REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)


Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, Based on Characters Created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary

The Apes Origins Trilogy (feel free to steal that name) has to be one of the best examples of a hard reboot yet. Respecting the core tenents of the original film series while branching out to tell its own story with complex themes of inter-species relations and survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, this series of films presents a top-notch blockbuster experience. While Rise may have stumbled just a bit in its execution, I felt Dawn was near-perfect, so with War, hopes are riding quite high.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

It’s funny that the above synopsis refers to an epic battle, because while there is a traditional military battle at the end of the film, the conflict it actually refers to is the ideological and philosophical battle between both The Colonel and Caesar, and between Caesar’s better and darker natures. Like Rise and Dawn before it, War is a very nuanced and brooding type of film, more content to let its characters suffer in a world dying with a whimper.

More than the others, War contains numerous references to the original films, including but certainly not limited to: a new strain of the Simian Flu that robs humans of their speech and motor-functions, turning them into the primitive slaves of the original series; the X-crosses that used to mark the Forbidden Zones now used to string up captured Apes by the Alpha and Omega army, itself a references to the underground mutants of the second film; Maurice’s supposed rise as the Lawgiver character; I could go on and on. Obviously, Reeves and Bomback have great love and respect for the franchise.

But more importantly, they also know how to write their own story, and War is just as much proof of their prowess as Dawn was. All of these references are skillfully folded into a narrative quest undertaken by Caesar, in which he opens up the depths of his sin and confronts every choice he has ever made in a veritable Heart of Darkness-esque film is arresting, to say the least. As he agonizes over the losses suffered to humans over the years, and his crime against his own kind with the haunting spectre of Koba, Caesar trudges on through cold Northern wastes, racing toward a final confrontation with the Kurtz of this story, played menacingly by Woody Harrelson. Along the way, Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval make tremendous use of the near-perfect motion-capture method employed by Reeves’ technical wizards, and achieve scary-good performances that are, more often than not, way too realistic to disbelieve.

As strong as the visual effects and Michael Giacchino’s classical score are, the screenplay and the acting continuously roar back into the spotlight, especially with the film’s second half, set at the Alpha and Omega base within an abandoned weapons depot on the Canadian border. Here, Caesar and the Colonel match wits and emotions as each is forced to confront their very beings in a series of scenes that rank as some of the best acted moments I’ve seen all year. And one of them isn’t even truly onscreen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that a fourth film is being prepped by 20th Century Fox. However, I feel Planet of the Apes would be better served if the franchise stopped here for now. Pretty much every loose end has been tied, and the story has already come full circle, leaving a straight remake of the original film as the only way forward. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much point in doing so. The Apes Origin Trilogy, having begun as a nature-fights-back franchise before evolving into an uncompromising and devastating meditation on the self-destructive nature of human civilization, is over in my eyes, with its final note as beautiful as it can possibly be.


REVIEW: Independence Day (1996)


Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

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Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

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Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

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ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.

REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)


Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt
Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Rick Yune, Radha Mitchell, Finley Jacobsen, Ashley Judd

2013. While to everyone else it seemed that the enormous train of Die Hard clones had long since put into the station, Hollywood had other plans. Hitting theaters within months of each other, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen faced off with very similar premises: enemies take the White House and the President, good guy must infiltrate and save him. Olympus seemed to be inevitable loser of the fight, as it was a low-budget direct-to-video project that was suddenly bumped to theatrical status shortly before filming to compete with Emmerich’s film, which was big and with its own sizable bank of stars. So, why am I here reviewing this film for the 4th of July instead of WHD?

When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building. As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.

To put it bluntly, compared to WHD, Olympus is simply better. It’s harder hitting, it’s grittier where it matters, it takes itself more seriously, I could go on and on. What counts is that at the end of the day, Olympus resides proudly on my blu-ray shelf, while WHD languishes in my bad memories.

