Tag Archives: DVD commentary

Die Hard with a Vengeance

FBI Questioned Screenwriter of ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ over Bank Heist Plot

Bruce Willis’ Die Hard series has been alive for over 25 years, and there are reports of a script for a sixth film in the works. When the original was released in 1988, it was so full of vitality that it arguably gave new life to the action genre as a whole, and it’s still one hell of a ride today. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) shifted the setting to an airport and soared fairly high itself. Some critics seem to dump on 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance (come on, RottenTomatoes critics, 51%?? Seriously?!), but I loved the pairing with Samuel L. Jackson, the clues around the city, the connection to the first film’s villain, and the presence of McLean’s wife, Holly, although she’s never seen. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) had its moments, but with the exception of Jeepers Creepers and Mac vs. PC commercials, I am not a fan of Justin Long, and the film lost me when McLean stands on the back of a flying fighter jet–I was waiting for him to fly over the Fonz as he jumps the shark, or squeeze into the fridge with Indy (come on, RottenTomatoes critics, 82%?? Seriously?!). A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) should have been titled I Simply Refuse to Die Hard, or Otherwise, although virtually all of its problems are due to the writers, directors, editors, sound mixers…the point is, Willis himself was fine.

"Hey Sam, you'll never guess who's on the phone..."

“Hey Sam, you’ll never guess who’s on the phone…”

At its best, the series is exceptionally smart and inventive; if you need proof, consider the fact that the FBI called Die Hard with a Vengeance screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh to question him regarding his plotting of the US Federal Reserve heist portrayed in the film. I stumbled across that little tidbit in an article by Kelly Konda over at We Minored in Film. Apparently, the Feds were concerned because they realized Hensleigh’s idea might actually work, which prompted them to rethink security at the Reserve. Check out the original article for more details.

In the meantime, if you happen to talk to Hensleigh, tell him to read Variety‘s 1994 mainly negative review of the film–RottenTomatoes attributes it to Brian Lowry, but the byline on the original article just reads ‘Variety Staff’–which specifically criticizes its “overly involved heist that takes far too long to set up.” I’m pretty sure he’ll laugh…with a vengeance.

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R.I.P. Joyce Summers

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: ‘The Body’ Laid Bare (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S5E16) (Part 2)

(major spoiler alert!)

In part one of our write-up of the commentary on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season five episode ‘The Body,’ writer-director Joss Whedon explained that with this episode he was trying to convey the “extreme physicality” of death, a point that we’ll return to later. Considering that so many viewers felt the loss of Buffy’s mom, Joyce, and the gang’s resulting shock and grief, as a physical blow, it seems clear that Whedon succeeded.

‘The Body’ was an emotional episode of Buffy not just for the characters and fans, but for writer-director Joss Whedon and the other talent behind the camera. “Everybody that I spoke to when I was writing this has lost someone, has a story about it, has an attitude towards it, and it all fed into this,” he explains. “But a lot of this came from my own experiences of losing my mother, and of losing other people, and not just of my own grief but of watching everybody else’s” (00:24:10).

Angry Xander

Angry Xander

Perhaps it is because he has watched other people experience loss that Whedon knows everyone has a different reaction to death, and allows his characters to react in their own way. This leads to some unique contrasts and interactions, particularly when the characters come together for the first time after learning of Joyce’s death.

Tara deals the best, because she’s been through it before, which is a revelation we get to later. Xander gets angry, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and we see Tara reacting to his anger, and his desire to make it right…. Willow, of course wearing her heart on her sleeve and completely at sea about the clothing thing becoming just something to latch on to. And then his anger allowing her to be cogent enough to become the grown up, to comfort him. And of course Anya…. Her part in this is something that most people remember best of all, because she just seems to be Anya, asking just horribly inappropriate questions every five seconds. (00:24:10)

Willow gets tough

Willow gets tough

Although their reactions may not be unique–we’ve all seen portrayals of men who react to loss by getting angry, as Xander does–this is only natural. After all, though the reactions to death may manifest themselves in a variety of actions, there are only so many emotional responses at their core. Where Whedon leaves his mark is the inclusion of two perspectives that aren’t often seen.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

As a character who has experienced the loss of her own mother, Tara has a genuine understanding of what Buffy is going through and is able to offer something more than the usual platitudes. The fact that neither her friends nor the viewers know this about her provides a turning point to the story, as well as to the development of her character, and her relationship with Buffy.

Even more unique than this is Anya’s perspective–a formerly immortal demon whose job was to inflict pain and suffering and death, and who is still learning about, and coming to terms with, her newfound humanity and mortality. Despite having over 1100 years of life experience, this is her first encounter with the permanent sense of loss that is entwined with this mortal coil, and her use of her adult language to express her childlike confusion and pain and sorrow at Joyce’s death is poignant and heartbreaking and couldn’t be said any better without trading raw impact for greater eloquence.

