A sad, but necessary tribute – this was one of the 20th century cinematographer greats whose influence remains intacto – just ask Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Fincher, etc. – crisp and cool, with a bathing use of colour. I think we all know what this artisan would have celebrated and had been mustering for this evening, his achievement on Le Mépris alone is immortal;
C’mon America, don’t fuck this up. The alternatives are a trifle worrying;
Ah, I’d forgotten they were doing this. There seems to be a lot of 1990’s nostalgia flowing around at the moment so this might be good timing, and as someone who isn’t throughly enamoured with the original I reckon I’ll give this a look, if only for Danny’s energetic camerawork and hopefully, a vivid soundtrack;
It also looks as if Ewan has been imbibing the same immortality draft that Max Von Sydow uses – will he ever age?
‘Snake Plisken? I’ve heard of you boy…(Pause)…I heard you was dead’ – Nothing has put a wider grin on my haggard face that writing the title of this beloved John Carpenter classic in the blog post title field above, a film I have waited roughly thirty god-damn years to finally see on the big screen. When it comes to Carpenter I think we can elect The Thing as his ultimate masterpiece, no doubt many fans would argue the case for Halloween which is obviously iconic and bloodily carved out an entirely new movie genre, but I think The Thing is where all his skills, collaborators and instincts synthesized to a perfect pitch, to craft a timelessly resonant work that matures with age – plus it has just assimilated it’s ultimate edition yet. For me the next tier down contains Assault On Precinct 13 (my personal favorite) and Escape From New York, a film I have seen somewhere in the region of fifty or sixty times, from my formative days of the £5.99 VHS sell-through copy I replayed to exhausted ribbons, through to the various DVD and Blu-Ray iterations that have followed since. Words alone cannot express just how excited I was, even in those fledgling internet days to learn that the infamous abandoned opening sequence was going to be a special feature on the then technological marvel of Digital Versatile Disks®. Then that was still very much the stuff of a cinematic El Dorado, a Carpenter curates cup of cinematic catnip, if you will. There has been, to the best of my limited knowledge, precisely one public screening of the film since I moved to London, as part of the reasonably regular Carpenter themed all-nighter’s hosted by the Prince Charles cinema. I was intrigued, I’ll admit it, but with the best will in the world I didn’t think waiting to see some Blu-Ray copy projected to a snoring crowd of fellow geeks at 2:00am in the morning was quite the optimum conditions to apprehend one of my all time, most cherished genre missions. My patience has finally yielded fruit, as when the film was announced as part of the BFI’s Cult of Carpenter I was certain of the conquering of a long mooted foe, and when I realized it was also going to be a 35mm print I nearly passed out, the perfect complement to my earlier efforts in the year which is pretty much warping into the year of the Carpenter.
‘You touch me… he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds… he dies. You come back in… he dies’ – The premise, of course, is completely ludicrous. In the then unheard of futuristic sounding 1997 the crime rate has recently risen 400%, inspiring the embittered fascist government to convert Manhattan into a self-contained prison, exiling all criminals to fend for themselves in the apocalyptic archipelago. Hubris has a sense of humor however, when the President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself jettisoned into the hockey-armored arms of those he has abandoned to rot, after Air Force One is hi-jacked by left-wing guerrillas and plunged into the skyscraper skyline – hmm, I have a bad omen about that. Enter our rasping anti-hero Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell, iconic), the ex-special forces legend, holder of two purple hearts from the intriguing sounding Leningrad and Siberia campaigns, whom has been is sentenced to the prison for the aforementioned opening sequence botched robbery. Fate it seems smiles warmly on our stoic anti-hero, as he is offered one chance at a pardon by Prison Warden Bob Hawke (snake eyed Lee Van Cleef) – to infiltrate the site and exfiltrate the president and the occupants of his top-secret briefcase, in order to attend a critical Soviet summit on which the possibility of World War III is hesitantly hovering.
