Thursday, June 28, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Soylent Green (1973)

It's the year 2022. People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need. And what they need is the Soylent Green."

-Ad-line for Soylent Green.

In 2007, virtually every film lover with a good movie IQ knows the secret of Soylent Green. It's a punchline that is surpassed only by the climactic revelation of another Charlton Heston sci-fi film, 1968's Planet of the Apes. Still, our familiarity with the movie's final narrative "twist" does Soylent Green, directed ably by Richard Fleischer, a disservice. For the film is a brilliantly-crafted example of dystopic futurism; a daring vision second only, perhaps, to Blade Runner. And like that 1982 Ridley Scott classic, Soylent Green utilizes the parameters of a familiar genre - the police procedural - to weave its caustic story of a future world gone awry. This is a future noir; a detective story that has a devilish but cunning endgame: to lead us, bread crumb by bread crumb to a commentary on the "path" mankind is currently on; and a destiny it may not be able to evade if we don't change our ways. And soon.

Based on the novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green evidences an authentic apocalypse mentality. It is a gloomy and perhaps prophetic vision of the year 2022. New York City is populated by some forty million people; 20 million of them out of work. The city streets are bathed constantly in a nausea-provoking yellow haze, a result of "the greenhouse effect" (global warming...), and the innumerable homeless denizens of this urban blight sleep on staircases, in parked cars, you name it, all the while suffering in roasting temperatures (the average daily temperature according to the film is 90 degrees.) The Big Apple experiences numerous power black-outs (sound familiar, Manhattanites?), yet it isn't just the city where things have turned bad. We also learn from the dialogue that the oceans "are dying," "polluted," and that there is very little good farmland remaining in America. As for Gramercy Park, all that's left of the foliage there is a pitiful sanctuary where a few anemic trees grow in relative safety. Food supplies are tight, and there is strict rationing of supplies. In what is perhaps its most visually-stunning sequnce, Soylent Green escorts the viewers to an outdoor urban market on a typical Tuesday ("Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!") and reveals what happens when supplies of food are exhausted. There's a riot, and a confrontation between helmeted police forces and the throngs of starving people. It looks like a WTO riot - times ten.

Just yesterday, the Associated Press reported that 50% percent of the world's population now lives in cities, so Soylent Green's phantasm of a stressed, overpopulated City-State, run by a craven politician, Governor Santini looks markedly more plausible today than it did in 1973; and certainly the climate-change apocalypse feels more relevant in the Zeitgeist of the 21st century too. But where Soylent Green truly acquires frisson as cinematic prophecy is in the depiction of "Two New Yorks" (or Two Americas, as Presidential candidate John Edwards might say.) To wit, there is no middle-class remaining in New York City. It's extinct. In this U.S., you're either part of the teeming, homeless, starving masses (who inhabit every nook and cranny in the metropolis...), or separated from the poor and the unpleasant squalor of street life in glorious and luxurious apartment complexes. There, in spacious air-conditioned quarters, the super-rich play video games on home consoles (another nice bit of prophecy for 1973...), enjoy hot and cold running water (another luxury denied the masses), purchase black market items like real vegetables and beef, and are protected by security systems. The Haves and the Have Mores have separated themselves from the rest of humanity, and ignore their plight. It's easy, what with the video games, the TVs, the refrigerators...

Charlton Heston - one of my favorite actors, though I despise most of his political stances - again fronts what is undeniably a leftist science-fiction vision, and does so as only Heston can: with swaggering charm, arrogance and unswerving intelligence. In this case, he plays Detective Thorn of the 14th Precinct; a man who is a product of his time; meaning that he is mostly ignorant of history and just trying to survive and do "his job." Thorn is just one among many corrupt cops. For instance, when he's assigned to the murder (actually an assassination) of a rich man, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten) of the Soylent Corporate Board, Thorn steals as much as he can from the crime scene. He takes a bottle of bourbon, some refrigerated beef (a rare commodity), and a few reference books about Soylent Green, a tightly-rationed "miracle food" that is ostensibly based on Plankton and other sea life. Thorn also partakes of another luxury in Simonson's apartment - "The furniture." In this case, said furniture is a woman, Shirl (fetching Leigh Taylor Young), who comes with the apartment, regardless of tenant. Yep, in this future beautiful women are literally sex objects; their wares another luxury for those who can afford them. It's good to be rich.

