Soylent Green (1973)

Spoiler Green

Of the major movie stars of the 20th century, one who has certainly secured his immortality with a succession of highly iconic films is Charlton Heston. Soylent Green was the last of these and the final film of what I like to call the Charlton Heston dystopian sci-fi trilogy along with Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man. Now that we have arrived in the future itself by meeting the timeline of Back to the Future Part II and with the dates of Blade Runner and Soylent Green being not far away let us bask in the dystopian wasteland Earth has become. Ok, maybe not quite.

Soylent Green was Edward G Robinson’s final film from a career spanning over 40 years, and the man is still as complete a pro as he ever was. Charlton Heston may be the main star but Robinson steals the show holding some of the best scenes in the film. Take the scene in which Robinson becomes emotional and cries at seeing beef for the first time in years; it takes a great actor to avoid such a scene becoming comical. Likewise, the interaction between Robinson and Heston is simply a pleasure to watch and his last moments on screen where some of his most affecting of his long career. This is also a role in which Robinson’s real-life personality comes through as a man of high culture and a lover of art. The apartment he shares with Heston is full of books, paint brushes, classical music is often played not to mention his character is Jewish. I do love this little sanctuary they have in a world in which crowds people are sleeping on the stairs outside their apartment. I also get the impression there is something more between them than just friendship? During the movie, they claim their love for each other in an un-ironic nature and speak intimately with each other about their personal feelings. Or is there simply just share a platonic love for each other as friends? Who knows?

There are only two uses of matte painting cityscapes throughout Soylent Green. The film shows how you can really create a believable world through the use of intimate on set shooting. I’m sure a remake of Soylent Green would feature a vast CGI city which would have none of the characters which is presented here. This is not a movie which is made for kids. Towards the end of the film, there are surprisingly horrifying scenes and of course there is the ending; an ending which has been spoiled by pop culture. The ending would have affected me more if I had not known it but are spoilers just a part of life?

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The Omega Man (1971)

Apocalypse Now?

I began The Omega Man with some initial trepidation from the not so great editing (including a pointless fade away on zooming out shot) the use of sped-up footage and obvious line dubbing; thankfully after that, it gets better. It must appreciated the filmmakers clearing the streets of Los Angles with spanning, wide shots of the city in which it is deserted; no easy task. To accomplish this the filmmakers had to film during Sunday morning and due to filming at this golden hour, the deserted streets and the golden light reflecting off the buildings has a real beauty to it. I don’t know of the film’s budget but it does come off feeling like a low budget production but does so in a charming way. The campy 70’s sounding music score feels like it’s on the verge of killing the mood and being too corny but just about manages to avoid doing so.

Charlton Heston’s Nevillie feels like the predecessor to modern action movie heroes with his use of one-liners. The scene in which he pretends to negotiate with a dead salesman at a car dealership feels very Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the other hand I do find there is some Initial unintentional humour coming from seeing Heston dressed as an aristocrat and talking to a chess-playing bust of Julius Caesar but once that settles these do showcase some poignant scenes of the last man alive trying to keep himself occupied; also I do love this little world he has created for himself in his apartment. Likewise seeing the later Republican Heston watching and the enjoying the film Woodstock and even reciting lines is intriguingly odd. The Omega Man also features one of the earliest on-screen interracial kisses between black and white. I don’t know if it was intentional that a film about repopulating the Earth has an interracial romance but thankfully doesn’t have to call attention to itself.

The Omega is a perfect example of Charlton Heston’s immense screen presence and his ability to carry a movie as he spends much of the runtime alone. When I think “screen presence” several actors will pop into my head, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable and of course Charlton Heston.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur, I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of Roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying to dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion. The story also includes that age-old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall off the roof during the Roman parade then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words of “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people were actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen. The chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful, wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective; a more brutal sequence in which people are tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into other enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the Roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing sequence in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister is cured instantly? Burt Lancaster, a self-proclaimed atheist turned down the role of Judah Ben Hur as he felt he couldn’t star in a film which promotes Christianity. I feel the same way but dammed if it doesn’t stop me from loving this movie.

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Best Picture win. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award? Probably because the Academy Awards are a farce. Yeah, total shocker. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?”, such tiring statements. Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as the film which beat such and such for Best Picture.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a carefree feeling that I was at an actual circus, minus the smell of elephant dung. There is even an appearance of people wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! The acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. You could look at it cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary-like look at how the circus operates. It’s not an easy job, therefore someone as commanding as Charlton Heston is perfect for the role as the person who runs the operations and pulls the strings behind the scenes. The movie packs a lot of material into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

When your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his makeup never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Ok, its obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence but also the implication that Buttons assisted his wife to kill herself, surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era controlled by censorship.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of interior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok, I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would moviegoers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old-fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments, all these DeMillen elements all work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in the film were filmed on location with the majority was filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures help create scenes which look like beautiful paintings.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; a superman who you would happily follow in a heartbeat. Yul Brynner, however, is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure, no one could look better wearing that Egyptian headdress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. These guys are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back.

For the record, I am an atheist and do have contentions with religion in general, however, I can still enjoy films about faith. A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the easy way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. While I do agree I prefer to view the story of Exodus as well the Old Testament as works of mythology exploring timeless themes of good vs. evil as opposed to historical fact. After all, there are no actual records from the ancient Egyptians themselves that they ever used slave labour.

Four hours of pure entertainment.