‘Call me Snake’ – The film was the result of a deal Carpenter struck with Embassy pictures, still bathed in the financial glow of Halloween which was until that point the most successful independent film ever made, and although previous effort The Fog hadn’t performed exceptionally well he was still contractually tied to a two picture deal. Rifling through his papers he revisited his post-Watergate scribed 1976 script, allegedly inspired by the Harry Harrison novella Planet Of The Damned, I don’t know about you but having reviewed that synopsis I can’t really see the connections. So, a quick detour to a a fun fact – under the watch of AVCO Embassy’s then president the studio also produced The Howling, Phantasm and Scanners during this grisly epoch – three other cult classics which are all primed for reboots and lavish re-issues. So where to begin in my unyielding love for this picture? Let’s begin with the esoteric, as I adore opening design titles in his trademark Albertus font, and I’ll just repeat my usual point about films of this period taking their time with the titles, just giving us the cast details, as the score soothes and eases you into the cinema experience. The wire-frame filming technique, primitive by today’s standards (and not computer generated which was spectacularly expensive in 1981) are quite direct and explicit in their iconic simplicity, and overall this works as a very effective, two-minute precis of the world we are about to enter – a deft, compact, economic approach, typical of a Carpenter construction. Then of course we have the soundtrack, let’s get that out-of-the-way lest we risk repetition from my last post, as it is absolutely one of his best. Draping the film with the ticking timeline is a stroke of genius, not just the President’s world saving summit appearance but also the explosive charges placed into Snake’s veins. Sure, it’s a little implausible but it powers the film with an accelerating tempo, an audience guide track which drives the plot, a sense of urgency which when utilized effectively can make or break a project. Even though you see very little of the 1997 world beyond the Manhattan ruins it somehow feels like a living, breathing entity, presented in a comic book way of course, but still strangely convincing and compelling that genre movies with ten times this budget fail to manage these days with all their wide-vista cross cutting possibilities, all the digital bells and whistles which are available. Of course, by 2016 it is simply unthinkable that America could elect a right-wing, proto-fascist demagogue who rants of erecting walls and exiling undesirables to perish in their own slums now isn’t it?
‘When I get back, I’m going to kill you’ – The cast is a rogues gallery of Carpenter comrades and then popular character players, from musician Isaac Hayes as the bling bungled Duke to the streetwise Ernest Borgnine as Cabby, trading in his earthy drama and horse-opera appearances for another SF picture a couple of years after he’d fallen into a The Black Hole. JC regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins are always a pleasure, while the heavyweights weigh in with Menagerie favorite Harry Dean Stanton as the weasely
Harold Hellman Brain, and the gimlet eyed Lee Van Cleef who underscores the movies Western credentials – more on that shortly. In terms of minutia and obsessive lore I’ve always had a test for the real Carpenter fanatics, as there are essentially two kinds of acolyte in my book – those who nod and smile when you urge them to name two Frank Doubleday* pictures, and those who tremble and burst into tears. Now, of course you wise purveyors of the Menagerie recognize him from Assault, right? He was the mute ganglord murderer of the girl and in this joint is another memorable and ghastly side character whom you can mentally spin an entire origin story around, purely on the strength of their demeanor, costume and attitude – in this case Keith Flint from The Prodigy crossed with a troll doll. The film, despite its modest $6 million budget also excels in world building which makes the alternate history breathe, courtesy of the exemplar talent of Joe CE3K, Jaws, Freejack Alves. He brought the sense of those ruined, debris strewn Manhattan streets to the actual location of St. Louis which had suffered a major urban fire in 1976, thus served as an ideal fulcrum to paint a portrait of a ravaged New York. Matched with cinematographer Dean Cundey’s deep ochre and cobalt Panavision framing this is a film which coils in the crepuscular details, the miniature oil derrick pumping gasoline in Harry Dean Stanton’s Public Library rat-hole, the black jack-boot fatigues and elongated obsidian blast masks of the fascist authorities, the now retro-futuristic signage decals, these all thread a quasi realistic world which hook the audience into the action.
