CFP: The Legacy of Radiohead's 'The Bends' 20 Years On [Deadlines: 29 Jan / 12 Feb]

 
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Tuesday, Jul 15, 2008

With only a half dozen films in his little over a decade old canon, Christopher Nolan stands at the crossroads of artform greatness. Not just being the best of his kind, but as an auteur worthy of names like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Lumet. He’s no “next Spielberg” Shyamalan or foot draggingly difficult David O. Russell. Instead, he’s the bellwether for a new kind of filmmaker, one that successfully merges Hollywood classicism with the best of the post-modern revision. Looking at the six films he’s made since emerging in 1996, one can witness the development and growth of an innovative icon, someone schooled in the old ways of working while finding novel means of making his far reaching, philosophical points. With The Dark Knight about to signal his ascension into undeniable importance, let’s look back over his oeuvre to see just where it all started - and how he earned his new illustrious rank.



Following (1996)
Offering an initial glimpse into what would soon be a full blown motion picture aesthetic, Nolan’s no-budget debut is a celebratory shape of good things to come. Few have seen this minor monochrome masterwork, a combination of the best that noir and the post-modern approach to film has to offer. Intercutting between a writer’s unusual obsession (he follows people inconspicuously as they go about their daily life) and a pseudo crime caper involving a burglar and a babe, Nolan acknowledges his limits while simultaneously using every deception he knows in the language of film. Filming with amateurs over a year of weekends, the resulting 69 minutes stand as a blueprint for what would soon be a career to be reckoned with.



Memento (2000)
With its eccentric cast - Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce - and equally unusual premise and presentation, Christopher Nolan declared his artistic worth with this wildly successful indie effort. Built out of his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, and applying a backwards story structure that bested Pulp Fiction for narrative ingenuity, the filmmaking novice vaulted past many other outside amateurs to step front and center into the critical limelight. While some argued that the movie was more gimmick than engaging, others find the mystery in reverse tactic more satisfying than the standard whodunit. Even today, eight years later, many marvel at its unique structure and cinematic daring.


Even more telling, Memento suggests the specific elements that would come to make Nolan a true directorial talent. The painstaking attention to details, the unbridled character depth, the desire that everything onscreen, from the smallest moment to the biggest big picture pronouncements, make sense are literally encased in his creation. Many miss the fact that Nolan is a brilliant writer as well. He has had a hand in every screenplay he’s ever filmed, and you can see the connection and consistency up onscreen. A movie like Memento could easily go perplexing and pear-shaped, especially in the hands of one of Hollywood’s journeymen. This is one time where high concept met even larger ability - and the result was magical. 



Insomnia (2002)
It’s never easy adapting a popular foreign film for Western tastes, especially when said movie is this laconic, spellbinding thriller from Sweden. The original starred
Stellan Skarsgård as a sleep-deprived detective on the case of a murdered girl. It exposed director Erik Skjoldbjærg to audiences worldwide, and was so well considered that the Criterion Collection gave the film one of its well-deserved Special Edition DVD treatments. So Nolan definitely had an uphill battle, especially with this being his first studio feature. Saddled with a cast that included a peak Al Pacino, a rising Hilary Swank, and a misplaced Robin Williams, the filmmaker fashioned a kind of sunlit noir, a world where the darkest elements exist within the never-ending Alaskan days. 


It’s not just that the former stand-up turned middling actor is horribly wrong for the role of a sleazoid killer. Nor is it the oddball juxtaposition of European angst coming out of the mouth of high profile Hollywood faces. No, the true issue with Insomnia is one of “why bother”. Sure, Nolan seamlessly weaves the worlds of memory and immediacy, effortlessly swinging between flashback and fact, and he makes the most of his frozen tundra location. But Skjoldbjærg’s version was just as good, and Skarsgård gave a heartbreaking performance. So a remake was merely a matter of foreign film snobbery. No matter the genius of the man behind the lens, this version of Insomnia still seems unnecessary.



