well, that’s pretty close to reality….

And, to be honest, I imagine that’s the way it is in the rest of country as well.  The only that changes is the type of weather even that everyone worries about.  The idea of Texas newspeople not reporting on a tornado threat would be like a Fort Worth weatherman refusing to talk about a hurricane or maybe a New York meteorologist deciding that it would be best not to report on a blizzard.  Imagine a California station manager saying, “People don’t want to hear about the earthquake.”  It just wouldn’t happen.

The other thing that I noticed about Christmas Twister is that, for a film that was supposedly taking place in North Texas, there sure were a lot of mountains around.  As far as DFW is concerned, we don’t have mountains.  I guess if you really went out and searched, you might find a very small hill somewhere but I can guarantee you it would be a manmade hill.  This region is called the flatlands for a reason.  North Texas is flat.  That’s actually one of our trademarks.  The land seems to stretch on forever.

However, in Christmas Twister, this is what the area outside of Forth Worth looks like:

This is what Granbury looks like right before the tornado hits:

This is what Granbury looks immediately after the tornado hits:

Yes, the film is not entirely accurate.  But, on the plus side, Casper Van Dien manfully drives across the city, saving his children from the tornado and encouraging folks to stay inside.  Plus, the film features a perfect shot that shows that the filmmakers did understand at least one thing about Texas:

Yep, the flag of Texas and the flag of some other country.  Not even a tornado could take it down!

Lisa Marie’s Week In Television: 12/18/22 — 12/24/18

Merry Christmas!  I spent the first part of this week shopping and I’m spending the second half of the week with my family.  It’s literally freezing outside!  Wheeee!

Anyway, here’s a few thoughts on what I watched this week:

The Brady Bunch (Sunday Afternoon, MeTV)

Oh no!  It’s Christmas and Carol is supposed to sing!  But she’s losing her voice!  Don’t worry, she gets it back.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Apple TV+)

I watched this with my sisters on Friday night.  It’s still a classic and it’s really not the Christmas season without it.  Erin wrote about what this special means to her a few years ago.  Read her thoughts!

Community (Netflix)

Poor Shirley.  Her efforts to have a great Christmas were ruined by Jeff Winger’s need to fight a bully.

Degrassi (Tubi)

My sisters and I watched the season 3 “Holiday” episode on Friday.  Actually, I kind of forced my sisters to watch it with me and, as we watched, I made sure they knew all about how Craig cheated on Ashley with Manny and how, long before that, Joey cheated on Caitlin with Tessa.  I don’t know if they really cared but I had fun telling the story!

Full House (Sunday Afternoon, MeTV)

Uncle Jesse went on tour in Japan, where he was inexplicably popular.  But he realized that he missed his family so he went home.  Michelle gave Jesse a hard time for trying to find success out of the house.  This was followed by Jesse trying to become a radio DJ but losing the job to Joey.  Things aren’t looking good for Uncle Jesse.

King of the Hill (Tubi)

After walking in on his mother and her new boyfriend, Hank is struck blind!  Still, it’s Christmas and Hank is determined to hand out the gifts like he always does.  Bobby gets a nightgown.  “A nightgown,” he says, “I’ll wear this when I’m older.”  That line always makes me laugh.

Leave It To Beaver (Sunday Afternoon, MeTV)

Beaver loses the money that his father gave him to get a haircut so he gives himself a haircut.  Then he asks his brother, Wally, to help him fix his new haircut.  Beaver ends with a mohawk but his parents realize that they’re partially to blame for being too hard on him.  It was a sweet episode.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Tubi)

Friday night, I watched the MST version of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians with Jeff and our friend Pat.  Hooray for Santy Claus!

