Escape From New York (dir. by John Carpenter)


 

escape-from-new-york-movie-poster-1981-1020189511Before you start, note that Escape From New York was recently showcased in Jeff’s 4 Shots from 4 Films post to celebrate Kurt Russell’s birthday. For another take on the film, check out Jeff’s review. Please check that out, and then double back here, if you want. 

When I was little, my Aunt would sometimes take my older brother and I with her into Manhattan. In a little movie theatre near 82nd Street, she’d get us a set of tickets for a film, help us get seated with snacks and then either stay for the movie or leave to perform housekeeping duties for someone nearby if she had work and we weren’t allowed to hang out on site. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York wasn’t a film she stayed for (she loved Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it was okay. I was introduced to Snake Plissken, who ended up being cooler than Han Solo to my six year old eyes. Instead of being the hero, here was a criminal being asked to a mission. It showed me that even the bad guys could be heroes, now and then (or better yet, not every hero is cookie cutter clean). The film became an instant favorite for me. As I also do with Jaws and The Fog, I try not to let a year go by without watching Escape From New York at least once. It was my first Carpenter film.

The cultural impact of Escape From New York is pretty grand, in my opinion. It had a major influence on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear video games and also spawned a few comics with Plissken, complete with Jack Burton crossovers with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter brought in most of the same crew he worked with in his previous movies. The film was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill, who previously worked with him in 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog. Though Hill didn’t write this one, she was still the producer, along with Larry Franco. There’s also a bit of speculation on whether Hill performed the opening vocals describing New York or Jamie Lee Curtis handled that. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on most of Carpenter’s early films) returned to help give the movie it’s gritty look, which is helpful considering how much of it takes place either at night or in darkened rooms. Another interesting part of the production is James Cameron, who was the Director of Photography when it came to the effects and matte work. One of the best effects shots in the film has Plissken gliding over Manhattan, which was designed by Effects member John C. Wash. The shot on his plane’s dashboard of the city was made from miniature mock up with reflective tape that made it appear as if it were digital, which was pretty cool given that they weren’t on an Industrial Light and Magic budget. There’s a fantastic article on We Are The Mutants and on the Escape From New York/LA Fan Page that focus on Wash’s technical contributions to the film.

For Carpenter’s career, Escape From New York marked the start of a great working relationship with Alan Howarth. Howarth, who also worked on the sound in the film, assisted Carpenter with the soundtrack. I’ve always felt this brought a new level to Carpenter’s music overall. You can easily hear the difference when Howarth was involved. Where Carpenter excelled at general synth sound, Howarth’s touch added some bass and depth. Together, they’d work on Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Prince of Darkness and They Live together. On his own, Howarth was also responsible for both Halloween 2, 4 and 5.

For the writing, Carpenter worked with Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers for him in the original Halloween. Escape From New York’s story is simple. In 1988, the crime rate for the United States rises 400 percent. As a result, someone had the notion to turn Manhattan into a prison for an entire country, setting up walls around the borough and mines in the waterways. When Airforce One crashes in the borough nearly a decade later, the recently arrested war hero / fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given a mission. Go in, rescue the President and/or the tape he’s carrying in 22 hours, and Plissken receives a pardon for all his crimes. To ensure that he follows through, he’s injected with nano-explosives that will kill him when the deadline hits. What seems like a simple mission becomes a little complicated when Snake discovers the President was captured by The Duke of New York, played by Issac Hayes (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Given that I’ve commuted to Manhattan more times than I can count, the film holds a special place in my heart.  The concept of the entire borough being a prison was mind blowing as a kid. The concept still holds up for me as an adult.

For a film about New York, there were only two days of filming actually spent on location there, according to Carpenter’s commentary. Most of that was used for the opening shot at the Statue of Liberty. The bulk of the film was made in Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis. At the time, there was a major fire in St. Louis. The damage made for a great backdrop for both the crash site and the city at night. The film does take some liberties with locations, though. For example, as far as I know, we don’t have a 69th Street Bridge in Manhattan, but as a kid, it didn’t matter much. From an action standpoint, it might not feel as intense as other films. Even when compared to other films in 1981 – like Raiders of the Lost Ark (released a month earlier) – Escape From New York doesn’t have a whole lot, though I still enjoy what it does provide.

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Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 22 hours to save the President in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

Casting seemed to come easy for the film. Hill, Castle and Carpenter reached out to some friends.  Kurt Russell and Carpenter worked together on Elvis, that was easy enough. Russell’s work with Carpenter would continue on in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.  From Halloween, Donald Pleasance was brought on to play the President, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens as one pissed off flight attendant. From The Fog, we have Tom Atkins as Nick and Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, who happened to be married to Carpenter at the time. According to Carpenter on the film’s commentary track, the sequence for Maggie’s exit needed to be reshot and extended. The scene with her body on the ground was filmed in Carpenter’s garage and added to the film.

Ernest Borgnine’s (The Poseidon Adventure) Cabbie was a favorite character of mine. Like most cabbies, he knew the city well. He even prepared for some of its challenges with molotov cocktails. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Christine) played Brain, the smartest individual in the room and the supplier for gas for the Duke. If you look close, you’ll also catch Assault on Precinct 13’s Frank Doubleday as Romero, which his crazy looking teeth. To round it all out, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) plays Hauk, who puts Snake on his mission. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without a George ‘Buck’ Flower cameo. Buck was kind of Carpenter’s lucky charm in the way Dick Miller was for Joe Dante’s films. Good Ol’ Buck plays an inmate who sings Hail to the Chief.

Overall, Escape From New York is a classic Carpenter film that’s worth the watch. Whether you do so while wearing an eyepatch or not, that’s on you. We all have our preferences.

