Archive for August, 2018

Phase IV (1974)

If I’m honest I’m lost for words having just finished Phase IV (1974). I’m not sure I can even deliver 1000+ words on my thoughts on Saul Bass‘s sole feature film directorial credit. I can see why he didn’t make any more either. I wish I wasn’t that harsh about a man who redefined the language of how a films begins. His title sequences are sought after and enjoyed on a level that is equal to the films he worked on. Leaving his own signature on another directors works. A very unique and distinctive style that defined films of the 1950’s and 60’s. Maybe it was his rumored direction of the shower sequence in Psycho (1960) that gave him a taste for creative control over a film. The fact is, it was only his storyboards that helped shape that seminal sequence of film history. Could Phase IV have been his long gestated idea that finally made it to the screens?

The concept reminds me of a 1950’s b-movie, seeing oversized creatures – including ants that wreak havoc before science finally saves the day. Bass however wasn’t limited to cheap special effects that took months to film. Instead he’s invested in he whole budget almost in either training ants or animating them, either way they are spookally effective. For a low-budget first feature you have to admire the creativity that went into producing what is clearly a unique vision. The opening of the films is eerily dialogue free, focusing on the ants deep underground organising themselves. Somehow effected by an eclipse that energising these usual pest at a picnic to making their way up to being enemy number one in the world. We are taken into this underground world of what can’t be train ants, as we are advised by Dr Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport ) informs us, different species of ants have come together and begun to work alongside each other. No longer are they our pests but working together, breaking the laws of nature to disturbing, no that’s the wrong word, lets try strange effect. We accept that these ants are not just putting differences aside due to global warming, something else is afoot. What could have been shot inside a glass container feels far more expansive.

All this happens before we even catch a glimpse of a human, two scientist – Dr Hubbs and James Lesko (Michael Murphy ) who previously was able to speak to whales. The two man team set-up camp as close as they can to these mutated ants that are nearer than we even know. Based on a ghost town of a 1960’s failed dream development, perfect for trouble to happen unseen from the prying eyes of the world at large. A single family remains, you could say they are stubborn, unwilling to give into the rumors if killer ants below. The truth is too hard to believe for some, even a request to evacuate is ignored, this family are staying until the bitter end. Their presence is felt above ground in the form of a series of totems that have shot out of the ground. Too alien to be human, the work of a higher power that has yet to be understood. Still these are soon shot down in what is part of phase I of the film.

Nigel Davenport’s Dr Stubbs reminds me of other driven B-movie scientists, who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Understanding what drives the ants. Even when his partner, who is clearly more focused on the task of first communicating with the insects before any really solid action is taken. Two very different methods of investigation, one driven by a logical methodology and the other driven by impulses and emotional instinct. The differences in practice are soon displayed when they are investigating after a night of killing the ants. Stubbs’s view of seeing the family caught up in the chemical attack of just collateral damage to him. Scaring not just Lesko but the audience, how far will this man go showing no or little regard for ethics.

What keeps this film moving along is that drive to communicate and understand the ants, the very idea that a film is devoted to talking to ants is very obscure, yet we go along with it due to the believable images of ants fighting back, adapting to their situation in order to survive. Understanding any race in order to communicate is at the core of science fiction, if you can’t communicate you can’t understand the enemy or friend. As the film progresses they slowly begin to understand the ants. It’s the added element of Kendra (Lynne Frederick ) the only other survivor, we see what effect she has on the investigation. Her emotion driven responses are a variable that can’t be controlled. Stubbs is heading for his own demise after getting bitten I wonder if he is destined for the same fate as Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum ) who falls prey to his own science.

