Soylent Green, completing the Charlton Heston dystopian future trifecta of Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, may be spiritually closer to Douglas Trumbull's ecological space flick from 1972, Silent Running, and the much more recent gloomy Children of Men, than the flat out entertainment adventures of Chuck’s earlier walk down the roads of things to come. The film is based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by respected sci-fi writer Harry Harrison, with a screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg (who was a career TV scribe until he hit the big screen with another Heston flick, the less memorable Skyjacked). With Soylent Green underrated director Richard Fleischer continued to develop one of the most diverse film resumes ever. His bizarre career started in noir (Narrow Margin); included dramas (Compulsion); sci-fi (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage); some great little thrillers (The Boston Strangler, 10 Rillington Place and See No Evil); as well as a number of legendary misfires (Doctor Dolittle and the Neil Diamond opus The Jazz Singer). Fleischer manages to sprinkle a little of all of the above into Soylent Green.
If you already know the slight twist ending, Soylent Green can play like a long Twilight Zone episode, but beyond the Rod Serling influence (he came up with that great twist at the end of The Planet of the Apes), this is an interesting take on the future, which was certainly more fresh in 1973. It’s now 2022 in New York and the world is overpopulated (44 million in NY alone) and poverty stricken. Due to the “greenhouse effect” it’s awfully hot, the world is polluted, the oceans are dead, and food is scarce. The Soylent Corporation produces food wafers to feed the masses: soylent red, yellow, and the new and improved delicious green. But when one of the company's owners, William Simonson (Joseph Cotton), is murdered NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Heston) investigates. Thorn is lucky enough to have his own teensy tenement apartment he shares with his buddy Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last film role), one of the few old timers who remember how the world once was - he even once tasted a strawberry! Most of the masses live on the street (or his building’s stairs), but Thorn and Sol live not much better. Like a classic noir character, when Thorn investigates the wealthy man’s death he helps himself to his stuff (food, soap, booze, even the dead man’s hooker companion).Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading
Over the decades, Tim Burton has made himself into a brand name (mostly off the success of his earlier films). While he is a master of images and ideas inspired by comic books, B-movies and campy pop culture, the story and payoff rarely lived up to the potential. After an impressive run of films about outsiders like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and the box office bonanza of Batman and Batman Returns), Burton peaked with what is still his best movie, a biography of the beloved, transvestite director of horrible films, Edward D. Wood, Jr., titled appropriately enough Ed Wood. The flick follows Wood in his “Golden Period” of the 1950s and his collaboration and friendship with has-been horror icon Bela Lugosi on three quickie cheapies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space. All three films are on the Mount Rushmore of so-bad-they-are-good movie classics. Wood’s best qualities may have been his enthusiasm and an ability to build a stable of oddball friends who took part in his projects. Burton has managed to craft both a moving tribute to a talentless dreamer and a perfect scene-for-scene recreation of those hilarious films.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and instead of the usual Danny Elfman score this one is provided by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), who brings a fun mix of sci-fi and conga room. Based on the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, the script was written by the screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who were hot in the quirky bio business, also penning The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, as well as the Problem Child movies and TV series). Ed Wood marks the second of at least seven films Burton has made with Johnny Depp. And the casting of Depp at the time was really ingenious; who knew the pretty-boy had such creative chops? Depp wonderfully infuses Wood with an ah-shucks charm; everything seems to give Wood zeal. Always the optimist, Wood believes in everything, whether it’s his inept actors, sets, shots or his girlfriend’s sweaters--or the belief in the stardom of Lugosi who, at this point, was a heroin addict with failing health and is played beautifully by Martin Landau. When Wood sees Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a TV psychic, make ridiculous predictions, he believes him. He spots Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) in the ring, and instantly sees a great actor. And these random people that Wood meets along the way and in whom he believes join him in his own dream of making movies, and in turn believe in him. It's a motley group that includes Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual in search of a sex change operation who is most memorable as The Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and eventually the horror show hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), plus assorted goofy crew members. They forge an "Island of Misfit Toys" style family; think Wes Anderson without all the preciousness.Continue Reading
A lot of directors who worked with Joan Crawford probably thought they had tapped into whatever unique strain of neurosis made her “La Joan” in order to get the best performance out of her in their films. She had always played a version of herself throughout her career, whether as a jazz crazy flapper in her silent films, a shop girl looking to marry up in her 1930s films, and in the double-crossed dame roles she took on in the hardboiled noirs of the 1940s. By the fifties, the Joker-esque lipstick started to appear, looking all the more frightening in Technicolor, and her eyebrows reached new levels of ferocity. I think of this as her middle-aged gender bending period. It seems to me that a lot of middle-aged American women start to look kind of androgynous after awhile out of what I always assumed was a weary resignation to having to keep up the scopophilic charade but Joan’s particular version of androgyny seemed more trenchant than that. It was kind of accidentally subversive. Or what the hell do I know? She may have been totally onboard as a proto-transgender performance artist. Maybe she was the first Ziggy Stardust and we weren’t hip enough to catch on. Well, whatever was going on no director found the resolute queerness of Joan’s 1950s persona quite like Nicholas Ray did with his weird western Johnny Guitar.
Joan had plenty of experience playing ball busters and vamps, but she had never played a character quite like Vienna, the saloon owner whom everyone in town seems to want gone. Vienna wears high-waisted black pants and boots, a bolo tie, and a holstered gun. She employs a staff of men who seem weary of having such a powerful female boss. All day they spin the roulette wheel in her club, even though there are no gamblers, and they serve drinks at her bar even though there are no drinkers. A former flame of Vienna’s named Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden) is ostensibly hired to strum some tunes for her clientele. But there's never anyone there, except for the nefarious bank-robbing gang that hangs out at Vienna’s including members with names like The Dancin’ Kid and a guy named Turkey. So yes we have Vienna, Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid, and Turkey--just for starters.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.Continue Reading
The Crying Game
In his introduction to the published screenplay of Chinatown, Robert Towne wonders if there’s anything left to do with noir. He wonders if the aesthetics and thematics and poetics of noir are simply outdated in the information age, where a sense of mystery is harder to come by. Sensibly, he shrugs off this worry and points to The Crying Game as an example of how noir can still say new things to us as a modern audience. The thing I admire so much about the film, though, is that it manages to be both a deeply personal love story as well as a morality play about modern day political crime in Britain. It’s an IRA story with terrorism, assassinations, and a queer love story at its center. Somehow it all makes complete sense.
The first third of the film is told in flashback. Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, is an IRA operative who feels immense guilt for having had a role in the death of a hapless British soldier, Jody, played by an overbearing and overacting Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character gets to know Fergus after he’s nabbed and before the inevitable happens, Jody makes Fergus promise to check in on his girlfriend, a London hairdresser named Dil, after he is gone. The story goes from IRA thriller to blue neon Brit noir when Fergus goes to London, haunted by the tragic fate of Jody. He looks in on Dil as promised and quickly becomes infatuated with her. Dil is a cool London chick and a transgendered woman (with a penis) though Fergus has no idea. Fergus isn’t saying who he really is and Dil isn’t saying who she really is. Once nature takes its course and Fergus discovers the truth about Dil he doesn’t handle it very well. But because of the fact that he actually has a conscience, and his genuine confusion over his feelings towards Dil, he doesn’t ever really leave her. The IRA is never truly going to let him go, though, and his loyalty to them becomes a liability for someone in the throes of a curious new relationship.Continue Reading
American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.
Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.Continue Reading