Investigating the death of Simonson, Thorn is assisted by a "Police Book." Since electric power routinely goes out, there are no longer any reliable police information databases, google searches or electronic systems to rely on. Instead, every detective has an assistant or partner, a "book," a researcher who marshals what resources he can (including an elaborate Book Exchange") to learn about relevant suspects and perps. Thorn's "book" is named Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly man who remembers how things used to be: wide open spaces; beautiful oceans; untouched fields and so forth. He recalls a world of hot/cold running water, "real" butter and strawberry jam that didn't cost $150.00 per jar. In one of Soylent Green's finest and most memorable scenes, Sol prepares for Thorn a dinner like the ones he used to eat years earlier; one that includes crisp apples, beef stew, and other lost delicacies. The time and attention spent on what viewers today would consider a normal meal - but to these characters is an extravagance - makes a cogent point about a life of limited resources; and a booming population's overtaxing of the planet. These little things that we take for granted are suddenly big things; and suddenly as a viewr you realize how "lucky" we are in America; how we live in a world of plenty. A later scene involves Thorn taking his first hot shower in months (with Shirl as his companion; lucky guy...), and again, Soylent Green deploys simple imagery - it focuses on the small things - to establish a truly miserable future. But one which is not at all unrealistic or unbelievable.

The quiet, intimate nature of the dinner scene (and later the shower scene), not only do much to establish character relationships (for instance, Thorn doesn't know how to eat an apple...), but also reinforce that recurring idea of those things lost in this future; in the hustle-bustle of so-called "progress." It's all extremely touching and yet markedly unromantic and unsentimental. There's no candy-coating here about days that were better in the past; when the human animal was a better species. "People were always rotten," establishes Sol. "But the world was beautiful." In some ways, this dialogue makes the point of Soylent Green more eloquently - and more heart-wrenchingly - even than the famous coda.

Stylistically, Soylent Green is a more accomplished film than it has often been credit for being. It begins impressively with sepia tone images from American history. We see in old photographs the advancement of technology during the American century; the rapid progression from a rural, agricultural country to an industrialized one. The movie escorts us in this montage from Huckleberry Finn-style views of wide open spaces and serenity to - over just a few seconds of screen time - overpopulated, bustling modernity. As the montage continues, the images come at us faster and faster; form echoing content. The world of the cities, of airplanes, of cars, moves faster than the world of covered wagons and farmers so it's natural the images would move quicker. Again, it's a touching and surprisingly effective way to commence a science fiction film, and it puts a larger context upon the story. This montage reminds the viewer where we've been before taking us where we're going; into the uncertain future.

Later, the film's most often discussed scene, a depressed and hopeless Sol Roth goes "home," to a place in the middle of the city (which resembles a sports arena...) where he can be quickly and clenaly euthanized by the State. In this location, he's provided a twenty-minute death ceremony in what looks like an I-Max theater and salon, with the images of his youth projected all around him. Sol sees beautiful oceans, wild deer, endless fields of flowers and so forth, all while bathed in a light of his favorite color (orange) and to the tune of his favorite genre of music (classical; make that light classical). This death montage, like the montage at the beginning of the film, reminds audiences of the past; what has been lost in the modern technological age. It's important in the film not just as a tender goodbye to Sol. No, Thorn witnesses these scenes too...and weeps at the power of them. He is a man who has grown up in the "ugly" future world- a place literally devoid of nature - and come to accept the limitations of his world. He didn't know, nay "couldn't have known" what the world once was. And so his mentor, Sol, has passed on one final bit of wisdom to him; to the next generation: a natural vision of what human existence COULD be. Until Thorn sees this pastoral montage, he didn't really know that there was an option; didn't really understand what had been lost in the crush of industrialization and overpopulation.

Soylent Green is a film dominated by powerful, stunning imagery. One vision that struck me, and which I had forgotten about entirely, finds Thorn stumbling upon the corpse of a woman in an alley by dark of night. Strapped to her by a makeshift wire leash is her still-living - and weeping - child. This image speaks of the film's narrative context in a manner that dialogue or exposition simply cannot. The child was strapped to her mother, no doubt, because Mom didn't want them to be separated from one another in the maddeningly overpopulated streets - perhaps at the outdoor food market. So she jury-rigged this leash of sorts to keep them together. What Mom couldn't have predicted was that she would die (either of starvation or perhaps she was murdered...) and the child would be anchored to her; trapped. Good intentions have gone awry (likely another metaphor for the film's overriding theme: of something ostensibly good [technology and modernization] having unintended consequences.) But what is so meaningful about this image is that it remains wholly unsentimentalized. Nobody comments on the event or the tragedy. Heston's character "rescues" the child by taking the little moppet to a nearby church. But he says nothing. The movie has no comment on the child or the dead parent. This scene is so "normal" in the world of Soylent Green that it isn't worth a passing remark, even an exclamatory curse. If this had been a Spielberg film, we would have had Liam Neeson providing his "Oscar Moment," commenting on "how could we have come to this; how can we allow our children to suffer?" Soylent Green doesn't provide us with such catharsis.

