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by Bill Gibron

12 Jul 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.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2008


It’s time to get back on track as Hollywood continues to unveil its weekly array of tent pole titles. For 11 July, here are the films in focus:

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army [rating: 10]

This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy.

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result. read full review…


Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D [rating: 6]

As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain.


There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.  read full review…



In Brief

Meet Dave [rating: 4]

Meet Dave. Dave is a spaceship. He comes from the planet Nil with a scheme to drain all the world’s oceans. Dave is piloted by a collection of Central Casting clichés, the most telling of which is star Eddie Murphy as the Captain, channeling Patrick Stewart by way of the School of Bad British Accents. Our former funnyman is also the ship itself, a silent movie slapstick mugging plot device that never works beyond a basic kid vid mentality. Somehow scripted by MST3K‘s Bill Corbett (in collaboration with TV scribe Rob Greenberg), this middling misfire can’t decide what it wants to be. At any given moment, it’s part speculative sci-fi, part retarded family film, with just a little regressive romance and pop culture discomfort to really mix things up. For something supposedly so future shock, this entire project feels derivative and dated. Granted, it’s not the race-baiting hate crime known as Norbit, but with the same subpar director behind the camera (Brian Robbins needs his DGA card revoked, pronto), we get gay stereotypes battling incomplete ideas for lead lameness. Naturally, nobody wins. At one time, Murphy represented the cutting edge of comedy. Now, high concept paydays like Meet Dave prove he’s only in it for the money, no matter how mediocre the means of achieving said cash may be.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2008


Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.

Long ago, when the Earth was green, mankind and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could complete their directive. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.

In a summer already overloaded with brash, bravado cinematic turns, Hellboy 2 has got to be one of the biggest and ballsiest. Stamped with a kind of genius rare in today’s Tinsel Town terrain, Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a kind of supersonic spectacle, an intensely engaging epic that finds a way to keep both its scope and entertainment value legitimate and yet larger than life. Loosely based on the Mike Mignola comics, and clearly the product of its director’s outsized originality, we are treated to two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.

Del Toro has always been a geek, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling at his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.

Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 

Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.

There is a clever, almost kitschy way in which Hellboy 2: The Golden Army delivers its delights. It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat. When Hellboy battles a massive earth Elemental, it’s Cloverfield conceived as an old fashioned serial cliffhanger, imperiled infant and all. Indeed, Del Toro keeps the riff references and homages coming, touching on the entire history of horror and fantasy in just under two hours of spellbinding cinema. And we sense the director continuously building on his legend, opening the door for a brain melting final installment/trequel sometime after he completes his trip through Tolkein.

And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more knowledgeable guy. It’s rare when Hollywood gives the eccentric and iconoclastic a chance to shine, let along a second one. One misstep and you’re usually sitting in entertainment exile, wondering where your creative cache went. In this case, through a sheer force of will and an unreal amount of invention, Guillermo Del Toro has rewritten the rulebook. All that post-Pan Oscar cred didn’t hurt, but there’s got to be some substance to support a repeat performance. Apparently, this filmmaker has more than enough on his plate to feed an imagery-starved fanbase. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army may say ‘Hell-friggin’-yes’ to another excess time and time again, but when the meal is this ridiculously rich and refined, we’ll gladly indulge. In a summer soaked in spectacle, this dish is just divine.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2008


There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.

Having lost his brother ten years earlier, Professor Trevor Anderson still wonders what happened to him that fatal day. He gets a chance to rekindle his curiosity when nephew Sean shows up for a family visit. The boy brings with him a box of memorabilia, including his dad’s copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth. While looking it over, Trevor discovers some notations that seem to support his own scientific research. Hoping to discover the truth, the duo takes an impromptu trip to Iceland. There they meet up with Hannah Ásgeirsson, a mountain guide familiar with the situation as well as the local terrain. One botched hike later, and the trio is falling down into the core of the planet. There, they discover that Trevor’s brother may have unlocked the secret to Verne’s novel…and that it may have all been based on fact.

As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain. In a long line of limited projects that propose to do little more than meet a certain commercial ends, there is nothing inherently bad here. The acting is good, the plotting perfunctory but built to serve an uncomplicated cinematic strategy. Like a theme park ride, former F/X wiz turned director Eric Brevig keeps the action moving, giving us one minor movie magic moment after another. By the end, when our hero has saved the day, captured the girl, and reclaimed his professional dignity, we feel satisfied, if not completely overwhelmed with well-earned entertainment value.