Batman Begins (2005)
It was a monumental task that any director would find daunting. Warner Brothers, desperate to revamp the Caped Crusader after Joel Schumacher and his day-glo frightmares more or less killed him off, was looking for some fresh new talent to take over the franchise. While names like Tarantino and Aronofsky were tossed about, Nolan got the nod. From the very beginning, he put his stamp on the project. He hired Christian Bale to play a decidedly tormented Bruce Wayne. He focused on less famous villains like Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He wiped away the cartoon sheen suggested by the material and set all the action within a dire, depressively realistic Gotham City. This new approach clicked. Audiences adored Nolan’s aggressive update, and critics applauded his originality and artistry.


This is definitely not Tim Burton’s Batman. Gone are the Goth tinged tricks and A-list anarchy. In their place are real performances from actors doing everything to make this material feel fully realized and totally authentic. Bale is especially good, though his breathy ‘Bat whisper’ gets the occasional fanboy in a lather. Yet Nolan wisely surrounded him with a supporting cast including old world wonders like Michael Caine (great as Alfred), new school sages like Liam Neeson, and up and comers like Cillian Murphy (hauntingly creepy as Scarecrow/ Dr. Crane). With a clockwork narrative allowing all plot points to neatly fall into place, Batman Begins represented a new era for the comic book movie - one that Nolan would again redefine five years later.



The Prestige (2006)
In the year that passed after Begins broke through both critically and commercially, everyone wondered what Nolan would do next. While many wanted to see another installment of Gotham in chaos, they would have to wait for a future opening day. Instead, the director and his gifted screenwriter brother created a remarkable adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. Oddly enough, of the two films centering on old world magicians to arrive that year (along with The Illusionist), Nolan’s was the lesser mainstream hit. But what it lacked in financial windfalls it made up for in motion picture artistry. In a year that celebrated Martin Scorsese’s Departed with an Oscar, and saw stellar work arrive from Darren Aronofsky in the form of The Fountain, The Prestige was the year’s best film. 


At its core, The Prestige plays with notions of fascination, dedication and deception. It starts out as a professional battle of wills between two talented men, and ends up a sad comment on how low mere men will go to best each other. Bale is back, becoming a seasoned member of the Nolan creative company with his turn here, and Hugh Jackman delivers yet another insanely good performance as the showman who’s more flash than onstage substance. While both parts offer their fair share of nuance, the Aussie bests his British rival, reveling in a snarky kind of smarm that makes your skin crawl as your heart breaks. A few years from now, when Nolan has settled into his multiple award winning career, The Prestige will be seen as his strong creative breakthrough. It stands as one of cinema’s strongest statements.



The Dark Knight (2008)
With his last film underperforming and the studio anxious for more Batmania, Nolan began the process of revisiting Gotham by looking for his next supervillian. At the end of Begins, Gary Oldman’s Sgt. Gordon (soon to be Commissioner) shows the Caped Crusader a piece of evidence - a playing/calling card for someone known as the Joker. With this dynamic already set up, the director started casting. Several people suggested Michael Keaton as the character, a nice bit of symmetry to the previous run of films. Others suggested Crispin Glover, Mark Hammill (who voiced the character in the cartoon update), and even an aging Jack Nicholson. Nolan went with Heath Ledger, the Australian actor best known for his work in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There. It turned out to be an inspired choice…and a tragic one. After filming was completed, Ledger would die of an accidental drug overdose.


A combination of menace and melancholy looms over The Dark Knight, painting its masterful crime epic sweep in uncomfortable shades of interpersonal doom. Nolan’s latest is indeed a masterpiece, albeit one that avoids all the pitfalls that come with being yet another Summer box office draw. Blockbusters don’t get much darker and demanding than this, a 150 minute descent into the fractured psyche of four unflappable men. Along with Bale and Ledger, Oldman returns for more Gordon drama, and just when you thought we’d found a hero to save Gotham, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent goes from conqueror to conquered in a literal blaze of g(l)ory. His Two-Face is just one of many amazing features in this Oscar worthy effort, a true indication that Christopher Nolan is the best director working in films today.


