Escape From New York (1981): Trapped in the Machine

Escape From New York

    “Escape from New York” and “Escape from L.A.” were stories I was only really familiar with through the game series that they helped inspire. Solid Snake was drawn from the ex-soldier and protagonist of this series Snake Plissken. Both of them are isolated soldiers forced into situations of their control and must race against time to complete the mission and save themselves. The biggest difference is the “Metal Gear” series is much more sci. fi. based while the “Escape” series is more dystopian and apocalyptic. Suffice to say I really enjoyed “Escape from New York,” and consider it a favorite film even though it does have some obvious problems that I will go into.

       John Carpenter wrote and directed the film while it was co-wrote by Nick Castle and produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill.

   The story begins in 1988 when there is a 400% increase in crime leading to the United States turning Manhattan Island into a high security prison. It is in 1997 and Air Force One get’s hijacked and crashed into the prison that is Manhattan forcing the New York Police Force to send in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President and save the tape that is needed for the Peace Summit with the Soviet Union and China. From here Snake is in a race against time as he is infected with capsules that will kill him in 22 hours unless they are removed.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of society falling apart leading to a tyrannical government rising in the United States is fascinating, especially as we see how the disregard for life of those who aren’t among the privileged has decreased drastically. Whether it is Snake having the capsules put into him that give him a death sentence unless he completes his mission or all the rules that you see the moment you come in, as well as the fact that all those entering Manhattan Island have the choice to commit suicide rather than going to Prison. The disregard for life it at it’s height.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. It is dark and shadowed and captures the feel of being trapped extremely well. Everything is hidden, which sets up how we don’t see what happened to the President until much later in the story and we don’t meet the Duke of New York until later in the story either. Dean Cundey and Jim Lucas did a great job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very 80s and it works. There is a tense synth feel that pervades the film which captures that this is supposed to be a future really well. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth did a great job.

The Action – The action is extremely solid. Whether it is Snake having to fight against his dying body and different crooks or facing off against the Slag in a bat fight in the Duke of New York’s arena or finally racing across a mined bridge being chased by the Duke…every action scene moves the plot forward and establishes the strength and guile of our hero or the motivation of those around him.

 Maggie – Maggie is the girlfriend of Brain who was once Snake’s partner but ran away. She comes to Brain’s defense but also sees the bigger picture too as she and Brain help save the President from the Duke. This leads to the Brain eventually dying and her using the last of her energy to try and kill the Duke. She was a great character and gave us a picture of someone making it in Manhattan. Adrienne Barbeau did great.

Brain – Harry Dean Stanton is great as the double crosser who eventually comes to stand by his friend. He’s smart and that is what keeps him alive as we see him outsmart both Snake and the Duke on multiple occasions and in doing so keep his head. He does eventually die on the bridge and can’t make it out but he makes possible Snake and the President’s escape, saving Manhattan from being bombed by the mainland.

Duke of New York – Isaac Hayes (Chef from “South Park”) is a great villain. He is a guy who is confident who sees himself as number one. He’s rose through the ranks of the prison to the point that he owns it now and just wants to get revenge on the world that put him there. He nearly succeeds too, only being stopped by Brain and Maggie when they change sides and help Snake free the President.

Snake Plissken – Snake is a bitter ex-convict who also served in the army at one point. Among the people he is seen as a bit of a folk hero and most people in Manhattan eventually recognize him. He’s ruthless but has a good heart as we see him go from threatening Brain and Maggie to trying to use all he can to help them escape. He’s pretty anti-authority too and we see him give cabbie’s tape to the President, embarrassing him on live television before China and the USSR while Snake himself destroys the tape that the government was going to use. His story is resisting the machine even as he is forced to be a part of it. Kurt Russell does a great job.

Okay: Bob Hauk – He is the guy who injects Snake with the capsules forcing him to race against time. He believes in Snake and has a respect for him as at the end he asks Snake if he’d like to join his team.

The Cons: The President – He’s a tool and wasn’t all that memorable. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t written with much depth as we see him dismiss the lives that were laid down so he could escape and him cringing everytime he is threatened.

Romero – Romero just looks crazy but we never get why the Duke made him his second in command. Because of this he is just kind of there.

   This story has great world building, but I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I did in “Escape from L.A.” I think a big reason for this is a lot of what the story does is world building and tone setting. It is “Alien” to “Aliens” and in both cases in order to experience the world we don’t have the time to really grow attached to a lot of the characters. It is still a film I’d recommend to anyone who loves a good dystopian or apocalyptic story and it sets up “Escape from L,A” and the story beats “Escape from L.A.” will use really well.