Stubbs’s instinct to learn takes a dark turn that I don’t see coming leading to a conclusion that really makes no sense and completely abrupt. A film that was tainted by the hands of the studio. Obviously an attempt to save this film from being a total failure can’t really save this from making much sense at all. All the effort to understand and communicate is not even wrapped up convincingly. I needed more before I left this low-budget film that somehow had me hooked, well intrigued as to what would happen. The addition of ant shots and odd special effects involving lights somehow work, now very dated we can see a director putting everything into making this film work but caught short by the material and budget that could have saved this film. It has the potential to be so much more, becoming a victim of the queen ants that run the studio who got their hands on it, trying themselves to understand just what the hell is going on. I left the film scratching my head and massively disappointed it could have been so much more, becoming one of the many films where the directors visions become blurred by studio interference, but here it was with good intention.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)

I made the mistake of thinking this The Quick and the Dead (1987) was the Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman film released under the same name 7 years later. Then again I can’t really see Sam Elliott sharing the screen with those two. Saying that, he was one of the Earp brothers in Tombstone (1993) released just before. In the past I’ve been recommended to look at Sam Elliot’s work, like many others, to me he’s the stranger at the bowling alley bar talking about the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), a man whose at peace with himself, radiating life long experience and one to listen to. A bar-room fly that you’d sot next to for hours as you sip on your beer. Elliot surely is a man with some stories to tell or words of wisdom to bestow to anyone who cares to listen.

Taking this as my first Sam Elliot film as a lead, The Quick and the Dead was a real surprise. I can see he takes his cues for his persona in the Wild West from a number of sources, yet very much his own man. He’s Sam Elliot in the Wild West, leaving his light touch on the genre. A combination of Randolph Scott’s stoicism and John Wayne’s delivery, but taking his own lead. Playing Con Vallian a frontiers man who soon sympathises with a family of homesteaders, not unlike the Starrett’s in Shane (1953). However this family the McKaskel’s are still very much on the move to their final destination. It’s a clever reshuffling of the elements of the original whilst very much being it’s own film.

With the McKaskels being in the move, they soon move into trouble when their horses are stolen by Doc Shabitt (Matt Clark) and his men. Not knowing that they have a guardian angel in the form of buckskin wearing Vallian who starting hovering around the family who he believes are out of their depth. When Duncan McKaskel (Tom Conti) does what the audience thinks is impossible in retrieving his horses, with a little luck behind him he invites a whole lot of trouble too. Shabbit and his men are after them, whilst aware that they are getting help from somewhere. The opening gunfight comes close to the miracle quality, not unlike the Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider (1985) the silent type who don’t see until the act is done. Vallian is far from holy, or a performer of miracles, he knows how to stay safe in a gunfight, the son of a mountain man and a Blackfoot squaw he has the ability to blend into the surroundings. He has something that neither the homesteaders or gunfighters have – he’s one with nature. The other that’s able to return the civilisation from time to time.

Now I’m careful not to apply the term gunfighter to Vallian who may possess the skill to take out his enemy just as well, however he doesn’t have the same temperament that they generally come with. Maybe it’s his laid back nature, his ability to give advice without a second thought that it won’t be taken. He doesn’t carry with him the reputation of Shane who wears it like a badge that he hides just out of view. Even when he takes a shine to the McKaskels he doesn’t show off his skills, train the boy (whose not annoying). Instead he’s a more humanised figure, his lack of interaction with civilisation is about right. He can defend, kill and hunt without producing an aura of fear in others. Is he the ideal man of the West, or just a civilised mountain man?

Staying with the Shane connection, the relationship between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Marian (Jean Arthur) that is merely touched upon. Shane won’t allow himself to get to close, there’s a spark between them which he won’t ignite as he knows it will only bring trouble for him and those around him. Vallian is more overt with his feelings towards Susanna (Kate Capshaw) which naturally annoys Duncan, the compliments soon wear thin. A woman of such beauty doesn’t belong in West. She’s like a rare jewel that has yet to be discovered. The old phrase of “you can look but you can’t touch” is broken here, they allow themselves a moment or two of romantic danger. Think how more dangerous Shane could have been if both Marian and Shane were caught just kissing by Joe (Van Heflin) would that have been enough to make this cowardly man pick up a gun and shoot his rival, the wrong one for him, loosing his and our concentration as the film reaches it’s final act. Censorship of the 1950’s would ultimately have played a role in film preventing things getting too heated.

Having the family move through open country in The Quick and the Dead allows Vallian to try and dissuade the family from the fate which awaits them. If it’s not the riders in pursuit it could be Native American’s still roaming free. They don’t truly know how Wild the West is. It doesn’t put them off, even the news of Little Bighorn, which brings the death of Susanna’s soldier brother who served in the 7th cavalry. Nothing will stop them making their way to live their American dream. Eventually they have to and want to defend themselves against the riders who finally (diminished in numbers) arrive to threaten their way of life. Their who journey’s fueled by greed and lust, one that takes them through various terrain, how could they remain so focused and driven to get their hands on what potentially is not their.

