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Tim Grierson on the Enduring Legacy of “Die Hard”

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On July 15, 1988, the weekend’s big action-thriller was a film featuring one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters played by one of its biggest stars. I’m speaking, of course, of “The Dead Pool,” the last of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies. But that weekend also included another release, although it was only on 21 screens. Starred some TV actor. Had a kinda ridiculous premise. It was “Die Hard.”

It’s been 25 years, and a lot of the movies from that summer have been forgotten: “Cocktail,” “Young Guns,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” But “Die Hard” has endured. This Friday sees the release of the franchise’s latest sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Over time, the series has gotten increasingly more ludicrous and cheerfully over-the-top. But at its core, the scrappy, underdog spirit of that original “Die Hard” remains. Which is another way of saying, thank god for Bruce Willis.

When the original “Die Hard” opened, Willis had enjoyed a little success in films thanks to the comedy “Blind Date,” which had come out the year before. (He followed it up with “Sunset,” a bomb.) Still, Willis was primarily known for his Emmy-winning role as David Addison on the comedy-drama series “Moonlighting.” He wasn’t the most obvious choice to play John McClane, a NYPD officer who has to take out a bunch of terrorists holding a gaggle of hostages (including his estranged wife) in a Los Angeles skyscraper right before Christmas. This was the 1980s, when action heroes were played by Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

But the secret to the film’s success — the whole franchise’s, really — was that Willis didn’t try to be one of those action heroes. Instead, he seemed to take a page from Harrison Ford, whose “Star Wars” fame had only grown due to the Indiana Jones films. As Indy, Ford never wowed us with his hulking frame; it was his sarcastic, black-and-blue ordinariness that made the character so appealing. He was a hero not because it was easy but, rather, because it was really hard. Willis took wisecracking David and turned him into a reluctant gun-toting, explosion-evading grumpy smartass who wanted to defeat the bad guys mostly because they were annoying the hell out of him. Eddie Murphy had proved the viability of the high-octane action-comedy with the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, but in “Die Hard” Willis leaned more toward the action than the comedy. In ’88, people probably didn’t go to “Die Hard” because it was funny. That was just a lucky side benefit.

It also didn’t hurt that he was paired with a truly fun nemesis. As Hans Gruber, Rickman did a variation on every super-snide James Bond villain that came before, except he was actually smart and not campy. It’s almost as if Rickman wasn’t aware that ’80s bad guys were supposed to be really cheesy. Best know for his work on the stage and on television in England, Rickman wasn’t well-known by film audiences. For all we knew, maybe he was a criminal mastermind. (And for all the fine performances he’s given since, his cool, slightly haughty demeanor has been their constant through-line, connecting him back to Hans forever.)

Another reason the film has held up is because it’s simply ingenious. Based on the 1979 book “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “Die Hard” basically invented a whole new genre of action movie: one in which a regular guy is trapped in a location with a bunch of heavily-armed baddies. (As luck would have it, though, these “regular guys” often just happened to be buff dudes like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.) This was a major change from most action movies, which drew their excitement from elaborate chase sequences or scenes in which the hero has to infiltrate the villain’s stronghold. With “Die Hard,” McClane was constantly hiding in the Nakatomi Plaza trying to evade capture while communicating via walkie-talkie to a local cop (Reginald VelJohnson) outside the building. The film was more of a cat-and-mouse thriller than a conventional shoot-‘em-up. (Although, granted, there is still a lot of shooting ‘em up.) Maybe that’s why none of the sequels was ever quite as good: They all had Willis, but they opened up his world to make them more like other people’s action movies.

This isn’t to say that “Die Hard” is perfect. As groundbreaking as the film is, it features one of the stupidest side characters in all of action movies. That, of course, would be Dwayne T. Robinson, the LAPD chief played by Paul Gleason who’s almost maniacal in his distrust of McClane. As Roger Ebert said perfectly in his review at the time, “As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress. The character is so willfully useless, so dumb … that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Robinson does deliver the film’s unforgivably dumbest line: After a FBI helicopter is destroyed, killing everyone inside, he matter-of-factly comments, “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.” It’s entirely possible Gleason is playing the same numbskull from “The Breakfast Club.”

But when you go back and watch “Die Hard” now, fondness will probably help you forgive those types of problems. Above all, what’s great is that the movie doesn’t realize it’s going to give birth to a genre or a franchise. It’s just this plucky little movie about a dude in an undershirt winning back his wife by saving her and her coworkers. The movie is simply a great idea executed extremely well.