The Office (Peacock)

On Saturday morning, I watched my two favorite Christmas episodes of The Office.  First, I watched as Michael destroyed Secret Santa by turning it into Yankee Swap.  (“How is this better than an iPod!?”)  Secondly, I watched the 3rd season episode in which Michael, Andy, and Dwight went to Benihana.  I always enjoy the episodes where Andy’s evil more than the episodes where Andy is so needy for approval that it’s difficult to take.  I know that one of the actresses who played a Benihana waitress has subsequently spent a lot of time condemning the episode and trying to get the outrage machine going.  There’s really nothing more Twitter than signaling that you appeared in a classic TV show while, at the same time, trying to cancel it.  Anyway, for the first four or five seasons, every Office Christmas episode was a classic.  Secret Santa, especially, is brilliant.

Saved By The Bell (DVD)

On Saturday morning, Megan and I watched an episode in which Zack and the gang met a homeless girl and her father at the mall.  Because it was Christmas, the girl and her father moved in with Zack and his mom.  The girl and her father were never mentioned again.


Holiday Film Review: Christmas Apparition (dir by Colleen Griffen)

Do you have a home to go to this Christmas?

Well, then you’re a lot luckier than Emma Ashburg (Katie O. Jones), the main character of the 2018 film, Christmas Apparition!

(For the record, 2018 is the release date that is listed on the IMDb and on Tubi.  From what I’ve read, the film was actually released in 2013 and its original title was The Cold and the Quiet.  Apparently. the film was re-released in 2018, under a different title.  As was also pointed out on the Dark Eyes of London blog, Christmas Apparition  is a considerably more generic name but I can understand why the distributors went with it.  Everyone loves Christmas movies but they don’t necessarily love movies about the cold and the quiet.)

Emma is a college student.  The holidays are approaching and she thought that she would be able to spend them in her dorm.  However, at the last minute, she’s informed by her RA that everyone has to leave the dorms because there’s a problem with the dorm’s heating system.  I can relate.  During my first semester of college, I lived in a dorm that didn’t have air conditioning!  Luckily, we did have a ceiling fan but seriously, when it gets hot in Texas, a fan isn’t going to do you much good.  My roommate and I always kept the windows open and spent as much time undressed as possible.  However, that’s not really an option for Emma and, even if it was, it would probably lead to hypothermia.

As a phone call to her mom quickly establishes, going home for Christmas is not an option either.  Even though Emma’s mother demands that Emma spend the holidays with her, Emma lies and says that she has somewhere to stay.  Emma’s phone call is overheard by Trish (Ellen Lancaster), a wealthy woman who tells Emma that she needs someone to watch her children while she goes on her annual holiday vacation.  The good news is that Emma would have a place to stay.  The bad news is that Emma would have to look after Trish’s kids.  However, Emma doesn’t have much of a choice so she accepts the offer.

Trish, who is apparently really eager to get away from it all, leaves the house before Emma even arrives.  Emma meets Trish’s two children and she immediately starts to understand why Trish wanted to get away.  Chrissy (Maura Chapelle) is a 17 year-old brat who spends all of her time on the phone and who tells Emma to stay away from her.  Chrissy’s younger brother, William (Matthew Chapelle), draws compulsively but never speaks.  Upon entering her bedroom, Emma discovers that someone has left a dead rat on her pillow.  It’s going to be a long holiday and that’s not even considering the fact that the house itself appears to be haunted!  Soon, Emma is popping handfuls of pills, having bizarre visions, and wondering why Trish never calls her back.

There’s a lot about Christmas Apparition that doesn’t make sense.  The film’s final few minutes are so muddled that I’m still not really sure what was actually going on with the house or Emma.  Usually, this would be a huge issue but Christmas Apparition is a horror film so it can get away with not always making sense.  What the film lacks in plot coherence, it makes up for in atmosphere.  The house is genuinely creepy and Katie O. Jones is a sympathetic lead.  It’s a creepy film that will make you thankful that you have some place to spend the holidays.

