REVIEW: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

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Directed by Kazuki Omori
Written by Kazuki Omori
Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Anne Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

I always wonder what the Heisei series of Godzilla films would have been like had Godzilla vs. Biollante not been a box office disappointment. The seeds were all there for an interesting science fiction franchise: a return to big-budget productions, new monster characters, a strong emphasis on high sci-fi concepts with consistent narratives. Such a shame that Toho decided to play it safe and redo the Showa series for the 90s. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy these films, but I ponder what could have been.

When a mysterious UFO is seen flying over Tokyo, tensions mount as the craft lands–and the occupants reveal themselves to be time travelers from the 23rd Century. Their mission: to warn mankind that Godzilla will soon awaken and wreak havoc upon the Earth unless he is destroyed. Meanwhile, a double-threat emerges in the form of King Ghidorah, a massive, flying three-headed dragon. The suspense builds to terrifying levels as the time travelers’ sinister true objective in the present is gradually revealed, and Godzilla must wage a solo battle against those who would destroy our future.

For Godzilla’s third outing in the Heisei continuity, Toho brought back his old nemesis, King Ghidorah, but more importantly, decided to create a trilogy cycle by delving into the origin of the second Godzilla. While I could argue all day about the dramatic deficiency of this move, namely, the destruction of the mystery surrounding this Godzilla’s existence, the end result is a bit more complicated than that.

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Beginning with a UFO streaking across the skies of Tokyo, GvKG quickly sets up the Godzilla origin arc with the main players of Terasawa (Kasuke Toyohara), a non-fiction writer investigating the kaiju’s past, dinosaur expert Professor Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), and the psychic from GvB, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka). Their investigation reveals the existence of a massive dinosaur, a survivor of the KT Extinction, on Lagos Island in 1944, saving a garrison of Japanese soldiers from an American landing party. This revelation collides with the UFO story when the craft’s occupants reveal themselves as humans from the 23rd Century, come to save Japan from the devastation Godzilla will soon bring.

While the story itself seems sound, what really fails in GvKG for me is, well, everything else. Omori’s screenwriting takes a turn for the worse in this film, with his first deficiency being in his time-travel logic. Early on, one of the ‘Futurians’ insists that an individual from one time cannot coexist with his past-self at the same time, but this assertion is clearly proven wrong at several points later on, and the consistency of time theory is way off (at one point, their actions cause already established events to happen, and at others they change events). While this isn’t too grievous of a gaffe, as time travel is a messy storytelling subject, Omori’s seeming glorification of Japanese nationalism and the Imperial Army certainly is.

Image result for godzilla vs king ghidorah stillsYes, I’m going to toss my hat into this little controversy. I do indeed recognize the argument of the old guard and Ishiro Honda that perhaps depicting the killing of American soldiers by the Godzillasaurus went a little too far, considering the context in which these men fighting for an imperialist power would go on to become the founders of the modern Japan, in the case of Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya). However, this is rooted in historical fact, and the theme of the country’s roots in the war have been done with relative respect even in American films such as The Wolverine and Letters from Iwo Jima. Additionally, Shindo’s arc isn’t even indicative of the typical conservative Japanese attitudes, as he ends up at the mercy of his ‘savior’ at the end, perishing in the nuclear fire of a destructive god that does not, in fact, take sides, effectively nullifying any nationalistic fervor Omori may have fostered. In short, Shindo may have thought the divine wind was at his back, but he found in his tragic fall that it never cared about him at all.

As for the visual side of things, it doesn’t fare much better. Much of the futuristic elements are hokey at best and laughable at worst, with the biggest offender being the M-11 android. With his soft, almost unintelligable voice and dopey still-face, he already obliterates the Terminator-like image I’m sure Omori wanted to convey, and that’s long before we get “the run.”

I’m sure the suitmation technique did not change at all since GvB, but the emphasis on daytime battles in this film limits the believability of the kaiju action, and doesn’t do the action scenes any favors while the special effects artists grapple with new problems introduced by the heavy new Ghidorah suits. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, Ghidorah can’t even walk anymore. This unfortunate side effect of the new suit leads to the proliferation of the Heisei series’ beam battles, which are spectacular to a child on his first viewing but to my eyes, very boring. And while the great Akira Ifukube returns to score the film, his themes are simple rehashes of old pieces, most notably the use of the King Kong vs. Godzilla theme as Ghidorah’s. Great piece, just not every original to reuse it.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on GvKG, as it did introduce Mecha-King Ghidorah and played with the idea of Godzilla being a more elemental being, a god of destruction to his Japanese homeland. I just wish there were a better way to do it than what Omori and Tanaka came up with. For the rest of the Heisei series, the emphasis would be on monster mashes with returning Showa characters and threats, and while even those tired concepts would prove to be interesting later on in the Millennium series, they just don’t have the same power here. Sorry fellow G-fans, but Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah started the 90s downfall that led straight to Emmerich’s odd one out, and that can’t be changed with a time-travelling mothership.

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REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

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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: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

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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 WW3.com, 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

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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,

Independence,

Courage,

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
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
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
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Jaws
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
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!