RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from New York” (1981)

For years now John Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi action classic “Escape from New York” has tickled me by being set in the “near-future dystopia of 1997”. Here we are in 2023 and it’s still amusing to look back on movies that were looking forward towards the future. But in a lot of cases, a closer examination of the movies and their inspirations gives you a better sense of where they are coming from. For example, “Escape from New York” was written in 1976 and had its roots in the nation’s cynicism following the Nixon Watergate scandal. In other words, these films often had more on their minds than just genre treatment.

At the time, Kurt Russell was best known for his roles in Disney comedies such as “The Strongest Man in the World”, “Charlie and the Angel”, and “The Barefoot Executive”. To try and break from that mold he starred in the made-for-television movie “The Deadly Tower” and Robert Zemeckis’ black comedy “Used Cars”. But it was “Escape from New York” that did it for him. The very next year he reteamed with Carpenter in “The Thing”. The next year it was “Silkwood”. The next year it was “Swing Shift”. The next year it was “The Mean Season”. And the next year it was “Big Trouble in Little China”. Kurt Russell was on his way.

While the film’s backers wanted Charles Bronson to play the iconic anti-hero role of Snake Plissken, Carpenter insisted on Russell who put in a lot of effort to get into the character. As for the location, shooting in East St. Louis proved cheaper than New York City. Transforming a New York neighborhood into the run-down, decaying urban wasteland the film required was too pricey for the minuscule budget. So they shot a big portion in East St. Louis which had entire blocks of dilapidated buildings left vacant after a huge fire years earlier. Other memorable scenes were shot at St. Louis’ Union Station and on Liberty Island.

Carpenter co-wrote the story with Nick Castle who’s known best as playing Michael Myers in the original “Halloween” film. The movie is set in 1997, nearly ten years into a devastating war between the United States and the allied Chinese and Soviets. As a result, the nation’s economy has plummeted and crime has risen 400% which has led the US government to convert the ravaged Manhattan Island into the country’s lone maximum security prison. A 50-foot wall is built around the island, bridges are sealed off and mined, and heavily armed helicopters patrol the surrounding waters.

While flying to a crucial peace summit in Hartford, Connecticut, Air Force One is hijacked by a domestic terrorist/guerrilla fighter (played by another “Halloween” alum, Nancy Stephens). Unable to take back control of the plane, Secret Service agents rush President John Harker (Donald Pleasence – yep, another “Halloween” fixture) to an escape pod and jettison it over Manhattan just as the plane crashes to the ground. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (the ever great Lee Van Cleef ) dispatches a rescue team to retrieve the President, but they learn he’s been abducted by a powerful gang leader named Duke (Isaac Hayes).

With his team forced to withdraw, Hauk calls on the growling, eye-patched Snake Plissken, a decorated former Special Forces soldier recently convicted of robbing the Federal Reserve. Snake has been sentenced to a life term on Manhattan Island, but Hauk offers him a deal. Sneak in, rescue the President, and bring him out alive within 24 hours and he’ll be given a full pardon. Without much choice, Snake reluctantly accepts.

The bulk of the story takes place within the ruins of Manhattan as Snake encounters an assortment of threats including the deranged and starving “crazies” and of course Duke and his violent gang of miscreants. But he also finds some unexpected allies played by a fun assortment of names. There’s a cheery taxi driver fittingly called “Cabbie” played by Ernest Borgnine. And a wormy old acquaintance named “Brain” played by Harry Dean Stanton along with his main squeeze Maggie who’s played by Adrienne Barbeau.

While rewatching “Escape from New York” I was reminded that, despite it’s reputation, it’s not the all-out action movie that you might think. It’s a genre exercise no doubt, and it still has a certain B-movie grindhouse appeal. But this tried-and-true favorite is more than a buffet of blood and bullets. And it has the restraint and focus to avoid being tagged as trashy exploitation. Instead, Carpenter created something that I’m sure even he didn’t expect. From Kurt Russell immortalizing the lead character to the comic books, action figures, and board games that followed, “Escape from New York” still excites its fans and has earned its status as a time-tested cult classic.


REVIEW: “Elf” (2003)

(Originally reviewed in 2012)

Christmas movies are their own special brand of films. Much of what makes them good is centered on how well they tie into this wonderful holiday season. You can’t separate them from the holiday, and their success depends on that relationship to Christmas. Jon Favreau’s “Elf” is a perfect example. Soaked with Christmas lore, “Elf” captures the sentimental spirit of Christmas within its clever and often times hilarious story. “Elf” is inseparable from Christmas and your perception of the holiday will naturally impact your perception of this movie. That’s probably why I can forgive its few flaws and appreciate it as a true holiday treat.

