Film Threat Review: Splice

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
104 minutes

****

The horrors of science and parenthood collide in “Splice,” the new film from “Cube” director Vincenzo Natali. It begins when a couple (literally) of hipster scientists named Clive and Elsa (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley), working alongside their tragically-coiffed assistants, synthesize a cure-all protein for livestock using the phallic animal hybrid creatures that they invented. But, since this amazing new protein won’t help the humans of this world beat their human diseases, Elsa gets a bug up her ass about taking it to the next level. What they need to do, she figures, is throw some people into this genetic recipe. The big old corporation they do science for doesn’t think this is such a good idea, but Elsa convinces Clive that they should do it anyway. You know, just to see if it’ll work. They won’t even bring it to term, she says. What’s the worst that can happen? She forgets, of course, that the gestational period of fantastical creatures is always expedited. Before they know it, their genetic abomination of a love child is born and hopping around the lab making all kinds of trouble. At first, it’s cute trouble, like knocking things over and making a mess. But the trouble gets ugly in a hurry.

It took a little while for me to warm up to “Splice.” It seems to take itself pretty seriously whilst having its characters say and do silly things. The Frankenstein parallels (including the characters’ names and a shot of a Frankenstein’s Monster toy) are a little on the nose. There is a dance metaphor in the beginning, which they really run into the ground. Clive and Elsa name their slug phalluses Fred and Ginger and work through their genetic problems by comparing gene spicing to choreography. Right out of the gate, their scientific methods are highly suspect. Clive spends a lot of time typing formulas into a computer and begging them to “come on” while he waits to see if they work. Meanwhile Elsa hovers over him saying supportive things. When the formula finally does “come on,” she dubs him “Bob fucking Fosse!” For scientists, they aren’t very smart. But then it occurred to me that we aren’t supposed to like these guys. Because maybe this isn’t a movie about scary science as much as it is a cautionary tale about breeding. Elsa and Clive, a young, fertile couple, discuss the notion of someday having kids. However, instead of getting a practice dog like normal people, they decide to practice on a test tube freak named Dren. It’s a girl.

Being a new parent is hard. Dren is a lot more work than they bargained for. She doesn’t just sit placidly in a glass case like Fred and Ginger. Clive and Elsa inadvertently find themselves living out many typical parental nightmares like illness and budding sexuality. The film also delves into the less explored, more emotionally taxing issues, like an adolescent daughter’s tempestuous relationship with her mother, what happens if she develops an Elektra complex, and how parental paranoia-induced social isolation can effect a young thing. Of course, since the child in question is a freakish, fowl-legged, amphibious mutant, the youthful rebellion gets bloody.

What “Splice” lacks in dialogue and plot contrivance, it makes up for in complex thematic elements. It’s staggering how many ethical questions they cram into the film. “There are moral considerations,” Clive warns Elsa early on. But he doesn’t go into specifics. Instead, the moral considerations reveal themselves after it’s too late to do anything about it. Should science play God just because it can? When does life begin? At which point do you relinquish control from the life you created? Are there some people who just shouldn’t have kids? Should a man be held responsible for where his penis ends up?

But the special effects are what really sell the film. Not since Gollum has a CG enhanced creature felt so real. Dren starts out a cute, armless rat and spends a brief stint as Rocky Dennis in a dress before blossoming into a beautiful, bald, supermodel with big, weird eyes set too far apart. She communicates in clicks and whistles, which sound simultaneously human and alien. Though she ages physically, she remains much like a real human baby, looking with equal parts wonder, fear, and frustration at a world she doesn’t understand. Clive and Elsa oscillate between pride and regret, repeatedly resolving to euthanize their creation before something happens to change their minds. You know this isn’t going anywhere good and, though it’s often easy to predict what’s going to happen next, it’s exciting when it does. Though “Splice” has viscera a-plenty, the horror of it isn’t in the gore. It’s in the notion that sometimes children end up evil and it might be entirely our fault.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

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Stepford Nightmares

I used to have nightmares about aliens and monsters, mean ex-boyfriends, school and the end of the world. Last night I dreamed I was making breakfast for the whole family. I couldn’t find anything because all of my kitchen supplies had been put back in the wrong place. Things kept boiling over on the stove and making a huge mess. Everyone I was making breakfast for was standing around in the kitchen but no one was helping me. I guess my transformation is complete. My subconscious mind is officially lame.