In the cutthroat world of Soylent Green, there is no time to for such hand-wringing. Life is too difficult. Millions of tragedies go unnoticed on the streets every day, no doubt. Why is this any different? The film's ending also speaks to this truth in some fashion. The film offers a tight zoom on Thorn's bloody arm and hand as he is carried away on a stretcher. He shouts the truth for all to hear ("Soylent Green is made out of people") but he goes, essentially, unheard. We understand this because the film goes entirely black around his gnarled, dying hand, in essence restricting his presence in the frame. The frame itself has shrunk. The association with this image is that the truth in Soylent Green's world can't be heard; it holds only a "sliver" of space in the overlapping, multitudinous dialogue of a City-State overrun and failing.

If you're so inclined, you can gaze at the things Soylent Green gets wrong and laugh at the picture, I guess. Charlton Heston wears neckerchiefs throughout the film, an odd fashion choice. There are rotary phones in evidence too (in 2022!). That sort of thing. But it strikes me that on the balance, Soylent Green gets more right about "the future" than it gets wrong. It accurately predicts the erosion of the middle class, the obsession with global climate change, and the ever-growing and corrupting cathexis of politics with corporations (Soylent Green and Governor Santini are in on a deep dark conspiracy). The specter of "illegal immigration" and a "third world invasion" that some pundits now fear so greatly is also bubbling just beneath the surface here: look at how many of the extras are non-whites; non Europeans. In broad strokes, the film also addresses the danger and inevitability of a police state with a rapidly increasing population out of control, and more. In some senses, Soylent Green even points to the ubiquitous nature of entertainment...we even watch TV when we're about to die. Death is rendered palatable through the comfort of zoning out; of being - literally - a couch potato. In addition to these still-relevant themes, Soylent Green is a handsome production. There are some remarkably effective matte paintings in the film; ones that still hold up well. And Fleischer makes good use of his "extras," filling every frame and every moment of the film (save those at the spacious apartment at Chelsea west), with unkempt, exhausted-looking, world-weary bodies.

Soylent Green
presents an oppressive, dark future. There's no "out" for the characters (as there is in Blade Runner, for instance, with the inclusion of the off-world colonies and other worlds to explore.") Indeed, Shirl suggests "running" at some point to Thorn, and he rightfully replies "where are we going to go?" Every city in America is just like this city; and it is illegal to live the country. In bringing forward this point, Soylent Green suggests that if we don't change our ways - we will all be living in a purgatory of our own making.

I hadn't watched this film in a number of years, and I must admit, I was staggered by how powerful it is today; given the context of the 21st century. I highly recommend you watch it again if you are inclined. I would hope that critics would give it a second look too. So many "Best of" sci-fi movie lists are obsessed with the fairly recent: Star Wars, The Terminator or The Matrix. I would like to make the case that perhaps Soylent Green belongs on that list as well.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

1970s TV Nostalgia...

YouTube is an amazing place. You can truly find ANYTHING there. Any relic from your youth is just there for the remembering and sampling...and it's amazing. Like E-Bay, YouTube offers the opportunity for us to waste hour upon hour reliving nostalgic remembrances from days and productions long forgotten.

My latest two YouTube finds are included in this post because they have some personal meaning for me; growing up a kid in the 1970s. I feel like these clips represent memories hidden deep in the recesses of my twisted brain. So proceed at your own peril.

The first clip (below) is the intro for "The 4:30 PM Movie," which aired every weekday in the late 1970s on WABC, Channel 7 in New York. Without exaggeration, this is the place where I first fell in love with movies. I remember being in kindergarten and being excited about Planet of the Apes week. The 4:30 movie aired Planet of the Apes (in two parts) on Monday and Tuesday, and then Beneath the Planet of the Apes on Wednesday, then Escape on Thursday, and Conquest on Friday. Other movies I saw for the first time on the 4:30 movie: Soylent Green, The Omega Man and The Green Slime. And every movie viewing experience- every wondrous movie viewing experience - was preceded by this very disco-decade intro clip. I don't know that it will mean much of anything to people who didn't grow up with it. But for me, it's like visiting an old friend.

