The Chronological Carpenter: Escape From New York (1981)

escape-from-new-yorkGood golly, has it really been NINE months since I posted about a John Carpenter movie? Well, after checking out 1980’s The Fog last fall, I actually watched the next two films in relatively quick succession (for me at least). But, I never got around to writing about those films: Escape From New York and The Thing. I wanted to get back on this train, so I watched Escape again and here we go.

escape from new york poster 1The first thing that struck me about this film is the scope. All of Carpenter’s movies revolve around strange things happening in the real world (masked killers, ghost pirates, stalkers and voodoo gangs) which create these smaller, twisted realities. But, with Escape, he’s creating a whole world. The Big Apple has been abandoned, the island has been walled off and turned into a prison. On top of all that set dressing we also have characters who all feel like they’re as lived in and sometimes legendary as possible.

And a lot of that comes from Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Snake Plissken. The man doesn’t say much, looks cool and is known by EVERYBODY (even if he’s shorten than expected). He’s also got a deep history hinted at but never fully delved into. This is a nice trick that’s played in comics when it comes to characters like Punisher, Wolverine and John Constantine where we’re impressed (and possibly scared) by them because just about everyone else is. Russell fills the role with his own presence and created an iconic character who continues to inspire comic books and toys to this day.

escape from new york poster 2Adding to that, you’ve also got the denizens of New York, one of the strangest groups of people this side of Thunderdome. Creeps, weirdoes, evil geniuses, murderers and Cabbie? Seriously, why is Ernest Borgnine in this place?! He seems so nice (except for when he ditches everyone). Questions like that might not come the first time you watch the film, but pop up the more times you check it out which broadens the world.

On the surface, it might seem like Escape is an outlier in Carpenter’s filmography because there aren’t any supernatural forces at work, but if you look a little deeper you’ve got the clear influence of westerns (lone gunman with a reputation entering a place and getting the job done), the concept of being trapped by something nefarious and Carpenter’s growing cast of actors who appeared in several of his movies like Russell, then-wife Adrienne Barbeau and Halloween‘s Donal Pleasence as the president (who gives a great latter day Loomis performance here).

 

As much as I like this movie, I have a weird relationship with it. As it turns out, I think I actually watched the sequel Escape From LA first back in high school, so there are huge portions of that movie that live in my brain because that was back when I could absorb the most information. Because of that, I kept wondering when the map seller would show up or when the basketball scene would happen. The other problem is that I seem to fall asleep during this movie more than any other. I don’t know what it is, maybe the music or the subdued performances from many of the cast members. More likely, it’s the fact that I can barely stay up past 11:30 these days. Whatever the case, I’ve started this film more times than I’ve finished it and yet I still love the opening 20 minutes which sets everything up so well. I’d love to see this one on the big screen to really feel the full force of this huge, sprawling and yet subtle at times world that Carpenter crafted.

You might be expecting me to move on to The Thing next, but that won’t be the case. Much like with Halloween, I love that horror classic a lot and, as I mentioned above, watched it not too long ago. I find its best to not overdo it when it comes to favorite horror movies because they can lose some of their power if you’re TOO familiar with them. I think it’s also safe to say that I don’t have much in the way of unique thoughts on the masterpiece of stranded, paranoid beauty he created there (plus I wrote about it a bit back in 2011). That means I’ll be moving on to Christine in the near future!

Everybody Must Get Stalloned: Judge Dredd (1993), Tango & Cash (1989) and Over The Top (1987)

stallone four film favorite I don’t know about you guys, but as I get older, I find myself more likely to go back and watch a movie that I had a good time with over one that I actual revere. For instance, I absolutely adore The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs. I discovered both movies in high school and they each changed my brain when it came to how you could tell a story and how film can work in different ways. And yet, I haven’t watched either film in several years. Instead, I seem to spend my time watching and craving more disposable, less “good” offerings like this 4 Film Favorites: Sylvester Stallone DVD 4-pack I recently picked up. I think a big reason for that is that I don’t always want to get too emotionally invested or have my brain messed with. I usually just want to sit down, have fun and maybe get some work or writing done in the process. Yes, that makes me a lazy film fan, but that’s how it is for me these days.