Film Threat Review: Survival of the Dead

2010
Rated R
90 minutes

**

“I didn’t sign up for this shit,” laments the man known as Sarge in “George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead.” I know how he feels. I would have been happy with the preexisting Romero films. Granted “Diary of the Dead” was a piece of crap, but all the others were so good. Each one was better than the last. “Land of the Dead,” though at times obtuse, was also a whole lot of fun, thanks, in no small part, to Dennis Hopper. But this review, sadly, isn’t for one of Romero’s good films. It’s for “Survival of the Dead”, the latest film from a once great man. The man who invented the modern zombie is officially senile. Someone really needs to take away Grandpa’s typewriter.

“Survival” reads like an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” If you don’t know what that means, imagine a script that sounds like it came directly from the mind of George W. Bush. Two warring families inhabit an island off the coast of Delaware. They speak with Irish brogues that sound like they’re from County Kiluckycharms. They wear cowboy hats, ride horses and talk in clichés. Their (corned) beef: A difference of opinion regarding how to deal with the zombies that plague the earth. Should the “deadheads” be shot on sight (O’Flynn) or contained until a cure is found (Muldoon)? Muldoon quotes scripture but his pacifist policy doesn’t seem to extend to the living. O’Flynn isn’t bound by religious doctrine but he too does his share of shooting first and not asking any questions. There appears to be some sort of social or political message here, but whatever it is, it’s so on-the-nose that you can’t even see the damned thing.

Joining the Irishmen on the island is another group of clichés. These are rogue soldiers who appeared briefly in “Diary.” The man in charge is Sarge. With stubble that stands at attention and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his smug mouth, he’s the poor man’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan. In his company are a tech savvy kid and a horny Latino who is forever hitting on the tough-talking lesbian. They have a truck full of cash and they behave as though all those Bejamins have relevance in a post-apocalyptic society.

It gets worse. When Romero’s script isn’t being trite or nonsensical, it’s plagiarizing his own early work. Someone will be in denial about getting infected until the last minute when they’ll come to terms with the need for euthanasia. You can bet some parent is going to hide their zombified offspring and insist that they shouldn’t be killed because they’re just children. Most certainly someone will have to kill a loved one himself.

Sometimes a terrible script can be salvaged by some awesome carnage. Not in this case. Exploding heads? Been there. A group of zombies feasting on entrails? Seen that. Even the characters in the movie seem bored, never running or screaming or even looking surprised when they are attacked. In this universe, it hasn’t been that long since the dead began returning to life, but apparently it’s more annoying than horrifying. When they do try to get creative with the violence, it comes off as lazy and cartoonish. When Muldoon uses a stick of dynamite to dispatch a large group of zombies, he may as well be a bunny in drag. A film that relies so heavily on C.G. should really be bloodier.

To the two little girls in the audience at my screening, I hope you weren’t put off the zombie genre. If you were terribly disappointed, please don’t turn to “Twilight” now. I promise there are worthwhile zombie movies out there. But this was not one of them.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Say, “Here’s to your fuck, Frank.”

Dennis Hopper was a great fucking actor. He made every speech he uttered an instant classic. I will miss him. Here are some of my favorites Hopperisms. They’re long but totally worth it.

“I now pronounce you The Devil and his Shorty.”

“I read a lot. Especially about things…and history. I find that shit fascinating.”

One thing I can’t fuckin’ stand is warm beer, it makes me fuckin’ puke!

Film Threat Review: Skeletons

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
95 minutes

***

Some people believe that the best relationships are built on full disclosure. They are the sorts who keep a company like Veridical in business. Using clandestine supernatural means, two be-suited individuals will come to your house and air your dirty laundry so that you may start your marriage off right or strengthen an existing one. Two such agents, Davis and Bennett (Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley) are the protagonists of “Skeletons,” the surreal black comedy playing at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival. With a promotion on the line, they’ve been hired to help a woman find her missing husband. Of course, the job ends up being much more complicated than they’d anticipated. And it just may lead to some convenient self-discovery. It’s a cute premise with an interesting execution but it leaves too much of its universe unexplained.

This is what we know: The genial colleagues commute on foot through the English countryside, passing the time, like a pair of low-rent Tom Stoppard characters, with philosophical debates about the moral standing of famous historical figures. Once they locate their clients (using only an illustration of the residence), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get to work extracting figurative skeletons from the literal closet. Once done, they report their findings to the customer. These reports are likely not always well received, hence a comically exhaustive signing and initialing of paperwork to relieve Veridical of all blame. It’s a dangerous procedure too, requiring goggles and fire extinguishers in addition to magic rocks and machines that go “boop.”