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Beginning with a brief prologue at Camp David, Olympus quickly introduces the two men of the piece, President Asher and Agent Banning, and their mutual respect for each other quite handily, enough to make up for the truly terrible CGI depicting the car accident that takes the life of Asher’s wife (Ashley Judd). This becomes a common theme throughout the runtime, as laughable effects which betray this film’s lowly roots are cleanly swept under the rug by superior performances and balls-to-the-wall action. The actors, while all proven talent, aren’t exactly at the top of their game, but they do well enough to make the two hours squeeze by with a maximum amount of fun.

With some exceptions in the forms of the nearly-absent Radha Mitchell and Dylan McDermott’s muddled take on a traitorous Secret Serviceman, all of the main characters are written with a wit and charm that allows the actors to breathe and experiment. Asher is steel-jawed and principled, everything you’d want your cinematic President to be, as is Melissa Leo as his humanly brave Secretary of Defense. Angela Bassett as the Secret Service Director and Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House Trumbull work with great presences that adequately portray the unfamiliar situations they find themselves in, while Yune is perfect as the film’s villain, a suave and charming reptile of a man known as Kang.

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But of course, you picked up this film (or are considering it) for Gerard Butler. Rest assured, he will win no awards for it, but as Banning, he is bloody good fun to watch. It has kind of become a staple of ultra-violent action films such as these to cheer on a cheesy hero, and while Banning isn’t one to make Superman proud, the way he snarls and spits back at Kang, occasionally slurring into his native Scottish accent, just makes the whole thing that much more watchable. At least far more than the attempts Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx made at humor in WHD.

As I mentioned before, the CGI is downright laughable in some places and only passable in most, but the vision for the action sequences, mainly the main set piece of Kang’s men assaulting the White House itself while an AC-130 gunship unloads on the city from above, is first-rate and well-executed, pulling away from the usual low-budget action drivel and going for the jugular with a more balanced and steady camera by Fuqua. Speaking of which, lots and LOTS of blood. Action fans will rejoice.

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While WHD went for more of spoof feeling whilst also trying to claim the high ground of realism, Olympus stays grounded in tone, introducing more fantastic elements with complete verisimilitude. The biggest comic book-inspired addition, the Cerberus system (a network of self-destruct devices built into the USA’s nuclear arsenal) is handled with the utmost care and belief by the film’s characters, helping the audience ease into the far-fetched idea without too much kicking and screaming. 3 for 3, Olympus Has Fallen.

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As far as cons, I only have one real big one, and that would be the aforementioned McDermott and Mitchell, who just don’t pull off their characters, with Mitchell’s problem being more script-related than McDermott’s simple shitting-of-the-bed. But there is so much to like in this movie that I have to give it a moderately high recommendation. It’s an ugly image with 1998 CGI, but when the action is this brutal and the characters this likeable, who cares that the airplane looks like clay?


REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)


Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Based on the Character Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones

As the penultimate film of Marvel Studios’ “Phase One,” The First Avenger introduces probably the most anticipated yet risky character they had up their sleeve at that point in time, Captain America. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see everything that could go wrong with this kind of character, and while the final product isn’t incredible, it fares pretty well, considering.

It is 1942, America has entered World War II, and sickly but determined Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is frustrated at being rejected yet again for military service. Everything changes when Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci)  recruits him for the secret Project Rebirth. Proving his extraordinary courage, wits and conscience, Rogers undergoes the experiment and his weak body is suddenly enhanced into the maximum human potential. When Dr. Erskine is then immediately assassinated by an agent of Nazi Germany’s secret HYDRA research department, headed by Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Rogers is left as a unique man who is initially misused as a propaganda mascot; however, when his comrades need him, Rogers goes on a successful adventure that truly makes him Captain America, and his war against Schmidt begins.

Captain America, even more so than Thor or Hulk, probably ends up being the most over-the-top and fantastic of the Phase One offerings, but that ultimately works to its favor, as the character of Steve Rogers is equally fantastic. Skinny and sickly beyond belief, Rogers is given the Super Soldier Serum, as quintessential a comic book construct as any, and literally becomes larger-than-life, a hero for the ages who takes the fight to the most evil regime that ever controlled a swath of the Earth. Luckily, The First Avenger handles this very well, never taking itself too seriously but never descending into camp, either.