The second clip (below) is from "Chiller" the WPIX 11 (out of New York) horror movie night that aired every weekend. If the 4:30 Movie introduced me to many movies in general, then Chiller introduced me to the world of horror. I'll never forget watching some terrifying black-and-white movie (and I still don't know what it is...) about invisible pterodactyl eggs hatching and the monsters killing people. This and other horrors awakened my youthful interest in the macabre. Just the very sight of this "intro" or header had me - at five years old - scurrying to the sofa and hiding my eyes behind my hands. It still freaks me out...

Funny how these clips just bring back a world of memories.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

King Kong over the Years

A couple of weeks ago, while we were shooting the second season of The House Between, my friend and fellow film scholar Kevin Flanagan coined a phrase I hadn't heard before: "threemakes." He began discussing films that had been re-made twice already, and mentioned as an example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I immediately thought of King Kong. Just for fun, below you will see how King Kong (and his tale...) changed with the decades (the thirties; the seventies; and 2005). Also, this exercise serves, I submit, as a pretty good study of how movie trailers have changed with the times too.

Which King Kong do you think is the best film? And - as a separate question - which is your favorite Kong?

Monday, June 25, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Blade: Trinity (2004)

I must admit, I enjoyed the first two films of the Blade trilogy tremendously. Much more, in fact, than many of my friends and cohorts in the critical community. I felt that the first two efforts did a number of things exceedingly well in terms of both the superhero and action genres. In fact, the original Blade (1998), in some fashion, pointed to the style of action and fighting popularized by The Matrix (1999) a year later. And, the same film also featured one of the all-time great opening scenes of any superhero or horror movie: a vampire "rave" with a sprinkler system that doused the dancers in human blood. That's a classic and iconic beginning. And ghoulish as hell.

Truth be told, I enjoyed Blade II even more. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, it achieved what I thought impossible for a superhero sequel: it was actually a scary film; a balls-to-the-wall horror film as much as an action/martial-arts venture. The worthwhile sequel pitted Wesley Snipes' Blade character against a feral vampire breed that had to be hunted down and eradicated, and Blade joined up with a team of surly vampires (including Ron Perlman...) to stop the brutes before they could destroy the human race. It was sort of like Blade meets Aliens; but for me it absolutely worked on all thrusters.

I write all this prologue not because I necessarily expect everyone to agree with my assessments of the Blade films (I'm apparently dangling alone on a half-broken branch here...), but merely because I wanted to establish that there were some interesting touches in the previous franchise films; and that I had no trouble whatsoever appreciating those touches. The movies gave me a good, exciting time, and I appreciate that, especially when terrible superhero films abound - crap like Elektra, Catwoman, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Ghost Rider, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, X3 and Daredevil. Need I go on? In such company, Blade is frigging Shakespeare.

But Blade: Trinity does not live up to the legacy of entertainment established by the earlier Blade films. Bluntly stated, it's a superficial, corny, CGI-fest that commits two terrible crimes. One, it's unremittingly boring. And two, it drifts far afield from Wesley Snipes' character, the protagonist of the film series.

Love him or hate him, Snipes has always strutted front and center in the Blade films. Personally, I love his portrayal of the Daywalker. Snipes is intense but not talky or over-the-top; and he's occasionally really funny, even though he doesn't often crack jokes or one-liners. Snipes invests the Blade character with gravitas. He's a terrific anchor for this particular superhero series. He also moves brilliantly. Some of his action poses look like they came right out of the comics; and when he does it, these poses somehow seem natural.

Think about it: what other modern superhero has remained consistent under the stewardship of one actor through a trilogy of films lately? I can think of only one actor besides Snipes; and that's Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man films. We've had a procession of Batmans (Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney and Bale), for instance. Sure, there's the X-Men, but the focus there changes in each film from one actor to the other. Patrick Stewart was almost invisible in X3. (And given the quality of that film, may I say, good choice, Captain Picard.)

