Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2010

Making up for lost time

A rundown of films from the spring and summer that I missed the first time around

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Screenplay: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Brandon McGibbon, David Hewlett and Simona Maicanescu
Rated R / 1 hour, 44 minutes
(out of four)

Splice is a darkly comedic philosophical horror film that has no idea when it's actually supposed to be funny. Wait . . . yes it does! No, no, nevermind, it really doesn't. Does it? That was the internal debate I had with myself when I first saw it - the result of a film so tonally clueless about itself as to border on incompetence. And yet so much of the imagination is there that I can't dismiss Vincenzo Natali's film altogether. As much as certain scenes persist in nudging me toward that conclusion.

A modern Frankenstein-like tale - think Eraserhead meets genetic engineering - that touches (ever so slightly) on a number of ethical grey areas, Splice plays with a certain earnestness that would be endearing if only it weren't so laughable. For a film that seems to have satirical ideas about its subject matter, it sure doesn't know how to express them. Its funniest moments are of the unintentional variety - and when it finally catches up with itself and realizes its intrinsic humor, it's clueless about how (or if) it can push it any further.

Splice stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as a pair of genetic engineers - and lovers, too! - who decide to experiment with splicing human DNA with animal DNA, an advancement that could have huge ramifications for the future of science and medicine. Not to mention the ethical complications.

What happens to their creation - which they name "Dren" and raise like a child - is potentially fascinating, but it devolves so unconvincingly into pseudo-Freudian silliness that it almost plays like a parody of horror movies with pseudo-Freudian tie-ins. Which Splice might, in fact, be - if, that is, it knew what it was at all.

Survival of the Dead
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Starring: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devin Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis and Stefano DiMatteo
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes
(out of four)

With Survival of the Dead, George Romero seems to be getting near - if not scraping - the bottom of the zombie barrel. There is no longer any reason for this saga to continue. Even though his recent entries, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, weren't entirely successful, either, at least both of them seemed to have some reason for being.

This latest sequel can't make that claim. Its only new wrinkle is a ham-fisted justice system/death penalty allegory, with boundary lines being drawn between those who simply want to kill the walking undead, and those who want to try to rehabilitate them. (Trust me, I know how that sounds. I know.) But let's face it - Romero's zombie political allegories have always been ham-fisted, even in his best work. But those films worked on their own genre merits, so we took the message along with them.

Survival of the Dead offers no other significant contribution to Romero's own zombie mythology. In fact, the zombie angle feels like it's been injected; it's almost a non-essential detail. Perhaps that disconnect is deliberate to some extent - a juxtaposition against the rather quaint setting of a lost-in-time island inhabited by generations of Irish settlers. The style is essentially that of an Irish Western, only instead of bandits or your typical outside intruder, these shotgun-totin' cowboys are fighting off zombies.

If Romero had wanted to make a modern Western, he could have attempted to do just that. Instead, what we get is a filmmaker spinning his wheels in a genre that long ago left him behind.

The Secret of Kells
Director: Tomm Moore, with co-director Nora Twomey
Screenplay: Fabrice Ziolkowski
Starring: The voices of Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Christen Mooney, Paul Tylack and Paul Young
Not rated / 1 hour, 15 minutes
(out of four)

In case you still don't recognize the title, this was the movie from the Best Animated Feature category at last year's Oscars that you - and practically everyone else - had never heard of. And since the Oscar ceremony, you - and practically everyone else - have gone right back to never having heard of it.

Which is a shame because, in an era where the vast majority of computer-animated non-Pixar movies are all starting to look and feel the same, The Secret of Kells is an anomaly. Its hand-drawn animation is spectacular and idiosyncratic - in its style and dexterity, it's somewhat reminiscent of Nina Paley's great Sita Sings the Blues from last year - and the storytelling revels in the beauty and peculiarity of Irish folklore.

Rehashing its plot details would be futile for the most part, as so much of its effectiveness is in the magical, dreamlike way it introduces its motifs and characters. And I don't throw around the word "magical" all that often. My main complaint about The Secret of Kells is a compliment, in a way - so much of it is so sumptuous that it seems to leave a lot on the table, making the story seem a bit more trite than it ought to.

Having said that, the film's animators have so much to offer, I could watch Kells with the sound off and still be moved and entertained.

The Human Centipede
IFC Films
Director: Tom Six
Screenplay: Tom Six
Starring: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Luopold and Peter Blankenstein
Not rated / 1 hour, 32 minutes
(out of four)

The Human Centipede is perhaps more disgusting than you think it might be upon hearing the concept - not necessarily in what it explicitly shows (which isn't all that much, considering they'd need to either use a lot of special effects or commit a lot of felonies to show what's actually going on), but in what we think about once the process of creating the titular centipede is explained in detail.

