Tag Archives: Alcatraz

Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz

For such a measured, introspective and anti-Hollywood prison break film, Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz is a fantastically entertaining and unbearably suspenseful thriller. This isn’t a film with action sequences, huge set pieces, scenery chewing wardens, shanks in the shower fight sequences, extreme near misses or anything you’d expect from a studio escape film. The warden (Patrick McGoohan with malfeasance on a low burn) is a terrifyingly strict piece of work to be sure, but he’s curt, to the point and buttoned down. Our hero Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) isn’t a preening rapscallion or rascally rogue but a straightforward, quiet, surprisingly compassionate and determined fellow. The obligatory aggressive inmate (Bruce M. Fischer) he clashes with isn’t some contraband adorned gang chess piece but rather a hulking bruiser who gets right to the point. The escape itself is a dank, claustrophobic trek through corroded crawl-spaces and could be considered anticlimactic of it didn’t feel so darn authentic. Like, this is what it would *really* be like to bust out of that joint of all joints in the curiously tranquil San Francisco harbour and I both admired and greatly enjoyed this film for its down to earth, by the book presentation. That’s not to say it’s dry or boring, despite being remote. Most of the story is told through quick glances, offhand mannerisms and clipped dialogue, but beneath that, if one intuits it out, are carefully placed pockets of psychological depth, wellsprings of human behaviour buried under the blunt aspects that are a wealth to anyone who loves complexities not readily apparent. Just look at Frank’s carefully cultivated relationship with stone-spirited bookkeeper English (Paul Benjamin) and the payoff that comes later, given their subtle interactions. Or examine the cold heartbreak and mental unravelling of Doc (Roberts Blossom) when the warden takes away his painting privileges, an activity that singlehandedly fuels his will to survive behind bars. That sequence cuts deep in a way that’s tough to impart in words. This film treats the day to day life in prison with the same dutiful care and attention to craft as it does the eventual escape and the result is something that feels lived in, mature, effortlessly magnetic and so simple that one might need to do several double tales to soak in the yawning profundities tucked in behind every monosyllabic utterance, every deliberately chosen camera placement, every flick of the eyes towards the prison walls that seem like dimensional barriers and the skies above them, somehow so close and so far. Few Hollywood prison films reach for heights in such a direct way, and succeed in doing so. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s The Rock

Who loves Michael Bay’s The Rock? I think a better question is who doesn’t. It was one of my first introductions to the action genre as a kid and I sat there in Saturday morning disbelief at just what was possible in the realms of cinema. Alcatraz Island, nuclear warheads filled with horrific poison gas, Nicolas Cage in charismatic goofball mode, Sean Connery basically reprising his 007 role one last time, a rogues gallery of gnarly character actors all hamming it up to high heaven, a score from Hans Zimmer that soars and invoked both emotion and adrenaline, what’s there not to fall in love with.

The plot here is besides the point: angry rogue military general Ed Harris takes Alcatraz hostage, threatens to launch warheads across harbour into crowded San Fran. Chemistry guru Nic Cage, ex MI6 super-spy Sean Connery and a team of Navy Seals covertly lead a siege on the rock to stop him. Many guns are fired, a lot of shit blows up and endless one liners are uttered. That’s the nutshell version though, the actual experience is something blissful and perfectly pitched in terms of the recipe for a great action film. Connery is intense yet somehow laid back and steals the show as the pissed off, blacklisted agent who really doesn’t care about the threat towards the city, or at least pretends not to. Cage, whether strumming his guitar, banging his super hot Italian American wife (Vanessa Marcel) or referencing Elton John right before killing a bad guy, is comic dynamite and a source of desperate, scenery chewing energy that somehow works despite how ridiculous his performance is (it’s like the antithesis of his work in Con Air, the sister film to this). What I love about Harris’s villain here is that, unlike many huge budget action flicks, you actually care about this guy and what he wants, despite the extreme measures he’s gone to get them. He’s calm, resolute and sorrowful and not much about his performance suggests an antagonist except for the situation the character is written into and it’s an interesting, thoughtful choice for the film’s baddie. The real nasty characters are the mercenaries he hires to carry out his mission, who include the more subdued likes of David Morse and John C. McGinley, the less subdued Bokeem Woodbine and Gregory Sorlader and the positively psychotic Tony Todd as Captain Darrow, the last guy you’d want on either side of the moral fence as his seems to be absent. On the other side of the action we get John Spencer as a cranky FBI bigwig, legendary Michael Biehn as the Seal commando, always awesome William Forsythe as the one FBI agent with a brain in his head and cameos from Pat Skipper, Claire Forlani, Danny Nucci, Tom Towles, Jim Caviesel, Stanley Anderson, Raymond Cruz, Xander Berkeley, Philip Baker Hall and Stuart Wilson.

From the moment Harris’s team steals the rockets to the explosive sequence where Cage flags down the military in a sly Platoon reference, this thing fires with everything it’s got. Connery’s escape and car chase through the streets of San Fran goes on needlessly long and exists only for the purpose of an action sequence, making it all the more awesome. Harris and Biehn’s utterly badass stare down and frantic chicken fight over who will order a stand-down first always gets me. It’s such a well made action film that even the Bay haters sound like ignoramuses when they bash it. Roger Ebert, who has routinely torn Bay new assholes over the years in his reviews, loved it. Zimmer’s theme is the perfect symphony for fighter jets, commandos, yellow hummers’ (“You shtole my humvee!”), trolley cars, assault weapons and high powered rockets to thunder across the harbour in spectacular fashion. The Rock rocks.

-Nate Hill

Murder In The First: A Review by Nate Hill

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Murder In The First examines courtroom intrigue in San Francisco, concerning an Alcatraz inmate (Kevin Bacon) who has been accused of killing a fellow prisoner upon being let out of a cruelly long stint in solitary. In fact, the word cruel seems to be the running theme of his incarceration, at the hands of sinister and sadistic Warden Milton Glen (Gary Oldman). A decade prior, Bacon almost succeeded in escaping the island, which seems to have given the correctional officers the idea that they can do whatever they want to him. His plight creates ripples in the D.A.’s office, and soon a young, inexperienced attorney (Christian Slater) is assigned to his case. His boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) seems to think, and I quote, that a monkey would be more suited for the job. The D.A. (William H. Macy) has hope. And so it happens, with Bacon arriving in an obvious shellshocked state, Slater trying to exploit his maltreatment at the Warden’s hands and win not only his innocence, but his freedom. Bacon can swing his internal compass from victim to villain at the drop of a hat, taking up the bruised martyr mantle here and proving to be quite affecting. Slater is… Slater, the guy doesn’t have endless range but can carry a scene decently enough. Oldman is sly and scary, covering up the true nature of Glen’s monstrosity underneath a beauricratic sheen. The cast is wonderful, with further standouts from Brad Dourif as Slater’s veteran lawman brother, Embeth Davidz as a key witness, R. Lee Ermey as the stern judge overseeing the trial and brief appearances from Mia Kirshner, Charles Cyphers and Kyra Sedgwick. The expert cast carries it along with innate talent and applied teamwork, with Bacon and Oldman taking front and center. Now I’m not entirely sure if this is based on a true story, but it’s very fascinating nonetheless and serves to show the rotten places in the penal system which definitely do exist in real life. Solid stuff.