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008

Coming Soon.Net Reports from the Set of Watchmen
As the summer roll out continues, tent pole after tent pole testing the mainstream audiences appetite for spectacle, one of the movies that hopes to tantalize audience cinematic taste buds in 2009 soldiers on. For those looking for some insights into the production design and the unique universe of the film, look no further that this onset visit. (Coming Soon.net)





Where is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are
It was supposed to be the family film follow-up for the man responsible for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Now, it’s apparently lost in reshoot limbo. For those wondering the status of the maverick director’s take on the Maurice Sendak classic can read more about its here. (LA Times)





Kate Hudson Lands Key Role in Big Screen Nine
While casting changes on the upcoming Rob Marshall musical adaptation are nothing new (Javier Bardem dropped out, only to be replaced by this year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis), the addition of the Almost Famous actress is interesting. She joins a star studded cast including Dame Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, and Penelope Cruz. E Online has more on the production. (E Online)





Cast of W Caught In Bar-Room Brawl
It’s a given that, when dealing with an Oliver Stone film, controversy is bound to be a byproduct. But who knew his take on the life of current President George W. Bush would be so contentious off-screen. Apparently, a few in the cast and crew - including lead Josh Brolin and co-star Jeffrey Wright - got pinched for public intoxication and resisting arrest. Given the Commander in Chief’s party-fueled past, this recent dust up seems almost appropriate. Read more here. (Shreveport Times)





Trailer for Ricky Gervais’ Ghost Town Is Up
It’s angry loner vs. genial spooks in this unusual comedy from Spider-man scribe David Koepp. Featuring the Office UK sensation as a disgruntled dentist able to see the dead, this sounds an awful lot like the 1993 Ron Underwood film Heart and Souls. Who knows - maybe Gervais can bring something different to the failing fantasy comedy genre. (Official Site)





First Full Spirit Trailer Leaked Online
Ever since the success of Sin City and 300 Frank Miller has been looking for a suitable project to propel his own career as a solo filmmaker. He may have found it in this stylized take on the famous Will Eisner comic. While fanboys have been flummoxed by the director’s desire to closely mimic the look of a pen and ink panel, this preview appears intriguing enough. (Film School Rejects)





Jack Black Back for More Rock
Flush with the success of Kung Fu Panda - and the upcoming buzz over August’s Tropic Thunder - Jack Black is planning to revisit his 2003 success. Helmed by Richard Linklater (who directed the first film) and with a script again delivered by Mike White, School of Rock 2: America Rocks. Paramount has yet to state a planned release date. (Variety)





DVD releases of Note for 15 July

The Bank Job
Meet Bill
Never Forever
Penelope
Poison Sweethearts
Shutter
Steel Trap: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Trafic: The Criterion Collection


 
Box Office Figures for Weekend of 11 July

#1 - Hellboy 2: The Golden Army: $35.7.6 million
#2 - Hancock: $33.8 million
#3 - Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D: $20.5 million
#4 - WALL*E: $18.6 million
#5 - Wanted: $11.7 million
#6 - Get Smart: $7.0 million
#7 - Meet Dave: $5.2 million
#8 - Kung Fu Panda: $4.3 million
#9 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $2.3 million
#10 - Kit Kittredge: An American Girl: $2.2 million



Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan returns with another installment of his Batman reboot. This time around, the late Heath Ledger is the Joker, challenging the Caped Crusader to reveal his true nature to the citizens of Gotham. It’s everything you’ve heard it is.
Rated PG-13


Mamma Mia! - Meryl Streep stars in the big screen translation of the wildly successful ABBA jukebox musical. It’s a light and breezy entertainment bogged down by some of the worse directing choices since a certain German doc turned hack filmmaker.
Rated PG-13


Space Chimps - After a stellar set of CGI cartoons this summer, it’s back to business as usual with this tired take on the genre. Some apes find themselves thrown to the alien wolves, used by NASA to explore an uncharted planet with typical juvenile-styled hijinx. Rated PG