Holiday Film Review: It Happened One Christmas (dir by Donald Wyre)

The 1977 made-for-TV movie, It Happened One Christmas, opens in Heaven.  We hear the voice of Joseph (Charles Grodin), one of the top angels.  Joseph has noticed that, in the town of Bedford Falls, a lot of people seem to be praying and all of their prayers concern one person.  They are all worried about Mary Bailey Hatch (Marlo Thomas).

He requests that an angel be sent down to Earth to help Mary with her problems.  Unfortunately, the only angel available is Clara (Cloris Leachman) and Clara, despite her optimistic outlook and upbeat personality, is not considered to be a particularly smart angel.  She hasn’t even gotten her wings yet!  However, Joseph promises her that, should she convince Mary Hatch not to toss away her life on Christmas Eve, Clara will get her wings.

But first, Joseph shows Clara all of the important events in Mary’s life.  Clara watches as young Mary saves the life of her brother, Harry.  A few weeks later, Mary manages to keep Dr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a patient.  Though Mary dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and pursuing a career as a writer, she instead ends up taking over her late father’s old Building and Loan company.  With the help of her husband, George (Wayne Rogers), she helps hundreds of people move into affordable housing.  She is also one of the few people in town willing to stand up to Old Man Potter (Orson Welles)….

What was that?

Yeah, I know.  Just hold on.  I’m getting to that.

Anyway, everything is going great in Mary’s life until her irresponsible Uncle Willie (Barney Martin) accidentally loses a deposit on Christmas Eve.  Facing embezzlement charges and having yelled at her family, Mary considers jumping off a bridge.  Fortunately, Clara is there to show her what her life would be like if she had never been born….

Excuse me?  Did you say that this sounds familiar?

Yes, It Happened One Christmas is a remake of It’s A Wonderful Life.  The main difference is that the genders are swapped.  Jimmy Stewart’s role is played by Marlo Thomas.  Wayne Rogers plays the Donna Reed role.  This leads to a few changes in the story.  For instance, Mary still yells at ZuZu’s teacher but she doesn’t get sucker punched as a result.  Whereas the original Mr. Potter treated George Bailey with outright hostility, the remake’s Mr. Potter tends to use a tone of condescending concern when talking to Mary.  Since George Hatch doesn’t lose his hearing in one ear, he’s able to serve in World War II and he returns on crutches.  In the world where Mary was never born, George still never marries but, instead of working at the library, he becomes a boorish auto mechanic.  Violet is no longer an important character and Mary never tries to blame her visions of Pottersville on “bad liquor.”  These are cosmetic differences but, otherwise, it’s pretty much the exact same story.

To be honest, it probably sounds more interesting than it actually is.  It’s not that It Happened One Christmas is a poorly made or a badly acted film.  It’s fine, really!  But it’s not It’s A Wonderful Life.  Marlo Thomas plays her role with a lot of energy but she’s still no Jimmy Stewart.  Stewart, who was still dealing with his own World War II experiences, played up the haunting sadness behind George’s mild-mannered facade and that’s something that Thomas never accomplishes.  If Stewart’s George seems like he’s been beaten down by one lost dream after another, Marlo Thomas’s Mary just seems like she’s having a really bad night.  By that same token, Wayne Rogers is likable a the love of Mary’s life but he’s no Donna Reed.  Even the great Orson Welles can’t escape the shadow of Lionel Barrymore.  Barrymore’s Mr. Potter was a pure misanthrope who was at his happiest mocking the dead and approving men for the draft.  Oddly, Orson Welles brings an almost avuncular style to Mr. Potter.  One gets the feeling that Welles simply couldn’t resist winking at the audience and assuring them that he was still the bigger-than-life showman that they had grown up with.

So, you may be wondering ….. why remake It’s A Wonderful Life in the first place?  I was wondering about that so I did a little research and thanks to an obscure web site called Wikipedia (not many people have heard of it), I discovered that It Happened One Christmas was actually made before It’s A Wonderful Life started to regularly air during the holidays.  At the time it was made, it was aactually remake of a classic film that was no longer regularly watched.  Frank Capra angrily denounced It Happened One Christmas as being “plagarism” but, in 1977, it was enough of ratings success that it was re-aired in both 1978 and 1979.  But, by that time, It’s A Wonderful Life had started to regularly air during the holiday season and was being rediscovered by audiences young and old.  As a result, the okay remake was soon overshadowed by the vastly superior original.