We know other things too. Davis has a natural ability to do this on his own. It’s called “glow chasing” and he uses it to revisit a favorite memory from his childhood. But if he’s not careful, he could get stuck there forever. We know that Veridical is run by a gruff man called The Colonel who really wants to promote Davis and Bennett to his “A Team”, provided they do well on their next job.

This is what we don’t know: How does “the procedure” work, exactly? How did it become a business? How are people recruited for this line of work? And, most importantly, why would anyone pay these guys, supernatural abilities or no, to discover secrets they could just as easily tell each other for free? It’s as if their entire clientele consists of people just wanting to see if it actually works.

That is, until, they meet Jane (Paprika Steen), a woman whose husband disappeared eight years prior, rendering her daughter, Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton), mute. Jane isn’t in great mental shape either as she spends her days digging holes in the woods behind her house in the off chance that her husband is buried there. It’s a complex job from the start, made more complex by some pseudo-science techno babble they don’t really explain and the grumpy Rebecca, who just may have a secret of her own.

Written and directed by Nick Whitfield and adapted from his short film of the same name, “Skeletons” is not bad for a debut feature. The cinematography, with lengthy wide shots of fields and forests, is beautiful and the jaunty music keeps the beat. Maybe it’s all the mustaches, but the whole thing feels very French. The cast, particularly the two leads, does a great job making the adequate dialogue sound whip smart. The striking Tuppence Middleton aside, there is a refreshing bit of realism provided by any film filled with regular-looking people.

From a script standpoint, there are a lot of good ideas here but I suspect they felt more satisfying in short form. 95 minutes seems like a long time to not really get to know anybody. Perhaps Whitfield didn’t want over-explain things and as a hater of awkward exposition, I appreciate that. But at the end of the film, the characters still felt like characters strangers. I wanted to know more about them. “Skeletons” is a terrific shell of an idea that Whitfield should have fleshed out. In fact, it would make a terrific television series with this film as the pilot. It would be exciting to revisit these characters week after week and learn more about whom they are while they help people. But “Skeletons” the film is something you need only visit once.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

NFT Radar: The Pig ‘n Whistle

The P n’ W is a decent destination for dinner and drinks. There are delightful twists on classic apps like the breaded green tomato caprese and the revelatory pretzel crusted cheddar sticks. Their sandwich menu offers not only a competent burger (meat and veggie) but also surprises like the brat burger and the fried green tomato, ham, bacon, egg sandwich. They have a terrific list of micro brews and imported beers to accompany your meal. Save room for cobbler or perhaps a root beer float! Brunch, however, is another story. I don’t normally like to give a negative review based on bad service from one individual. But because the food wasn’t all that great either, it feels warranted. Our toast came out late and was still, somehow, cold and chewy as though it had been sitting around for a while. There was a (thankfully) long hair on my omelet and when I mentioned it, very politely to the already bitchy waitress (after I had eaten most of my mediocre breakfast), her response was “Oh.” I wasn’t looking for a comped meal but an apology would have been nice. I’ll be back for those cheddar sticks. But brunch? Never again.


8412 Greenwood Ave N 98103
206-782-6044
www.pignwhistleseattle.com

X-posted from Not For Tourists.

NFT Radar: Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.

Space is a dangerous place so you’d be remiss to travel through it unprepared. Fortunately, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. is there to ensure you have everything you need from copious amounts of astronaut ice cream to that all-important map of the (known) universe. They also provide you with creature comforts like Cosmic Kitties, Paper Soap and an Instant Yard to get you through those endless nights out in the cosmos. It’s a cute little shop full of space-themed toys, t-shirts books and knickknacks and the perfect gift destination for cosmonauts of all ages. Oh, and if you’re wondering why a space traveler would need the complete works of Dave Eggers, it probably has something to do with 826 Seattle, the local chapter of non-profit youth writing program he founded. All of the stores proceeds go directly to the kids so you can feel good about that purchase of emergency underpants. That’s not where their community outreach ends. Every year, they also stage a protest against Pluto’s demotion from regular planet to dwarf planet. Someone has to speak up for the little guy!


8414 Greenwood Ave N 98103
206-725-2625
www.greenwoodspacetravelsupply.com

X-posted from Not For Tourists.