Limited:
Transsiberian - Brad Anderson, the director of the provocative The Machinist (which starred an emaciated Christian Bale) returns with a thriller based on a pair of Americans traveling abroad. It promises to be quite intriguing, despite what the trailer may tell you. Rated R


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Sunday, Jul 13, 2008

With another $34 million in its coffers and a growing word of mouth campaign, Will Smith’s latest pseudo sci-fi exercise, Hancock, is shaping up to be one of the summer’s biggest surprises. Not a shock when you consider the star power behind the project, but unusual in that the movie continues to build on its opening despite mostly negative reviews. Now critics never contribute to or cause the commercial fortunes/misfortunes of a release, but many believed Hancock was very minor Smith at best (only a 37% favorable consensus). With $165 million already accounted for, and much more on the horizon, this so-called misfire could end up one of the actor’s strongest outings.


Some have suggested that race has fueled the film’s success, a recent rant by none other than Sean “P Diddy” Combs claiming that African Americans have been desperate for a black superhero to support. Of course, from a superficial standpoint, that concept would seem obvious. Minorities rarely figure into the comic book universe - at least the version Hollywood chooses to support - and the arrival of an original creation, a character build out of certain cultural complements would definitely be unique. But to suggest that John Hancock, a champion rarely spoken of in racial terms (if at all), translates into some kind of Jackie Robinson moment for the genre is just surreal.


Earlier in the year, Iron Man introduced two characters of color into its mix - Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both have origins in graphic novel mythos (though some see Fury’s transformation as more about casting than consistency), and will play more prominent roles in future installments. While Terrence Howard and Samuel L. Jackson both had minor moments in the first film, one can see their importance once the pre-Avengers narrative continues. And if one was looking to move beyond the Marvel/DC domain, there are examples of earnest, if ineffective, offerings like Meteor Man that function as a better “been there first” foray.


No, it’s the fact that an A-list African American actor is now poised to have his own high profile popcorn franchise that may explain the excitement - and yet again, this is nothing new for Smith. He rode the Men in Black franchise to two successful films, and would probably revisit any number of his previous roles should the script (and the payday) seem right. Hancock, of course, has a far more interesting backstory, something that could easily be explored in variations of the sequel theme. His transformation from drunk and insolent to tender and heartrending marks the calling card of a potentially classic character. And since his reality is rather esoteric and ephemeral, it could definitely generate repeat investigations.


Which leads us to the other element that people are using to support Hancock’s box office take. Outside of the man in the suit situation, the twist is getting a great deal of press. For those unaware of the third act switch-up a SPOILER warning will be issued. It’s impossible to talk about this part of the film without giving it all away, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to remain oblivious to it charms/harms, skip down to the final paragraph. Otherwise, the plot point that transforms the film from a basic action spectacle into something slightly tragic and almost epic is often cited as part of Hancock‘s appeal. Several critics have commented that it more or less makes or breaks the movie.


All throughout the first two acts, Hancock’s interaction with PR man Ray Embrey has been tainted by his wife Mary’s unusually harsh attitude toward the hero. Every time he’s around, she reacts with a combination of anger and revulsion. It turns out that there’s a reason for this - Mary is the same as Hancock, gifted with the same superhuman powers. In a city destroying showdown, she finally reveals her existence. Later, she offers the reasons for her fear. It seems that whomever put these entities on the planet (one of the best explanations is that they are mythic “Gods’ like those of the ancient Greeks), paired them up. Together, they have the potential to sap each others strength. Stay too long together, and they will turn mortal, and be susceptible to injury - or even death. 


Mary has been desperate to stay away from Hancock because, in their long and illustrious past together, their partnership has lead to disaster and pain. She explains several examples of their near misses. By remaining apart, both can lead their lives, be it as house wife or a crime fighter. In the end, after being exposed to her, Hancock is wounded and sent to the hospital. When Mary shows up, she too is shot. It takes a Herculean effort from our injured hero to escape his treatment, head out into the street, and save himself and Mary. The farther he gets from her, the more his (and her) powers return. Eventually, we learn that Hancock has taken up residence in New York City, far away from Mary and her family. Both are happy…and more importantly, fully restored.


