Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Splice

Vincenzo Natali has become somewhat of a science fiction cult director in recent years, helming the now well-known and celebrated Cube. Although never quite mainstream, his other foray Cypher has showcased a director that isn’t reluctant to call science fiction his forte. Too often in the past we see those with a penchant for the fantastique moving away into other more ‘serious’ realms when they find greater clout to wield. Thus the David Cronenberg’s of the world are a seldom phenomenon and should be treasured for their commitment and loyalty. Natali is one such director still finding his feet, and with Splice moves entirely into the mainstream.  
A scientist team that are also a couple, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody), are on the cutting edge of human/animal gene splicing, and are trying to develop a protein for a major corporation. When their experiments herald the arrival of new species, they decide to go rouge and take it to the next level: splicing human and animal DNA. When each small breakthrough leads to another victory, the scientists set in motion an irrevocable chain of advents that gives birth to Dren … an entirely new progeny female in gender and having hybrid characteristics.

Fitting this particular premise are typical plot-offshoots that go hand and hand with it:  the ethical and moral dilemmas … is it right to play with God’s codes and maps if it could lead to a victory over disease? And is there an ultimate price to pay if we succeed? Of course, there is nothing new here – but we get the feeling there isn’t supposed to be. The characters of Elsa and Clive are even named as a homage to central characters in Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the first half of the film does feel original in its execution, with the real star here Dren. This is no run-of-the-mill Alien/Species knock-off: watching the creature as it grows and learns at a breakneck pace is disconcerting to say the least – the CGI is flawless, giving an authentic performance that, once married with regular prosthetics, has the viewer feeling prickly with dread.

Throughout, there is the undercurrent of the domestic, as we see Elsa’s and Clive’s relationship and unresolved personal issues taken into disarray by the their current predicament. In this regard, there was so much to like, but what ultimately lets the film down is the final third, a finale that feels taped on and sinks to the level of Natali’s cheaper films. Obvious script re-writes are layered on as though no one (including the director), knew how to finish it. There is one unexpected development that is implausible to the point it’s laughable. And from here, any aficionado can guess where things lead.  

But this does not take away the films gains, and having an A list performer like Brody elevates the production into something that deserved to make theatrical release. French actress Delphine Chaneac gives the character of Dren an uncanny take that makes us feel and fear her at the same time. This alone makes Splice a small triumph. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Centurion

With films like Dog Soldiers and The Descent under his belt, British writer and director Neil Marshall now has the clout to broaden his horizons and show the world and a mainstream audience just how much talent is at his disposal. His previous forays into horror have showcased a director with a certain penchant for hardcore character development, followed by a brutal showdown with enemy forces that may or may not be supernatural in nature and do not leave many survivors. With Centurion, he has stuck to his tried formula … but expanded it and broadened it out to encompass a stage that is less domestic and uses entire countries as the playground. Here, his monsters are human … but no less depraved than those he has put on display before.

Our Centurion is Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier who is the sole survivor of a bloody raid that saw his company decimated by the Picts … a savage and mysterious clan who refuse to fold into the Roman Empire and are employing guerrilla tactics that are preventing them from securing Britain. His next mission is to join ranks with the Ninth Legion and wipe out the Picts once and for all. But when an ambush ensues and an even bigger slaughter takes place, he now leads a cabal of survivors across unforgiving terrain and set-backs to reach his homeland again. And their presence his known by the Picts, who relentlessly hunt them.

It should go without saying that for those of you expecting another cult film likeThe Descent, that is not what is on offer here. I for one applaud the decision of the Director to take the story into uncharted territory and see what the audience makes of it. And the result? Surprises at every turn. I will admit to not being prepared for how well things ultimately came together. Above all, it is refreshing to take a break from the mire that Hollywood sometimes is. This is a British/Scottish cast and world, full of breath-taking scenery and a gritty style of film-making that only comes from doing the hard yards away from celluloid’s capital. The scenes of battle and carnage are still there for horror fans, and they are done so with realistic expertise. An audience member will feel totally ensconced in the cold, harsh reality of the Roman frontier. I have a feeling that Neil Marshall was schooling himself on set (much like Tarantino did with Kill Bill), to be an action director. But he still keeps the human element alive and true. The performance by the mute and beautiful hunter Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is worthy of distinction.

There are a couple of set-backs, most notable a romance that never quite takes off. But we get the feeling it was probably the studios suggesting such changes to encompass a broader audience. With a much larger budget in tow, sometimes creators have to make some sacrifices to get their vision across. There will be a few nay-sayers whose knee jerk reaction is to quickly compare it to Dog Soldiers and The Descent in a negative light, but over time this film will join the pantheon as a minor classic of the already impressive resume of Neil Marshall.  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Review: Pilgrims by Will Elliot

An author that needs no introduction, Will Elliot burst into the mainstream from relative obscurity after winning the ABC manuscript award with The Pilo Family Circus. It was a novel of disturbing ideas and grisly images that took on a life of its own, breathing fresh blood into our literary scene and showcasing that young Australian talent could mix it with the big guns on a world stage. With Pilgrims, Elliot shifts gears in a largely new direction, moving into the invented world genre and trying to explode its conventions from within.

