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Escape From New York (#110 of 3)

Toronto International Film Festival 2014 Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom
Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborate on yet another fine quasi-thriller with Phoenix, about a concentration camp survivor, Nelly (Hoss), who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery for a wound and emerges unrecognized by Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who gave her up to the Gestapo. Well, not entirely unrecognized: He thinks she looks just enough like his presumably dead wife that she could pose as Nelly in order to receive her hefty inheritance. The performative scenes that result from Johnny’s coaching elicit yet another spellbinding performance from Hoss, who always makes Nelly look as if she wants desperately for Johnny to see that it’s her while also dreading what will happen if he figures the truth out. Further, the film uses this setup to make a keen, occasionally funny comment on the male gaze, as Johnny knows every small detail of his wife’s body and movements, yet cannot put together the whole image of Nelly now that it no longer exactly matches up to his idealized memories.

5 For The Day: New York Stories

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5 For The Day: New York Stories
5 For The Day: New York Stories

Asking me to pick just five New York movies is downright Satanic, a perfect adjective since today’s “5 for the Day” is the fault of Ted Turner. Mr. Cinematic Crayons is presenting “Celluloid Skyline” on his Turner Classic Movies channel, a month-long tribute to the city that helped craft the Odienator, New York City. The folks at TCM love New York in June. How about you?

I grew up in the shadow of the Lady with the Torch, and the city “so nice they named it twice” has been part of both my real and cinematic lives. New York City distracted me from my fear of heights the first time I gazed out at her from the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center. She gave me a 20 year career in computer programming. She was my company on many a lonely, wandering, aimless night, holding my hand and leading me into adventure. She was the blues in my ears, the tears in my eyes, and the occasionally unpleasant burning sensation in my nose—but only in the subway. She was the confidence that led a certain fool in love named Odie to kneel, smack dab in the middle of Central Park, and ask his dream girl to mug him and steal his bachelorhood. And if nothing else, she showed yours truly his first live topless woman, a hooker on 42nd Street, in 1973. I still remember her sales pitch: “Get your hot head here! Satisfaction guaranteed!”

A city with such majestic memories, both naughty and nice, can only evoke magic on the silver screen. At the movies, New York City is shorthand. When she popped up, the director didn’t need to explain further. It was a big, naked city with 8 million stories and, depending on the background music, you knew whether they’d be happy or sad. New York served so many purposes onscreen: Sailors Frank and Gene went On the Town to get laid. Ray Milland got drunk on Third Avenue. Pacino went Cruising, Hoffman went jaywalking, Coop considered himself lucky and Nicholson danced to Prince while destroying artwork. Dudley Moore got drunk and caught between the moon and here. Scorsese soothed his Catholic guilt in Hell’s Kitchen and the Woodman dealt with his neuroses a few miles further up. People tried to Do The Right Thing in Brooklyn, rumbled in a Bronx that looked like Vancouver, found their queen in Queens, let the river run in Staten Island, and sat under a bridge in Manhattan, aided and abetted by Gordon Willis’ luminous black and white cinematography and the greatest shot ever captured of New York City:

5 for the Day: Kurt Russell

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5 for the Day: Kurt Russell
5 for the Day: Kurt Russell

You want to talk about old school? Kurt Russell started his acting career at age 10, as a child actor in the Elvis Presley flick It Happened at the World’s Fair, then was promptly awarded a 10-year contract signed by Walt Disney himself. By the time Russell grew up, he’d been through all the training of a studio contract player in old Hollywood. What makes him unique, though, is he’s also a child of the 1960s and bucked the system a little. He made some maverick career decisions to break away from that squeaky clean Disney image. After playing Elvis in John Carpenter’s ABC movie-of-the-week, Russell played a series of tough guys for Carpenter, plus a sarcastic con man in Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars.

That kick-started a career that never rose to the peak that some expected. Most of Russell’s 1980s movies were box-office flops, the ludicrous but profitable Tango and Cash notwithstanding. He’s done more than his fair share of lousy and generic movies. But Russell doesn’t seem to care that much. What does he have to worry about? He’s living on a 72-acre ranch outside of Aspen with Goldie Hawn and his son Wyatt, and he gets a phone call every now and then to do an interesting project or role. He gives an electrifying, charismatic, and relaxed performance as the serial killer Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, Death Proof. Sitting at the bar running through the list of TV shows he’s done, Stuntman Mike realizes nobody’s heard of him, and that he’s a relic from days gone by. But Tarantino, ever the student of movies, recognizes his iconic status from those cult classics of yesteryear. We recognize it, too, and that’s why it works when Stuntman Mike breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into Tarantino’s camera and offers a boyish smile. He’s playing the devil, for sure, but he’s a charming devil, and we enjoy being alone for the ride.