Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Epic #2 - Ben-Hur (1959)

Now, I didn't mention this earlier when I was talking about Schindler's List, probably because I was slightly emotionally traumatized, but Epic #4 was Gone With the Wind. I would of course love to watch Gone With the Wind right now, who wouldn't, but it ranks much higher on the list of romances, so we'll just have to wait for a while for that. I know. It's tragic, but it can't be helped. More business I forgot to mention: The American Film Institute defines "epic" as "a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past," which not only contains the phrase "cinematic interpretation of the past, which I will totally be saying form now on, but also is a much clearer definition than the one that I had come up with, and explains why Titanic was the only movie to have a ship in it (that's a lie, actually: Ben-Hur has ships.) Apparently ships are not as essential to an epic as I thought they were. Pity. But enough business: Down to Ben-Hur.

Now this is an epic. It's just huge. It's got a ton of people, and horses and fighting and ships (take note of this, Internet), which is totally epic. When I think epic, I think Ben-Hur. I mean, look at the poster for God's sake! The title is carved from stone. Stone from the tombs of great ancient heroes, carved by the Gods of Great Big Epic Movies. I assume. That's how epic this movie is.

Ben-Hur is a William Wyler epic about a Judean prince (Judah Ben-Hur, played by the one and only Charleton Heston. ) who gets arrested, along with his mother and sister, serves time as a galley slave (ships are heavily featured in this part) and then escapes, and then vows revenge because he knows the guy who arrested him, and...stuff. Look, I dare you to try to summarize Ben-Hur without giving a synopsis of the entire movie. It can't be done, I tell you. This is an incredibly complicated movie, and the fact that it's four hours long doesn't help matters. Watching Ben-Hur is a serious commitment. You can't just decide to watch it, you practically have to plan ahead.

I liked this movie. I didn't think I would, but I did, which is nice. It's a lot like a combination of The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, but with chariots. It takes place in Rome like Spartacus, the main character is a Jewish slave for part of the movie, but also incredibly rich for the other part, like The Ten Commandments, a lowly slave sticks it to the man in Rome like in Spartacus, and it stars Charleton Heston, like The Ten Commandments. Now, I think I've made it clear that I'm not the biggest fan of Charleton Heston. He's just such a ham. Not that Kirk Douglas isn't kind of a ham, but at least he's a decent actor at the same time.

He's also fantastic at presenting Oscars. They should have just hired him instead of James Franco.

Charleton Heston does not have that distinction. He's just so stiff and dramatic, and always sounds like he's reading lines, which is not how actors should sound. Actors should sound like they're talking. He's pretty good in this movie though, so that's alright. As a side note,I don't know if you've noticed, but three movies so far, The Ten Commandments, Schindler's List and Ben-Hur, heavily feature the persecution of the Jewish. I know that three out of ten doesn't really seem like a huge ratio, but when you think about it, it's a bizarrely specific similarity. I guess that a disproportionately large amount of history just involves the persecution of the Jewish, as illustrated by three different movies about three different time periods where the Jewish were persecuted. Where is this animosity coming from, I ask you? Where?

The beginning of the movie takes place in year...one? Zero? It doesn't matter - Anno Domini. The first event of the movie is actually the birth of Christ.

It seems like this would be hard to top.

I bet you didn't know that Ben-Hur was secretly religious. Ben-Hur is actually tangential to the story of Jesus, with Jesus making appearances throughout the movie. He never speaks and you never see his face, but he's a really powerful presence anyway. It's very well done, and is probably the most inspiringly religious thing I've ever seen. The movie appropriately also ends with the Crucifixion of Christ, with the main characters understandably a bit upset about it. (They don't have to worry about it though- it gets better. Isn't Dramatic Irony just oodles of fun? )

That's not the best part of the movie though. The best part of this movie is...The Chariot Race.

It's not easy to convey a fanfare visually.