‘The president of what?’ – So, narratively speaking Escape From New York is a Western of course, Carpenter’s specialism was always decanting the design and iconography of these narratives and placing them in new genre templates, with our grizzled anti-hero entering extremely hostile Comanche country in order to rescue a figure of civilizing authority, and assembling a rat-tag posse of ne’er-do-well’s during his escapades. But this is not that simple as Carpenter has always harbored an anti-authoritarian streak that runs like a virulent Occupy march through his work. In this script, written as America was still reeling from the Watergate souring of the political class and the remnants of the Vietnam insurrection the rescue of the figurehead of the republic strikes a deeply sour note, with an elite political class barely acknowledging the sacrifice of his minions – in such an environment what is a man of quiet principle to do? There are so many favorite little film moments that I can’t justify with any film theory gobbledygook, just the tracking shot of the equipment of our resourceful anti-hero makes me grin, or Plisken taking a moment to correct an upturned chair in order to have a sit and think by the burning wreckage of Air Force One, or the expertly choreographed final race against time – it’s just simple, unadulterated genre film nerd nirvana, and if anyone would like to gift me the ultra-rare film novelisation I’m all ears.
‘You’re the… Duke, (quietly) You’re… A-number one’ – Must I remind you of the presence of a certain James Cameron esquire as one of the matte technicians and model craftsmen on the film? I hear that he went on to work on some popular pictures throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s? It’s not possible to watch the film and the utilization of the twin towers as the site of Snake’s clandestine entry and potential egress without some grim internal reckoning, but that’s always the case when you see any movie with them still standing erect, even in the distant background. Technically speaking its unusual for the period to shoot in wide 2:35:1 Panavision which certainly graces his films of the era with a wider vista, a more ‘epic’ feel, it steroid enhances the experience and drama and distinguishes them with a little more class and prestige through a frame more favored by the art-house brigade. The 35mm print was a little ragged and jerky at some points, particularly, as always, around the reel changes, but that was part of the whole electrifying experience, like a revisit to some grind-house or drive-in which this print must have played back in the last century. Colour and balance wise it was as strong as a digital scan, and most importantly the sound was fantastic, roaring out of the BFI’s modern Dolby tweakers during the action scenes or prompting giggles when dialogue exchanges got tough-guy taut. I’m slightly ashamed of my initial apprehension of seeing the film in the NFT3, I don’t know if they have upgraded this venue recently but the screen was much larger than I remembered, with equal coverage and better seat pitch and sight-lines than NFT2 so my hostility to this room has now evaporated like a triffid in a thunderstorm. Overall this was one of the greatest screenings I’ve ever managed, just to finally see this beloved picture in full frame anamorphic as opposed to the criminal pan-and-scan atrocities of those early VHS releases and TV transmissions still blows my mind, and in a well-preserved 35mm print with good sound and a respectful crowd to boot – an undeniable pinnacle of the ten years of the Menagerie.
‘…..The names’s Plisken‘ – So we slither to ole Snake Plisken himself, arguably Kurt Russell’s finest couple of hour’s in front of the camera. It’s no surprise that the studio was somewhat reticent to cast a former Disney child star in this incarnation of a lethal nihilist bad-ass, instead they pushed Charles Bronson on Carpenter as a preferred choice (was he ever in a SF movie? I can’t picture it) and also the gruff landscape gardener Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter stuck to his guns and the rest, as they say, is machismo history. It’s important to reflect that the movie was released in 1981, before Stallone, Ahndolt and Van Damage fully launched their carnage strewn careers, before the sort of super-macho, ubermensch model of that particular phase of genre cinema had fully taken hold. You can draw a clear line from Eastwood, James Coburn and Lee Marvin in the 1970’s through to this stoic anti-hero, I see him as very much a linking figure, with his alternating catchphrase and indiscriminate disrespect for authority. As such he’s an early precursor of the protagonist with whom one does not fuck, who uses unconventional methods to get the job done, except Snake would never respect the conventions of any system in the first place. I’m sure he comes across as a laughable parody to contemporary audiences, especially with the pirate eye-patch and studious rasping voice and sneering coolness, but I love the whole cartoonish demeanor. The less said about Escape From L.A. the better, for my sins I used to defend it as having some moments of amusement, but having re-watched it again earlier this year I’m fighting a losing cause here, as frankly it is bloody atrocious. The saga of the potential remake of EFNY limps on and on, year by year, and let’s face it will be a bloody awful – I’m calling it now. If they cast someone with the star persona of Gerald Butler, appoint the team behind the likes of the White House Down then really what do we expect.