And really, that’s the way it should be.  It Happened One Christmas isn’t a bad movie but it just no replacement for Capra’s Wonderful film.

Holiday Film Review: Carol For Another Christmas (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is a wealthy American industrialist who served in World War II and who, despite seeing first hand the horrors of Hiroshima, still believes that war is sometimes the only answer.  He spends his Christmas Eve sitting in darkened study, thinking about his dead son (who was killed in combat) and listening to an old record.  When his nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), stops by, it leads to an argument about American foreign policy.  (Who stops by their uncle’s house on Christmas Eve to argue politics?)  Fred is do-gooder.  Daniel Grudge hates do-gooders.

So, naturally, it’s time for Daniel Grudge to be visited by three ghosts!  The Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence) takes Grudge first to a troop ship that is full of coffins, representing the dead of World War I.  Then he forces Grudge to relive his own callous reaction to Hiroshima.  Grudge sees how his actions upset the nurse (Eva Marie Saint) who was traveling with him.  The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) invites Grudge to eat a feast in front of a camp full of refugees.  The Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) takes Grudge to the future where, after a devastating nuclear war, a buffoonish leader (Peter Sellers) encourages his followers to continue to make war and to live only for themselves.  Grudge watches as his former butler (Percy Rodriguez) is murdered for advocating for peace.  Back at his mansion, Fred shows up again and Grudge must now decide …. will he support the work of the United Nations?

YEEEEESH!  What a heavy-handed movie!  Really, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how unsubtle the film’s message was.  Originally made for television, A Carol For Another Christmas was actually co-produced by the United Nations.  It was the first of four UN-produced films that aired on ABC between 1964 and 1966.  Seen today, with all that we know about the UN’s signature mix of corruption and incompetence, the film’s message seems almost laughably naïve.   “Only the UN can bring peace,” the film says.  Tell that to Israel, the next time that the UN passes a resolution condemning it for existing and defending itself.  Say that only the UN can make the world a better place when some of the worst dictatorships on the planet are sitting on the Human Rights council.

The heavy-handed message aside, A Carol For Another Christmas was full of talent both behind and in front of the camera.  This was the only TV movie to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and, whatever else one might say about the film, he was responsible for some intriguingly moody shots.  The script was written by Rod Serling who, unfortunately, allowed his didactic tendencies to get the better of him and wrote a film where characters didn’t have conversations as much as they just gave speeches.  The cast, however, is uniformly strong.  Sterling Hayden, Robert Shaw, and Steve Lawrence are obvious stand-outs.  Pat Hingle does fine until his role is diminished to one long harangue.  Playing the so-called “Imperial Me,” Peter Sellers brings so much needed unpredictability to the film, even if his character is saddled with the film’s most heavy-handed moment.  The Imperial Me teaches his followers that the individual is more important than the state and that everyone should focus on “me” instead of “we.”  Cutting-edge satire this is not and again, there’s something rather offensive about the UN being held up as humanity’s last hope against rampant individualism. 

This is very much a film of its time.  The fear of nuclear war runs through every frame.  The disillusionment that came with the assassination of John F. Kennedy is present in the film’s open-ended conclusion.  What good is convincing one man when the rest of the world continues to think for itself? the film seems to be asking.  Dickens, I think, would probably say that Serling missed the point of A Christmas Carol and it’s hard not to feel that Dickens would be correct.

Holiday Film Review: The Last Boy Scout (dir by Tony Scott)

My God, what a violent holiday season!