Thanks to Brendan Fraser, who has that rare ability to turn even the most hackneyed dialogue into something almost resembling wit, there is no major void at the center of the storyline. Carrying the entire production on his Mummy mounted shoulders, he does a nice job of being both fatherly and flashy, a hero in everyday dude attire. Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t match him. Child star Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia) is locked down in whiny brat turned superman mode. His eventual change of heart, when it comes, never resonates as anything other than a script mandated shift. As the easy on the eye candy female facet, The Tudor‘s Anita Briem is mere beauty baggage. Again, Fraser is functioning on a whole other level. His costars can’t find said audience friendly/pandering wavelength. 

That just leaves Brevig and his technologically updated ‘50s filmmaking gimmick to get us over the humps, and for the most part, both succeed. Don’t be fooled by notices that claim this film can be enjoyed sans the optical ballyhoo. Without the 3D, this movie would be a lame, tired TV vacuity with little redeeming value. Granted, there are a few to many ‘gotcha’ tricks, times when objects fly at the audience for no other reason than the polarized glasses on their face. Yet no matter what visuals are employed to render the threats real and the spectacle epic, the lack of dimension and depth almost undermines the movie’s imperfect appeal. For his feature film debut, Brevig shows some cinematic skill. He doesn’t understand the nuances inherent in the language of film, but give him some giant piranha or a collection of man eating plants and he’s perfectly happy.

Those looking for a revisionist “twist” on this material will have to settle for Journey‘s sole sense of invention - the notion that Verne may have based his books on actual fact. We learn of a secret society devoted to his writings, a group that believes in the validity of his speculative science. During the narrative, allusions are drawn to major elements in the novel - the fossilized mega-mushrooms, the prehistoric creatures - and the book plays a key role in uncovering the potential escape route. Sure, liberties are taken, but with any old story, some contemporizing needs to take place. After all, post-millennial wee ones aren’t going to sit still as scholars and scientists debate, using dialogue meant to disguise enlightenment and education. They want a rock ‘em, sock ‘em rollercoaster ride, that’s it.

Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area during the ‘60 and ‘70s will never forget Frasier Thomas and his Family Classics’ devotion to the delightful James Mason/Pat Boone take on this material. While it can never top the nostalgic version from 1959, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is not offensive or irritating in its pre-planned revisionism. Instead, it guarantees a good time and never strives to go anywhere beyond that. In this day and age where everything needs to be bigger, brighter, and bathed in a clever marketing conceit, this action adventure throwback is definitely engaging. If you don’t anticipate too much, your expectations will be measured out and easily met. Go in expecting gangbusters, and you’ll see the lack of dimension - goofy glasses or not.

by Bill Gibron

9 Jul 2008


Guillermo Del Toro should be Peter Jackson. He should be sitting on a multi-billion dollar franchise, a few Oscars, and that rare combination of mainstream movie studio cred and overwhelming geek love. Granted, the Mexican maverick has gained a couple of these career accolades over the last ten years, his resume overflowing with awards, appreciation, and the kind of adoration reserved for rock stars. Heck, he’s become so powerful within the closed community of Hollywood that he managed to get a sequel made of his amazing Hellboy, even though the first film was no blockbuster, and there was no great grassroots groundswell to revisit the franchise.

When Columbia Pictures bailed, more or less dooming the director’s proposed trilogy, Universal came in and scooped up the series. At the time, it was seen as a major gamble. Even with his Blade II commercial rep and Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth aesthetic aura, Del Toro was not a guaranteed box office hero. In retrospect, it was a genius play on the part of the powers that be. In between greenlighting the return of everyone’s favorite cat and candy loving demon superhero, the Academy came calling, and so did Middle Earth. Indeed, Del Toro is now in preproduction to bring The Hobbit (as well as a follow-up linking film) to the big screen. For the next four years, JRR Tolkien will be his life, and just like the man who he should be, it will be a make or breakthrough for the filmmaker.

Like Jackson, Del Toro really doesn’t require the need of that famed work of fantasy literature to establish his true cinematic value. He is responsible for some remarkably visionary works, from the giant insect deconstruction of Mimic to the vampires as vultures/victims in his take on Blade. A love of old school horror has made him dabble successfully in the genre (Cronos) as well producing the brilliant ghost story by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. An appreciation of comics brought him to Mike Mignola’s usual graphic novel, and always the outsider, Del Toro delivered a big screen action film without a major star (Ron Pearlman as the lead?) or well known marketing icon. Yet thanks to his undeniable passion and kid in a candy store scope, he evoked the best of what makes movies magic - the pure power in visuals. It has become his considered calling card.