Snipes re-connects powerfully with his iconic role in Blade: Trinity, but his heroic efforts are to almost no avail. He's saddled with two "young" sidekicks who steal precious screen-time from him. First, there's the terribly annoying Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King - a walking collection of bad jokes. And then there's vanilla (but hot) Jessica Biel as bland Abigail Whistler. From the moment these new characters appear on the screen, one can immediately sense what is occurring here: someone behind the scenes is co-opting the Blade franchise to build another franchise for these characters. And frankly...that sucks. One doesn't go to a Blade movie to see other characters kick vampire ass. That's Blade's job. This sort of switcheroo is disrespectful to Snipes as well as long-time fans. The films have succeeded wildly - with him as the anchor and star - and so rightfully the expectation is that this third film would continue the legacy and actually be about Blade. However, that's not the case. He's been asked to front a product that isn't authentically what it should be.

Worse, Dominic Purcell - an actor I admire tremendously in series such as John Doe and Prison Break - is badly miscast as "Drake" (Dracula...), the villain in Blade: Trinity. Again, I like this actor so much..but he's just not right for the part of the ORIGINAL vampire in history, the Ancient Evil that threatens the world and the human race. He's also undermined by his ridiculous costumes. In one sequence Dracula looks like a gay biker, and in another (wearing what appears to be a bustier...), he resembles a cross-dresser. In his first big confrontation with Blade, Drake runs away from the Daywalker on a merry chase, and my wife Kathryn rightly asked at this point: "why is he running away if he's the most powerful vampire in history?" Watch the scene and see if you can figure out why he runs. Like much of the movie, this scene makes no sense. Later scenes establishing his menace and power don't work because we've already seen him flee Blade like a scared little girl.

Not much holds together in this film. There's a scene involving a human "farm" where homeless people are exploited as living blood banks for vampires. Blade and Abigail destroy one such factory, but we are told there are hundreds. Really? How come we never see Blade destroying any of them besides this one? This scene just happens with almost no fanfare and then ends without anybody ever commenting on it or the farms again. Likewise with the threat of the new virus that can annihilate all vampires (must contain Charlton Heston's blood...). We are informed by the maker of the virus that the experimental bio-weapon might also kill Blade (since he is part vampire...), but when Blade utilizes the virus in the finale...nothing. He doesn't cough, sputter or even sneeze. The audience is also told that the self-same virus can spread to all vampires, thus ending their dominion. So why, at the end of the film, isn't Blade using this virus to hunt down all remaining vampires, especially since they have enacted a "Final Solution" against humans (the blood bank farm thingie)? Blade:Trinity lurches from idea to idea, but none of these ideas seem to connect, or impact the narrative.

With Hannibal's lame wisecracks constantly undercutting the tension, Drake not offering much menace, and a crappy plot line, Blade:Trinity proves a rather underwhelming superhero film. Even worse, it's cut together in the manner of an Underworld or Aeon Flux, meaning that the action is virtually incoherent. As though the director (writer David Goyer) has no vision when it comes to on-screen geography, or spatial relationships. The editing is relentlessly choppy, so that even Snipes' ultra-cool moves (another reason to see these films...) get lost in the shuffle.

Watching Blade: Trinity, I felt that the whole enterprise was flying on auto-pilot. That another buck was being squeezed out of a franchise I had once enjoyed, and that worse, that franchise was being hijacked for the purpose of stealing a future buck! There's not a single surprise in the film; nary an interesting new development. There isn't a moment of authentic excitement or a moment of true horror. It's all familiar and worn out.

The one unexpected bright spot in the film, and I know many critics disagree with me on this point, is Parker Posey, playing the vampire villainess Danica Talos. Posey - a veteran of the Christopher Guest films - seems to realize exactly what kind of celluloid dog shit she's stepped into here and so makes the absolute most out of every terrible line, and every silly moment on camera. Posey walks the walk; she talks the talk (through uncomfortable-looking fangs...) and brings, at the very least, a level of charm and self-awareness to the proceedings. People may object to the way Posey camps things up, but like Snipes, she is just about the only other performer in the film who registers as an individual.

So this is a whopping disappointment. The movie came out a few years ago, and I waited this long to see it because of the bad reviews. I should have waited even longer. I saw this and then Hostel right after it. Let me just say that Hostel - so disturbing and visceral - resonated with energy, originality and terror in a way this exhausted franchise film never does. I'm not a big fan of the "torture porn" or "gorno" film as they are called these days, but Hostel is dangerous and transgressive and alive to the possibilities inherent in fear cinema...exactly what a horror film should be. Blade: Trinity is a snoozer.