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So many things could have gone wrong, be it the silliness of the premise when looked at more than five seconds, or the ever-present danger of going too far into American patriotism and nationalism (the film did depend on overseas business as well). Probably the most clear and present danger to the film was the casting of its main hero, which caused quite a stir when announced: Chris Evans, best known at that time for his comedic turn as the Human Torch in the divisive Fantastic Four series by 20th Century Fox. Here, Evans sheds the campy approach to play Rogers with a down-to-earth earnestness; Rogers is compelled to do the right thing at the expense of himself, and Evans never once makes it seem pretentious or untrue. He is helped in the first act by some of the best CGI work to date, which hides his impressive frame under the body of a 90-pound weakling. From zero to hero, Evans shines in his first turn as the Captain, and effectively dispels any misgivings anybody had over his selection.

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Image result for captain america the first avenger red skullNow this is not to say that The First Avenger is a character-driven film, far from it in fact. Every character is pretty much a one-dimensional figure within the film, but when everyone is this good, it kind of makes up for that deficiency. Hayley Atwell relishes her tough-girl role as Agent Peggy Carter, and manages to look damn fine in that 1940s look (Mmm-mmmm). Tommy Lee Jones brings a dry and sardonic wit to Colonel Phillips, as does Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola, and Sebastian Stan starts his meteoric rise as a central player in the MCU here with a nice and steady performance as Bucky. Dominic Cooper appears as a young Howard Stark, a Image result for captain america the first avenger cartermechanical genius as well as a swingin’ playboy, proving without a doubt where Tony got his genes, and Hugo Weaving, while by all accounts did not enjoy his time on set (and in makeup), plays a great villain in the Red Skull, a sadistic and ambitious Ubermensch that even Hitler finds too evil for his own blood. My favorite supporting role, however, is definitely Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, a character as subtly humorous as he is deeply broken, capturing a kind of inner torment that echoes memories of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As good as the cast is, I feel Joe Johnston deserves the spotlight on this feature. Chosen specifically for his work on other period piece films like October Sky and The Rocketeer, he effectively copies his previous work, striking a balanced tone between drama and adventure. His old-school, dusty vistas look compliments the Markus-McFeely script nicely, and helps ground the more fantastic flourishes of the story, namely the oodles of mad-scientist wonder weapons running around in the hands of Hydra foot soldiers. In going for a pulp-comic feel that evokes good memories of Indiana Jones, Johnston and his team have created an exciting adventure that pulls from both history and fiction to tie two disparate worlds of Marvel, the Earthly and the Cosmic, together in style.

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While I still wish that the Howling Commandos had more screentime and that the final scene was relegated to post-credits status, I still have fun viewing The First Avenger. While it is not up to scratch compared to its two sequels, it proves to be a worthwhile starting point, and presents Cap at his most morally clear point. Take that, Superman.


REVIEW: Air Force One (1997)


Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by Andrew W. Marlowe
Starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews, Paul Guilfoyle, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Tom Everett, Jürgen Prochnow, Donna Bullock

While in real life it is a recipe for disaster, deep down, most of us would love a President who kicks ass and takes names. A strong man with justice in his heart and a propensity dispensing it with fists and bullets speaks to want in us for a simpler world where problems are easily fixed. And while here in Reality Land that desire has given us an orange TV star with more corruption in his veins than Crisco, in the realm of cinema, that desire fairs better, giving us Han Solo with a submachine gun and one hell of a dislike for Russian terrorists.

After a joint US-Russian raid captures the genocidal leader (Jürgen Prochnow) of a resurgent Kazahkstan, US President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) delivers a stirring speech in Moscow. On the flight home, terrorists take over Air Force One (the President’s official plane) and take the passengers, including his wife and daughter, hostage. The terrorist leader (Gary Oldman) plans to execute one hostage every half-hour unless or until their demands are met. However, the President is a former Medal of Honor winner, so the terrorists may be in for a surprise…

Directed by German wunderkind Wolfgang Petersen, Air Force One is a perennial action favorite, not visually distinctive in any way yet a wildly fun ride on a bullet-ridden Presidential transport. The concept of a world leader taking the fight literally into his own hands isn’t quite original and definitely not believable, but it comes across so easily in this film that the audience never once questions it, allowing for the action to unfold like premium butter.

