It really hadn't sunk in, just how uninspired the movies we have forthcoming this summer really are, until Joshua Blevins Peck and I teamed up last week for the Summer Movie Preview (which you can see at urbantulsa.com).
As I mentioned, it's really just the last wave of strike pictures, when in the run-up to the 2008 Writer's Guild strike, projects were being green lit like doughnuts flying out of a Krispy Kreme.
It's not that I think they'll all be bereft of entertainment value, but along with the usual lack of originality, there just doesn't seem to be any real excitement being generated over many of them, except for Twilight among the faithful, and Inception for the film geeks. And Scott Pilgrim for the utterly hopeless nerds (I'm stoked for that one).
So Splice really seemed to be one of the bright spots in a decidedly vanilla looking lineup. Moody, sci-fi horror with a brain stuck out from the pack of generic sounding remakes, rehashes and sequels. While the film itself is flawed, it did prove to be something that didn't evaporate immediately upon leaving the theater.
Under the employ of a pharmaceutical conglomerate, two talented genetic scientists work on recombining the DNA of various animals to create hybrids in the pursuit of eventually curing genetic diseases. Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) engineer the hybrids -- amorphous blobs resembling something you'd beat to death in a Silent Hill game -- with seeming success, and Elsa is convinced that splicing their new creations DNA with that of a human will prove eventual genetic therapies for crippling human conditions are possible.
Of course, being highly illegal, the company refuses to go along with her idea. But you can't make an omelet without breaking a few international laws, so Elsa talks Clive, who is her boyfriend as well as her lab partner, into helping her whip up the human animal hybrid, more or less just to see what will happen.
The product is a small, bipedal creature which grows at an accelerated rate into a centaur-like, stinger armed, human/animal cross breed that the doting Elsa calls Dren (Delphine Chanéac). Clive seems to have more of his wits about him in terms of considering the ramifications of what they've done, but soon, he falls in line with Elsa helping to hide their creation from prying eyes. Again, more or less just to see what happens.
Hint: It gets weird.
Writer/director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) proves he can do a lot on a tiny budget, as the FX that bring Dren to life are often top-notch, and he balances them well with the sometimes creepy performance by Delphine Chanéac. She's a conglomeration of live performance and digital FX that more or less blends together seamlessly giving her a human face distorted just enough to be disturbingly alien -- more so when she exhibits human emotions.
Natali's script has some issues. A lot of exposition is burned discussing ethical and moral dilemmas, which aren't particularly interesting and that are promptly jettisoned by the film's narrative. That narrative has an unhurried pace with no major waves or troughs, until the entirely derivative third act where the film seemed to lose the momentum of its ideas and devolves into standard issue horror snores.
All the twists and turns and creepiness in Splice come from watching this creature evolve and discovering with some queasy revelation what its next biological step is. But that's ultimately hamstrung by a finale that tries to scare instead of disturb.
Cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata creates a decent atmosphere, making the most of the limited scale of the film. He bathes the tightly composed frames with chilly blues in the laboratory and warmer hues during the later scenes in an abandoned barn. Nagata captures the sterile and the fertile with a trained eye and is aided by an appropriately foreboding score.
Brody and Polley deliver strong performances.
They have the talent between them to get over the rougher patches in the script but, in what amounts to a monster movie, the monster is always the star.
Delphine Chanéac is up to the task. Dren is a strange character to play, and not just because of the FX work involved. Those are just glued to her performance, which is half-human child, combined with animalistic tics and chirps that pull the whole thing together to a disturbing affect. It might seem to border on goofy at times, but the characters overall effect, her humanity mixed with reptilian programming, is strange, creepy and memorable.
It's not for everyone, I think. It doesn't quite work as a horror film in conventional terms. What I appreciate about Splice is that it feels like a distant cousin to the psychosexual, body horror that David Cronenberg used to blow minds with before he got into making psychosexual crime films, instead. Splice isn't nearly as successful in combining psychology, sexuality and gory, anthropomorphic weirdness as many of Cronenberg's works were, but it's trying. And no one else is. A part of me can't help but like that.
Shoot 'Em Up
Remember how you went into Gran Torino thinking you were going to see Clint break out with his old buddy, .44 Magnum, and start blowing teenagers off his lawn? Well, if you were let down that Eastwood didn't water the grass in ethnic blood -- still a good flick, though -- and you need a fix of old badass whose had enough and takes matters in his own hands, than Harry Brown might have something for you.
Sir Michael Caine portrays the titular geriatric vigilante, a newly widowed pensioner who lives in a deteriorating residential block in South London. Drug dealing gang members have more or less taken over and are terrorizing young and old alike -- in the neat, first-person opening sequence, a cell phone cam video shows a joy killing perpetrated by two punks on a motorbike who wind up getting splattered by a truck.
Harry only has one friend left, Leonard (David Bradley, the armed to the teeth farmer from Hot Fuzz), whom he plays chess with at the pub. Leonard is terrified of the gang who have taken to harassing him personally revealing that he's started packing an old bayonet for self defense. Harry encourages him to let the police handle it and not try anything himself.
But soon the harassment turns deadly. When the grief-stricken Harry begins to realize that the two cops investigating Leonard's death (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) are going to be of little help, the former Marine decides that revenge is his only option for justice.
As you might expect from a film with such a well worn plot, it's the performance from Michael Caine that sets Harry Brown apart from Death Wish and its many knock-offs.
The legendary actor, who's played his share of tough guys in films such as Get Carter, gives a wonderfully effective performance. The sadness of his hangdog face, as he reels from one blow after another, slowly becomes replaced by a cold consideration when he becomes empowered by the results of his actions. He balances the minimalism beautifully, never veering into parody, or overt self-awareness. Everything plays out on his face with the expertise of a master.
It's too bad the rest of the film wasn't as believable. Not that I don't buy Caine, but the crime conditions in South London make Baltimore look like a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Kids kill, rob and deal with impunity, and the cops seem to care little about it. Sure they drag in a few suspects when Leonard is killed, but they only half-heartedly interrogate them and seem to get nowhere, though London is notoriously covered in security cameras.
Part of it is the film's underlying, right wing, pro-vigilante theme. The police need to be ineffectual in order for Caine's actions to be morally justified, and so the plot is purposefully implausible in order to make that justification happen.
The whole first act centers on the fear these people feel, and while there's no overt racism, it's not a stretch to tie the "take my country back" mentality of card carrying militia wannabes to the ideas in Harry Brown. Someone in favor of our proposed open carry law would find a lot to like here.
Directed by Daniel Barber from a script by Gary Young, the story is deliberately paced and shot. Quiet scenes, sometimes overlong, do a nice job at accenting Caine's sometimes heartbreakingly sad acceptance of his loss, while the dark specters of his past slowly make their way back to the surface.
As I said, Caine is great, but at times, that deliberate pace feels a bit laborious, crossing the line between establishing mood or emotion into just being too long. It's not as though this is delivered in Tarantino bricks of verbosity, and as such the film only really takes off once Harry decides to get his hands on some artillery.
Still, despite only achieving thematic heights Charlie Bronson covered decades ago -- though with more up to date violence -- Michael Caine alone makes Harry Brown worth a look.
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