Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November Quick Picks and Pans

Phase IV (1974) Our days as Earth’s dominant life form may be numbered, according to this cerebral science fiction film from director Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon. In a secluded patch of Arizona desert, university scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) investigate a sudden incursion of ants that are leaving entire communities uninhabitable. The scientists endeavor to decipher the coordinated behavior of a huge ant colony surrounding their research facility, which suggests a vast underlying intelligence. It’s ants versus humans as the researchers attempt to counteract the ants’ ability to rapidly adapt to changes. Phase IV features spectacular macro-photography by Ken Middleham, affording us an insect’s eye view, and creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Unlike many similar films from the nature-gone-amok genre, the filmmakers take their time thoughtfully setting up the premise and letting the story unfold, as the scientists observe and hypothesize about the ants’ ultimate intent.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Eating Raoul (1982) Paul Bartel, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Mary Woronov star as Paul and Mary Bland, an ordinary married couple who dream of one day opening a restaurant, but are desperately short of funds. Their dull existence (they even have twin beds) suddenly takes a turn for the exotic when they hatch a scheme to make some quick cash by catering to the whims of sexual fetishists. Instead of following through with their clients’ kinky demands, however, Paul and Mary dispatch their customers. Everything seems to be going well, until scam artist Raoul (played by a pre-Night of the Comet/Star Trek Voyager Robert Beltran) discovers their plans, and wants in on the action. This black comedy seems as timely as ever, with its commentary about what it takes to get ahead in the modern world.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu Plus

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) The low budget aesthetics almost make this film appear like an early John Waters film, but the themes inhabit much darker corners. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco star as real life serial killers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, who murdered several women in the late 1940s. A lonely nurse and her scam artist boyfriend trick naïve single women into sham marriages so they can take their money. Things get increasingly violent as Shirley and Tony become bolder with their schemes, perpetrating crimes they probably wouldn’t have committed alone. The Honeymoon Killers is difficult to watch at times, but always absorbing. It reminds us that we don’t need to look further than ourselves to find the real monsters. Highly recommended.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Hulu Plus

Altered States (1980) Director Ken Russell’s hallucinatory odyssey (from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky) takes a journey off the deep end with its story about a researcher looking for evolutionary secrets trapped within the inner recesses of his mind. William Hurt stars as neuroscientist Eddie Jessup, who uses himself as an experimental subject to test the effects of prolonged immersion in an isolation chamber. As the experiments continue, and he introduces powerful hallucinogens, he experiences mind and body-altering effects, culminating in a literal transformation. Depending on your point of view, Altered States could be a validation or refutation of the self-help, self-absorbed navel gazing that typified the ‘70s “Me Generation” mindset. Hurt is excellent in his first feature film role as the selfish, self-absorbed Dr. Jessup. Blair Brown is also good as his estranged wife Emily, who attempts to curb his destructive tendencies. The visuals are suitably captivating, although the film and its protagonist remain somewhat distancing.  

Rating: *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


  1. I was thrilled when Phase IV turned up on Netflix recently! It's undeservedly obscure. I've also always had a soft spot for Altered States, and pretty much anything else directed by Ken Russell. I spent so much time in high school watching the likes of Altered States, Lair Of The White Worm, and Gothic while stoned. Of course, I watched pretty much everything then while stoned. lol

    1. Understandable, when it's Altered States. :) Phase IV is amazing. If it was made (or re-made) today, the approach would probably be entirely different. This month's crop of flicks was uniformly good - not a clunker among them. Just wait for my Turkey Day retrospective.