Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Good Day To Love Your Gun

I don't like to subscribe to the idea of movies being some broad canvas, the tapestry of cinema a never-ending strip of imagination and magic/majesty/Tranya. It's nice for poetry, and cute for the sake of generic appreciation, but each film stands alone, thematically and talent-wise. But to ignore that some film experiences bleed together is close to impossible, which is why I recently felt an ideological whiplash a couple of weeks ago within a two day period.

One of the films I sat through was “A Good Day To Die Hard,” the optimistic and legacy-tinted title for the fifth in the “Die Hard” film series. Vacationing cop John McClane used to be a character, funny, nervous, self-deprecating. The fifth time around, you wonder if Bruce Willis is now simply playing himself: his McClane dives face-first into action as soon as a bomb goes off early during the film’s breathlessly short runtime, commandeering a truck and driving it literally straight into the chaos without understanding what he’s pursuing or why. Once perceptive and nervy, he’s now stupid and bold, not a bad combination to have when you’re also invincible. There’s a good thirty or so set moments in this film where the fiftysomething McClane should be dead, or at least severely injured. But Bruce Willis, global superstar, never dies.

I had read Willis’ anti-gun control opinions right before the film, and given how flimsy the picture tends to be, it’s impossible not to think of them. Our introduction to McClane in this film is seeing him at the gun range, listlessly dispensing with some exposition regarding his lost son (Jai Courtney, ostensibly bred to play Bruce Willis’ son one day, and probably nothing else). Moore languishes over the bullet holes and the gunshots, but has almost no interest in Willis looking awake as he discusses his distant son.

The rest of the film is similar; dialogue scenes flitter by, quickly overshadowed by a bang and a boom, as the violence reaches “Looney Tunes” levels of absurdity, with none of the wit or humor. In one villain death, Moore bites off a moment in one classic Willis film (“Die Hard”) and tries to top it by stealing from another (“The Last Boy Scout”). That second film is something of an unsung classic, but it is a film filled with fools, assholes and charlatans. They’d probably love “A Good Day To Die Hard,” which makes the bizarre implication that the totality of the violence done by the McClane family makes them impervious to the radiation levels at Chernobyl (don’t ask). It is literally a video game: the more baddies killed, the higher their health meter goes. Gun violence is not without its rewards.

I also caught fantasy “thriller“ “Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters,” the film openly derided by critics and audience members as it grossed an impressive $150 million plus worldwide. As preposterous as the story is, there’s something mischievously pleasurably about the film, as if no one can believe they’re getting away with this. The triumph of the picture has to be the effects work: they’re largely practical, and done with a style and panache not met by the station-to-station script that essentially relies on the eponymous heroes to be more than a bit dim. And the creatures that populate this world deserve commendation, the result of either fabulous makeup or, in some cases, peerless puppet work. Which will probably be forgotten at year’s end, when the assholes from the Razzies get their hands on the film.

Along with the slipshod script (which tosses off contemporary bon mots as sort of half-jokes that never hit), the performances are either distracted or tired, with a lot of posturing and preening done instead of actual character work. Still, this mixture of kid-friendly fantasy and gruesome violence (Peter Stormare’s head is turned into a jelly donut, which counts as a recommendation) gives the film a charming European vibe, like if Lucio Fulci ever worked with Jim Henson.

But that takes a sour turn in a climax set at some sort of witch’s get-together. As these various creepy crawlies join each other, creating a “Nightbreed”-type orgy of monster madness, Hansel arrives with anachronistic gatling gun, laying into these glorious creatures. Yes, yes, good versus evil, they were going to eat a little girl or something (the plot specifics are admittedly hazy), but it felt like something of a betrayal. Admirably, director Tommy Wirkola treats this menagerie of beasts with a casual indifference, on one level robbing us of a good look at them, on another simply, confidently not making a big deal out of them (and on a third level, minimizing effects and makeup shots for the sake of budget). But when this gatling gun emerges, with a nod to the colorful score, the camera admires its length, its thickness, and the power within, before it begins delivering death. This film loves its weapons, as Hansel and Gretel are most certainly packing, and it’s a dispiriting ode to violence when the end credits are not a collection of the film‘s most colorful beasties, but instead a loving analysis of each piece of their weaponry.

Within the forty eight hour period I spent in the company of Hansel, Gretel and McClane, I had a chance to see “War Witch,” Canada’s nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. “War Witch” is actually an African story, about a young teenage girl recruited into a gang of guerilla fighters taking up arms against similarly armed kids of nearby villages. The specifics of what this war represents is insignificant, all that maters is the ground-level anguish of these experiences, and how they press this girl into being called the War Witch, a walking good-luck tchotchke who can survive certain-death firefights and live to tell the tale. “War Witch” is nonetheless haunting in its depiction of the titular heroine as being dogged by regret, unable to pry herself from the tragedies of her lifestyle to honor the memory of her late parents.

What I found curious about the film was a brief moment when a group of kids experience rare downtime watching John Hyams‘ “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” This film, the third in the “Universal Soldier” series, takes hero Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) of the first film and re-imagines him as a Bourne-like retired soldier, trying and failing to assimilate into modern society. Unfortunately, a rogue super soldier forces the military to call on Devereaux one more time as the last covert line of defense, not only to erase the mistakes of the organization that birthed him, but also to erase a soldier not much different than himself. What Devereaux slowly learns is that what the military wants is irrelevant: he can never turn off the killing, he can never ignore that once killing enters your DNA, it never leaves. If you consider Hyams’ superior “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning” canon, then this realization has taken Devereaux, our “hero,” into some pretty dark places.

The choice of this film in “War Witch” is not an accident. What’s especially fascinating is that the kids explode in cheers as Devereaux pumps rounds into faceless bad guys onscreen. The adult overlords have married them to their guns: they are trained to worship and love their guns and keep them by their side, to the point where too much time away from her firearm drives one child to borderline hysteria. A generous mind would say that the children now share DNA with the weapons, accepting that death is a way of life. But more and more, it seems likely that movie going audiences are being treated no less differently, and pulling a firearm can contribute to a “good day.” My main fascination stems from the fact that “War Witch,” a powerfully sad film, emerged from the same “canvas” as “Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters” and “A Good Day To Die Hard,” that this culture could allow there viewpoints to coexist, and promote one so enthusiastically over the other. Yippie kay-ay.

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