With that in mind, I’ve burned through three of the four movies in this set. As it happens, it’s the three I’ve seen before: Tango & Cash, Demolition Man and Over The Top. I’ve never watched The Specialist, but hope to give it it’s own review  later this week or next, it depends on my work schedule and, more importantly, when and if my kid naps.  But I figured it would be fun to lay down a few thoughts on these movies.

demolition man poster I actually thought I wrote about Demolition Man here on the blog before. I want to say I watched it around the same time I first saw Judge Dredd. Both movies have sci-fi settings, militaristic uniforms, Stallone teaming up with a bad ass leading lady and, inexplicably, appearances by Rob Schneider. Don’t be scared away, though, Schneider’s actually more restrained than I’ve ever seen him before. Wesley Snipes, however is not, but more on that in a minute.

In this one, Stallone plays a cop in the future, 1996 to be exact. The film came out in 1993 when LA was in a shambles and gang violence was a huge source of worry both in real life and on the big screen. Stallone’s John Spartan is a cop with the nickname Demolition Man because he goes into crazy situations and gets the bad guy, but leaves a swathe of destruction in his wake. In the beginning of the movie, he’s going after Snipes’ Simon Phoenix, a major gang kingpin who is never not wearing something silly. Phoenix sets Spartan up and the two wind up getting frozen which is what they do with criminals instead of sending them to jail.

Inexplicably, Phoenix wakes up in the future and starts running amok. It helps that this is a future where everything dangerous, from gasoline to sex, has been outlawed. Hell, they even outlawed swearing to the point where you get fined if you let loose a curse word in a public place. It’s a surprisingly dense and weird world. Taco Bell won the franchise wars, so now every restaurant is a TB, of course. Since Phoenix is basically running ripshot over the police force, they thaw Spartan out and he goes about his business, kicking ass and taking names.

One of the nice things about this four movie set is that it gives you a really good representation of Stallone’s career. In Demolition Man, he’s the stoic warrior, a guy who just wants to get in there, kick ass, punish the bad guy and save the innocents. That’s not a particularly complicated persona to take on, but it is always convincing when he does it. Meanwhile, his co-stars do an admirable job in their own roles. Sandra Bullock plays the 90s-obsessed, action-desiring cop that Stallone winds up partnered with. Benjamin Bratt is the by-the-book lame-o cop. Dennis Leary’s the freedom-loving underground rebel. Nigel Hawthorne’s the evil billionaire pulling more strings than I can keep up with. Also, for what it’s worth, I completely agree with the idea presented in the episode of How Did This Get Made covering this movie that Bullock is actually Stallone’s daughter, which adds a lot of weird layers to the proceedings.

And then you have Snipes. Man, this guy’s not a great actor. I realized this while watching Drop Zone recently. He’s just super-wooden and, even when he’s playing an over-the-top psychopath, he never really feels convincing. He always seems like a guy trying to act like another guy, but never really nailing it. “This is how a crazy guy would be right? Right? Okay, I’ll go with it.” He doesn’t really detract from the movie because it comes off as somewhat farcical all around, but I think the movie would have been a bit more grounded with a better bad guy.

tango and cash Tango & Cash is always a surprise to me. It’s a movie I think I heard more about growing up and later on into my 20s than I actually ever saw. In my mind it holds a place in the pantheon of awesome action movies, but the last few times I watched it, it left me shaking my head a bit.

Like I said the last time I watched and reviewed this movie, the sheer number of puns and one-liners spit out by stars Stallone and Kurt Russell are head-spinning. These guys throw them out like a madman has a gun aimed at them off screen and will shoot them if they don’t make like a Borscht Belt comedian getting heckled. It can be too much at times, especially when the tension is supposed to be high and these two chuckleheads can’t stop cracking wise.

Said tension comes when two of the most famous cops around get framed for killing a guy by Jack Palance. They’re introduced, each have a drug bust, meet one other, get framed, go through a trial, go to jail, fight a small army of criminals and break out of prison in the film’s first half hour or so. From there they try to figure out who framed them, Russell falls for Stallone’s sister Teri Hatcher (an exotic dancer who incorporates drums into her act!) and then they go up against Palance and his goons in an epic, end-of-movie siege. It’s a lot for a 90 minute movie, you guys.

