Saturday, March 10, 2018

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Soylent Green


In the world of Science Fiction, most readers of novels, viewers of television and movies will always remember a strong ending to a story. The "Twilight Zone" was famous for the twist sucker punch finale of most of the episodes. In the popular culture, when an image or a quote becomes a meme understood by all, it is clear that the work has tapped into something important to the times, politics or people. Charlton Heston is the star of many a movie meme. Moses standing at the Red Sea parting the waves, Ben Hur, either chained to the oars of the Roman Battle cruiser or with rein in hand on a Chariot. His most famous image however is as a dismayed misanthrope pounding sand on a beach in front of the ruins of one of the most recognizable symbols in the world at the end of "Planet of the Apes".  Heston has at least one other great moment of Science Fiction history in his vita, the denouncement at the end of the movie "Soylent Green". It is another moment parodied and understood by masses of people, most of whom have never seen the movie. I don't want his refrain to be the only thing people know about the film so this week "Soylent Green" is the movie I want everyone to see.

Crowd Control
"Soylent Green" is one of those great 1970s Science Fiction movies that is more about ideas than about special effects. Before the juggernaut that is "Star Wars" came along, most Science Fiction lived in the imagination more than the vision of a story. There were occasional exceptions like "Forbidden Planet" and "2001", but for each of those visually rich movies, there were a dozen other films that made do with small budgets, limited effects and big ideas. Films like "Seconds", "A Boy and His Dog", "Damnation Alley" or "The Omega Man" drew in audience mostly with interesting concepts. Sometimes like with "Planet of the Apes" there was spectacular art direction and set design, but even in that film the visual factor relies on our willingness to accept the story in order to then accept the vision. Most of these films are cautionary tales that try to speak to the worries of the times in which they were made, and "Soylent Green" was one of the finest examples of playing on those contemporary fears.
Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich published a book called "The Population Bomb" that predicted a coming world of Malthusian Nightmares. It spawned a whole industry of doomsayers and environmental prophets who suggested that the Earth was over populated and over polluted. The theme of "Soylent Green" is derived from this stream of fearful environmentalism of the early 1970s. This dystopian world is not threatened by nuclear annihilation but starvation and overcrowding. Of course there has also been a substantial amount of global warming to screw up the planet's food supplies as well. Most of this is brilliantly summarized by the title sequence which uses a combination of photos, pacing and music to show us what has happened and is coming.

It was simple and to the point. It was also forty years ago, so perhaps it is a little premature to send us all to a living hell but once the premise is set up the story follows it quite well. William Simonson, a director of the Soylent Corporation is murdered and although there are hundreds of murders a day in the overcrowded world, one detective is unwilling to accept that it is a random burglary.  Simonson lives in a luxurious apartment that comes equipped with special security, a bodyguard and living furniture that he can enjoy to his hearts content. It just seems too convenient that  the bodyguard was out shopping for groceries with the furniture at the moment this important man was killed in his building. A building where the security system is on the fritz when the apartment is broken into.
Heston plays the determined cop who engages in the kind of casual corruption that seems to be as prevalent in the future as it was in the 1970s with Al Pacino's "Serpico". Detective Thorn is not a bad guy, but he appears to be a vulture at the scene of the crime, scooping up whatever luxury item is likely to go unmissed. Everybody gets a little taste, from his boss to the grunts that remove the body. Thorn takes some vegetables and meat which are incredibly rare commodities in the future. Most people have to survive on manufactured nutrition wafers of different composition, including the recently introduced "Soylent Green". He also acquires a couple of rare technical books that he will not be able to make sense out of but which ought to please his partner Sol Roth, an elderly man who serves as the equivalent of Wikipedia for the future police force.

Most of you know an old timer or two who provides a link to the past. They share stories of the good old days and relate how the world was a better place in their youth (much like your current narrator). For the most part we can dismiss those stories as the nostalgia of an older generation (you know, they walked five miles up hill to school in the snow and then five miles uphill home at the end of the day). This movie posits that the memories of the older generation are not rambling condemnations of change but accurate histories of things that have in fact been lost. The collective of older "books" is known as the Exchange and Sol takes the information from the two Oceanographic Reports that Thorn brought him to the Exchange for evaluation.