Like the majority of the films that have been written and/or directed by Shane Black, The Last Boy Scout takes place in December.  It’s not quite as Christmas-y as some of Black’s other films.  I think that I may have spotted a few decorations in the background of some of the scenes.  And there’s a scene where private investigator Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) discovers that his daughter (played by a very young Danielle Harris) has been drawing pictures of “Satan Claus.”  Otherwise, there’s not a lot of Christmas to be found in this December-set film and perhaps that’s for the best.  Seriously, this movie is violent!  Not even the comedic relief characters are safe from getting a bullet to the head.  This is a film that actually begins with a football player shooting three other players during a game and then saying, “Ain’t life a bitch,” before shooting himself in the head.

The film’s plot isn’t always easy to follow.  Joe is a private investigator who drinks too much and whose partner has just been blown up in front of his house.  (His partner was also sleeping with Joe’s wife so guess who is now a suspect!)  Joe is also hired to act as a bodyguard for a stripper named Cory (Halle Berry).  Cory is dating Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), a former quarterback who used to be Joe’s hero.  Then Jimmy got kicked out of the league for gambling and Joe stopped watching football.  Cory says that she has a tape recording that will get Joe back into the NFL.  But then, Cory is brutally gunned down in the middle of the street and the tape is accidentally destroyed by Joe’s crappy tape player.  It’s time for Jimmy and Joe to team up, trade one liners, and uncover the conspiracy.

It all links back to the efforts of football team owner Shelley Marcuse (Noble Willingham) to legalize gambling.  Senator Calvin Baynard (Chelcie Ross) is standing in Marcuse’s way because Marcuse didn’t offer him a big enough bribe.  Marcuse is planning to assassinate the senator and he’s going to frame Joe for the crime because, in an amazing coincidence, Joe used to be a secret service agent until he caught Senator Baynard torturing a sex worker.  Of course, the actual assassination will be carried out by Marcuse’s chief henchman, Milo (Taylor Negron, who is absolutely chilling in the role).  Milo rarely shows emotion and always refers to everyone by their formal name.  (Joe is called Joseph.  Jimmy is called James.)  Milo is also a total sociopath, one who will shoot anyone in the head without a second thought.

Shane Black, who is a genius regardless of what I may think of this particular film, has said that he wrote The Last Boy Scout after he broke up with a longtime girlfriend and he was suffering from depression.  Disillusionment hangs over almost every frame of the movie.  Joe did the right thing and lost his career.  Jimmy lost his family on the same night that he played the best game of his career.  The Senator is opposed to Marcuse’s scheme solely because he’s not getting enough of a cut.  Marcuse is a respected businessman who thinks little of killing strangers.  Jimmy and Joe are heroes not because they’re particularly good but because everyone else around them is just so bad.  This is also very much a movie about guys doing guy things.  I watched it with my brother-in-law and I have to say that I think he got a bit more out of the film than I did.  Then again, I also think my sister Megan also got more out of it than I did so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to watch so many people get shot in the head.  It happens.

The Last Boy Scout was directed by Tony Scott so, no matter what else you might want to say about it, the movie looks great.  Willis seems a bit bored with the film and Wayans sometimes struggles with the more dramatic moments.  In many ways, the film feels like a precursor to Shane Black’s The New Guys, though Willis and Wayans never have the same chemistry as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling did in that underrated film.  However, The Last Boy Scout’s action moves quickly and the screen is always full of neon lights.  It’s a well-made action movie though, unlike Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Nice Guys, it’s not one that really sticks around in your head after the end credits roll.  Personally, I think it needed a little more holiday spirit.

Holiday Film Review: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (dir by Renny Harlin)

During 1990’s Die Hard 2, John McClane (Bruce Willis) asks himself, “How can the same shit happen to the same person twice?” and he does have a point.

I mean, consider the situation.  In 1988, McClane spent his Christmas sneaking around a skyscraper and saving his wife from a group of sadistic mercenaries.  Two years later, John McClane spends his Christmas sneaking around an airport and saving his wife from a group of sadistic mercenaries.