Will Ferrell stars which can sometimes throw up a few red flags for me. Ferrell and this movies often follow a fairly overused formula where he plays someone in an absurdly out-of-place position (see movies such as “Semi-Pro” and “Blades of Glory”). But unlike those movies, it really works here. He plays Buddy the Elf, a toymaker at Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. How’s that for a wacky fit?

But there are several noticeable differences between Buddy and his fellow elves, none more glaring than the fact that he’s 6’5 and not very good at making toys. His father, Papa Elf (hilariously played by Bob Newhart, fully decked out in a bright elf costume with green tights) decides it’s time to reveal to Buddy that he’s really a human being. Feeling uncertainty about where he truly belongs, Buddy sets out on a journey to find his real father. His quest takes him to the magical world of New York City.

Image Courtesy of New Line Cinema

It’s here that the absurdity really kicks in. Buddy arrives in the Big Apple in full elf garb where his elf mentality immediately clashes with the concrete jungle. He comes face-to-face with many new and exotic things including New York cabbies, coffee shops, and the Lincoln Tunnel. It’s often hysterical watching Buddy’s elf sensibilities smash up against big city life. The fish-out-of-water script provides plenty of funny moments. Of course it gets a little sappy at the end, and the baked-in holiday cheer means the ending is fairly predictable. But that goes hand-in-hand with Christmas movies. You pretty much know what you’re going to get.

Then there’s the terrific and committed supporting performances. I especially love James Caan as Buddy’s real father, Walter Hobbs. He’s a shrewd children’s book publisher who spends more time at work than with his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and his young son (Daniel Tay). Then there’s Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a Gimbel’s department store worker who catches Buddy’s eye. Much like Walter, she’s in desperate need of some Christmas spirit, something that Buddy has in spades. Ed Asner is a wonderful fit as Santa Claus, and Faizon Love has several great scenes as the Gimbels toy department manager.

“Elf” is utterly absurd and unashamedly silly and I say that as a compliment. Even if you aren’t a Will Ferrell fan, he’s an absolute blast in this fun and festive holiday treat. It may be handcuffed by its Christmas movie boundaries, and it certainly dips into sentimentality at the end. But it’s such a warm and clever film; one with plenty of good gags and family-friendly laughs. It may not be up everyone’s alley. But for many, it’s a film that has become one of the “must watch” movies of the Christmas season. That’s certainly the case at our house.


REVIEW: “The Eternal Daughter” (2022)

Tilda Swinton captivates in “The Eternal Daughter”, the latest from distributor A24 that for some reason seems to have fallen through the cracks this awards season. Sadly the film hasn’t received much of a push which is unfortunate considering it’s one of A24’s best films of 2022. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, this poignant and haunting mother/daughter elegy begs to be contemplated as it tinkers with genre and subverts our expectations, all as Hogg pulls from some deeply personal places for inspiration.

“The Eternal Daughter” was shot during the COVID-19 lockdown which makes sense considering the mostly single location and minuscule cast. But whatever constraints were in place never make it onto the screen. That’s because Hogg’s keen control of her audience, both through her well managed direction and eloquently crafted script, never allows us time to ponder any of its limitations. Instead she keeps us firmly focused on her two main characters, Julie (Swinton) and her mother Rosalind (also Swinton).

Image Courtesy of A24

The movie begins with a chatty cabbie driving Julie and Rosalind across the foggy countryside, eventually arriving at Moel Faman Hall, a remote hotel set in an old rural manor. It’s somewhat of a mother and daughter getaway to celebrate Rosalind’s birthday but with some special meaning. We learn that Moel Faman Hall was where Rosalind grew up as a child, well before it was turned into a rustic bed-and-breakfast.

Upon arriving Julie goes to check in and is greeted by the seemingly empty hotel’s snooty and disinterested receptionist (a really good Carly-Sophia Davies) who takes them to their room. It’s not the room they reserved, but the receptionist doesn’t seem to care. Instead she hops in the car with her boyfriend and leaves for the evening. Quite the opposite is Bill (Joseph Mydell), the kindly nighttime concierge who pops up later and is always willing to lend a hand. He’s a tender soul with his own personal attachment to the hotel.