The film is a police procedural about a conspiratorial secret which the powers that be are determined to keep a secret. Most of this was pretty standard stuff, but several aspects of the setting make the story so much more compelling. The way in which the citizens have to live, on rationed water, limited food supplies, sleeping on staircases shows how the environment has decayed. The world of the dead man stands in stark contrast to the rest of the population. A rich man with a sex partner who comes with the apartment and access to items that are incredibly out of reach to the rest of the population may seem an unsympathetic victim. We have seen however that there was a sense of guilt in his death, we are aware that there is a conspiracy and we watch Thorn as he picks at each link and follows his instincts to arrive at the truth. In the process the future world is revealed to us bit by bit.
edward gThe term "bromance" has cropped up in the last few years to describe stories that are about the friendship between two men. Buddy pictures have been around since the days of silent film, and up through the point this was released so was Edward G. Robinson. The partnership between Sol and Thorn is the real relationship in the movie. Heston's character does get involved with the "furniture" of the dead man, but all of the really emotional moments of the film involve him and the old man. From some of the earliest of sound films, Robinson played gangsters, doctors and bureaucrats. He was the definitive gangster for the first decade of sound movies as "Little Cesar". "Soylent Green" gave him the opportunity to go out on a high note. This was his last film and he played it for all that was on the page. The scene where Sol prepares the purloined food for a meal for Heston is a good example. Sol, enjoys it with relish and equally enjoys watching Thorn, who has never had anything like this enjoy as well. Robinson waves his plastic utensils as if they were a baton and he was conducting an orchestra. The crescendo of the piece is the belch Heston gives at the end of the most satisfying meal of his life. Apparently this scene was not in the script and was improvised by the two actors with the prompting of the director. It was a special touch to show their relationship and the world of the time.  At one point Heston's boss suggests he might need a new "book" but the detective demurs and continues to have faith in his room mate/partner/father figure.

faith-quabius-soylent-green-with-edgar-g-robinsonThe other great sequence featuring Robinson, and one that is sadly ironic, is Sol's decision to end his own story. When advocates of euthanasia speak of giving patients back their dignity and providing comfort at the end, they must surely envision a scene like the one that takes place at the end of the second act. Older people desiring to die, troop into a modernistic building, fill out a form and then have some final comforts attended to. Robinson was dying of cancer when the movie was made and he was almost completely deaf. We would all hope that his passing would be as beautiful as was depicted here in the processing center referred to as "home" by those seeking an end to their time on Earth. Thorn gets the final proof for the motive of the executive's murder by following his friend through his passage home. As you watch what is really a simple sequence of wonderful pastoral scenes and listen to the comforting and thrilling classical score, you realize how devastating the loss of the world as it was would be to those able to remember it.

The themes and characters have been shared with you a bit, now let's talk about the production. In today's world, this would be a movie crammed with futuristic CGI vistas and sets that were created in a computer. The costumes and equipment would be imagined in fantastic ways to make us feel as if we were in the future. The science fiction films of the seventies were often done on modest budgets and almost always had to make due with creative use of location and existing props. A luxury apartment of the future comes equipped with the latest video game (here it is an early version of Pong). Food riots need to be staged on a New York City back lot, but to make it more futuristic, garbage trucks are modified to remove people rather than trash. The euthanasia center is the googie architectural structure of the L.A. Sports arena and it's futuristic clean style lobby. The focus stays on the ideas rather than the "wow" factor of the look. Even the two books that Thorn confiscates, they are not digital readouts on an i-pad style device, they are simply over-sized volumes given slick covers to convey an advanced type of publishing, nothing fancy but slightly noticeable.
Charleton Heston

The horrible secret of "Soylent Green" has probably been used as a punchline by thousands of people who never even saw the movie. The fact that the last line has reached into and grabbed the public consciousness is evidence of the effectiveness of the idea behind the film. We are on an environmental brink that may change the relationship of human beings to one another in catastrophic ways. The immorality of a choice might be mitigated by the exigencies of the moment. The movie is an action based detective conspiracy story, but the thought it contains is provocative and the story highlights that issue rather than pushing it aside for action. Just five years after he stands in for the sucker punched audience in front of the Statue of Liberty, Heston finishes another iconic Science fiction thought with his dire warning and outstretched hand. Another entertaining science fiction movie is capped off with a thought that is frightening and thought provoking.