It’s possible to argue over the effectiveness of this surprise, to suggest as others have that it turns a satiric romp into something far too serious - or in other opinions, striking and rather substantive. The notion of how Mary’s revelation affects the film can be saved for another day. Indeed, it may be more of a personal preference than anything clearly cinematic. What one can argue over is the claims that this is one of the best twists in the history of the type. Parallels to The Sixth Sense and Fight Club have been frequent, suggesting that audiences are really responding based on this outright denouement. By adding the secret, it gives the movie an added punch that a standard ending probably would lack.


Unfortunately, such comparisons are crazy. The Hancock reveal is more about motive than narrative drive. It does affect the way our hero acts for the last 30 minutes of the movie, but it’s not a Kaiser Sose kind of rewrite. Anyone who knows film will see the situation hinted at the minute Charlize Theron makes an appearance. Her shifty eyes and uncomfortable smiles signal something is amiss with this supposedly typical suburbanite. By the time she turns up kicking Hancock’s butt, there’s little shock. True, where the movie takes the material is rather interesting, especially the notion that emotional sacrifice and a lack of partnership must follow these creatures for all eternity (they appear fated to fall in love with each other). But it’s not a definitive turn.


No, Hancock‘s twist is not on the level of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, the truth behind Soylent Green‘s secret recipe, or ‘man/woman’ charade of The Crying Game. In some ways, it’s on par with the whole ‘deal with the Devil’ finale of Angel Heart. It’s a plot point that propels us sideways instead of backward, that doesn’t get us rethinking what we’ve seen transpire so much as contemplating the meaning of such a fact. Sure, it may change the tone of the film, and provide a more somber sort of conclusion that one expects from a big budget popcorn romp, but Hancock doesn’t live or die by said shift. 


No, what’s clear is that, as he ages, Will Smith is becoming a certifiable screen presence, someone who can put butts in seats based on his name and his name alone. Sure, there is something to be said for both the race and reveal issues, but neither is as important as who is standing in front of the camera. As his career continues, Smith illustrates the concept that hard work and determination - as well as a deft way with choosing projects - can propel even the most unusual talent into the upper echelon’s of the Hollywood elite. The color of his skin or the last act surprise may be part of Hancock‘s appeal, but they’d be nothing without the former Fresh Prince. Nothing. The best thing this movie has to sell is Smith himself.


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Sunday, Jul 13, 2008

In the ‘80s, when the slasher film was all the rage, there was no real need to be different. The set-up and fright formula mandated a kind of carbon copy creativity. Just find yourself a haunted setting, a group of teenage rowdies, some random sex and drug/alcohol abuse, a moralizing murderer, and a last act denouement that provided a basis for the bloodletting, and you had a coattail cash box. Of course, as the genre grew, so did the number of mimics. Before long, the desire to be derivative killed the category. Now, nearly 30 years later, we’re seeing a kind of slice and dice revival. Too bad then that the lessons learned way back when are no longer part of film language rote. Instead, movies like Steel Trap appear destined to repeat this kind of horror movie’s many mistakes. 


It’s New Years Eve, and seven partygoers in an abandoned skyscraper get a call to join another shindig. This one is very exclusive, and promises lots of thrills. So rock star Wade, celebrity chef Kathy, advice columnist Nicole, her entertainment attorney boyfriend Robert, TV exec Pamela, former child star Adam, and his coke whore arm candy Melanie all find themselves involved in a nursery rhyme filled game of life or death. You see, a masked killer is stalking each and every one of them, unflattering nicknames indicating the slayer’s possible motives. One by one, the guests are murdered, the cat and mouse means of destruction providing a high level of anxiety for those still on the “list”. Unless they find out who is behind the crimes, and why they want them dead, they will never escape this Steel Trap.