There are a few differences of course.  In 1988, the mercenaries were only interested in stealing as much money as they could and each mercenary had his own properly ghoulish personality.  In 1990, the mercenaries are really more of a cult, led by the fanatical Col. Stuart (William Sadler).  And, along with trying to make some money, they are also trying to free General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a Central American drug lord and former CIA asset.  Despite the fact that the mercenaries are played by familiar actors (like Robert Patrick, John Leguizamo, Tony Ganois, and Vondie Curtis-Hall), none of them are quite as memorable as the henchmen that Alan Rickman commanded in the first film.  And while Sadler has charisma and makes a big impression during his first scene, his character is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as Hans Gruber.  Franco Nero, it must be said, is as dashing as ever.  He really seems to be having fun in this movie.

A lot more people die in Die Hard 2 than died in the first Die Hard and the majority of them are innocent bystanders.  This isn’t like the first film, where Harry Ellis died because his coke-addled mind led him to believe that he could outsmart Gruber.  The victims in Die Hard 2 include a friendly church caretaker and over 200 passengers of an airplane that Stuart tricks into crashing on an airport runway.  The scene where the plane crashes remains disturbing no matter how many times that you see it and it truly makes you hate Colonel Stuart.  When the plane crashes, despite McClane’s futile efforts to warn the pilots, McClane sobs and it’s a powerful scene because it’s the first scene in which McClane has not had a quip or a one-liner ready to go.  In this scene, McClane fails to save the day and, for a few minutes, he’s helpless.  I usually end up crying with McClane.  Today, those tears are also a reminder of what a good actor Bruce Willis truly could be whenever he let down his defenses and allowed himself to be vulnerable on screen.

Die Hard 2 is usually dismissed as not being as good as the first movie and …. well, that’s correct.  It’s not as good but then again, few actions films are.  There’s a reason why Die Hard continues to be held in such high regard.  That said, Die Hard 2 is not bad.  The stakes are a bit higher and the action scenes a bit more elaborate, as you would expect from a film directed by Renny Harlin.  Bruce Willis plays McClane with the blue collar swagger that made his such an awesome hero in the first film.  Bonnie Bedelia and William Atherton also return from the first film and Atherton once again gets his comeuppance in a crowd-pleasing moment.  The cast is full of character actors, all of whom get a chance to make an impression.  Dennis Franz is the profane head of security who eventually turns out to be not such a bad guy.  John Amos is the major who eventually turns out to be not such a good guy.  Colm Meaney has a few heart-breaking moments as the pilot of the doomed airplane.  My favorite supporting performance is given by Fred Thompson, bringing his quiet authority to the role of tough but fair-minded Air Traffic Control director.  Watching Die Hard 2, it does feel as if the viewer has been dropped in the middle of these people’s lives.  Everyone seems real.  No one seems like a mere plot device.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?  You bet it is!  But so is Die Hard 2 and it’s not a bad one.

Holiday Film Review: Die Hard (dir by John McTiernan)

Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

And, in an alternative universe, it was a Frank Sinatra movie.

Released into theaters in 1988, Die Hard was based on a novel called Nothing Lasts ForeverNothing Lasts Forever told roughly the same story as Die Hard, with one of the big exceptions being that the cop fighting the terrorists was not the youngish and quippy John McClane but instead was a weary, aging and retired detective named Joe Leland.  Leland previously appeared in another novel called The Detective.  In 1968, The Detective was turned into a film and the role of Leland was played by Frank Sinatra.  As a part of his contract, Sinatra had the right to play Leland in any sequels to The Detective.  When Die Hard was in pre-production, Sinatra could have demanded that the film be a Joe Leland film and that he be allowed to star in it.  Fortunately, Sinatra did not do that and Joe Leland was instead transformed into John McClane.  And, after the role was was turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Richard Dean Anderson, popular television actor Bruce Willis finally received the role.

