Videophiled: ‘Escape from New York’

Scream Factory

Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – “Plissken? I heard you were dead.” “Call me Snake.” Maybe it’s not John Carpenter’s best film, but it’s one of his most fun and the premise is irresistible: in the future, Manhattan has been turned into a high security island prison and Liberty Island is the guard station. When Air Force One is hijacked by an American revolutionary outfit (this may be what the future looks like from 1981, but these yahoos look more like holdovers from the early seventies), the American President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands in the middle of no man’s land and becomes a bargaining chip for the reigning king of the outlaws (Isaac Hayes), who runs the place like a gangland Godfather.

Kurt Russell hisses out a B-movie Clint Eastwood impression as Snake Plissken, a one-time war hero turned notorious criminal and his arrival at Liberty Island in cuffs makes him the only hope they have of rescuing POTUS before very bad things start to happen. What exactly isn’t important. It’s a deadline that Plissken has to meet if he wants out alive, which is how head of security Lee Van Cleef, Plissken’s nemesis turned wary ally by circumstance, guarantees his cooperation. As he navigates the feral streets to rescue the President, he picks up a motley, not completely trustworthy crew (including Harry Dean Stanton as the weaselly Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as his pistol-packing lover, and Ernest Borgnine as a big-band loving cabbie). But Russell is the revelation. He was best known for Disney comedies at the time and Carpenter had to push the studio to accept him in the lead. He delivers.

Carpenter’s dark, garbage-strewn streets lit by bonfires and headlights makes for inspired art direction and his synthesizer score is suitably minimalist and moody. Shot for a song in the rougher parts of St. Louis (doubling for the Big Apple) with simple but bold model work (some of it created by James Cameron in his Roger Corman days) and striking computer graphics, it’s a hoot, yet behind the colorful personalities of the prison yard gang is a sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America lost to poverty, runaway crime, and gangs that rule the inner city. This really was a product of its time.

“Call me Snake”


Escape from New York is both a marvelously scruffy film and a well-produced piece of dystopian cinema superbly shot by Dean Cundey in Carpenter’s beloved Panavision widescreen. The new 2k digital master, scanned from the inter-positive struck from the original negative, doesn’t take anything away from that. It gives shows the squalor in much greater detail, and the clarity helps give definition to the nocturnal imagery. This is, after all, a film that takes place mostly on the streets at night.

MGM released the film on Blu-ray a couple of year ago but it was a bare-bones affair with none of the extras from the terrific DVD special editions. This two-disc edition features the two previously available commentary tracks—a thoroughly entertaining track with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away like old (“By the way, both of our ex-wives are in the movie”) and a second track by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves covering more technical material—plus a third newly-recorded commentary track with co-star Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, looking back with over thirty years’ hindsight. Barbeau has a lot of affection for the film and for Carpenter, to whom she was married at the time.

There are also five new interview featurettes on the second disc. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York” featuring interviews with visual effect DP Dennis Skotak and matte artist Robert Skotak, “Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth” (who collaborated with Carpenter on the score), “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York” with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, “I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger,” and “My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau.”

Carried over from the previous DVD release are the complete ten-minute robbery sequence that Carpenter cut from the film (it was meant to be the opening scene) with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell, the vintage promotion featurette “Return to Escape From New York,” trailers, and a gallery of stills, posters, and promotional art.

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‘Assault On Precinct 13’ on TCM

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is not John Carpenter’s first feature–he made his debut with Dark Star (1974), a college project he began at USC with fellow student Dan O’Bannon and expanded for theatrical distribution–but it is Carpenter’s first real solo outing. As writer and director, it’s his project from start to finish, and you can see it as a transition picture, between the hungry young student filmmaker of Dark Star, tossing together a project on a shoestring with friends, and the assured, commanding young professional of Halloween (1978) crafting a fully-realized feature with the control of a master storyteller. Assault on Precinct 13 is where he announces his influences, finds his strengths, and begins to develop his style.

Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege picture, a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a horror film. The model for the screenplay came from Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo, specifically the setting of a small group of lawmen and civilians holed up in a sheriff’s office under siege from a gang of gunfighters. “Assault on Precinct 13 came together very quickly,” Carpenter told Robert C. Cumbow. “An investor from Philadelphia had some money and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go,’ and I wrote the script in eight days. I wanted to do a western, but I wasn’t able to do a western, and it was the closest thing to it.” For Assault, Carpenter transforms the sheriff’s office into a small police station in a desolate, nearly abandoned Los Angeles neighborhood. The station is in the process of being shut down while the personnel is being transferred to a new station across town, and this practically abandoned building becomes the fort where a group of cops, criminals, civilians and office workers barricade themselves against an attack by a nearly faceless gang.