With all the violence in The Quick and the Dead it’s a pretty chilled out journey as we travel West for a new life, one that see’s a family forced to defend themselves and take up arms. We are in pretty safe company with Elliot who casually saves the day. He has a strong and relaxed screen presence that’s perfect for a film of this length. I can’t imagine him playing the role any darker or light, it’s just right, a chilled out Western that aims to get you from A to B with a few nice jolts along the way that stir things up for everyone. I’ll certainly be looking out for his work in the future.

Godzilla/Gojira (1954) & Shin Godzilla/Shin Gojira (2016)

I’m about to embark on what could be quite foolish or very exciting. Either way I’m going to see what happens. I’ll be taking a look at both the first one of the most recent Godzilla films to see just how much the Japanese has evolved and how much so. Since the release of the first in 1954, seen as a clear expression of the H-Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946 that finally drew to a close WWII. The relentless attack of the Japanese was brought to an abrupt end that’s still questioned to this day. America won’t or have yet to apologise for the bombings that the country are still reeling from through the radiation that came with the bombs. Of course they are now strong allies. Just last year the US was standing by Japan during North Korea’s missile tests that were dropped over the skies of a now peaceful Japan. A lot has changed in the intervening years that has assured long-lasting peace between these two nations.

Godzilla/Gojira (1954) was a clear and blatant expression of the tension between these two countries during the first decade after WWII. The number of times the bombs are even mentioned shows that the events are still playing on the minds of the film-makers and the Japanese public who were still recovering from those horrific events. The idea of radiation having an effect 8 years on with such dramatic effect had to be seen. Part of the tradition of B-movies we begin with seeing very little of the monster that will make it self known to us all very soon. Until then we are given images of it’s power. Every fishing vessel that had ventured out to the dangerous waters was suddenly struck with fire and sunk in a matter of minutes. Only having time to start a morse code message. It’s a powerful build up from nothing to something we can only imagine at this stage, the audience attention has been grabbed.

Sticking to convention it’s the scientists who are first on the scene, the comforting face of Takashi Shimura as a doctor of paleontology Kyohei Yamane-hakase  whose able to piece together the superstitions that have been going around the little fishing island of Odo. The myth that has become true of Godzilla. They remind me of the islanders on Skull island that treat King Kong as a god who for years have been sacraficing women to the giant gorilla in order to stay safe on the island. Little did they know he was only one of a number of fantastic creatures. Kong would later return to fight the giant Japanese lizard in one of many VS. films that bring the iconic beast back to the screen.

The paleontologist and the audience don’t have to wait long for proof, first foot prints dripping in radiation before the beast raises its head from afar. It’s a classic reveal that still leaves you wanting more. There’s a lot to wait for as we return to Tokyo to decide the fate of the revelations. Leaving the hands of science to the unsecure politicians who have the power to manipulate the information if they had their way. The idea of hiding a destructive dinosaur from the public wasn’t really going to fly for long, with the help of the press it soon gets out. Once again following the standard B-movie plots science has to fight to be heard in order to move forward. Sometimes forcing them to work away from even the military until the last minute when they are taken seriously. Scientific power is usually trampled over by politics and military until everything has been exhausted.

When the death and destruction is finally let loose over Tokyo Bay the special effects team are really allowed to play with their set-pieces. Their man in a dinosaur costume wreaking havoc in a model miniature version of the bay. Explosion after explosion occur, caused by what looks like a radiation ray that sets a-lite the bay. At the time of release it would have been a frightening spectacle that reminded a generation still coming to terms with American air-raids and the two H-bombs. Godzilla is essentially America on two legs making it’s way through the country, destroying everything in it’s path. Today that same analogy holds true, the special effects far more ropey, we know that this was made on a shoe-string budget. Personally it doesn’t bother me as I’ll be going back into that aesthetic in some form or another in the coming months. These effects show how they have attempted to combine both live action shots with special effects made on a sound-stage. Godzilla itself could now even be a Toy a child plays with. It’s child’s play and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What makes this b-movie stand above the rest of those made in Hollywood is that emotional struggles that the lead characters go through to reach a resolution. Kyohei Yamane-hakase would rather keep the creature to study rather than kill. Whilst his son DaisukeSerizawa-hakase (Akihiko Hirata) is conflicted by his accidental discovery of what you could call the O-bomb that he has sworn his sister Emiko Yamuna (Momoko Kôchi) who has witnessed the power of this device. It’s a domestic dynamic that raises the film to another level, beyond the scientist saving his lover (which is here too), giving us something on the ground among all the death and destruction to hold onto.