Steel Trap is the kind of film that substitutes creepy locations for plotting, and the slightest smatterings of gore in place of anything suspenseful or scary. To call it derivative would avoid its obvious attempts at being different, and yet this is nothing more than the standard slice and dice from 20 years ago, dressed up in a decidedly uninteresting set of the emperor’s new clothes. Give the killer a hockey mask instead of a bland black disguise, and lower the average age of the victims by at least one generation, and you’d have something akin to Friday the 13th: Jason Goes High Rise. While the DVD cover art (the film is currently available from Dimension Extreme, the Weinstein Company and Genius Products subdivision) suggest something like Saw or The Cube, there is nothing remotely inventive or puzzle boxy about this title.


First time feature director Luis Cámara, who co-wrote the movie with Gabrielle Galanter, would disagree with such an assessment. As part of the full length audio commentary offered in the digital presentation, he makes it clear that he finds his narrative rather inventive and particularly adept. He’s not foolish enough to believe he’s made some manner of classic, but there are indications that at least he sees beyond the simplistic elements being employed. The Making-of material provides minimal insights, mostly geared toward location issues and production problems. Indeed, it’s hard to hate on a film that tries so hard to be so unique and inventive. But Steel Trap tends to set itself up for such ridicule, even when it’s providing some minor moments of macabre.


Take the character of Nicole, for example. As played by Julia Ballard, this heartless witch is an unbearable presence, almost from the very first moment we meet her. Unfortunately, she grows even more grating as the storyline continues. It doesn’t help that our actress maintains a whiny, self pitying persona throughout. Ballard had never been in a movie before this, and it really shows. In fact, if you look at the female characters and discern who is annoying and who is mildly acceptable, some ‘killer’ clues can be gleaned from the otherwise repugnant red herrings.


Not that the men are any better. Thankfully, machismo man-ass Adam is killed right away. A little of his snow-snorting lothario goes a very long way. Sadly, rock God Wade is a minor deity at best, and Robert only exists to keep us from concentrating on those scream queening babes. Of course, a little well honed gore could cure a lot of what ails Steel Trap. Let the offal flow and we fright fans will forgive a great deal. The small amounts of claret offered, however, do little except aggravate. In fact, when juxtaposed against the cornball dialogue, this could be a bad b-movie from a time before terror grew a brazen backbone. Slack scares like this were a dime a dozen back when passion pits ruled the dread domain.


Cámara has to bear most of the blame. He is constantly using his camera like a scalpel, cutting into scenes with a quack butcher’s abandon instead of actually applying some nominal mise-en-scene. This is especially true of his murder sequences. Characters are caught by our villain and then…they’re forgotten about while we travel over to a couple of minutes of mindless exposition. Another glimpse of an upcoming death, and it’s back to more conversational stalling. We don’t feel any sense of urgency in what the director is trying to deliver. Instead, his plot plods along without a single significant reason to keep us glued to, or even going for, the edge of our seat.


It seems clear that, in an arena where the unoriginal and plagiaristic are typical examples of filmmaking fad gadgetry, Steel Trap is a slight horror effort. It’s professionally helmed and evocatively shot, but looking good is a far cry from actually being good. Instead, Luis Cámara deserves credit for the try, if not the win, and the slasher genre revival seems destined to sputter and die instead of building on some far more provocative European examples (Inside, for one). Macabre seems to be the one cinematic staple that can survive numerous subpar illustrations of its assets and still come out clean. Steel Trap isn’t about to chance that sentiment, but it won’t be bolstering said fear factors any time soon.


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Saturday, Jul 12, 2008

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a boon for serious science fiction. Thanks in part to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, allegorical speculation would rule the cinematic landscape until the movies visited a certain War plagued galaxy far, far away. These films used ideas and characters, not cutesy robots or genre-bending action sequences, as a way of getting their point across. Sometimes, they were preachy and unbearable. At other instances, they became the language for all cinema to come. In the case of 1974’s Phase IV, the consensus is clearly divided. On one side are the devotees who appreciate its ecological bent and entomological realism. On the other are critics who decry its smart bug set-up, snickering all the way to its less than crystal clear conclusion.