It’s really too bad that the producers wanted a funnier movie instead of a more straightforward buddy action movie starring Stallone and Russell. The problem here unfortunately lies on Stallone’s shoulders. He’s just not great at playing this character, a slick, rich hotshot who fires off jokes in the face of danger. He’s great at parts of all those things, but putting them all together into one role didn’t really work out too well. Actually, I think there’s plenty of raw material on the screen to cut into a more serious film (serious, but still fun). You could easily make this thing at least 20% cooler just by using the mute button. Still, the end of this movie is rad — even if it does involve an LAPD-sanctioned weapons lab complete with a tour that would make James Bond pop his cork prematurely — and is worth all the craziness presented up front.

over the top poster While I tend to place Tango & Cash on a higher plane in my mind, I also find myself looking down on Over The Top a bit, but it’s actually a pretty great movie. Turns out I wrote about this one on the blog already too, but wanted to say a few more things. Yes, this is “the arm wrestling movie” which sounds silly, but it’s actually a well balanced, well acted movie about a man trying to reunite with his son at the behest of his terminally ill ex wife. That right there sounds like something out of an Oscar picture, but this one also happens to have a semi-truck driving Sylvester Stallone in the lead role as Lincoln Hawk, an evil Robert Loggia and the world arm wrestling championship in Las Vegas. Oh, and a kid somehow escaping from a mansion, stealing a car, getting on an airplane and getting into said arm wrestling championship.

So, it’s not the most grounded movie in the world, but this is Stallone at his best. He’s a simple guy with simple motives just trying to make things right. At times he reminded me of his performance in First Blood, where he’s just a guy trying to walk through town and find a friend who gets pushed too far by people who don’t understand him. He’s not the overly slick guy in Tango & Cash or the on-the-surface lawman of Demolition Man, he’s a real guy — a dad –earnestly trying his best.

I realized something while watching this movie, it’s actually a lot closer to the movies I used to watch as a kid than the action movies I gravitated to as I got older. When you think about it, there’s a lot of the same elements in The Wizard as in Over The Top. You’ve got a father and son making their way across part of the country, experiencing obstacles to their relationship and even a big competition in Vegas at the end.  Heck, there’s even a scene in Over The Top where you can see all kinds of Nintendo logos on some video game cabinets in a diner. Synergy! There’s also very little physical violence in the movie if memory serves. Sure, Stallone drives his truck through Loggia’s front door and he arm wrestles a small army of giant, sweaty biceps with bodies attached to them, but this isn’t your usual slug or bulletfest, which actually makes it a pretty good Stallone movie to watch with your kids. Who woulda thought?!

Even though I had a few complaints about each of these movies, I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed myself while giving them another watch. I’m glad I got my hands on that DVD set because, even though they’re not the high quality Blu-ray I prefer these days, they are presented in an affordable manner that allows me to revisit these flicks any time I want. As an added bonus, there’s actually a commentary track on the Demolition Man disc that I’ve got to listen to!

Bullet Points: Hot Rounds Of Information Goodness

kurt russell death proofKurt Russell’s in talks to join Fast & Furious 7. That’s all the information we have, but we’re stoked! [via Deadline]the-hunger-games-catching-fire-banner

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes the premise of the first film — children killing each other for the entertainment of a dystopian future society — and adds an all new element: old people! Check some of them out in this latest poster. [via Collider]MaxSteel_Logo

Mattel’s Max Steel property is back in development with a script by comic book and screenwriter Christopher Yost (Thor: The Dark World) and Halo: Forward Unto Dawn director Stewart Hendler. Before the property got a recent toy and cartoon reboot, Taylor Lautner was previously attached to star in a film starring the action character. [via Variety]

In other Max movie news, it turns out that the long-delayed Mad Max: Fury Road will head to Sydney for three more weeks of shooting. In the time it’s taken to make this film, old school Australian directors could have made 17 movies.  [via IF]hercules the thracian war bts wounds

We hope someone behind the scenes on Brett Ratner’s Hercules: The Thracian War is paying Dwayne Johnson for getting people to talk about this movie. As he has plenty of times in the past, the actor Tweeted out a picture of himself getting scarred-up for the film. [via @TheRock]Spartacus: War of the Damned - Cynthia Addai-Robinson

Last week we found out that Amanda Waller will appear in the upcoming season of Arrow and now we know that Spartacus: War Of The Damned star Cynthia Addai-Robinson will play her.  [via TV Guide]

Finally, enjoy the above snippet from the Roger Corman-produced martial arts film Fist Of The Dragon. [via Asian Movie Pulse]

Halloween Scene: The Thing (1982)

For the longest time I thought the man on this poster was either an astronaut or a deep sea diver. Just figured I’d throw that out there. I don’t remember when I first watched The Thing. Unlike a lot of other classic horror flicks, I don’t have a specific memory of watching this one. I kind of think it might have been relatively recently, like in the last six years since I moved out to New York, but I could be wrong. It doesn’t really matter, but I try to put a personal spin on these things because otherwise, I’m just another guy writing about how great John Carpenter’s The Thing is.

