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Escape from New York & Escape from L.A. – Review

27 Sep

To me, John Carpenter is an amazing film maker. He’s made some of my favorite horror movies, like Halloween and The Thing amongst others. He’s also known for more action oriented movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and the comedic Big Trouble in Little China. One of his most respected action movies, and in fact one of the most respected movies of his career, is the 1981 film Escape from New York. This was a dark, dystopian thrill ride that was a major hit with audiences and critics alike, which is surprising that it took 15 years for the sequel, Escape from L.A., to finally be produced and released. While both of these movies have something good to offer, Escape from New York is a far superior film than its sequel… depending on what you’re looking for.

Let’s start with Escape from New York.

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In 1988, crime in America rises by almost 400% (remember this was made in 1981) forcing the government to create the United States Police Force and also convert Manhattan into a giant maximum security prison surrounded by giant walls. When terrorists force Air Force One to crash land inside the prison walls, the president (Donald Pleascence) finds himself stranded. Luckily for him, there’s a new prisoner about to be admitted, the notorious soldier and gunslinger Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Before all of the formalities can even be completed, Snake is tasked by New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to infiltrate Manhattan and save the president and in return all of Snake’s crimes on record will be cleared. As an added incentive, Snake is injected with a small explosive device that will detonate in 22 hours. Now with no other choice, Snake wages a one man war with the inmates of Manhattan.

What really grabbed my attention first was how Escape from New York looked. It is a minor visual masterpiece that perfectly sets the tone. From beginning to end, this movie is enveloped in darkness and fog and destruction. It’s exactly how a dystopian film should look. Of course, this was also done in a time before CGI, so this destroyed version of Manhattan is all just brilliant set design, miniatures, and matte painting. Speaking of design, I can’t go through this review without mentioning the iconic anti-hero, Snake Plissken. Kurt Russell growls his way through the movie and succeeds at playing one of cinema’s cult badasses. Not to mention that he was Konami’s main inspiration for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series.

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There’s a simplicity to the story that has also grown on me. While there is something of a message behind the story of the film, the main focus is always Snake rescuing the president. There is a pacing issue that happens about 20 minutes into the movie where it sort of grinds to a halt, but it picks up speed soon enough and I was right back into the action. The movie is a little bit dated, but there are plenty of reasons not to forget it. The cast that I’ve mentioned before, along with Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton are all great as always. The film is also just an achievement visuals, character, and the fact that you don’t need a huge budget to make an influential movie. Escape from New York truly deserves its recognition as a cult classic.

After a sequel was written in 1985 and quickly dismissed as being “to campy” by John Carpenter, the official sequel was finally released 15 years later in 1996.

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After an earthquake in 2000 pretty much levels all of Los Angeles. The island that is created as a result is turned into a prison when a strict theocratic president (Cliff Robertson) is elected and implements a moral code that is enforced throughout America. When the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), is influenced by a terrorist in the L.A. prison, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), she steals a device that can be used to control satellites orbiting the entire earth with the capability to shut down all forms of power sources on the planet. After once again being arrested and facing a life sentence in L.A., Snake is recruited to go into the prison, retrieve the device, and eliminate Utopia and Cuervo in exchange for his freedom and an antidote to a virus that has been injected into his bloodstream.

Think of this movie as the Joel Schumacher Batman movies compared to Tim Burton’s, except not as disastrous as Batman and RobinEscape from New York had a dark and brooding atmosphere, whereas Escape from L.A. is brighter, louder, and much more excessive. That being said, there’s some really fun action sequences, but there’s a lot missing from this movie. For one thing, Snake is pretty much turned into an indestructible hero, which pretty much takes away all sorts of suspense. The special effects in this movie are also… pretty awful. I mean, Independence Day also came out in 1996, so there’s really no excuse the effects in Escape from L.A. should be so weird. I can’t even say it’s because it had a low budget because it was a $50 million production.

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There’s still a lot of imagination behind a lot of the different prisoners and sets. Also, besides Kurt Russell and Cliff Robertson, there’s also cameos and supporting roles for Bruce Campbell, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda, and Steve Buscemi. It’s just really unfortunate that all of this imagination and great actors is sort of drowned out in excessive special effects, a lack of suspense, and noise. While the story does move a lot faster than its predecessor, I really missed the style, suspense, and tone of the first film. It’s also worth mentioning that the whole story is almost a perfectly recycled version of Escape from New York.  Escape from L.A. isn’t an awful film, but it’s far from being any real form of good.

John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. are two very different movies. His first film is a cult classic, and rightfully so, while the second one bombed when it was released and it’s still considered a bomb today.