The sequels realized that they never could recapture the once-in-a-lifetime ingenuity of the “Die Hard” plot, so they had to keep expanding the concept and adding new quirks, all the while joking about the fact that, yes, it is completely preposterous that the same shit keeps happening to the same guy over and over. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” which I haven’t seen yet, he’s fighting alongside his son — a plot point that I’m sure Fox is hoping will extend the brand after Willis really is too old to be doing these movies. But it’s funny how the franchise has come full circle. “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the book that inspired the original movie, was written by Roderick Thorp and was itself a sequel to his book “The Detective,” which became a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. In “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the hero (Joe Leland) is an older guy trying to save his daughter and grandchildren from terrorists. No doubt Fox decided to make McClane younger for “Die Hard” so that it seemed more realistic. Nowadays, McClane’s old enough that such a storyline doesn’t seem nearly so farfetched anymore.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Tim Grierson on the Brilliant Career of Steven Soderbergh

Steven-Soderbergh

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When people list their favorite filmmakers, their choices are obviously based partly on liking those directors’ movies but, beyond that, I would guess it’s also because they identify with the themes and attitudes expressed in those films. To be entirely stereotypical, most fans of Quentin Tarantino probably don’t behave or dress much like fans of Woody Allen — or of Jon Favreau, Michael Haneke, Kelly Reichardt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like picking a favorite Beatle or declaring oneself Team Edward or Team Jacob, we’re telling the world less about the people we’re choosing between and more about who we are and what we value.

I haven’t liked all of Steven Soderbergh’s films, but his career — the way he conducts himself artistically and professionally — is something I greatly admire. More than his movies, I really just love him. So, as you could imagine, I’m very sad that he’s serious about retiring from filmmaking. He’s releasing the thriller “Side Effects” on Friday, and then his Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” will come to HBO. And then that’s it.

Soderbergh arrived on the scene in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which famously wowed Sundance in January of that year and then won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. He was all of 26 and was quickly embraced as the Next Big Thing. In a Rolling Stone profile from that time, he came across as something of a hot shot: the outsider who had moved to Los Angeles, found little success, returned home to Baton Rogue defeated, decided to give Hollywood one more chance, and wrote the “Sex, Lies” script in a week while driving back West. Now the conquering hero, he called “Top Gun” producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer “slime” and “just barely passing for humans” in the Rolling Stone piece. He made disparaging comments about another up-and-coming director, Phil Joanou, who had segued into soft commercial movies like “Three O’Clock High.” (“Soderbergh has given instructions that he be shot on sight if he ever makes a movie about high school,” wrote profiler Terri Minsky.)

But you also got the sense that Soderbergh’s criticisms of others were a way to keep himself grounded amidst all the hoopla surrounding “Sex, Lies.” “I’m still a schmuck like everybody else,” he said. “I have problems, just like anyone. There are people who get to make movies who are fucking assholes, who are terrible people. Okay, I know I’m not a terrible person. It’s just that this attention — it’s potentially harmful, and it has so little to do with sitting in a room and trying to write, trying to make something good and make something work. It has nothing to do with that.”

“Sex, Lies” made almost $25m — an impressive total for a low-budget indie — and Soderbergh seemed well on his way. But after all the hype, he struggled. His follow-up film, “Kafka,” was a commercial and critical disappointment. The period drama “King of the Hill” was lovingly told but made no money. (It did, however, open the door for young stars Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl.) And his thriller “The Underneath” was a misfire that had brains but sank like a stone at the box office. At 32, Soderbergh seemed to be in danger of being forgotten, just like all the other Next Big Things he had lamented in that Rolling Stone article who had come before him.

Then, Soderbergh did something incredibly nervy. Rather than committing to a sure career-revitalizing project, he made “Schizopolis,” a bizarre, surreal little comedy (starring him) that satirized suburban malaise, office politics and its own irrelevance. It felt like a stunt — the sort of thing you do when you decide that you’re ready to burn every bridge and alienate everybody who ever liked you. And for that reason, it’s fascinating, although at the time it seemed like this clearly smart and talented filmmaker was walking away from Hollywood for good.

Of course, that didn’t happen — he was merely gearing up for his second act. In the summer of 1998, he returned with “Out of Sight,” which helped put him back on the map but also launched George Clooney. We forget this now, but this thriller (adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel) was equally important for both men: If Soderbergh was trying to reverse his trajectory, Clooney was trying to prove that his post-“E.R.” film career was viable. (He’d been in the very mediocre “The Peacemaker” and the truly awful “Batman and Robin.”) I have to confess that, at the time, I didn’t get “Out of Sight.” After my first viewing, I thought it was too clever for its own good — certainly stylish and confident, but lacking much soul. Seeing it again a few weeks later, I embarrassingly realized I’d missed the boat. Coolly elegant and expertly paced, it was far smarter than I’d realized. I vowed never to underestimate Soderbergh again. (And I kept an eye on him and Clooney, who went on to form a production company together, Section Eight, which oversaw great films like “Far From Heaven,” “Insomnia,” “Syriana” and “Michael Clayton.”)

