Sunday, March 30, 2014

PHASE IV (Saul Bass, 1974, USA)

Like Kubrick’s Australopithecus and its evolutionary push from some undefined alien source, disparate subfamilies of ants have become imbued with intelligence by some epic cosmic event. Director Saul Bass, best known for his title designs on PSYCHO, VERTIGO, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER, tells a fascinating story depicting the next stage of natural evolution where two scientists engage in a battle with tiny insects for world domination. 

Dr. Hubbs and mathematician James Lesko build their own chrome mausoleum in the scorching desert, relying on computers and observations to solve the enigma. As the budget tightens and Dr. Hubbs fears the project will be shut down, he destroys the ant’s beautifully designed dirt and mud towers, the architecture of a new world order. This sparks Armageddon: the battle is not fought on Tel Megiddo but in the arid Arizona desert. Dr. Hubbs rekindles the fiery spirit of Professor Bernard Quatermass with his adventurous physicality and grenade launching hubris, out to save the world once again, while his partner attempts communication instead of retaliation. Add Kendra, a beautiful young woman to the mix and the film veers close to parody but thankfully doesn’t resort to romance or melodrama. 

Dick Bush’s cinematography is outstanding as the ants are dramatically filmed in close-up, capturing poses and gestures that seem to convey some malign ulterior motive, their actions an eerie premeditation. Many scenes are saturated with striking primary colors adding a surreal texture and suspense to the film. The electronic score reverberates with the uncanny hive language of this new society and becomes nature’s raw pulse. The universal language of mathematics is shared, its geometry processed as the two species attain intelligent contact. But the humans misunderstand the patterns and as Hubbs walks to his gruesome death, Lesko and Kendra rise together, like Lazarus from a sandy grave, to face the world anew: reborn and forever changed.

Final Cut: (B-)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, 1975, Australia)

British colonialism fades into obscurity like three schoolgirls, their flesh and blood evaporating like the scintillation of a daydream. Peter Weir’s oblique narrative becomes transcendental and dangerous in its mystic rhythms, a magnetic force of frenetic urgency that subsumes all living creatures.

Appleyard College is an English boarding school on the boundary of the Australian Outback, a bastion of civilization taming the primitive wild, where the future meets the rock of ageless past. Apropos for a country whose empire spread like an infection, destroying and converting that which it didn't understand into tempestuous Victorian principles. But Hanging Rock’s basalt pillars are guardians of time, sentinels that have withstood a million storms and will outlast the invaders…and the human race. On Valentine’s Day, a picnic at this monolith turns seemingly to tragedy when three students and a teacher disappear and only one is found alive, her elusive memory a figment of trauma where truth and imagination become inseparable. Though the film invokes police procedural, the story is not about the facts concerning the disappearances but in the aftermath, the effects upon Mrs. Applegate and her students, the police, the witnesses, and the community at large.

The mystery is never explained so Weir is able to focus upon the people: Mrs. Appleyard and her inability to cope with change, Sara and her lesbian infatuation with Miranda (one of the girls who never returns), and Michael an innocent witness who becomes obsessed with visions of the beautiful Miranda. This event has profoundly altered their lives while it’s just another sensationalist exercise in journalistic fashion for the rest of the world, human lives reprinted in ink and cheap paper. The story could be a masquerade of the young woman’s role in Victorian society, their sexuality repressed beneath binding corsets, behavior redacted to exclude natural impulses. Weir shows the girls shedding shoes and clothing, possibly morphing into or merging with the world around them, leaving behind a static life of disregard. It is also a tragedy of class distinction leading to self-destruction, as Sara jumps to her death because her benefactor fails to pay the required fee for the school, already suffering the loss of her best friend.

Mrs. Appleyard’s biological clock stops ticking at Hanging Rock, not from some strange magnetic pulse but from blunt force trauma.

Final Cut: (A)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

THREE...EXTREMES (Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, 2004, Asia)

A trinity of terror, a grimoire of grotesqueries, and revelry of repulsion makes this association of agony a delectable danse macabre. Three Asian filmmakers contribute short fiction, sharing a common vein of horror and visceral dread that is a contagion of subversive delight.

DUMPLINGS (Fruit Chan): Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography captures an apathetic actress who is past her prime: though carrying the stolid dignity of middle age, Mei is relegated to the doldrums of a listless marriage and spent career. She visits a seemingly young woman whose recipe for eternal youth is impregnated in her supple dumplings. Chan is able to create tension with a nervous zeal as Mei becomes trapped by her own desires, and obsessed by her own temporary beauty. The narrative’s hook is engaging and fulfilling, imbued with a delicious fancy of aborted treats. When Mei’s addictive umbilicus is terminated…she must devour her own. Final Cut: (B+)

CUT (Park Chan-wook): A young and successful film director becomes part of a psychopathic parable, now the main character in a gruesome novelty act as an invisible extra now has final cut. Park blurs the line between cinema and reality, showing the fictional set and director’s home as host to this horror, subverting structural perspectives by pulling focus from narrative conventions. A mixture of the four humours and humor, the director is punished for being a good and humble man, rich and celebrated for his work, while the vile actor is a cold-blooded murderer who blames the world for his woes, and finds cold comfort in corrupting this honest man. The set design is lavish, imaginative, and graphically revealing as minute by minute the director’s wife, a pianist, has her fingers chopped off until he (the director) chokes a small child to death. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…and women. Final Cut: (B+)

BOX (Takashi Miike): Kyoko is a lonely writer who hides away in a dilapidated apartment, suffering a recurring nightmare of being buried alive in a small box. Miike builds intensity by conjuring forth an atmosphere of ghostly visuals and haunting childhood echoes, as Kyoko is burdened with a fiery guilt and fatherly penitence. With allusions to incest and sibling rivalry, Miike’s complex story doesn’t offer up any obstinate answers but lets the mystery deepen while gravel taps nervously upon a box…being slowly buried in the cold hard ground. Final Cut: (B)