I credit most of this to the actors involved. Had even a slightly lesser cast been utilized this silly premise would have never gotten off the ground. The effort is led undoubtedly by Harrison Ford, probably the most human action hero of American cinema. While he is more serious than his most famous character of Indiana Jones, James Marshall still embodies the well-worn resilience of that character, and he uses it to great effect in a performance far more authentic than this kind of film deserves.

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Supporting Ford are Wendy Crewson as his wife Grace and a host of familiar Hollywood faces as his Cabinet, including Glenn Close as Vice President Bennett. Trying to hold together the situation from the ground, Close ironically brings the logical realism to the story, acting very much as I would hope a senior government official would in this impossible situation (except for one big exception, but hey, we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise). Paul Guilfoyle, William H. Macy, and Dean Stockwell round out the best of the best on the side of the good guys.

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But the real gem of this film is most certainly Gary Oldman as Korshunov, the leader of the terrorist hijackers. Sinking deep into the nationalistic abyss with a performance that Image result for air force one movieearned him the on-set nickname of “Scary Gary,” Oldman is a presence to be feared. Beginning the film behind a veneer of convincing politeness, he sheds all humanity with ease as soon the shooting starts, assuming a chilling identity that can slither through quietly threatening demands with the Cabinet just as well as he can shout and scream Russian profanities. From out of a film that could otherwise just be yet another action romp, Oldman appears as one of the greatest villains of the genre.

All is not as polished as its cast, however. The weakest link just might be the visual effects, which slide heavily between passable and downright unconvincing, especially in the climactic scene over the Mediterranean. At least the blocking of the action is done in a straightforward style that works, never appearing too flashy or hard to discern.

Air Force One is a film that didn’t seem destined for action greatness, but I’m of the humble opinion that it definitely deserves a spot at the table of the best of the form, along with Die Hard, Speed, and the Bond films. Ford, Oldman, and the rest of the cast really prop up the out-there narrative and Petersen’s competent direction allows for the wrinkles to smooth out evenly across a satisfying two hours. In short, President Marshall has my vote.


REVIEW: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)


Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Mark Bomback, Story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi, Based on the Article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin, Original Characters Created by Roderick Thorpe
Starring Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith

12 years after arguably the best installment in the Die Hard series, Twentieth Century Fox gave us the long-awaited fourth film, Live Free or Die Hard. This time, Len Wiseman of the Underworld franchise assumed the mantle of director to a franchise almost 20 years old and on the verge of getting too big for its britches.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) receives a call to bring in a hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long), suspected of breaching the FBI computer system. But after John gets to Matt’s apartment, a group of men show up and try to kill John and Matt, who barely escape with their lives. As it turns out, a group of terrorists led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) are systematically shutting down the United States computer infrastructure, intent on bringing the country to its knees from the relative safety of a computer screen. John and Matt are now America’s only hope against a deranged former Defense official out to cause absolute chaos.

Live Free‘s inception makes for one of truly interesting story of Hollywood ingenuity. Originally a spec script by David Marconi called, it was based on, of all things, a 1997 Wired Magazine article entitled “A Farewell to Arms,” in which John Carlin imagined a three-pronged attack upon the United States’ electronic and cyberspace infrastructure by a rogue party intent on bringing down the nation. After 9/11, the project stalled until it was picked up by Mark Bomback and rewritten to become the third Die Hard sequel. The rest, as they inevitably say, is history.

While the story of the screenplay’s creation is a much more intriguing tale than the one the film presents, Live Free still lives up to its ultimate purpose, and that is to provide a riotous fun time filled with bullets, explosions, and signature John McClane wisecracks. In fact, this film plays very much like a bigger version of the early nineties action flicks that the original Die Hard birthed. Does that make it slightly anachronistic, given today’s propensity towards superpowered warriors? To some, perhaps, but certainly not to me.