Blessed with a second chance, Soderbergh didn’t disappoint. He went from low-budget noir thrillers (“The Limey”) to superb, heartfelt mainstream entertainments (“Erin Brockovich”) to possibly his best film of all, “Traffic,” a perfect distillation of his intelligent, emotionally subdued style for a wholly devastating look at a group of characters who are in one way or another trapped in the web of drug addiction. Watching him win the Best Director Oscar for “Traffic” in early 2001, it was impossible not to think that this was the same man who, just four years prior, had put out “Schizopolis,” when everything seemed so bleak.

Armed with an Academy Award, he has hardly slowed down. If anything, he’s only gotten more interesting as a filmmaker. Since then, he hasn’t made one dull movie — he’s made less-than-great ones (“Full Frontal,” “The Good German”) — but he’s never lacked for intriguing ideas. Soderbergh grew up playing baseball — he was once a promising pitcher — and there’s something about that sport’s celebration of the day-in/day-out grind that seems to have stayed with the filmmaker. He just goes out and does the work, treating each project with as much care and thoughtfulness as he can. As he mentioned in a recent New York interview, “Any movie I’ve made has been because of the challenge it offered me as a director, because it provides a new canvas. Even the big-budget stuff like the ‘Ocean’s’ films.” In fact, it was his idea to do sequels to “Ocean’s Eleven” — not the studio’s. “They didn’t care. We kind of had to talk them into it. Those movies provided a really unique set of opportunities visually. They’re not easy for me to make. The first ‘Ocean’s’ was, directorially, a lot harder than ‘Traffic.’ Not even close. But they allowed me to play in a way the other movies don’t. It’s the closest to a comic book as I’ll ever get — I viewed them as like Roy Lichtenstein panels, which was really fun. And I’m very happy with them visually. When you look at what passes for a tent pole now, the ‘Ocean’s’ movies are pretty gentle in terms of their spirit, and I like that about them.”

I do, too. All three of the “Ocean’s” films have a bounce and freedom that you don’t see from big-budget studio movies. Soderbergh is sometimes criticized for his “cold” movies, but how, then, do you explain what fun the “Ocean’s” films are? To this day, Soderbergh comes across as a dry, cerebral fellow in interviews — the braininess of his youth remains — but it’s only helped give his films an undeniably hip patina. Whether it’s “The Informant!” or “The Girlfriend Experience” or “Contagion” or “Che,” his movies give off a sense that they’re trying to rethink their genres, trying to find new ways to express familiar sentiments. And as to this nonsense that his movies are overly chilly or withdrawn, who else could have turned “Magic Mike” into both a really fun time and also a poignant look at a young man (Channing Tatum) finally shedding his Peter Pan complex and growing up?

As Soderbergh’s gotten closer to 50, the age he said he wanted to give up filmmaking for painting and other pursuits, he’s been jumping from movie to movie, worried less about grand statements than crossing genres off his bucket list. What a blast “Haywire” was. What elegant paranoia dripped from “Contagion.” (And if you haven’t seen “And Everything Is Going Fine,” his 2010 documentary tribute to celebrated monologist Spalding Gray, a longtime friend of Soderbergh’s, it’s deeply moving.) This is not a man who should be retiring — he seems at the peak of his powers, making one distinctive film and then moving on to the next. He’s my kind of filmmaker. He just works. He does the best he can at that moment, and then he throws all his energy into the next one. Leave the legacy talk for others to sort out.

If “Side Effects” is his final feature, it’s a fitting sendoff. It’s smart, it’s shrewd, and it goes its own way. I liked it, but in my review I noted my reservations, which included, I now see, a criticism that it’s “ultimately too clever for its own good.” I’ve been here before with Soderbergh. I was wrong then — at this stage of his fine, fine career, I’m not entirely positive I’m not wrong now. But what I do know for sure: I’ll miss his movies. And I’ll miss him making them.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Fox reveals “Die Hard” 25th anniversary mural

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For being a 25-year-old franchise, “Die Hard” looks pretty good for its age. The fifth entry in the series, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” hits theaters on Valentine’s Day, but that wasn’t enough of an anniversary gift for 20th Century Fox. No, the studio decided to go one step further: Paint a giant mural of a young Bruce Willis in Fox’s Los Angeles lot.

You can watch the timelapse video above that shows the creation of the massive mural. It depicts a famous scene from the first “Die Hard,” which came out in 1988. It’s hard to think that more than two decades have passed since that movie hit theaters, but Willis remains just as badass when he utters, “Yippee-ki-yay.”

Fox is also marking the 25th anniversary of the “Die Hard” franchise — and the release of the new movie — with a marathon of the first four films on February 13. Select theaters are participating in the screenings of “Die Hard,” “Die Hard 2,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and “Live Free or Die Hard.”

“A Good Day to Die Hard” takes Bruce Willis’ McClane from Jersey to Russia, where he teams up with his son Jack, played by Jai Courtney. Also appearing in this movie are Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cole Hauser and Sebastian Koch. The film is due out on February 14.

What do you think of the new mural? How will you celebrate “Die Hard’s” 25th anniversary? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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