Aside from season seven’s ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ the story arc of this episode is arguably the most unique of the series. There is no baddie to battle, no disaster to avert, just a loss to discover and accept. In a series that has dealt with returning from death in the form of vampires, zombies, and resurrections, as well as contact with ghosts, demons, and other beings that exist beyond or outside of death, this is perhaps the only case of death, plain and simple and unavoidable, and from natural causes, no less. The only things here for the characters to confront are loss and grief, and they can’t be fought or defeated, only accepted.

Who knew Anya had it in her?

Who knew Anya had it in her?

But even in this, Whedon provides a clear story arc. Rather than pausing the story while characters express their grief, as too many shlock directors might choose, Whedon makes their reactions and interactions the focus of the story. Anya’s reaction is a perfect example of this. As Whedon explains,

Emma’s performance here [as Anya] is lovely, when she goes into her speech coming up. What people [respond] to besides the performance is the fact of it as a kind of a plot twist. That is to say, nobody expected that much sensitivity from Anya, so when she breaks down and expresses really the heart of the experience–the very very basic, ‘I don’t understand’–it moved people even more than I had predicted, and partially because it works as a plot twist, because you think ‘Oh, she’s just insensitive,’ and then this happens. (00:24:10)

Not only does this scene reveal something about Anya’s character that we haven’t seen before, but it gives her relationship with Willow a nudge in a more positive direction.

In addition to creating a very clear arc for a story that could have become a shapeless blob of schmaltz in the hands of lesser talent, Whedon intentionally created a sense of physical space within the episode’s environment. Although Whedon has often mentioned his love for, and reasoning behind, long shots as a director, in Buffy he is often restricted to one room–Giles’ library, Buffy’s living room or kitchen, the hideout of the Big Bad du jour. ‘The Body’ includes one of the few instances (that I can recall, anyway) in which two locations are connected by one long shot. We see the coroner alone with Joyce’s body in what appears to be an autopsy room, then follow him out the door, along a hallway, and into the waiting room where Buffy and her friends are sitting. Whedon explains that two factors motivated this decision. “I have to confess…that I am a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and that I had been watching Magnolia obsessively before I shot this scene, so these endless tracking shots probably owe something to that,” he says. “But what I was really trying to get at here was again the reality of the space. I wanted to see Joyce very clearly, and then I wanted to walk all the way over to where Buffy was, where her loved ones were, so that you understood she was down the hall, she was really there, she was in a shot with them. It was not a cut. We weren’t on a different set” (00:30:45).

Vampire rising.

Vampire rising.

The camera later follows Buffy in her search for Dawn, who has gone looking for her mother’s body, and she finds Dawn just in time to save her from a freshly risen vampire. Whedon says that some people questioned his decision to incorporate an attack in that scene, but Whedon wasn’t doing it just for thrills. “I was very specific about it,” he says. “I wanted a vampire, first of all, who looked more like a corpse than anything else, and here’s young Dawn confronted by not only a vampire, but a naked man. It’s an intrusion, it’s offensive, and completely physical…” (00:40:10).

This brings us full circle to the theme of the physicality of death that Whedon explained in part one of this article, which is reinforced by the episode’s final shot. Buffy has defeated the vampire, and she and Dawn are alone together with their mother’s body for the first time. Dawn rises from the floor and sees that the sheet that covered her mother’s body has been pulled away during the struggle. With a timid hand, she slowly reaches out to touch her mother’s cold skin, getting closer, closer, and just as she’s about to make contact, Whedon cuts to black, then rolls the credits.

The fact of death being physically real, and physically unreal, is expressed…in the last shot, after Dawn says [“Where’d she go?”]–words that cannot be answered by anybody–and reaches out to touch her mother, in a show that’s been all about physicality, this girl–who needs to know, to understand–never touches her, and that was done very specifically…. It meant we want to touch it, but there’s nothing there, and to [cut] just before she touches her [mother’s body] was to express…what I’ve been talking about the whole way: there is no resolve, there’s no resolution, there’s no ending, there’s no lesson, there’s just death. (00:43:05)

BTVS, S5E15, 'The Body' - penultimate shot

BTVS, S5E15, ‘The Body’ – penultimate shot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Episode 16, ‘The Body’ | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head

What do you think? Did you like how this episode differed from the usual Buffy format, or were you disappointed by it? Throughout her whole time on the show, does Anya have any other moments that rival her speech here? Did you catch yourself letting out a sigh or making some other kind of noise when Whedon cut to black just before Dawn touched the body, like I did? Leave some comments below and let us know!

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: ‘The Body’ Laid Bare (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S5E16)

(Major spoiler alert!)