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Plays Saturday, July 5 on TCM

Videophiled Cool and Classic: Ozu’s ‘Tokyo,’ Carpenter’s ‘Assault’ and Four ‘Vivien Leigh’ Classics

Tokyo Story (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is perhaps the definitive film by Yasujiro Ozu, the artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors. Chishu Ryo (Ozu’s favorite performer) and Chieko Higashiyama star as an elderly couple in rural Japan who find a cold welcome waiting for them when they come to Tokyo to visit their two urbanized children, who too busy with work and their own lives to pay them any attention. Within this simple framework Ozu creates a quiet but profound drama of the changing face of Japanese culture and the loss of traditional values in modern society.

The familiar themes and formal elements are all here – the quiet, graceful formality of Ozu’s style, the “tatami mat position” of his camera (about 36 inches from the floor, as if viewed from the position of a person seated cross-legged on a floor mat), the themes of familial responsibility and sacrifice – executed with the sureness of a master at the peak of his powers. But it’s also a resolutely modern portrait of post-war Japan, where western fashion defines the business culture and traditional dress is reserved for home, and careers and success increasingly dominate the lives of the rising generation. The painterly images bring the past and present together and the still life compositions have a serenity contradicted by the collision of cultures. It is sublime and one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema.

Previously available on DVD from Criterion, this new Blu-ray+DVD Combo is mastered from a new 4k film transfer and digital restoration, which upgrades the image significantly, and features commentary by Ozu scholar David Desser and three documentaries: the feature-length profile of the life and career of Ozu “I Lived, But” from 1983, the 40-minute tribute “Talking With Ozu” from 1993, and the 45-minute “Chishu Ryu and Shochiku’s Ofuna Studios” from 1988, all carried over from the previous DVD release. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic David Bordwell (updated from the original version featured in the DVD release).

Assault on Precinct 13: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) isn’t John Carpenter’s first feature but it’s the first real John Carpenter film, with his themes and sensibility in rough but recognizable form. Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, it plays like a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a zombie siege film that meets in a desolate Los Angeles no man’s land of a nearly abandoned neighborhood. A small group of people—cops, criminals, civilians and office workers—find themselves suddenly under siege by a nearly faceless gang in a nearly vacant police station.

Carpenter turns his dingy set into a claustrophobic cage and builds the tension as the gang takes out the besieged members one by one, forcing the survivors into the corner for a last stand. The acting is hardly Oscar material, but Carpenter fills his characters with real character and his smart, dramatically strong sense of visual design and tight pacing pulls the film together as it continues. For all the exposition dealt out in the opening half hour, it’s become an almost abstract act of violence by the end, motivations long forgotten by the attackers and survival the only thought on the minds of the dwindling survivors. And this is Carpenter’s first film shot in Panavision, his format of choice for the rest of his career.

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Why John Carpenter Is the Most Underrated Filmmaker Of Our Time

About a decade ago while I was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, I ended the screening day over beers with a small group of critics. By the end of the evening, we came around to proclaiming John Carpenter the most underrated American filmmaker of our time. Here’s a filmmaker who has made only one feature in the past decade, the low-budget The Ward, yet his legacy is getting more respect than ever — at least on home video. In 2013 alone, he’s had six films debut on Blu-ray and one remastered in a gorgeous new edition, reason enough to revisit his legacy.

Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout Factory, due November 19), Carpenter’s first feature out of film school, is a siege thriller inspired by Rio Bravo that plays out like Night of the Living Dead (which Carpenter readily acknowledges in the disc supplements). He’s very much the film aficionado sharing his love — he’s more at home referencing other movies than striking out into his own cinematic world — but he brings a sturdy professionalism to the budget-starved production and an impressive storytelling intelligence to the script and direction (where actions speak louder than quips). And for all the exposition of the attack motivation, he turns his marauding street gang into an almost inexplicable force of single-minded purpose.

All that potential blooms in Halloween (Anchor Bay).

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Blu-ray Election Day Special: ‘They Live’ all over again!

You can argue that They Live: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory) would have been a perfect Halloween week release. And you’d be right, of course. John Carpenter’s skewed invasion movie is witty and weird and has the most extreme knock-down, drag-out fistfight ever.