‘You gonna kill me now Snake?’ ‘Not now, I’m too tired’…..(Pause)…..’Maybe later’ – But we’ll always have
Paris New York, if you judge a genre film by the breadth and longevity of its imitators then this is one of the gems, with the American and in particular Italian schlock peddlers carving out an entire dystopian sub-genre of film throughout the 1980’s – Bronx Warriors, 2019: After The Fall Of New York, Battletruck Megaforce, The New Barbarians, and Neil Marshall’s most recent Doomsday, although to be fair some of those took equal cues from the companion piece Mad Max 2 and I’d cite The Warriors as the final piece in a perfect movie trilogy. The final word is this screening was a quasi-religious experience for me, similar to that fealty to Assault On Precinct 13 earlier in the year, and I’m so, so happy to have finally apprehended a film I’ve been agonizing to see for, well, something in the region of thirty fucking years – and there was me thinking that my bloated A.I. review was the longest piece I was going to publish this year. Carpenter is somewhat renown for utilizing open endings, we the story would continue in its own little parallel dimension, just thing of the final verbal confrontation in The Thing which still provokes spirited debate, or the dream-shock climax of Prince Of Darkness, which is somewhat less successful. Escape From New York however champions one of his best finales, we exit stage right, limping and dragging upon a defiant cigarette, as through the bleak nihilism we fade to black as a jazz score recedes in the distance, as some bad-asses just don’t care if the world burns….
* Holy fucking Christ in a sidecar, discoveries like this are why we keep this ridiculous blog going – through my research it turns out that Frank’s daughter Portia just happens to be in the phenomenally brilliant Angela in Mr. Robot, the series I consider the pinnacle of storytelling entertainment of 2016, what a beautiful connection….
Well, fellow fiends, have you recovered from our most blood thirsty night of the year? I am still coming to the terms that one of my heroes, John Carpenter, was not only coming to the UK to perform a set-list culled from his hugely admired films, but that he would be performing in a venue that when it was announced lay dormant about ten minutes walk from my flat. Now, yes I have moved in the intervening few months, but the Troxy is still an easily accessible venue from my Isle of Dogs lair, and frankly there was no way I was missing this bucket-list chance to score another life-goal. Some of the reports of previous dates in the tour have been less than stellar, due to what sounds like some unscrupulous promoters who have drastically oversold the venue rather than any issue with the sound or performance. For this inaugural London evening instead we had the pleasure of a fine venue, an enthusiastic crowd and the benefit of it actually being Halloween night, so there was a palpable roaor when he and his crew took to the stage for a sonic shattering experience;
Well, OK, I’m dipping into the realms of hyperbole. This was a throughly entertaining evening, the sound and venue were great, and it was awe-inspiring to see the soundtracks to such beloved films of mine as those attached here and The Fog, and Big Trouble In Little China, and They Live played by the great man himself. That said there was a fair amount of filler, the new material is fine, its good background web surfing / writing music as far as I’m concerned, but it didn’t exactly come to life in the venue. I’m sure you’re all aware of the set-list which doesn’t appear to have altered from the North American strand of the tour, nor indeed does Carpenters pre-rehearsed banter between tracks. Still, as I anticipated just the audience brought out the more cult attuned London film set, some of which had made an amusing effort to dress up as the likes of Rowdy Roddy Piper or Snake Plisken, although no-one that I saw made a full Michael Myers effort….
I don’t think opening the set with two of his strongest tracks was necessarily the best strategy, and leaving the likes of Christine for the encore, as with the best will in the world that isn’t exactly ois most memorable contribution to the composer canon. Still, hopefully the footage above and below speaks for itself, you either like his stuff or you don’t, and given the timing and its influence I’d judge the biggest audience reaction was for the film Halloween, whose opening frantic oscillations brought a grin to my eyes. A fantastic evening which makes up the lack of the possible BFI appearance, so catch up on tour if you can;
Another expensive looking SF drama, with a top-drawer A list cast – however this looks a little flat to me, a little rote, if you will….