Seriously, just consider that.  Bruce Willis was not only not the first choice for John McClane but even Richard Dean Anderson was offered the role before the filmmakers finally went with Willis.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else starring in Die Hard because, to most of us, Bruce Willis is John McClane.  Growing up and watching Die Hard on television every Christmas, it was very easy to assume that Willis probably spent all of his spare time fighting terrorists and coming up with snarky quips.  Definitely, it’s difficult to imagine Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the role.  What made McClane such a compelling hero was that he wasn’t superhuman.  He was just a blue collar guy who hurt his feet, got tired, and had his moments of frustration just like everyone else.  He was the relatable action hero.  It didn’t matter how many stories that one heard about Bruce Willis having an ego or occasionally being difficult to work with.  Bruce Willis was John McClane and, after everything that McClane had been though, he had every right to occasionally be difficult.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really discussed the plot of Die Hard because …. well, everyone knows that plot.  I mean, this is one of those films that has such a permanent place in pop cultural history that even people who somehow haven’t seen the film still know what it’s about.  John McClane is an NYPD cop who flies to Los Angeles to see his estranged wife, Holly, for Christmas.  Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) works for the Nakatomi Corporation.  During the company’s Christmas party, terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) take over the skyscraper.  The terrorists claim to be politically-motivated but, actually, they just want to break into the building’s vault and make off with a lot of money.  McClane makes his way through the unfinished skyscraper, killing the terrorists one-by-one.  He only has two allies.  Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is an LAPD sergeant who is outside the building and who communicates with McClane via radio.  Argyle (De’Veroux White) is the friendly limo driver who spends almost the entire siege oblivious in the parking garage.  (The first time I ever watched Die Hard, I was so worried something bad would happen to Argyle.)

McClane has a lot of enemies and not all of them are terrorists.  The Deputy Chief of the LAPD (Paul Gleason) thinks that McClane is making the situation worse.  Two FBI agent, both named Johnson (and played by Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), seem to view the entire siege as being a game with the older Johnson talking about how much it reminds him of Vietnam.  A reporter (William Atherton) makes the situation worse with his on-the-spot reports.  Meanwhile, there’s Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).  A coke-addled executive, Ellis actually thinks that he’s helping McClane by trying to negotiate with Gruber.  I know that some people can’t stand Ellis but I always feel sorry for him.  In his way, he was trying to help and you could tell that he was so proud of himself for not telling Gruber that McClane was in Los Angeles to see Holly.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of action in Die Hard.  A lot of people die.  One thing that I appreciate the movie is that the bad guys get as upset over their friends and family being killed as McClane gets over Holly being threatening.  No one in the film is one-dimensional and even the bad guys have their own distinct personalities.  Theo (Clarence Gilyard) gets so excited about the idea of opening the vault that you can’t help but relate.  Karl (Alexander Godonuv) appears to be nearly indestructible.  Hans Gruber may be totally evil but he has a quick wit and there’s something intriguing about how confident he is.  Alan Rickman, famously, was not happy that his first role led to him being typecast as an international villain and one can’t blame him.  Still, almost every action movie villain who has followed has owed something to Alan Rickman.  Just as it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Bruce Willis as John McClane, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber.

(That said, I’m sure there’s another alternate universe out there, right next to the Sinatra universe, where Blade Runner was not as troubled a production as it was and, as a result, Die Hard was made with Ridley Scott directing, Harrison Ford starring as McClane, and Rutger Hauer playing Hans.)

For all of the action, there’s also a lot of moments that make me laugh out loud and I’m not just talking about McClane’s one liners.  The two FBI agents don’t get much screentime but Davi and Bush make the most of what they have.  Paul Gleason is wonderfully deadpan as the clueless Chief Robinson.  Even Rickman gets his share of laughs.  “I read about them in Time Magazine” indeed.

Die Hard is a Christmas tradition with my family and a lot of other families as well.  Does Die Hard count as a Christmas movie?  I would say yes.  The terrorists may not respect the holiday but John McClane does.  No one ruins McClane’s Christmas!