I’m now wondering how the latest film Shin Godzilla (2016) compares to this b-movie classic that really understand the social conscience and goes town with it. Will there be a domestic dynamic or will it be another romantic relationship that must be maintained as well as saving the day. Lastly – special effects, which I know are far more advanced, how do they compare to the originals improvisational aesthetic.

It’s been a few weeks since I watched the first Godzilla film, the one that started a whole string of films, a genre devoted to this lizard from the sea. Reading the description for Shin Godzilla (2016) I thought I was going to get something rather slow. If anything is as rather different. Taking some of it’s cues from the original. I couldn’t say how many of the films in between kept close or not. Whilst still having a very contemporary style and language that allows this Godzilla to wreak havoc on Japan once more. If Hollywood allows monsters of all variety on New York or Los Angeles, Tokyo is strong fair share when it comes to the number of attacks.

The latest incarnation was a shock in terms of the speed that we first glimpse the creature, from it’s first presence to the fast pace of the political reaction that we switch back and forth constantly, you don’t have time to breathe in the first act as the Prime Minister and his cabinet and advisers scramble to try and understand what’s going on. Contrasting between the orderliness of government to the chaos that’s rumbling on the ground below. Jumping from location to location, I didn’t have time to take in both the subtitles and location titles above, simply not giving too much time to the above, Instead focusing on the more important dialogue. Devil is really in the detail of this version. The scientific community aren’t even seen until half-way through the film.

We waited far longer back in 1954 to catch a first glimpse of the beast, here we have a redy-brown bloody substance that’s left in the wake of the creature which at this point (once it emerges from the water) more like a less evolved crawling creature from another prehistoric era. Just crawling through Tokyo Bay it wreaks destruction. That’s before we see the creature change before our eyes. Changing from poorly designed draft of the creature to the next stage. There’s a lot of background written into this character that again has no voice beyond it’s prehistoric cry.

Our hero is a young advisor Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) whose able to first see beyond the obvious safer explanation to the less plausible and horrifying explanation that’s soon confirmed. Surrounded by a system of elders who follow a strict command structure of legislation and bearacurcy which holds him back and even the audience at times. We want to see Godzilla on the ground doing his thing. However with just a whiff of the Americans with Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) who wants the Japanese to find her exiled father who unlocks the puzzle and the science that will lead the final outcome.

There’s strong recognition of the original, from the original theme being used numerous times if only for nostalgia, we know that the director understands what he’s working with. As much as it leans far too much toward the government which, the lineage allows you to see beyond and wait for the next extended scenes of mass evacuations, explosions and ultimately Godzilla wreaking havoc. They understand the beast far more than before. Bringing together more scientists (even some token Americans) to look for a more scientifically driven solution. Unlike the American one that reminds us of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to add Tokyo to that list is too much to bear. Even as a UN backed decision, the people below the Prime Minister can’t swallow that. Having to stand up for themselves to find another solution with international cooperation. Not letting America lead them to a less than positive outcome – history must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Looking at these two films I can see that the creature hasn’t really changed all that much. Sure it’s grown, the nuclear element at it’s core driving the plot. The threat of a Nuclear fallout natural or man-made is just not one to consider. Special effects have also come along way. Even the low-budget and sometimes ropey CGI looks really fun. You can that they are having a lot of fun making this film unlike the original that was really working in the dark, making up new techniques as they were filming. It has lost the pathos of the original, the visual cues may still be there. The world has changed for sure. The political take on the defence of the country is used not just to show self reliance in these uncertain times but shows that even during times of great emergency politicians will use any situation for personal gain. That was nowhere to be seen in 1954. Maybe I have a soft-spot for classic films and a cynical view of the present, then again who trust those in power today?