Looking over Del Toro’s oeuvre, it’s clear that the image is everything. Take the genetically altered cockroaches in Mimic. Their ability to resemble humans, combined with the inherent terror of their oversized awfulness, makes them an endearing bit of macabre. Similarly, his Blade gave neckbiters a mandible to be wary of, while the first Hellboy filled the screen with all manner of heretofore unseen monsters. But it was his smaller films, his work in Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that sealed the spectacle deal. From the unforgettable symbolism of the unexploded bomb in the children’s home courtyard to the Great Faun, its bent-back legs and elongated limbs suggesting an ancient folklore façade, Del Toro definitely believes that a picture is worth a thousand words - and a million narrative possibilities.

With Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, the man’s imagination machine goes into overdrive. It’s a movie that literally fills the screen with optical eye candy. The moment our hero’s father figure - Trevor Bruttenholm - tells the story of the truce between mankind and magic (illustrated in a stop motion puppetoon style that suggests the very best of George Pal), we know we’re in for a major treat. That things only get better from here is a testament to Del Toro’s constantly churning creativity. Doors are complex puzzle boxes, rock formations the humanoid gateways to other worlds. Even when he applies a standard physical F/X motif to his work (the mesmerizing Troll City), we can sense the purpose and playfulness in his stratagem.

Some suggest that Hellboy 2 has too much visual splendor, that it allows excess to overwhelm both its sensible and supernatural approaches. Actually, this is not a criticism so much as a reflective and rather damning disclosure. The reason most people feel that the film offers too much in the way of wonder is because so many so-called fantasies are absolutely bereft of same. The sequel may play like Ghostbusters on steroids, but Del Toro isn’t doing anything that his fanbase hasn’t complained about and then embraced for the last ten years. The Star Wars prequels were some of the busiest, most CGI-laden examples of overindulgence ever, and yet no one is giving George Lucas grief for his images (his casting choices and script writing, on the other hand…).

No, what makes Del Toro’s tapestry so dense and daunting is its connection to tradition and old world mythology. You see, films like Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth rely on a knowledge of legend and fable as a means of making sense of their often symbolic substance. When a city sized Elemental attacks our gun-wielding Hellspawn, its purpose is not just to destroy. No, it wants to reclaim the natural order, the delicate balance that once allowed it to live in harmony with all others. Similarly, the faun is not testing Ofelia by having her fight any particular set of creatures. Each of her challenges represents a step in the maturation process, a point of reference that will make her last act sacrifice seem majestic, instead of meaningless.

All of Del Toro’s nightmares and dreamscapes work this way. The villainous Prince Nuada doesn’t want to simply destroy all humans. He wants them to understand the pain they’ve inflicted on the otherworldly realm. His goal is both nasty and noble, which makes his efforts both ghastly and somewhat valiant.  As with many characters in the Del Toro canon, the complexity fills many functions. A champion is never pure, the wicked never wholly so. Evil comes in a compelling visage, while good can always screw up and shift the eternal equilibrium. Beyond the way they look and they way they fight, the most fascinating element in a Del Toro movie remains how he can turn the tiniest of pixies (the Golden Army‘s beguiling Tooth Fairies) into the most voracious of horrors.

That is why he should be Peter Jackson. That is why he should - and probably will - share the New Zealand auteur’s place among the vaunted visionaries of our generation. For both of these amazing men, vistas come with a value, an unspoken price to be paid by the protagonists who populate them and the antagonists who want them destroyed. For both, story is simply a place to put characters, a chance to allow narrative to strengthen personality and illustrate inclination. For both, technology is the canvas, not the brush. It’s the mind that does all of the heavy inventive lifting. For them, cinema represents the ultimate expression of man’s inspired soul, a picture book as philosophy, film as a force of fate.

In the years to come, we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll be able to relate our accounts of coming across Dead Alive for the first time, or seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with a paid audience (and not a dry eye in the house). We’ll recall the interviews which made madness sound sane and personal daring appear cautious. Most importantly, we’ll rejoice in seeing the very boundaries of an important artform stretched to their very limits, redefined, and then put back for others to enjoy. And we’ll recall the moment when Guillermo Del Toro moved from the fringes to the front row, bringing his own overflowing mind’s eye with him.  If he’s not already Peter Jackson, he should be. On the other hand, here’s hoping he stays forever himself. He’s pretty great the way he is.

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