Describing it here would violate the boundaries of good taste. The film does, too, but I'd be OK with that if it had been made with any competence. But it's not. If I wanted bad taste and terrible filmmaking, I could just watch a John Waters movie - and at least he has a sense of humor. The Human Centipede, on the other hand, is one of those horror films so morbidly obsessed with its own grotesque ideas that nothing is ever able to take shape. I'll give writer/director Tom Six points for creativity, if that's what we want to call this premise, but a failing grade for execution. Aside from the shoddy craftsmanship, the film is just so easy to read. We start with the old horror standby of two (hot) dumb girls vacationing in Germany, who go out one night, drive into the middle of nowhere (as dumb girls in horror movies are prone to do) and walk deep into the forest to find help after their car breaks down (as dumb girls in horror movies are prone to do).

Side question: Would a hot, intelligent female in one of these movies be too much to ask?

Anyway . . . the dumb girls finally find a house with a light on out in the middle of the woods, and proceed to not only ask the most blatantly sinister, diabolical-looking Bad Guy in history, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), if they can use his phone, but proceed to drink the water he has obviously drugged, and then become a part of his mad scientific experiment to create a three-person human centipede.

Considering the, shall we say, unique nature of the film's central idea, the bulk of The Human Centipede is so blandly derivative and dull, it seems as though Six spent a lot of time coming up with as bizarre a concept as possible, and no time at all coming up with the movie that would eventually surround it.

[REC] 2
Magnet Releasing
Director: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
Screenplay: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Manu Díez
Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Manuela Vilasco, Óscar Jafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca and Pablo Rosso
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes
(out of four)

There is a great sequence near the end of [REC] 2 that, for perhaps the first time in either film in the series, actually utilizes its first-person camera gimmick in a meaningful and powerful way. Until that point, it had been almost entirely superfluous.

And illogical, at that. There are so many inexplicable moments in which the cameraman (or -woman) seems to be completely safe from the ongoing terror (shaking the camera around and adding heavy breathing to the sound track does not make it any more credible) or completely irrelevant to the action of the moment, that it seems directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza don't even know why they're using the technique in the first place.

But then this fantastic sequence comes along and makes us wish the movie had been this effective and creative all along. Without spoiling any important details, the scene sets up the premise that certain evil forces - let's just call them Satan Zombies - that inhabit the apartment building can't be seen by the naked eye, but are visible in night vision. And so for the bulk of the scene, we are witness to what only the cameraman can see, while the other characters in the scene are essentially walking around blind, unaware of their exact proximity to their tormenters.

Balagueró and Plaza throw in the extra wrinkle of turning on the light from time to time, giving us a juxtaposition of what the other characters can see, and what we (and our camera-wielding proxy) can see. It's reminiscent of the famous climactic scene in The Silence of the Lambs (only with more characters involved), and it's a truly thrilling sequence, easily besting anything else in this film or the original [REC].

As I've said before, I'm not against the idea of POV camerawork as a stylistic choice - my only requirement is that it be used with purpose, instead of as a trendy affectation. More often than not, [REC] 2 falls into the latter category.

The Eclipse
Magnolia Pictures
Director: Conor McPherson
Screenplay: Conor McPherson
Starring: Ciarán Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Hannah Lynch and Eanna Hardwicke
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
(out of four)

No, no, not THAT Eclipse. I threw my hands up after New Moon, and that was that. Seeing the third installment was out of the question.

And this is not a remake of Antonioni's L'eclisse, either. Instead, it's a thoughtful Irish character study with an unfortunately common name. Starring the always-great and perpetually underused Ciarán Hinds, the film centers around a man who, still reeling from the death of his wife, begins to see/feel/hear apparitions and initiates a tenuous friendship/relationship with a woman (Iben Hjejle, from High Fidelity) who writes novels dealing with just that subject.

I know, I know, it all sounds a bit too convenient, and it probably is. But writer/director Conor McPherson handles it with such grace that it comes across perhaps more credible than it should. The Eclipse takes place within quiet moments of reflection and emotional restraint, and Hinds' performance elevates the material to a certain level of poignance.

Not everything in the film works - Hjejle's on-again, off-again boyfriend (played by Aidan Quinn) seems an unnecessary distraction (during one scene in particular), but the film as a whole is an effective piece of work, an observant rumination on human frailty and the aftershocks of tragedy.

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