So Julie and Rosalind settle in for the evening. As they do, Hogg treats us to one of my favorite things about her film – the small intimate exchanges between mother and daughter, so natural and organic that they immediately triggered sweet memories of my own mother and grandmother and the relationship they shared. These tender moments are scattered all throughout the movie, and they’re aided by Swinton’s graceful dual-role performance which evolves into something even more impressive over time. It’s great work from Swinton who’s no stranger to handling this type of challenge.

Image Courtesy of A24

For Julie, what follows are several restless nights where she constantly hears unexplained noises from the vacant floors above and even sees a ghostly old lady peering out the windows. Hogg plays around with our perceptions, not just of what we see on screen but also in how we view her movie as a whole. Is it a horror movie? The drafty creaky interiors, the thick evening fog that engulfs the manor, even the eerie wailing music that feels plucked right out of an early “X-Files” episode make you wonder. But as Hogg patiently reveals her real interests, we begin to get a better grasp of what’s really going on. It just takes cracking her code to get to the heart of the movie.

Though modestly budgeted, “The Eternal Daughter” looks amazing in large part thanks to the textured 16mm cinematography from Ed Rutherford. There’s also some crafty camera trickery, even craftier editing, and terrific makeup design. It all beautifully serves this thematically rich drama which clearly comes from a place close to Hogg’s heart. And ultimately it’s that personal touch that makes her thoughtful self-reflection resonate as intensely as it does. “The Eternal Daughter” is now showing in select theaters.


REVIEW: “Emancipation” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Coming off the highs of his first Academy Award win and the lows of his infamous slap of Chris Rock during the live Oscar broadcast, Will Smith has certainly had a lot to navigate over the past year. His shameful and embarrassing behavior tarnished what should have been the biggest night of his career. Sadly, it also seems to have sullied some of the excitement for his follow-up film, the $120 million slavery survival epic(ish) “Emancipation”.

“Emancipation” isn’t a bad movie. In fact, director Antoine Fuqua’s passion for the the material (written by William N. Collage) seeps out of nearly every desaturated image. And Smith delivers what might be the most fiercely committed performance of his career. But Fuqua (who’s known most for his gritty crime thrillers and popcorn shoot ’em ups) lets his urge to entertain muddy things up. He seems caught in between making a prototypical action flick and something more artistic and inspiring. It leaves the film feeling historically less convincing which isn’t good, especially when you’re dealing with such weighty subject matter. Collage’s script contributes to the problem by leaning too heavily on well-worn action tropes and not enough on character dynamics and history. Still, there are things to admire in this $120 million production.

“Emancipation” is taken from the true story of an escaped slave named Gordon (Peter by some accounts). In 1863, Gordon/Peter fled a Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons. For ten days he was chased by bloodhounds across the treacherous swampland, finally making it to Baton Rouge where he joined the Union army. While there, he was forever immortalized through a photo showing his bare back, scarred and mangled from countless whippings. The photo of “Whipped Peter” was first published in Harper’s Weekly but quickly circulated, pulling back the veil on the atrocities of slavery and energizing the abolitionist movement.

While watching “Emancipation” you get the sense that Fuqua and Smith want their film to have a similar impact as that 1863 photo. They’ve made a brutally graphic movie with shock value that is sure to unsettle some and frustrate others. Their intentions are honorable. They want to awaken their audience to the realities of slavery. But there’s a fine line to walk, and sometimes the Hollywood influence can be overpowering.

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation that all slaves in the Confederate states were free, many people remained enslaved throughout the South. In Louisiana alone, 350,000 were still in bondage. Their only choices were to stay in captivity until the Union army eventually came or seek freedom on their own. “Emancipation” tells a story set within that dark window of time. Liberation was coming, but for many it was impossible to know when. And the wait seemed like an eternity.

For a slave named Peter (Smith), a god-fearing husband and father of four, the urgency of freedom grows after he’s dragged from his family, thrown into a cage, and hauled to a labor camp where he’s put to work on a Confederate railroad. He promised his children that he would return, but the horrors surrounding him at the hands of brutal white foremen makes fleeing seem unlikely. But when he overhears that Lincoln has freed the slaves, he determines to escape and make his way to Baton Rouge where the Union army is stationed.

With a few swings of a shovel, Peter breaks free and escapes into the forest. He’s immediately pursued by Ben Foster’s Fassel, the film’s ruthless but otherwise empty villain who makes his own sociopathic sport out of hunting down “runners”. Foster is no stranger to playing heavies, but here he’s handed a dry and flavorless husk of a character who only serves the purpose of giving Peter someone to flee.