Special Note:
This is the first of my series on Fogs Movie Reviews [Now, Movies I Want Everyone to See] to cover a film I wrote about on my original Movie A Day Project from 2010. If you are interested in a comparison of the posts click here, I did not refer to this earlier post when writing this so you will see some differences in voice and view but probably not too many in attitude or style. Enjoy.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Large Association of Movie Blogs | LAMBCAST #415-2: OSCARS IN REVIEW

The Large Association of Movie Blogs | LAMBCAST #415-2: OSCARS IN REVIEW: We watched the Oscars, listen to what we thought about it! A very tired and poorly Jay was joined by Audrey, Jeanette, Todd and Richard for a brief special discussion on this year’s Oscar cer…

Death Wish (2018)

I love a revenge film. The catharsis and emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing justice being played out against reprehensible people is pleasing at the most base level. I think most people recognize that films like these are fantasies and not guidebooks on how to act. I can't say on an intellectual level that vigilante action is something we should approve of, but for two hours in a movie theater it can be very therapeutic.

The original version of "Death Wish" from 1974 was one of the most controversial films of it's time. It was also commercially successful. So much so that the character returned in a series of decreasingly relevant and quality sequels. It was a film of the moment, when urban crime was overwhelming cities and turning them into dystopian outposts in the real world, not some fictional future. The script for this remake is written in a manner to play off of that paranoia, but do so in a modern context. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan has mixed the urban danger zone that Chicago has become with the suburban setting occupied by the protagonist and his family. This changes the way the character might be perceived and it allows the fear of random violence to be part of a more contemporary story.

Another important change in the plot involves the lead now being a trauma surgeon rather than an architect. The avenging grim reaper now has a pipeline of bad guys coming through the emergency room, they provide him with a link to specific criminals. Charles Bronson's character was not seeking the specific criminals that destroyed his family, he had become a moral cudgel to thrash the unrepentant criminal element in a somewhat random manner. He actually begins to bait criminals into their actions to be able to take them out. Bruce Willis does engage in a couple of random acts of vigilantism, but he mostly is pursuing leads that will bring him in contact with the particular gang that robbed and murdered at his house. The criminals in this film are an organized crew with a plan and an M.O.

Bruce Willis has been making straight to streaming movies for the last five years and his enthusiasm as an actor is not very apparent in most of this movie. He still has enough charisma to make us watch in some sequences but he seems to be disengaged in some of the others. It is only when he starts killing people that he seems to come to life in the film. His sequences with the family or interacting with the police lack the edginess and sarcastic humor that mark his other roles. Vincent D'Onofrio is his brother, and it is not clear in any way how he is essential to the plot. There are a couple of scenes near the end where the brothers confront some emotional issues between them, and D'Onofrio seems like he is effortlessly creating a character while Willis is just standing there. 

However, director Eli Roth, has managed to inject some life into this film by making Dr. Paul Kersey, a relentless inquisitor and fledgling killer. In the original film, Bronson gets inspired by a visit to Arizona where a business contact encourages him to take up shooting. Dr. Kersey goes to Texas to bury his wife, and it is his father-in-law who inspires him indirectly by pulling to the side of the dirt road they are coming back from the graveside on, and unloading his rifle at a couple of poachers on his ranch. Coincidences become the staring point for his human hunting expedition when he recognizes a trauma patient as the kid who worked as a parking valet at his families favorite restaurant. Add a cell phone and a dropped firearm and he becomes a hooded FBI unto himself.

Roth is known for the horror films that he has made and his touch with gore is clearly visible in many spots in this film. Kersey as a doctor, knows exactly how to torture someone to get information that he needs and Roth is happy to show us the process. There are brains splattered in a couple of scenes so the violence quotient is pretty high. Early in the film, there is a set up of a device that becomes pivotal in the climax of the story. Progressives are going to hate this film but the NRA might want to use it as a commercial for membership. The unfortunate real world events that have brought gun issues to the center of national attention recently, may find that the narrative they are creating about semi-automatic weapons, will be problematic to those who have an interest in owning them for a variety of reasons other than creating mayhem.

The film lacks the grit and social relevance of the 70s original but tries to compensate with plot twists and higher levels of violence. The cop character in this movie is not as interesting as the Vincent Guardina cop in the original, but the perspective is effectively conveyed in a much more casual and subtle manner. If Bruce could manage to put just a little more effort into the non-action scenes, this could potentially be another franchise for a few years. Whether or not that happens, the revenge story is basic, brutal and as politically incorrect as you can imagine. All reasons for me to like the film at least.