This meme has mostly been representing my reaction to Halloween this year, although I have enjoyed American Horror Hotel Season 5 which I veinjacked this weekend – great soundtrack choices, including faintly obscure Cure, Depeche Mode, Sisters Of Mercy and Tangerine Dream drills, the latter running as a barely cloaked evil epiphany throughout the entire season. Still, tonight, soundwise the Menagerie finally sees John Carpenter and all his acolytes in all their gruesome glory, which is beyond immortal imagination. I will have a review of this and a recent Carpenter classic screening to follow;
….and this has made me discover that the brilliant Near Dark is only available in Blu-Ray region 1, what unholy travesty is this? Still, my old-school DVD double pack is my tribute to the pagan hangover of choice, ‘pray for daylight’ indeed, and just to gloat it looks fantastic, some might say freshly blooded on my upscaling A/V system…..
Any fears I had of breaching superhero saturation point have been keenly banished to the astral plane by Dr. Strange, Marvel’s latest instalment in its pervasive and swiftly expanding cinematic universe. On paper, or rather parchment, four Marvel movies in one year strikes one as overkill, in yet another season marred by reboots, remakes and resurrections, pushing any potential originality or inspiration out to the margins of the art house or independent film arenas. I didn’t have any specific investment in this particular project, I quite like the character from my comic book collecting youth but he was never exactly a favourite, and the trailer while intriguing made me react with mostly a ‘hmm, I think I’ll check that out’ rather than any sense of enhanced enthusiasm. The rather obvious casting of Benedict Cumberbatch also made me raise a quizzical eyebrow, I’ve never quite understood the devotion he inspires, while he’s been very good in some things he’s been throughly predictable in others, although, to be fair I’ve not seen some of his highly regarded work such as Sherlock which I’m told is solid OCD orientated entertainment. Furthermore I re-watched Civil War a fortnight ago and some of the action set-pieces aside I was mostly bored, caring very little for the characters or their throughly tedious struggles, so it seemed that the sheen of the Marvel franchise was beginning to lose its lustre. Nevertheless like a good soldier I ambled over to the multiplex this weekend, buoyed by strong word-of-mouth and an eerily appropriate bout of fog shrouded weather which has blanketed London all day. I now consider my chakra’s re-energised and my transcendental ascension complete, as this is one of the years best blockbusters, another bolt of bedevilment in the heart of Warner Brothers faltering film failures.
Here we have an origin story which can get a little stale after their numerous iterations, but when they are handled so proficiently you really can’t complain, the conceit, fall from grace and subsequent renewal the benchmark of hero films that align with the Hollywood three act structure, flayed with a mind bending para-reality twist. Like the first Iron Man picture we are introduced to an arrogant and brilliantly skilled protagonist, the brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), Strange and Stark two peas in the franchise product pod. He’s a man who has everything, the Manhattan penthouse suite, the seven-figure sports car, the sartorial closet that would make Saville Row swoon, and a burgeoning romance with his surgical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams). All this crashes to the ground after his hands are decimated in a violent car crash, forcing Strange to frantically seek solutions beyond western medicine in order to resurrect his crushed career. When he hears whispers of another crippled soul who managed to overcome his ailments his journey leads him to Kathmandu, in search of the fabled Kamar-Taj, where a mystical seer known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, baldly brilliant), her major-domo Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and their coven of mystical warriors protect the earth from para-dimensional threats through their mastery of sorcerous powers. A pre-credit prologue hints at a sinister plot which is engineered by Kaecilius (an adequate Mads Mikkelsen) who has rejected the teachings of the Ancient One in favour of a hidden and immensely powerful force, seeking immortality and a new epoch of order and bliss if only those pesky ideals of free-will and harmony are sacrificed at the altar of a near omnipotent and infinite entity. If that all sounds a little too spiritual then no fear, this is an action orientated blockbuster through and through, as for a coven of transcendental monks they sure enjoy knocking seven shades of cyttorak out of each other to solve their problems and maintain the secret and shielded equilibrium.