From experience, I think there comes a time in a speculative writer’s life when they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it a dominion, realm, dimension, or simply world – it seems ingrained that this be accomplished as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter that dwarfs all other novels, novellas, or short stories. And there is nothing wrong with this. Although it took an eternity, King himself achieved this milestone with The Dark Tower books. Numerous other authors have made it a staple: Clive Barker’s descriptions of wonderlands that sit just adjacent to us are like a guide for every intrepid writer who feels the need to describe some otherland. This hybrid of dark fantasy and horror is now well-mapped … the challenge is to find something unique and powerful to add to the fray. For the most part, Will Elliot does succeed with Pilgrims, book one of the Pendulum trilogy.

Eric Albright (a protagonist with shades of Elliot I suspect), has discovered a small red door underneath a train bridge near his home. His wingman in the unearthing is Stuart Case, a homeless alcoholic who accompanies Eric through the door into Levaal … the adjacent realm next to ours brimming with magic and all the ingredients we have come to expect from fantasy. We are on familiar ground, and Eric knows it. More than once he voices the opinion that because he is from our world, then he must be its savoir. Both Eric and Case become part of a quest that is fragmentary in the details but mainly about survival. A numerous and varied cast is introduced, and readers will see creatures of staggeringly various descriptions populate the world of Levaal. There are War Mages, flying Invia, Gods and Great Spirits. There are those that are free, and those that are not … as the current resident of the Castle, Vous, has turned this beacon of magic into a house of malign purpose with the hopes of ascending to Godhood.

Pilgrims as a book reflects journey. The kind of book, perhaps, that’s perfect for ones own voyage. For some peculiar reason I found myself digging into this narrative always when I was on the move: traffic light intersections, bus trips, and even on one occasion when hiking through the woods. At times it can be stagnant; the action and mysteries of a type encountered in many other fictitious worlds before. The language feels familiar and intimate, however – the Australian voice homely. Above all, Will Elliot wants to take us to his Narnia and the world of his childhood. Although a far cry from his debut novel and not inhabiting the same territory, Pilgrims nevertheless acts as a worthy successor.  

The story continues in Shadow and concludes in book three Dragon.  

Review: The Hitcher (2007)

HorrorScope has seen fit to let me visit one of the older horror/thrillers of the past few years. The Hitcher was released in 2007 and is a re-make of the classic 1986 film of the same name.

It came at a time when re-makes were still a relative novelty … and seems an age ago now in terms of film-making. When viewing it, do not expect to see many similarities with its previous incarnation. This is a film that is aimed primarily at a new generation coming through … and ultimately suffers for it.

We are in comforting and familiar territory with the plot: College students Jim and Grace are on a jaunt across the United States and en route encounter the hitch-hiker who calls himself John Ryder. After initially refusing to stop, they later encounter him at a gas station and there follows a nightmare journey with the psychopath.

Things are promising at the beginning: the audience is in hackneyed territory but knows this. The Highway is a like a character – a haunted wasteland that is a playground for anything malign to find a home and go un-noticed. There is no mystery about our villain; he is unmasked in all his glory, and talented actor Sean Bean has no trouble bringing to life the vapid stance of a detached executioner. In what is perhaps a small nod to the first film, there is an undeniable gritty attention to the colors and camera-focus.  

But things quickly fall apart with lazy dialogue and unrealistic scenarios that couldn’t possibly happen … even suspending disbelief for the sake of celluloid. I won’t go into these, but at times it felt like I was reading the screenplay – a huge warning bell going off that the director’s vision was not enough to curtail what is, at its core, a bad script.

There are encouraging sign-posts: jump moments are everywhere, enough to keep you interested … and it’s the type of horror that takes no prisoners about whom is dispatched or how. The ‘game’ John Ryder is playing intrigues us, for his toying levels go beyond mere play into something else altogether. A thumping soundtrack is with us every step of the way - it sounds like the throb of a heart or the whir of a truck and intelligently mirrors the ‘highway-artery’ theme of the whole endeavor.

Unfortunately, in the end, the clich├ęd ‘horror film’ behavior of those being toyed is enough to have us praying for their demise. Although by no means a complete loss, keep this one for a Saturday night marathon when all the quality has been exhausted.   

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Amusement (2008)

Initially a promising film, Amusement offers up a smorgasbord of ingredients that should have made this work. The narrative is a mish-mash of the My Bloody Valentine scenario, whereby a tormented adolescent has now grown up to bring his revenge fantasizes into a blood-spattered reality. His focus is the three girls who mocked him in youth.
As stated, the formula was trite but promising, and the opening sequence unfolds in a trucking convoy that takes a sinister turn. Camera direction is slick and eccentric; almost mimicking something David Fincher might produce; the film visually looks good and the bigger budget is apparent. But things dovetail as we come to the slow realization that almost everything is pilfered directly from some other source: the gothic ambiance, the hooded slickers in rain, and the interconnected storylines. This entire outing resembles something more on par with an anthology … and perhaps if they had marketed it this way and tweaked the story-line it could have evolved. Viewed from this perspective, it’s actually quite sublime: our stalker takes on the guise of a killer clown in what is a genuinely unnerving scene. A modern-Frankenstein motif is built into the account and what lies in wait is something that shames The People Under The Stairs … but it all seems too unwieldy, too elaborate – and our stalkers motivation is ultimately haphazard to the point of non-existence. The climax is more of the same: a stunning visual feast in a labyrinthine fortress presenting doors to the viewer that are never opened.

With a screenplay by Jake Wade Wall (the same individual who penned The Hitcher), Amusement can be safely filed away into the same category as my review for that film. This is no must-see and can easily be overlooked. But as something to complement a horror marathon, Amusement just rises above the tide to be mildly entertaining.