Of course, the man in charge was perhaps the wrong choice for such a project. Saul Bass was never known as a filmmaker. His title credit sequences for such major motion pictures as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo set a standard that, even today, remains unmatched. But aside from a few short films, he had never made a feature before Phase IV. There have been controversial debates over his involvement in the work of Hitchcock (including claims he actually directed the shower sequence in Psycho), but nothing here indicates such a skill set. Instead, this future shock look at nature run amuck is a great deal like Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. Science overwhelms suspense, with occasional bouts of illogic and endless talking juxtaposed alongside brilliant miniature cinematography.



We learn that, as part of some cosmic anomaly (which may or may not be alien driven), Earth is under the influence of certain “phases”. These shifts cause the ant population in particular to rapidly evolve, developing language skills, a hive mentality, and an ability to design and execute geometrically complex structures. Scientists James Lesko and Dr. Ernest Hubbs are sent into the desert to study the creatures, to learn why they are acting so strangely, and hopefully develop a pesticide that will kill them. While farmers like Mr. Eldridge refuse to leave their land, others have taken off to friendlier environs. Of course, the ants won’t tolerate anyone getting in their way. Eventually, all that is left are Lesko, Hubbs, and the Eldridge girl, Kendra. It appears that the super intelligent insects have plans for them as well.


It’s easy to see why Phase IV captivated audiences 30 years ago. With its amazing bug footage, and psychobabble scripting, it’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (an obvious influence) taken into Twilight Zone territory. Thanks to the competent work of everyone behind and in front of the camera, and the ambiguous nature of the narrative, it’s the kind of free associative freak out that drove the counter culture crazy in the waning days of the post-peace protest age. Since Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy have to do almost all the heavy lifting here, they become the most important component of the film’s success. Without them, all we’d have are ravishing views of insect interaction, various luminescent species of ant vying for the crown of best acid trip accoutrement.



Of the two, Murphy is more misplaced. He gets in the swing of things early and often, but frequently ventures out into “hey dude” territory - especially when Lynne Frederick’s nonentity Kendra shows up. He’s clearly intended to be the love interest, but there’s so much outdated computer chaos going on that there’s little time (or chemistry) for romance. Davenport is the major mad scientist, the man who finds himself taken in by the charge he’s been given and unable to control his fits of ego. When he starts raving toward the end, the result of a badly infected bite and too little sleep, he sounds positively potty. But for the most part, he’s the yin to Murphy’s yang, the faux scholarly cement that keeps the entire film from unraveling into nonsensical silliness.


Thanks to Bass’s belief in the mostly silent ant material, sequences where we as an audience have to piece together the reasons behind the bugs’ unusual behavior, Phase IV has an inherent mystery about it. There’s no real attempt at unraveling the nature of the various changes, just that after each one, the insects get more aggressive (and successful) in their attacks. The various sand mounds make a startling impression, including a collection of monoliths that look like statuary singers keening skyward. And this was all done in the days before CGI and complicated physical effects, the result of painstaking nature photography. It’s spellbinding to look at.



For many fans of the film, the only way to enjoy it was to find an out of print VHS version, wait for some obscure cable channel to rerun it late one night, or pray you could find a MST3K fan who owned a copy of the series’ initial days as a local Minnesota UHF broadcast (they tackled the movie with their typical in theater commentary satire). Now, thanks to Legend, the Paramount cast off has been picked up and polished off. While the lack of any supplemental features is disheartening, the nice DVD transfer, capturing the original theatrical aspect ratio, is a marvel to look at. While purists have balked at the lack of the entire print (supposedly, there’s a longer version of the movie out there with extended bits as part of the 2001-style ending), this is an excellent version of Phase IV.


While the concept of super intelligent insects usurping man and his place of power on the planet seems laughable, Saul Bass and the bravura camera work of Dick Bush make Phase IV a worthy addition to the second tier section of ‘60s/‘70s sci-fi. Sure, it has its flaws, and frequently finds itself bogged down in ancient technological minutia, but for every hackneyed hole-punch moment there’s an engaging scope enhanced by the film’s visual wonders.  Saul Bass may not have saved serious speculative fiction from its soon to be blockbuster ways, but his exploratory insect opera has a right to be considered among the category’s many major accomplishments.


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