While the first 30 minutes is spent stressing the physical and emotional horrors of slavery (again, well-meaning but sure to turn off some), “Emancipation” quickly becomes a full-on survival thriller as Peter cuts through the gator-infested bayou with Fassel hot on his heels. Then in the third act, with very little buildup at all, the story takes a “Glory” like turn, complete with large-scale battlefield scenes, fierce combat, and lots of carnage.

These three dramatically different acts may lack the connecting tissue, but they each have their moments in large part thanks to Smith. Story-wise his narrowly confined character doesn’t allow him much room to stretch. But Smith transforms himself for the role, and the sheer physicality he pours into the performance is astonishing.

Then there’s DP Robert Richardson who squeezes nearly every ounce of color from his images to visualize a bleak and forbidding world. His sweeping overhead shots and beautiful framing can come across as showy and even a bit distracting. But more often than not the visuals amaze and show the more inspired side of the movie. They tease what “Emancipation” might have been without the genre trimmings. Thankfully the story of “Whipped Peter” stays intact, and Fuqua deserves credit for his willingness to tell it. “Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.


REVIEW: “Empire of Light” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sam Mendes the director faces off against Sam Mendes the screenwriter in “Empire of Light”, an ambitious undertaking that feels like about four different movies crammed into one. It’s a romance, a socio-political study, an ode to cinema history, a workplace drama. It’s bevy of themes includes racism, mental illness, sexual harassment, working class struggles. Some things fare much better than others. Ultimately it’s too much to juggle, and Mendes the director can’t quite compensate for Mendes the screenwriter.

“Empire” is chock-full of compelling pieces. It has Olivia Colman as its star. It’s shot by the great Roger Deakins. It has a wonderful period appeal. It has scenes that exquisitely celebrate the movie theater experience. All of these strengths work to realize Mendes’ big vision and are driven by his obvious passion for the many subjects he attempts to tackle.

But simply put, Mendes has too much on his plate. And while I love Colman’s brilliantly layered performance, Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography, etc., the story feels like a patchwork of loosely connected ideas with some carrying enough weight to be their own movie. But here, none of them get the attention they need to project the kind of “importance” Mendes is going for. So we end up with a film that feels stitched together and that never reaches the heights it’s clearly aiming for.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The story is set in the early 1980s and spends most of its time at a movie house in an English coastal town. The Empire was once a prestigious theater with a restaurant, a bar, a ballroom, and five total screening rooms. But over time business dropped off, and the Empire was forced to downsize. Eventually everything was shutdown save two screening rooms, and it scrapes by with a small but dedicated staff (a well-handled the metaphor for the struggling theaters of today).

Colman plays Hilary Small, the duty manager at the Empire. We’re introduced to her through a terrific opening credits montage showing her opening up the theater. She unlocks doors, turns out the lights, checks on the candy display, and opens up the box office. The art deco decor, the red velvet curtains with gold trim, the shiny brass railings – its a transporting sequence shot with stunning detail.

While the movie house setting beams with nostalgic joy, Hilary is much the opposite. We can’t help but notice her lonely, detached, melancholy (at one point she fittingly describes herself as “numb”). Her eclectic blend of co-workers are an easygoing bunch, none more fun than Toby Jones as Norman, the theater’s projectionist. On the other end is Hilary’s weaselly boss Mr. Daniel Ellis (Colin Firth). He runs the theater behind a facade of respectability. In truth he’s an abusive slime who often uses his power to satisfy his sexual urges (something that gets more heinous as Hilary’s story unfolds).

Hilary‘s demeanor changes when a younger new employee named Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the Empire’s staff. Hilary is tasked with showing him the ropes and quickly becomes enamored with his youthful spirit and personality. Eventually, an unexpected and slightly underdeveloped romance develops. Mendes uses several aspects of their relationship for commentary (their age difference; she’s white, he’s Black). Some of it resonates. Some of it is glaringly on-the-nose.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Before you know it, Mendes is balancing his ‘love letter to cinema and movie theaters’ with a multi-faceted and frustratingly uneven character drama. The on-again-off-again chemistry between Colman and Ward doesn’t help. Both performances are solid, but the screenplay doesn’t always put them in the best positions. Things only get messier once Mendes shallowly digs into mental health, white supremacy, etc.