Retro Television Reviews: California Dreams 3.2 “Follow Your Dreams” and 3.3 “Budget Cuts”

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Saturdays, I will be reviewing California Dreams, which ran on NBC from 1992 to 1996.  The entire show is currently streaming on YouTube!

This week is all about aptitude tests and radio stations!

Episode 3.2 “Follow Your Dreams”

(Dir by Patrick Maloney, originally aired on September 17th, 1994)

The school guidance counselor (Christopher Hewett) gives everyone an aptitude test.  Mark discovers that he should be a guidance counselor.  Tiffani discovers she should be a vet.  Tony discovers that he should be a musician.  (Way to go, Tony!)  Lorena’s ideal career choice is fashion designer.  The same is true of Sly, largely because he copied off of Lorena’s test.  Jake, meanwhile, is told he should go into arranging flowers.

This comes at a bad time for Jake.  He’s been suffering from writer’s block and, when the test says that he has no artistic skills, he considers giving up music.  Fortunately, he changes his mind.  The Dreams already lost Matt, I doubt they could survive losing Jake.

Meanwhile, Sly briefly becomes Lorena’s boyfriend but that only lasts a day before she discovers that he copied her test.  She humiliates Sly by forcing him to dress up like a caveman for a school presentation.  (Sly actually looks good as a caveman so it doesn’t quite work.)  Fear not.  Sly and Lorena will eventually get a second chance in another season or two.

This was a good episode.  Tony turning into a pretentious beatboxer was especially amusing.

Episode 3.3 “Budget Cuts”

(Dir by Patrick Maloney, originally aired on September 24th, 1994)

What was the deal with Peter Engel-produced shows and school radio stations?

Saved By The Bell had a school radio station that was used to help save the Max.  City Guys had a radio station that became a major part of the show after Chris and Jamal abandoned work on the video yearbook.  Did Hang Time have a school radio station?  It honestly would not shock me if they did.

Anyway, California Dreams also has a school radio station and Sly has been named the general manager.  Of course, all of the Dreams get programs of their own.  Mark becomes a drama critic and upsets Tony by ridiculing his performance as Hamlet.  Sam gets a job running an advice show and tells people to go see Mrs. Doubtfire.  Jake gets a show called “Shut Up and Listen!”  And Lorena does a show about fashion.  (“Combats boots are hot but wearing them with tube socks is not.”)

The radio station is a huge success for everyone but Jake.  As Sly points out, people don’t want to be told to shut up and listen.  When Jake refuses to change his format, Sly fires him.  The audience gasps.  One scene later, Principal Blumford (played by character actor Earl Boen), enters the radio station and announces that the school board has decided to cut funding for the radio station!

I’m sure you can guess what happens next.  Lorena, Tiffani, and Sam want to start a petition to save the station.  Jake ridicules them for not being “real rebels” so Lorena proves him wrong by locking herself in the radio station and broadcasting without authorization.  Jake is so impressed that he not only makes out with Lorena (on the air) but he also attends a school board meeting and successfully argues that the station is important. Jake wears a suit to the meeting.  The audience goes crazy.  The episode ends with him and Lorena declaring their love for each other while everyone else celebrates the fact that the radio station has been saved.

This is actually my second time to review this episode.  The first time I reviewed it, I think I was a little bit dismissive but I better appreciated it this time.  Some of that’s because I’ve been watching One World, a show in which the cast had absolutely no chemistry.  After watching something like One World or some of the lesser episodes of City Guys, it’s easier to see just how well the cast of California Dreams played off of each other.  They’re believable as friends and bandmates and that definitely adds something to the show, regardless of how broad some of the humor may be.

The highlight of this episode?  Lorena calling Jake “fake Fonzi.”  What made it work was that Jake responded by saying, “Heeeey.”  A close second would be Principal Blumford announcing, “I’ll be back,” which was a nice shoutout to Earl Boen’s role in The Terminator franchise.

Next week …. more music!