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The major story beats seem to steal a lot from the previous installment, Die Hard with a Vengeance, with its focus on buddy-cop elements, personified in the interplay between Willis and Justin Long’s nerdy hacker character Matt Farrell. While Long is no Samuel L. Jackson, the two have adequate chemistry to carry the film, with plenty of old-vs-young laughs between them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q provide the menace, in performances that are quite wooden but fit the bill alright. Besides Willis and Long, I’m sure audiences will find much more enjoyment in the relatively small parts of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane’s tough and spunky daughter Lucy, and Warlock, a basement-dwelling master hacker brought to life by geek legend Kevin Smith.

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I wish I could say the technical end fared better, considering the cinematic history of the franchise, but Live Free sheds the coherent, analog-style of its predecessors for a look that resembles a generic form of Michael Bay photography. It isn’t quite a mess, but it isn’t beautiful to look at either. The frenetic and wild camerawork of the action scenes also doesn’t do the visual effects any favors; memorable action pieces such as the helicopter destruction and the car flip, while created using in-camera stunt work, appear artificial under the subpar compositing and over-blown color pallette. It’s a shame that action filmmaking, for the most part, has come to this. At least the final action scene, in which McClane takes down an F-35 jet with a semi-truck, revels in its CGI glory(?) and makes no pretentions to be realistic or believable.

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Another shame is in the film’s rating: PG-13. Die Hard has always been a hard R-rated franchise, with blood and f-bombs galore, so imagine my disappointment when Live Free was shot for a wider audience. I proclaimed it as a neutered property and almost dismissed it. I’m glad I didn’t, because even without the rougher edge of a higher rating, Live Free still delivers the action goods. However, if you can find it, I recommend tracking down the Collector’s Edition DVD, which contains an Unrated Version that more closely approximates an R-rated film. It’s a slightly more violent beast, and has plenty of trademark McClane profanity added in. One wouldn’t think this would matter much, but you’d be surprised how adding in a little grit makes it feel much more like an actual Die Hard film.

When it comes down to it, Live Free or Die Hard is nowhere near the best film in the franchise, but it manages to deliver on the promise of big booms and manly swearing that so many moviegoers picture when they fondly remember the Die Hard series. And while it may have started the downward spiral, I still place most of the blame on the vastly inferior fifth film, A Good Day to Die Hard. In summary, this 4th of July weekend, go ahead and plop it onto your TV. You won’t be incredibly impressed, but you won’t be too disappointed either.



Maestro’s Marathons: The American Spirit Marathon


This 4th of July weekend, prepare for the fireworks by catching the best of the best of red-blooded, patriotic American cinema!

The 4th of July. A time to celebrate freedom,



And star-spangled explosions.

The Movie Maestro presents to you, on this July 4th weekend, the American Spirit Marathon. 12 explosive, ass-kicking films, all ready to pump the free will of America straight into you! This Independence Day, welcome those freedom-hating aliens and Russians to ‘Earf’ and soar beyond the clouds to plant the Old Glory on the face of the Moon!

Every year on the 4th of July, I always popped in a movie to celebrate. Most of the time, my infantile mind picked Independence Day or Air Force One, and in recent years, I’ve stayed a bit infantile in my picks, going for a mix of some more nuanced examples of patriotism and the most bombastically-nationalistic action-fests out there. And now that we are here for the first Independence Day at the Movie Maestro, I figured I would share my usual picks for the ultimate American marathon.

Spaced out across four days, from July 1st to the 4th, the American Spirit marathon is the best prep for ‘Murican festivities out there!

And also, just because I know there’s someone out there who won’t get the joke, there is a heavy bent of irony to most of the picks here. No, I’m not a brain-dead idiot who will literally blow my arms off this 4th because I love me some ‘Murica, I’m just having fun with this. I hope you will too!