If you don't think that this chariot race tops the birth of Christ, than you don't know how awesome chariots are. This scene is fantastically famous, especially in movie world. It's this huge extravaganza of crazy chariotal competition. There's chariot tricks, which I didn't even know existed, and cheating, and chariots with spikes on them, and people getting trampled by horses, which was apparently a pretty basic stunt at the time. There's a lot of death, actually, because it's a Roman sport and the Romans like things to involve death, because the Romans were just a little bit crazy. It is awesome. There is a very famous urban legend that says that Charleton Heston is wearing a modern watch in this scene. Charleton Heston says that this is ridiculous - he's wearing wristbands that come up to his elbows, you wouldn't even be able to see a watch. Do you know what this tells me? Charleton Heston did forget to take off his watch. I told you they should have hired Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas would have taken off his watch.

In conclusion, Ben-Hur is an awesome, totally fun movie. It's the quintessential big-budget epic (Well, the second most quintessential, apparently), and it's totally obvious why. The story is good, the acting is good (Except perhaps some scenes with lepers that come off as quite silly), it's so epic, and everyone kind of seems like they're having fun, which is fun to watch. I totally liked watching this movie, and that's the goal people usually have when making movies. Good for them. In fact, most of the movies on this list where totally awesome (excluding Reds, of which I was not a fan). I can't imagine better epics than, say, the last four movies. Man, #1 better be a darn good movie.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Epic #3 - Schindler's List (1993)

Oh, how do I even talk about Schindler's List? It's a Stephen Speilberg film based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, and want to emphasize true story here, a member of the Nazi party during World War II who ran a factory run by the forced labor of the Jews. Eventually he realizes that he has to save people from certain death, and he uses his huge amount of wealth to get a bunch of people into his own separate camp and factory, where no one gets killed. That's what the "List" in the title refers to - Schindler's List of "essential workers" he needed for his factory; His list of people who were saved. He saves more than eleven hundred people in the end, and dies penniless. The movie stars Liam Neeson as Schindler and the guy who plays Voldemort as a Nazi. It was Stephen Speilberg's first really mature movie, and it won seven Oscars, including best picture.

I really don't even know what to say about this movie. There just aren't any words for it. It's the Holocaust and it's heroism and it's just...It's very good. It's got a good script and very, very powerful imagery. Incredibly powerful. It's got a ton of characters, but they don't get lost in the size of the movie. It's got very good music, but it's composed by John Williams, so there's no surprise there. It's filmed mostly in black and white, except for a few key objects (Oh, red sweater girl...), which works really well. It's just such a good movie.

I didn't actually cry though. I'm slightly worried that there might be something wrong with me because of this, but I'm going to put that aside for the moment. It's a very emotional movie throughout the whole thing. I'll definitely watch it again, but not for a very, very long time. That's alright though - I'm pretty sure it'll stick with me for a while. For me the worst part (emotionally) is the end. The war is over and a lot of people are alive, but Schindler just breaks down because he could have done so much more. He could have sold things and saved just ten more people from dying, or eleven, or twelve. That many people would be alive if he had done a little bit more. It was for me really tragic to think of that after all we'd seen of people being saved.
The story itself is an incredible story. This man who's so greedy and such a pig turns into a hero because that is the right thing, it was what he needed to do. Before he started saving people money was so important to him, but he gives that up so people can live. He's not what we view as a god person, quite the opposite in fact, but he turns out to be a hero. You can't make this kind of stuff up. Schindler's List isn't exactly an uplifting movie, but at the same time it's wonderful to see the kind of heroism that people are capable of, even the people you wouldn't expect to be heroes. Schindler's List recognizes both the evil and the incredible good in people, and that is terrific. This movie is wonderful, it's only possible fault being that its title is incredibly hard to type.

This is not an easy movie to watch. It's definitely a very very good movie, and an accurate portrayal of the Holocaust, and it definitely needs to exist, there should be a movie like this. It's just so hard to watch it . Knowing that all this happened, that somehow the Holocaust really happened and no one did anything is hard. This happened, and that's why this movie needs to be around, not only to remember the heroism of this man, but also to remember the villainy of other men. To remember what was done and to not let it be done again. To appreciate what was done about it, and the people who fought. That's what movies can do. That kind of thing is why I'm writing this blog. That is why movies are awesome.