Friday, 26 April 2013

Escape from New York - John Carpenter - 1981

Sandwiched in between his breakout hit Halloween and his masterpiece The Thing, Escape from New York stands up as a comparatively minor entry in the back catalogue of director John Carpenter. A thriller rather than a horror, more in the vein of his 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13, Escape follows grizzled anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell beginning his four film collaboration with Carpenter) into a post-apocalyptic style Manhattan in search of the missing US President (Donald Pleasance). Once the audience is past the unintentional comedy of the opening titles – the future is apparently 1997, complete with eighties graphics – Carpenter introduces to a potentially interesting set up; Manhattan island is now one big prison given over to the criminals, the President crash lands and Snake has twenty-four hours to save the day. So far, so original but from here the film never really gets going, failing to develop any of the tension or excitement the audience might expect from a race against time thriller and petering out into a series of vaguely amusing encounters with vaguely recognisable faces. Lee Van Cleef looks cool with a diamond stud but spends most of the film shouting into a microphone, Ernest Borgnine bumbles around amiably serving no real purpose and Harry Dean Stanton fades into the background placed next to Adrienne Barbeau’s enormous cleavage. Russell himself looks striking with long hair and an eye patch but he doesn’t really have the charisma to engage the audience with Snake and his dilemma, resorting instead to being a bit surly and rude to people which makes him rather an understatement as an anti-hero. New York does at least look interesting as a wasteland but the freaks and weirdos Carpenter populates his world with always feel half-hearted when compared to the full blown insanity of people like the punks in Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, a film that on the surface is considered more flawed than anything Carpenter has created. Of course it is a little unfair to judge a film like this with 21st Century eyes that have seen the heights that action cinema would reach after this, but the mark of a true classic is its staying power; a year later Carpenter would achieve this in The Thing. Escape from New York by comparison is at best a curiosity, at worst a failure. 387

Escape from L.A. - John Carpenter - 1996

Escape from New York was a minor entry in the John Carpenter canon from all the way back in 1981, so it was rather a surprise that the director brought back Kurt Russell for a sequel a whole fifteen years later. Conveniently ignoring the doomsday that the first film guaranteed thanks to the actions of grizzled anti-hero Snake Plissken (Russell), Escape from L.A. retreads the formula established in the original with such precision that the whole affair feels rather too much like a belated attempt to cash in on a cult favourite. Once again the titular city has been turned into a vast prison by a totalitarian government (led by Cliff Robertson combining the Donald Pleasance and Lee Van Cleef characters) and Snake is sent in to rescue the macguffin, this time lost in the clumsy hands of the President’s daughter, the bizarrely named yet strangely attractive Utopia (A.J. Langer). Once again Snake has to go up against a forgettable villain - this time its faux South-American revolutionary Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) - and once again he is helped and hindered along the way by a selection of semi-recognisable character actors. Peter Fonda’s surfer dude is amusing and Steve Buscemi’s unctuous tour guide is only mildly irritating but the most bizarre character is probably Pam Grier’s transsexual gang leader Hershe Las Palmas who leads a climactic glider attack on Cuervo’s men that plants the film firmly in the realm of the ridiculous. Aside from this moment and some awfully rendered CGI waves, the action is often better than it was in the previous film, punctuated with a dark wit that stamps Snake as a memorable action hero rather than just a vehicle for some B-movie sci-fi; one scene involving Bruce Campbell as the leader of a gang of plastic-surgery obsessed freaks is genuinely quite disturbing. Similarly the final moments when Snake returns to confront the President and pulls exactly the same trick he pulled last time (begging the question why anyone trusts this man) are a lot more exciting thanks to a neat twist with a hologram and some better plotting that leaves the audience feeling that the fate of the world really is at stake, something that a cassette tape just couldn’t manage. Like the original this now feels equally dated but as sequels go it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Heaven & Earth - Oliver Stone - 1993