Written and directed by Joss Whedon, ‘The Body’ in season five is probably the most heart-wrenching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 144 episodes. Although Buffy’s mom, Joyce, rarely played a central role in the series, actress Kristine Sutherland always made her presence felt. As a single mother, she was a key figure in Buffy’s life. She welcomed the whole Scoobie Gang into her home, eventually becoming somewhat of a motherly figure to them all. She came to accept her daughter’s very unique role as slayer, despite all the complications it presented. But she also had a life, and troubles, of her own. She struggles to make her art gallery a success. Her relationships with men included evil android Ted (John Ritter), and an occult-induced roll in the hay (or on the hood, at least) with Giles. She developed some serious health issues. And her daughter–and, later, daughters–definitely threw her some curveballs. As Whedon says in his commentary for the first-ever Buffy episode, ‘Welcome to the Helmouth’, Joyce was searching for something in her own life. Like so many others, she was still searching when she died suddenly in season five, and fans felt the blow of a life cut short. Continue reading

Dan Stevens in Adam Wingard's 'The Guest,' written by Simon Barrett

‘The Guest’ Shouldn’t Be Sent Packing (Part 2)

Last time we heard what director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett had to say about the influences behind their 2014 cult hit, The Guest. One of the key influences was John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978), but “inverted.” David (Dan Stevens) takes the maniac’s role, with the twist that “Michael Myers, instead of being the faceless shape that’s watching you from a distance, [is] the beautiful friend right inside your house…” (01:10:00).

However, like Laurel without Hardy, Abbott without Costello, or Riggs without Murtaugh, the Michael Myers character is incomplete without his other half. “To really make that [dynamic] work, you have a Dr. Loomis character hunting him down,” they explain. “That’s what Lance [Reddick], as Major Carver, is” (01:10:00). Continue reading

The Guest, Cover

‘The Guest’ Shouldn’t Be Sent Packing

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s recent work together has generated some well-deserved buzz. You’re Next (2011) is one of the smartest and most fun home-invasion slasher movies of recent years. Their follow-up, The Guest (2014), is a deliciously fun action-thriller with a strong vein of black comedy that draws on some pillars of 80’s and 90’s genre films.

It seems almost every review of the film has foregrounded its 80s influences. In his programme write-up for the Toronto International Film Festival, Colin Geddes calls it “a slick, eighties-style action thriller without resorting to parody or pastiche.” Writing for The Dissolve, Scott Tobias makes multiple comparisons between The Guest and The Stepfather (1987), and writes that “Wingard’s direction is a robust throwback to the VHS gorefests of yore, but with a distinctly more modern slickness and snap….” David Hughes, at Empire Online, makes a similar connection when he writes, “It’s almost as if Barrett watched The Stepfather and The Terminator back to back and thought, ‘What if, instead of trying to kill Sarah Connor, the Terminator moved in with her?’ Continue reading

Bat + Nosferatu = The Master

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: Reaping What You Sow in ‘The Harvest’ (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S1E2) (Part 2)

In part one of our article on the second episode of season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘The Harvest,’ Joss Whedon explained the importance of establishing the rules in a horror story. Establishing the tone and sources of tension are equally important, which is where we’ll start in this continuation of his excellent commentary.

Although in later seasons Buffy, Willow and Xander playfully refer to themselves as the Scoobie Gang, Whedon carefully avoided any cartoonish comparisons while he was sowing the seeds of the show in the first season. Humour is a big part of Buffy, but Whedon was very aware of the difference between generating intentional and unintentional laughs from the audience. That seems to be a big part of the reason behind his decision to save a direct confrontation between Buffy and The Master for the season’s final episode. In the meantime, The Master was trapped underground by mystical powers and had to send his minions out to do his dirty work. Continue reading

Only geniuses can pull off this haircut.

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: Reaping What You Sow in ‘The Harvest’ (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S1E2)

Like a vampire lurking in the shadows, this episode almost managed to slip past me. Only when I stumbled across an online list of season 1 special features did I notice Joss Whedon had done a commentary of Buffy’s second episode, ‘The Harvest.’ It initially aired immediately after the series premiere, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth,’ and is a direct continuation of it, so it’s unclear why it doesn’t follow the ‘Part 1-Part 2’ naming scheme that Whedon uses in all the other two-part episodes throughout the series.

Nevertheless, this episode continues to establish information that is vital to the Buffy-verse, which makes it somewhat surprising that Whedon is relatively quiet throughout this commentary. When I say ‘relatively,’ however, I mean relative only to himself. When it comes to DVD commentaries, Whedon still provides x-rays that reveal the structure of the work, while too many other commentators are content with Tinder pics that only show how much they want to bone themselves. Continue reading