So, first things first. Visually, the film is staggering, perhaps too much to take in even on the biggest screen possible, with almost every pixel fluctuating and morphing in the films most extravagant set-piece scenes. In that sense I’d say 3D is a must if you are comfortable with the format, genuinely adding a depth and dimensional delirium, and on that front alone I am seriously contemplating a second big-screen viewing. Yes, a lot of sneering nerds have dismissed the film as Matrix-lite or little more than an Inception clone from just a brief glimpse of the trailer which are both obvious visual references, but Dr. Strange takes those perception perverting designs to omni-dimensional plateaus, warping and weirding reality in a throughly bewitching way – it feels fresh and genuinely exhilarating in the blockbuster format which hasn’t been so confidently conceived for quite some time. Strange’s initial introduction to the para-realities beyond mortal comprehension is a transcendental tour-de-force, and these sequences are the films strengths which manage to camouflage some of the more traditional plot definitions and designs, which faithfully follow in the the usual superhero footsteps of the hubristic fall and rise. True, there might be a bit of overkill as the sheer onslaught of visual information is a little difficult to process sometimes, such is the density of the pixellated pandemonium, but that’s why the lord invented Blu-ray’s and 4K playback systems didn’t s/he? As someone who has never felt kinship with the cult of Cumberbatch he nailed this performance, being an arrogant, insular egomaniac thrown on a journey of self discovery, with a genuine arc which was satisfied by the films clever climax. It’s here that Dr. Strange cleverly and confidentially cleaves closely to the properties sequential storytelling origins, utilising intellect and guile rather than strength and combat in order to overcome para-dimensionally oppressive foes. As pointed out by wiser souls than I it’s also amusing to see a major Hollywood blockbuster pilfered by not one, not two but no less than four British thespians, as Bundersnatch, Swinton, Eijofor and Benedict Wong all acquaint themselves admirably, the latter as an initially humorless warrior monk arrayed with the forces of good.
There are some mild transcendental themes running as undercurrents through the film, the script and plot mesh the physical with the spiritual in some scenes both metaphorical and kinetic, a yin and yang which is buried somewhat beneath the binary blitzkrieg of battles and metaphysical melees. Some of the plot sequencing is convenient to say the least, with events erupting in fisticuffs after another bout of plot exposition, and McAdams gets sidelined with a thinly written character whose sole reason seems to be a mere plot device reflection of Strange’s oscillating destiny – it’s not her fault but if she was surgically removed the picture wouldn’t suffer. Directorially you can’t sense any individual agency which is by no means a criticism, these are films by committee with Marvel producer Kevin Feige arguably the sole creative captain behind the MCU, as we all know that attempts to deviate from the carefully calibrated chassis can result in a heavily padded P45 and a return to the unemployment queue. In this issue it’s the cast and the SFX that makes this picture work rather than any central inspiration or particularly withering writing, this could have gone so very, very wrong, but Marvel & Disney have navigated a graceful path between humorous asides, avoiding orientalist offence or tedium entangled origin cliché, conjuring instead a genuine sense of spellbinding visual sorcery which is a worthy addition to their franchise paddock. For me, at least on an initial screening this is up there with the giddy heights of Guardians, some of the sequences in the first Avengers picture and the paranoid purpose of The Winter Soldier, terrifically compelling Hollywood entertainments with just enough fidelity to their Dikto and Lee sequential story telling genesis. So yes true believers, Dr. Strange is another historiography of hilarious Hollywood holography, holistically primed with their prismatic pixel punishing pandemonium – Excelsior indeed;
Oh yes, we are starting to get excited now for the Halloween event, and be assured that there is more Carpenter to come;
Right, OK, this is getting ridiculous. After not one but two Carpenter seasons this year, a detour down Alan Clark avenue, and Spielberg session at the BFI you’d think I’d be looking forward to a quiet start to 2017 and maybe a modest chance to get that Kurosawa season finally out of the dojo. Apparently fucking not;
It has been a source of constant shame that in ten years I haven’t covered, at least in full undivided review mode, a single 1970’s, 1980’s or even 1990’s Marty picture. Now it appears I have a opportunity to correct this grievous oversight, of one of my all time favourite filmmakers, enthusiasts, preservationists, raconteurs, etc etc.. To begin Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy are all essentials – I mean that goes without saying – so I guess we’ll see what we can do about certain, select others….now go get your fucking shine box……