But then you have what works best, namely Mendes’ full-hearted expression of his love for movies, the theater experience, and the history of cinema itself. It shines through in several great bits, both big and easy to miss. Some are as broad as the evocative theater setting itself. Others are very specific scenes, none better than Norman giving Michael a detailed rundown of the projection room (It’s one of my favorite scenes of the year). Too bad it feels so at odds with other things the movie is trying to do.

And that gets back to the film’s biggest problem – it’s all over the map narratively, thematically, even tonally. And when making deep affecting themes part of your story, you want to give them the attention they need. That doesn’t always happen in “Empire”. It’s well-meaning for sure but pretty bare in its considerations, leaving some themes feeling tacked onto an already stuffed movie. Meanwhile we end up feeling torn between admiring the movie Mendes wanted to make and accepting the one we end up with. “Empire of Light” hits theaters December 9th.


REVIEW: “Enola Holmes 2” (2022)

One of the biggest surprises (and quite frankly one of the biggest treats) of 2020 was the jaunty mystery film “Enola Holmes”. Based on the young adult series of detective novels (that I know practically nothing about), the feature film adaptation sported good direction from Harry Bradbeer, a great script by Jack Thorne, and a terrific supporting cast that included Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, and Helena Bonham Carter. But it was the magnetic charisma of its star, Millie Bobby Brown that made the film such a delight.

Following the success of its predecessor, Netflix was quick to green-light “Enola Holmes 2”. Brown reprises her titular role, brandishing the same personality and charm. Bradbeer returns to the directing chair with Thorne again handling the screenwriting. Also returning is Cavill as Enola’s brother, the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes, and Carter as her loving renegade mother, Eudoria who’s still on the run (see the previous film) and who has quite the affection for explosives. Several other familiar faces return along the way (but where’s Sam Claflin???).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Following the success of her unofficial first case in the first film, Enola is all set to become a full-time detective. She opens up Enola Holmes Detective Agency, but quickly finds that securing clients isn’t easy for a young lady in her late teens, especially in the patriarchal Victorian England of the 1880s. She also finds herself still living in the shadow of her famous older brother Sherlock. After a long stretch of no cases and no income, Enola is set to call it quits and move back to Ferndell Hall.

But while boxing up her things Enola is surprised by a visitor – a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) seeking help in finding her missing sister, Sarah (Hannah Dodd). After doing a little investigating, Enola decides to take the case which (to no surprise) turns out to be more than a missing woman. Soon Enola finds herself in a web of greed, corporate corruption, extortion, oppression, and women’s suffrage. And as her case intensifies, she discovers that she doesn’t have to go at it alone. Sometimes everyone can use a little help.

While the first film was all about finding herself, “Enola Holmes 2” is a straight detective story, with Enola following in the footsteps of her famous older brother yet carving her own path and honing her young super-sleuthing skills. She’s still smart, perceptive, and fiercely independent. And she still routinely breaks the fourth wall to offer us some hilarious commentary or sometimes just to get things off her chest. This is where Brown’s performance really shines. Her ability to shuffle between comedy and drama is impressive. And she’s able to retain Enola’s playfulness from the first film while also showing some meaningful growth. Brown fully embodies her character.

While Brown is unquestionably the star, she’s surrounded by an array of wonderful supporting players. Cavill works at just the right temperature and fills his character’s sizable shoes well. He and Brown have a sweet chemistry and share some great scenes together, especially in Sherlock’s Baker Street flat. Louis Partridge remains a nice fit as the geeky yet noble Lord Viscount Tewkesbury. “He’s still a nincompoop,” Enola tells us as she tries to hide her fondness for him. Carter doesn’t show up much but is a lot of fun when she does. And new to the cast is David Thewlis, the film’s snarling heavy.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

As happens often in these kinds of movies, some aspects of the mystery are a tad too convenient, as some clues seem to fall right into Enola’s lap. And there’s a significant final act reveal that’s certainly ambitious but not as impactful as it wants to be. Those things aside, it’s hard not to be (once again) swept up in a playfully energetic Enola Holmes adventure. This well-oiled sequel has all the heart and humor of the first film, yet it’s also not afraid to dip its toes into some pretty weighty themes.

“Enola Holmes 2” might not be as light on its feet as its predecessor. But the snappy direction, the smart and witty script, a great supporting cast, and (most importantly) Millie Bobby Brown’s infectious presence make this a more than worthy follow-up. And best of all, it shows there’s plenty of mileage in this series if Netflix chooses to keep it going. So yes, the game is afoot…again. And I am completely onboard for more. “Enola Holmes 2” premieres November 4th on Netflix.