But I have to say, it’s weirdly even more perfect as an election-day release. Because really, who are these economic invaders from outer space but… Mitt Romney and the 1%.

Before I get inundated with hate-mail from conservative-leaning readers, let me make clear that, although Romney was nowhere in John Carpenter’s mind back in 1988 when the film was released, the politics were always pointed in his direction. The story is science fiction but Carpenter was driven by the inequities in society where the rich were getting richer, the middle class was disappearing, and the economic game was rigged by those with money and power. It was timely then and looks even more prescient now.

Roddy Piper’s working class hero John Nada, a man with no politics and a deep-seeded belief in the tenets of hard work and essential fairness, becomes a two-fisted activist when the veil is lifted (thanks to a pair of high-tech x-ray glasses). Piper is a brawny, broad presence, not much of an actor but spirited and likable, and Keith David is marvelous as his reluctant partner in rebellion, providing a moral grounding to Piper’s B-movie activism when the lie is revealed. Earth has become a third world colony for interstellar “free enterprisers” who preach the gospel of unregulated capitalism and the promise of advancement through hard work and perseverance while insidiously sabotaging all human efforts to get ahead. Their main took for control: subliminal messages, media control, and consumerist greed.

And two-fisted is the operative term here, as confirmed in the entertainingly interminable knock-down, drag-out alley brawl between Piper and Keith David. This is a classic example of genre filmmaking with a political punch, albeit in broad, sloganeering terms. “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m fresh out of bubblegum,” shouts Nada in blue-collar guerilla mode when he steps into a bank and starts blasting the skull-faced aliens. It’s a ridiculous line and, weirdly, has become something of a pop culture slogan among a certain breed of genre geek.

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Dark Star: In Space, No One Can Hear You Give Up

Dark Star: The Hyperdrive Edition (VCI)

Think of Dark Star as John Carpenter’s answer to the glistening designs and metaphysical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Deglamorizing the allure of space-age technology by giving it a drab, industrial practicality, Carpenter and co-writer/special effects supervisor/actor Dan O’Bannon give us not heroic space jockeys bravely exploring the unknown but “truck drivers in space” stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission to blow up unstable planets.

The bridge crew of Dark Star

The captain is dead (but still available for information, sort of, if he’s thawed from suspended animation), Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) has uncomfortably stepped into command (his working motto is “Who cares?”), the crew is slipping into apathy and entropy and only the annoying, slow-witted Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) showing any signs of social engagement or curiosity (which lands him in a battle wits with a flabby beach ball of an alien trickster). Any sense of purpose has degenerated into a race to get rid of the bombs so they can turn around and go him. This is not a wide-eyed celebration of the wonder of space but a state of stasis and depression cause by isolation and meaninglessness of their mission. “Waiting For Godot in Space,” is how one collaborator defined the film, a description even more indicative of Carpenter’s original version of the, when it was still an ambitious student short growing beyond its boundaries.

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TV on DVD 3/2/10 – Elvis, Alice, Poldark and a Bollywood Hero

Kurt Russell is the King in Elvis (1979) (Shout! Factory), John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie, which charts the rise of Elvis Presley from Memphis rockabilly phenomenon to rock and roll superstar to his phoenix-like comeback as a Vegas showman, but keeps the focus on the man behind the iconic image. Russell’s effortless impression captures the voice and cadence and physicality of Elvis without tipping into impersonation. He delivers the unbridled energy and musical passion that the young Elvis unleashed in every performance while allowing us to see then man in the bubble offstage, trapped by the very success that has made his fame and fortune. Carpenter, meanwhile, puts the dramatic focus on the relationships and tricky social dynamic with the male friends who became Elvis support group and entourage. It’s the first collaboration between Carpenter and Russell and it remains the most perceptive of Elvis biopics.

Kurt Russell is Elvis - thank you very much

Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell provides the singing voice and Shelley Winters, Pat Hingle and Joe Mantegna co-star. Trivia note: the film is written and produced by Anthony Lawrence, who earlier wrote three of the silliest of Elvis musicals back in the sixties. This is the DVD debut of this superb made-for TV production and the first time that the complete 170-minute production that has been available in any form for decades. Includes the featurette “Bringing A Legend To Life” featuring archival interviews with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, commentary by vocalist Ronnie McDowell and author Edie Hand (who co-authored a handful of Elvis recipe books) and rare performance clips from “American Bandstand” among the supplements.

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