The picks:

Live Free or Die Hard
Live Free or Die Hard Movie PosterStart off the American festivities by saving the nation with its favorite foul-mouthed, working-class hero, John McClane. Live Free or Die Hard takes the old New Hampshire motto and puts it to work, throwing McClane into the high-stakes world of cyberterrorism. The holiday weekend, indeed, the entire country, is being threatened by a digital madman, the former NSA golden-boy Thomas Gabriel. His power seems endless, his goals are nefarious, but we have a secret weapon: Bruce Willis with a gun. And Justin Long with a laptop, but he’s obviously not the most important part. Leave it to that scruffy New York beat cop to bring an old-fashioned dose of analog justice to those high-tech freedom-haters, with fireballs aplenty. If you’ve ever felt that uniquely American need to blow up the grid over one annoying traffic light, then this is the movie to start with.

1776 Movie PosterSetting aside the explosions and the gunfights for a moment, why not go back to the very beginning? With a splash of Broadway melody, this film details the lengths to which the Continental Congress had to go to keep the American Revolution afloat, while never sugarcoating the compromises that the founding fathers had to make to secure independence. It’s like no other history class in existence as the Founding Fathers spit rhymes like musket fire and dance circles around the Crown like their lives depended on it! (What’s that? I am being told their lives did depend on it. History!) You even get a crash course in some lesser known American history, like the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a big horn-dog or that John Adams was really Mr. Feeny! Don’t let the fact that it’s a musical scare you off; think of it as a break before more booms!

Air Force One
Air Force One Movie PosterWho doesn’t want their President to be an ass-kicking Freedom Machine? While in real life that leads to tired old TV stars becoming President, and unmitigated disaster as they charge into battle unprepared, getting their jacket threads caught in their rifle sling, resulting in Taps being played way too early, in movie-land it is a recipe for American pride, as Harrison Ford unleashes justice upon the terrorist hijackers of the Presidential Plane, one bullet at a time. Now that we seem to have to deal with Russian aggression again these days, won’t it be comforting to have Han Solo wreck their plans, American style? In an amazing suit, no less? While F-15 soar alongside, blasting bogeys with air-to-air missiles? Sign me up, I’m ready for that! Settle back into the action with this Die Hard-inspired thriller with an Executive twist! Harrison Ford has my vote.

Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen Movie PosterWhile Aaron Eckhart’s President isn’t as tough as Ford’s, at least he has one incredible bodyguard in Gerard Butler. Yet another Die Hard clone finds its way into the American Spirit marathon with Olympus Has Fallen, a battle for supremacy in the White House itself. It looks like those dastardly Kims have started their ultimate gamble, attacking our very seat of power with both subterfuge and superior firepower. Never fear though, as resident badass Butler, a.k.a. King Leonidas, a.k.a. Mike Banning loads up and singlehandedly defeats the North Korean menace within the walls of our most hallowed mansion! Does it matter that Butler is actually Scottish? Or that he seems just as well known for -shudder- romantic comedies as well as actioners? It won’t during this hairy-chested roller coaster ride of a movie! And we even have God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman on our side!

Rocky IV
Rocky IV Movie PosterThose Russians are at it again. In between election hacking and straight-up invading neighboring countries, now they’re sinking their dirty mitts into our sports! This time, their greatest boxer, Ivan Drago, has killed the Master of Disaster, the freedom-shorts-wearing Apollo Creed! Only one man stands in Drago’s way of claiming the title from the U.S. of A: Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion! A crowd-pleaser by any and all means, Rocky IV presents good old Philadelphian Rocky at his most triumphant, winning the Cold War all by himself in the ring, without a single Nuke fired or submarine sunk. While the original Rocky may be the better film, who doesn’t want to see the Stallion win in the most bombastic way possible, decked out in Old Glory, smashing communism with his powerful fists? There, I said it. Rocky IV is better than Rocky. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Isn’t it?