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Ghost Rider & Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – Review

3 Sep

I remember way back in 2007 going to see the movie Ghost Rider when it first came out. I didn’t know anything about the character, but the fact that it was a Marvel movie and featured a hero with a flaming skull riding a motorcycle seemed pretty cool. The fact is is that the character of Ghost Rider is really cool, but the movie was all around unmemorable. Since I first saw it 8 years ago, I’ve finally gone back and given it another go having not remembered any of it. I also decided to check out the sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance directed by Neveldine/Taylor, who directed the two Crank films and Gamer. My conclusion is that these two Ghost Rider movies should come with directions that say, “Turn off your brain, and add alcohol.”

Let’s take a trip back to 2007 with the first Ghost Rider.

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When Johnny Blaze was a teenager, he sold his soul to the devil, or Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), in order to save his father dying from lung cancer. The devil cured his father, but he still ended up dying by the devil’s will. Now and adult, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) works as the world’s most renowned stunt rider. Even with all of the fame and fortune, Johnny can’t get the pact he made with the devil out of his mind, and isn’t surprised when he shows up once again commanding Johnny to hunt down his son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and send him back to hell. Now given the powers of the Ghost Rider, Johnny begins his hunt. When Blackheart makes it personal by kidnapping Johnny’s childhood love Roxanne (Eva Mendez) and threatens to unleash thousands of demonic souls on the world, the Ghost Rider is forced to ride like hell to complete his mission.

Let me just get a very unpleasant fact out of the way. Ghost Rider was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson who was also the writer and director the Marvel flop that was Daredevil. Now that’s pretty bad news, and Johnson didn’t seem to really get it together for Ghost Rider. I’d even go so far as to say Daredevil is more memorable, which is an odd thought. Watching the movie again reminded me why it was so unmemorable. There’s not really a whole lot of action, and the down time which seems to stretch on and on isn’t anything interesting. The screenplay seemed desperate to make Johnny Blaze into a relatable character, but he’s really not very deep at all. This probably adds to why all of the dialogue sounds either forced or said without much feeling, and that goes for everyone in the movie.

Like I said before though, the Ghost Rider is a really cool character which gives the action scenes a good kick. One particularly cool scene has the Rider using his chain to latch onto a building and ride right down the side of it. Unfortunately, Blackheart as a villain isn’t that exciting at all and Wes Bentley’s version of hamming things up doesn’t really work. The bottom line is that this movie really isn’t good, and I can’t even say it’s so bad that it’s good. All I saw was a cool anti-hero thrown into a movie with a lot of useless talk, bland characters, and a few action scenes spaced too far apart. A movie based on a comic book character really just shouldn’t be this boring.

Five years later in 2012 a sequel was put out called Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It’s a sequel that we really didn’t need, nor did people seem to want it. Nevertheless, being directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made me curious to see how they could inject their hyperactive style to this character.

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Some years after the events of the first film, Johnny Blaze is hiding out in a secluded area of Eastern Europe. This is the only way he knows how to control the monster inside him that turns him into the Ghost Rider. His seclusion is disturbed when he is found by a priest named Moreau (Idris Elba) who pleads with him to find a young boy, Danny (Fergus Riordan), and his mother Nadya (Violante Placido). The two are being hunted by Nadya’s ex-boyfriend Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), who was hired by the devil (now played by Ciarán Hinds) to deliver the boy for a prophesied ritual. In return, Moreau promises to rid Johnny of his curse, which is all the motivation he needs to find the mother and son before they fall into evil’s grip.

This movie has been panned by critics and audiences alike in an overwhelming way, which, despite my curiosity, made me hesitant to watch it. Now, I may be committing some kind of sin against movie criticism by saying this, and I apologize in advance, but Spirit of Vengeance is far superior to the original. In fact… I sorta…kinda…liked this one. I’ve heard numerous complaints about the story, the effects, and the acting so I’ll just address them one by one. The story is very straightforward and most certainly unoriginal, but it’s at least functional (unlike a certain Marvel film that came out this year). The effects are what I expected from Neveldine/Taylor. They’re way over the top and almost cartoonish, which is the kind of effects and editing I saw in the Crank movies and Gamer. Finally, the acting is also serviceable, and there’s even a few great scenes of Nicolas Cage going absolutely nuts.

I understand that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance may not be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s one thing, but I don’t really understand why it’s hated so much. There’s more action sequences in this movie, and all of them play out like their fueled by an insane combination of cocaine, LSD, and rage. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s anarchic and almost nonsensical editing style also give the movie a jolt that moves it along much faster than the original, which in turn makes the movie much more entertaining. Being released by the Marvel Knights production company, the same company that did The Punisher: War Zone, the budget is relatively small and the material is darker than most Marvel films. That being said, this movie is just so much damn fun.

Even though the Ghost Rider is a unique and unusually awesome Marvel character, he hasn’t really gotten the big budget treatment that he deserves. The first movie is stuck in the mud, and the second movie is pretty much ignored. Personally, I could do without the first one, but I embrace Spirit of Vengeance, and I’m not ashamed of who knows it… Maybe just a little.