Heaven & Earth, the final film in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, sees the director coming full circle by approaching the conflict that has defined both his youth and his subsequent film career from the perspective of the Vietnamese people themselves. In telling the true story of Le Ly Hayslip, an ordinary young Vietnamese girl from a small peasant village who is forced to grow from innocence to cynicism as the war tosses her and her family all over the country and eventually abandons her in a strange land far across the sea, Stone depicts in savage detail how one small country can tear itself apart and leave those caught in the middle to satisfy the culturally ignorant American invaders. At two hours twenty minutes the film is epic in length but such is the extent of Le Ly's experiences that many episodes still feel frustratingly rushed in an effort to maintain an overall arc. For example the final third where Le Ly moves to America (clearly the scenes where Stone feels most comfortable) mines a lot of gentle fish-out-of-water comedy from Le Ly's wonder at the extent of American fridges and supermarkets, but truncates the failure of her marriage into a voiceover montage around a single (admittedly brilliantly acted) scene of argument. Newcomer Hiep Thi Le is wonderfully natural as Le Ly, taking us with her as she grows and changes and eventually holding her own against the outstanding Tommy Lee Jones who enters the film in the second half to play Le Ly's tormented husband. Flawed then it may well be, but credit where its due Stone shows as much sympathy for the Vietnamese people as he did for his own GIs in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and it isn't many directors who would make that effort.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Harry Brown - Daniel Barber - 2009

A grim and gritty thriller set amongst the dregs of London life on the sort of council estate that the news teams never visit, Harry Brown is the UK's answer to Gran Torino as an elderly Michael Caine goes Jack Carter on the local youth gangs. It should be noted though however that although many have made the comparison, Harry Brown in character is quite unlike Carter. A far cry from the amoral assassin Caine played in the 1960s, Brown is an ordinary man driven to becoming a vigilante when his best friend (David Bradley) is killed and he loses patience with the depravity he sees around him. In a stellar performance that serves as a welcome reminder of the powerhouse Caine always was and clearly still can be the star takes Brown on a dark and challenging descent into an underworld that is all too real for many Londoners and equally distant for others. The real issue here though is the depiction of the hoodies (for want of a better word) who are the film’s villains. Those who believe that ‘all they need is love' will doubtless cry that the depiction of this council estate is exaggerated and that none of the behaviour seen here by hoodies or police actually goes on, and indeed in some scenes like the climactic riot that breaks out, it’s easy to see why they might think that. However if these stories are true and the dark underbelly of society portrayed in this film, from the middle-aged residents who still live by their personal code of responsibility to the amoral youths who lack even this restraint, its surely important that as many people as possible are made aware of these lives that maybe being lived just around the corner. In which case the depiction of these characters, glossed over and ignored by a press and a government who'd rather sweep them under the carpet, makes Harry Brown one of the most vital pieces of British cinema in recent years.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Wrong Man - Alfred Hitchcock - 1957

Alfred Hitchcock was and continues to be renowned as the Master of Suspense, a director whose vast collection of classics still ranks among the finest films ever produced in the thriller genre. The Wrong Man, produced in the middle of the director’s fifties golden era, is notable within that canon because it is the only time that Hitch told a true story. The tale of Manny Balestrero who was falsely accused of robbery and assault because he was unfortunate enough to look similar to the actual perpetrator held obvious appeal to the director who had used the basic concept of the innocent accused time and again. Possibly out of respect for the persons involved though, The Wrong Man also marks a change in tone from some of Hitch’s earlier work. Eschewing the light-heated sensibilities that defined some of his recent films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and To Catch a Thief, Hitch instead focuses on the intimate procedures of arrest, imprisonment and a court case from the point of view of the wronged innocent. Of course this greatly reduces the chances to generate any suspense, but the audience is more than compensated by a wonderfully detailed and nuanced portrait of a family ruined by a simple mistake. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles both give complex and deeply moving performances as Manny and his wife Rose, struggling to clear Manny's name in scenes suffused with a genuinely tragic quality rarely found in Hitchcock. After so much drama therefore it’s a shame to report that the ending doesn't live up to the preceding events. Of course Hitch was hampered by the narrative limitations of a true story but even so the somewhat abrupt solving and wrapping up of the case feels like something of an anticlimax given the trauma the couple have been through. Maybe Hitch didn't find a true story as exciting as anything he could invent himself because in the end this doesn't quite make the step into classic status.