 

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Kurt Russell Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we wish a happy 69th birthday to the patron saint of all thing that are cool about the movies, the one and only Kurt Russell!

And here to help us do that are:

4 Shots From 4 Films

Used Cars (1980, directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)

Stargate (1994, directed by Roland Emmerich)

Death Proof (2007, directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)


What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?

Halloween is an obvious choice.  It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for.  The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices.  Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text.  In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story.  Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations.  My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.

For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.

Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance.  For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future.  Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison.  A wall has been built around the island.  The bridges are covered in mines.  All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.

There’s a new resident of New York City.  He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets.  Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage.  Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary.  If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon.  If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.

How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin?  Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye.  Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time.  (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.)  Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool.  Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero.  He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would.  If he saves the President and the world, cool.  If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways.  At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about.  If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.

Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke.  Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie.  Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met.  My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action.  Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield.  Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better.  Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.

Things Could Be Worse: 8 Fictional Presidents Who Were Terrible At Their Job


Jack Nicholson

2016 is an election year and things are looking pretty grim right now.  It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in frustrating and demand that someone push the reset button.  However, things could always be worse.  From the world of film, here are 8 President so incompetent, corrupt, and sometimes murderous that they will make you long for the dull mediocrity of a Jeb Bush or a Martin O’Malley.

1) The President (William Devane) in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

devaneYou’re the leader of the free world and a masked terrorist has just launched a deadly attack on a major U.S. city.  He has blown up a major sporting event on national television.  He has killed the mayor.  He is allowing a crazy sociopath to preside over show trials.  The terrorist demands that you neither send troops into the city nor do you aid anyone who is trying to leave.  What do you?  If you are the President played by William Devane in The Dark Knight Rises, you say, “Okay,” and then breathe a sigh of relief when Batman turns out not to be dead after all.  William Devane also played JFK in The Missiles of October and President James Heller on 24.  Neither of them would have backed down to Bane as quickly as the President in The Dark Knight Rises.

2) The President (Billy Bob Thornton) in Love Actually (2003)

This President thinks that he can bully the world until he makes the mistake of getting on the bad side of the new British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant).  How are you going to call yourself the leader of the free world when even Hugh Grant can make you look like a fool?

3) The President (Donald Pleasence) in Escape From New York (1981)

DonaldHey, Mr. President, when Snake Plisskin nearly gets killed trying to save your life, you might want to try showing a little gratitude.  Escape From New York ends with Snake asking The President who he feels about all the people who died rescuing him from New York.  When the President can only mutter a few words of regret, Snake responds by destroying the tape that would have presumably prevented World War IV.  Way to go, Mr. President!  Would it have killed you to shed a few crocodile tears, at least over the fate of Cabbie?

4) The President (Cliff Robertson) in Escape From L.A. (1996)

The President from Escape From New York was practically Lincolnesque compared to the jerk who succeeded him.  A theocrat who claimed to have an open line to God, this President banned smoking, drinking, cursing, red meat, guns, atheism, pre-marital sex, and everything else that made life fun.  Anyone who disagreed got exiled to the island of California.  Good thing that Snake Plisskin was still around to set things straight, even if it did mean that Florida ended up getting conquered by Cuba.  Why doesn’t Snake ever run for President?

5) President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) in Independence Day (1996)

billIn a word, overrated.  Yes, President Whitmore did lead the army that repealed the alien invaders but he would not have had to do that in the first place if he had prevented the Earth from being invaded in the first place.  How many warning signs did the Whitmore administration ignore until it was too late?  And how much funding did his administration cut from the military that the Air Force was left in such poor shape that they could get shown up by Randy Quaid in a crop duster?  As for Whitmore’s famous speech and the battle that followed, a sequel to Independence Day is coming in June so he must not have done that good of a job of scaring the aliens off.

6) President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

At least President Whitmore got a chance to redeem himself by leading the battle against the invaders.  James Dale did not even get that far.  After foolishly believing everyone who told him that the aliens came in peace, he made the mistake of offering his hand in friendship and ended up with a flag sticking out of his chest.

7) President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) in Absolute Power (1997)

Not only did President Richmond think that he could get away with murder, he also thought he could outsmart Clint Eastwood.  Big mistake.  Clint Eastwood is no Hugh Grant.

8) President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

Mixing the raw charisma of Adlai Stevenson and the phone skills of Bob Newhart, President Merkin Muffley attempts to stop the end of the world and fails miserably.  He even allows the Soviet ambassador to get a picture of the Big Board!  But don’t worry.  President Muffley may have failed to prevent nuclear war but he will not allow there to be a mineshaft gap!

When this election year get you down, just remember: things could always be worse!

strangelove

 

 

Song of the Day: Escape from New York – Main Theme (by John Carpenter)


Just got back from watching what one would call a revisionist historical film (though I would also call it a speculative fiction) called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Such fiction have always caught my interest. Maybe it’s the use of historical fact as the backdrop for fantastical fiction (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc…) that makes them fun to read and/or watch. Most tend to be average to awful, but once in awhile something great happens to come along. My latest “Song of the Day” comes from one of the great speculative fiction there is and also one of my favorite films ever: John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

The “Main Theme” to this cult-classic is considered one of the most iconic piece of film score for a sci-fi/action film there is. The moment the synthesizer-based notes begin to play into the thumping bass line intro people know exactly what film it belongs to. It’s a testament to the creative genius that is John Carpenter that we have such a great piece of music. He didn’t just write and direct the film. He also composed the film’s score (with help from Alan Howarth) which contains the trademark synthesizer-heavy music Carpenter has made his trademark style for most of the films he’s worked on.