Lincoln Movie PosterReturn to the history books with Lincoln, one of Steven Spielberg’s best docudramas and Daniel Day-Lewis’s finest performances. Dealing with the difficult passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, Lincoln presents everything the titular President had to do, both painful and unethical, to bring about justice and freedom to a suffering people within the borders of our United States. A bit more somber than the rest of this marathon, it nevertheless is an important addition, reminding us that in between the RPGs and fistfights, there are true battles to be fought every day in the name of equality. And if I’m being much too serious and melodramatic about it, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that while there’s an overload of politics, it is much more interesting than your average CSPAN viewing, what with representatives engaged in the best insult battles I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

Double Feature: The Right Stuff / Apollo 13
Right Stuff-Apollo 13
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Jaws Movie PosterIs it a typical July 4th movie? No. Is it particularly patriotic? Not really. To be honest, Jaws is mostly here because of its setting: on the eve of a big 4th of July weekend full of tourists and sunny beaches. Depending on the holiday to pull them out of debt and off of welfare, because it’s very un-American to be on welfare, Amity Island finds itself in a pretty pickle, and in the sights of a killer shark. Resolving to eliminate the menace in the only way New England Americans know how, Chief Brody, ichthyolgist Hooper, and Captain Quint get ready to go sharking. Because fishing is for Europeans. One-half horror movie, one-half Moby Dick with a decidedly more explosive climax, Jaws is just what Uncle Sam ordered for his extra-large seafood platter. It could be your town. It could be your beach. It could be you as lunch. So kick back and take a bite out of this summer classic!

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger Movie PosterYou knew a superhero film was going to end up on this list sooner or later. They’re just as American as apple pie, fireworks, and massive nuclear weapons! But while Superman may stand for truth, justice, and the American way, well, he’s got nothing on the Captain himself, who launches headfirst into battle with the flag on his uniform and his indestructible shield! Steve Rogers just wanted to be a good citizen and serve his nation, but his sickly body prevented him from doing what he felt was his duty. Enter Dr. Erskine, who’s Super Soldier Serum transforms Steve into Captain America, the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, ready to sock it to old Adolf and his fascist monster, the Red Skull! Full of 1940s action and feel-good American vibes, this movie is ready take back the weekend from sharp-toothed fishes! Revel in Marvel’s over-the-top version of the Greatest Generation’s greatest fight with The First Avenger!

The Patriot
The Patriot Movie PosterWith one more trip into the past we arrive at Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, the ultimate revenge story set within the embryonic throes of the United States during the Revolution. Join Benjamin Martin as he cuts a swath through the British redcoats, intent on avenging his fallen sons by destroying his nemesis, the brutal Colonel Tavington. Join his son, Gabriel Martin, as he mends Old Glory and beats back jolly old England on the hallowed shores of our home. And join General Cornwallis as he learns firsthand what happens when Brits mess with the U.S. of A. Is it accurate? Nope. Is it awesome? You bet! What, you expected a movie showing Mad Max going all Ahab on the British Hitler wouldn’t be rousing? It’s a damn blast, is what it is! So stop whining about “historical context” and “nuanced drama” and just enjoy the show!

Independence Day
Independence Day Movie PosterA July 4th classic, Independence Day offers the best of both worlds: a sci-fi extraordinaire set during the holiday, and a patriotic romp, as President Whitmore rallies the entire world to declare its own Independence Day against the alien invaders intent on conquering it. It’s got metropolitan sights, military hardware, and cheesy conspiracy theories, so it has to be American! To top it all off, President Whitmore gives us one hell of a cinematic speech, and it’s only the primer for the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind, complete with a crazy crop-duster ready to deliver the final blow to those meddling alien overlords. It doesn’t hurt to have Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in the mix, puffing cigars and ruining alien motherships with the almighty power of the Apple Mac. It doesn’t get much more American than that. Now say it with me, “TODAY WE CELEBRATE OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY!!!”

Armageddon Movie PosterWhat could possibly beat Independence Day as the quintessential July 4th film? How about Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a movie with more American flags than any other? As detailed in my editorial, Armageddon lends itself well to patriotic fervor, and it’s a damn fun movie to watch on a day already centered around drinking and barbecue. You even get the biggest explosion of them all at the end as Bruce Willis (yep, he’s back!) blows up the mother of all asteroids! If you want to feel the tingle of America without blowing your fingers off, finish the marathon with Armageddon. You won’t be disappointed.



And that is a wrap! Now, of course, these are only suggestions, feel free to mix and match or add your own. This is the day of freedom, so embrace it!