[Sunday Screening, Late Post]

Sunday, March 4, 2018

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in "Lady Bird" and "Three Billboards". Timothée Chalamet was in "Lady Bird" and today's "Call Me By Your Name".  Nick Searcy was in "Three Billboards" and "The Shape of Water". Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back "The Post" and "Get Out". Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in "The Shape of Water, "Call Me By Your Name" and "The Post". These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

"Phantom Thread" and "The Post" were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don't see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. "Phantom Thread" lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and "The Post" is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called "Spotlight".

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. "Dunkirk" was followed by "Darkest Hour" and it was almost as if Joe Wright's film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It's Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of "Dunkirk" as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan's film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman's performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who's character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That's because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the "special" friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn't think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn't, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase "Oscar Bait" pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story "Spotlight".

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because "Bridge of Spies" and "Spotlight" are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the "Sunken Place" to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don't know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some "Get Out" Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both "Cool Hand Luke" and "Jaws" are misquoted in the floor below. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

2018 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

DeKalb Elementary

Three of the shorts this year are not short on one thing, and that is tension. This film focuses on what is essentially a two person sequence that could easily have been a massive tragedy. A disturbed young man arrives at a school and a confrontation ensues with the school's receptionist playing mediator. This is apparently based on an actual 911 phone call, the two actors are excellent but special mention should be made of actress Tara Riggs who maintains a level of composure while also being frightened to death. Her character is the kind of everyday hero we hope is present in our lives somewhere. 

The recent shooting at a school in Florida will be on everyone's mind right now and the tie in to this movie is unavoidable. Because of the timeliness, I suspect this must be the film that will be favored for the award next Sunday.

The Silent Child

It turns out that this movie is basically a public service announcement, disguised as a drama. There is a disturbing phenomena among families with children who have special needs and the schools they attend. This is a British film so it may model the culture and schools there more than it does in the U.S. Here I see parents who are aggressively assertive in trying to care for their children's needs. Our school system creates an expectation that all are welcome. It was a little hard for me to believe the character of the mother in this story, although I am sure there are instances like this. In the U.S. the Social Worker would file a report that accuses the parents of neglect and the story would proceed in a very different manner. We are less polite. 

Because it seems so unique an anecdote, I don't know that it is as convincing as it wants to be. The special needs tutor and the little girl in the story are both very solid. I thought the child performance seemed really effective for the circumstances. Everyone else came across as a little too pat and almost caricatures of indifferent people.  

My Nephew Emmentt

This is another historical film based on an actual incident and it is one that most of us will have heard of. The murder of Emmentt Till, a young black man from Chicago who has moved in with his family in Mississippi is one of the turning points of the civil rights era. The facts that took place after his murder are not the subject of this startling film. Rather this story focuses on the sense of impending doom that a family could feel and do nothing to prevent.

For a short film, this one felt the most deliberate and slowest. The actor playing Mose Wright, the Uncle, looks dignified but also beaten down by time. He can sense doom coming but despite the nightmares and the reasoning, he ends up in a defensive position with survivor's guilt to come. This movie looks like it was shot through a bronze filter in some of the night time scenes. It is even more haunting as a result.  

The Eleven O'Clock

This was a straight out comedy. It feels so different in tone that you might wonder how it got nominated, but I can actually explain this pretty well. The actors have incredible timing and they play their parts to a tee. The script reminds you of a screwball comedy, with maybe Cary Grant and the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure. It gets to the point and makes you laugh without having to have a lot of exposition. It is like a very well told joke, with just the right amount of detail thrown in to make it sparkle.

Mistaken identity plots have been around for as long as there have been movies, so you may be able to tell where this is going after a few short minutes. Don't worry, that will not detract from your enjoyment of the film at all. The escalating frustrations of the two main characters is simply great to soak up and laugh at. 

Watu Wote

This is another film that builds tension for it's whole duration. The story does have to rely on a series of title cards to set up the events we are going to witness. It is a harrowing trip being taken by people who just want to get on with their lives, but they live in a part of the world where bad things happen everyday and everywhere. This is also a film based on real events and to think that these things happen in the world we live in is frightening. The subject concerns conflicts between Islamist terrorists and Christians living in Kenya. 

A simple bus trip is never going to be simple in the part of the world where roads are not always paved, there may not be a hotel available, and you pray for an armed escort getting on the equivalent of a Greyhound. People with different faiths are all subject to risks in this world. One woman's experiences of tragedy sometimes blind her to the wellspring of human decency that can pop up anywhere. The film is dedicated to a man who stood up to oppression and represents the faith he adheres to in a most reasonable manner. If the Award is going to go to a politically and socially charged film, this could also be a dark horse.