Final Score: 9 / 10

St. Vincent (2014): A Dark Comedy With a Good Heart

St. Vincent Poster

     “St. Vincent” pretty much shows that Bill Murray is still in great form and part of what makes a good comedy (or any story) is caring about the characters. Everyone in this is flawed but not to the point of likability which means the humor comes from who the people are. This is the key to good comedy. Suffice to say I did like a lot about this film, though I wouldn’t call it great or a favorite. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

     “St. Vincent” was directed by Theodore Melfi who was also the writer and one of the producers. The other producers were Fred Roos, Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin.

     The premise is Vincent (Bill Murray) is someone who is very down on his luck both literally (gambles and loses) and figurativly (in debt to everyone and something personal that is revealed later). Everything comes to a head and things change when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) break his fence and tree which later leads to Oliver being babysat by Vincent as his mom is working long hours. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack – I really enjoyed the music in this film. It has an indie feel to it and Theodore Shapiro did a great job capturing the emotions. If you aren’t into comedies, definitely at least check out the soundtrack.

Daka – Naomi Watts plays a Russian stripper who sleeps for sex on the side but soon develops a relationship with Vincent over the course of the film, as well as Oliver and Maggie. She is the one who doesn’t put up with crap and speaks clearly to all of them. This gives her a breath of fresh air in a few situations where Maggie is dealing with crap from the courts and her ex-husband and Vincent refuses to deal with his problems and finds himself unable to speak or move that much after a stroke. She adds a great dimension to it as she doesn’t like people it appears at first but in fact does care about those she adopts as family and her baby.

Zucko – Terrance Howard plays a small but essential role in this. He’s the loan shark who in the end causes Vincent to get a hard attack after Vincent loses all his money and he comes to collect. He’s interesting in that he does keep giving Vincent chances and after never appears again. In that way he must have noticed that Vincent was already in a hell of his own creation and decided he should stay there.

Maggie – Melissa McCarthy is really good and playing the single mother on hard times is something she does really well in this. We see how overwhelmed she is just trying to make ends meet post divorce and how no one has her back. This remains the case until Daka (the stripper in a relationship with Vincent) and Vincent finally come through and she finds support and community. This is really the entire arc of the picture but it does it well.

Vincent – Vincent is a terrible human being in many ways, but you also get why he is that way at the start. His wife has Alzheimers and he goes to take care of her and reach out to her and puts most of his money towards giving her a comfortable life. This motivation is one reason he’s afraid to get close to people until others (Daka, Maggie and mostly Oliver) break through that as they accept him as he is and in the case of Oliver during his Saints Speech expresses how grateful he is that Vincent is a part of his life and recounts the life he lived and how he lived like a saint (leading to the movies title). Of course he still drinks, smokes…though probably doesn’t gamble anymore and is still a bit of a prick but he finds community and in it acceptance and love he hasn’t experienced since his wife lost her mind. Bill Murray did an amazing job in this, playing both the dark humor that makes up Vincent and the affection that shines through as he shares his world with Oliver.

The Comedy – There are some great comedic moments in this and the movie succeeds at being a comedy. One moment is when Oliver is reading “The Giving Tree” and how giving is the most important thing. Maggie expresses herself as the tree and the boy as her ex in how she gave everything and got nothing back. How McCarthy executes it is brilliant. Bill Murray does too in his monotone execution of scenes and when he and Oliver are in the bars, hanging out with Daka and when they go gambling at the races.

Okay: Oliver – The guys a child actor and the really great ones are few and far between, but he does alright. He starts out as the kid afraid to stand up for himself, but after Vincent teaches him how to fight he defeats the bully and becomes friends with him.

The Ending – Vincent finds acceptance from the community and keeps doing what he’s doing but with more awareness of others. The speech recounting his life was great but in the credits he’s just listening to music and not caring about anything…the two are pretty stark contrasts and that hurts the ending making it okay but not a pro.

The Cons: Where is Zuko? – Zucko disappears. I would have liked some sort of follow up since Vincent owed a lot of money.

The Catholic School – The teacher who does the Saints report is quite funny and an interesting guy…though we don’t get much of him beyond him being accepting of others and devoted to his faith. The school functions as an antagonist until the end when things are resolved with Vincent but that process is more sudden than anything else. I wish it had happened gradually as we saw more of their interactions with Maggie.

      This was a good but not great comedy. I would definitely recommend it nonetheless. If you are a fan of McCarthy or Murray they are in top form in this and Naomi Watts has some great joke moments too in relation to the two of them. The story is really good and cares about it’s characters. The characters have actual arcs and change over time and we see relationships form in realistic ways. If you like comedy, drama, Murray and McCarthy definitely check this out!

Final Score: 8.2 / 10. It was a good dark comedy.