And it really is awesome. I’m still more partial to Halloween, but The Thing easily makes its way into my top 10 favorite horror flicks. It just does such a great job of building tension, making the audience question what’s going on and ultimately leaving us with an awesomely ambiguous ending. Plus, the special effects just can’t be beat. A few things like the space ship in the very beginning and the shot of the men around the crater look not-so-great, but you forget all that as soon as the dog explodes or the head sprouts legs.

I’m actually glad that I haven’t seen this movie a ton of times like some of my other favorites because I had forgotten enough of the beats and details to keep things interesting. But, that’s another great thing about this movie, you might think that having it fresh in your brain would mean you wouldn’t be surprised, but much like The Usual Suspects, I would imagine knowing all the details would mean you can watch for signs of who’s not themselves.

Layers upon layers. That’s what makes for a great movie in my book. The Thing was actually the third horror movie I watched today after House Of Fears and The Stay Awake. I didn’t have high expectations for either, but was surprised by a pair of interesting openings, one surprisingly good looking and the other awesomely weird. But, they both kind of devolved into average, run of the mill horror. I’ll admit, I missed chunks of both towards the end, which is why I didn’t review them in greater detail. But, I did wind up being unexpectedly interested only to be eventually disappointed. To be fair, though, Stay Awake not only had a fun title, but also was weird enough to probably warrant a viewing. However, it’s nowhere near as good as something like The Thing, which is nearly perfect all around.

Train-ing Video: Death Proof (2007)

I was incredibly excited for Grindhouse and planned on seeing it in the theaters, but it wasn’t meant to be. The marketing folks decided that this Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino jam fest should come on, when else, but Easter weekend? Well, I had to go to New England, so I missed it while all my friends, who were still here, went. Soon enough, Grindhouse wasn’t in theaters anymore and I had to wait until the movies came out on DVD as Death Proof (Tarantino) and Planet Terror (Rodriguez). I checked them out, dug Planet Terror and was left feeling lukewarm towards Death Proof, which bummed me out cause I’m a big Tarantino fan. I gave it another shot on the train yesterday and, unfortunately, was left with the same feeling.

The first time I watched DP, I actually fell asleep just before the big switch in main characters, so I didn’t realize how it would take a Psycho-like turn and follow completely different characters for the rest of the movie. Something very similar happened to me when I first watched Usual Suspects.

Anyway, I don’t have any problem with that switch, what I do have a problem with is the tone. I understand that the film was shot to look like an old grindhouse movie and is written to match, but the problem from me comes from the inconsistencies I noticed. See, the first group of girls all seemed pretty real and fleshed out even when they’re spurting out some of Quentin’s clunkiest and most repetitive dialogue. But then, the second group of girls flips the script and happen to be these caricatures of humanity who have no problem beating a man to death and leaving their fried by herself with a highly suspect individual in the middle of nowhere. I understand them wanting revenge and maybe the two stuntwomen being a little off their rockers, but why does Rosario Dawson’s character want to kill him so bad, going so far as to kick his head in? I didn’t get it. And the “It’s like a grindhouse movie, duh!” argument doesn’t hold up when the first half of the movie didn’t reflect that aesthetic.

I also found Kim to be incredibly annoying. I get it, she’s from the street, I don’t need to be reminded of it with every single piece of dialogue she spouts off. Other than Kim, though, I really liked the rest of the characters and would like to know what happened to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character (and why she was wearing a cheerleader costume throughout the whole thing, I don’t buy Dawson’s explanation).

But that’s not all, I also hated how much of a pansy Stuntman Mike turns into. Kurt Russell did SUCH a great job of making him likable at first, but then completely terrifying, but then, as soon as he gets shot, he starts crying? Seriously? I like the idea of flipping the script and putting him at a disadvantage, but seeing him be such a bitch just makes me want to see him dead NOW and you’ve got to sit through a long car chase to get there.

In a weird twist of fate, we got the fourth disc of Alias Season 1 today, which boasts a two part episode called “The Box” (2002) which stars none other than Tarantino himself. This was during a few year period where he would pop up with a different TV project every now and then. Anyone else remember his episodes of CSI where the dude who would voice Captain Atom in the JLU cartoon was buried alive? Good stuff. It looks like he only acted in the part in Alias, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote his own dialogue as well because it definitely has that Tarantino vibe to it.

I’ll get more into my thoughts on Alias when we’re done with the first season, but this was definitely one of the better episodes and Tarantino does a great job of playing an unhinged man.

And, of course, even with all the above things I disliked about Death Proof I’m still crazy-excited for Inglourious Basterds which drops in a few. Never let it be said that I’m a fair weather fan!