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quietearth [Film Festival 02.01.10] movie review

[Editor's note: Special thanks to our friend Chase over at Gordon and the Whale for the following reviews]

SPLICE - Written by Rusty Gordon

Rating: 7.5/10
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant & Doug Taylor (screenplay), Vincenzo Natali & Antoinette Terry Bryant (story)
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Cast: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac

It might be cheap to say that if you enjoy David Cronenberg, you should enjoy SPLICE (using one man’s art to describe another’s). But there are obvious similarities between SPLICE and a large body of Cronenberg’s work (if you get the pun, I’m glad that you love Cronenberg too). The big one being a body used to create horror. But in this film, the body was never completely human.
Of course, if SPLICE was just a straight up rip-off of Cronenberg’s films it wouldn’t work because the two would be too similar. However, SPLICE director Vincenzo Natali is able to have his own fun while giving a respectful nod to master Cronenberg and his other influences.

SPLICE is a science gone unintentionally bad story. The story centers around Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), two scientists who run a lab together and are also a couple. They intend to help mankind but ultimately create something awful. In an interview I recently had with Natali, he stated that Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was also a big inspiration for SPLICE, but you probably figured that out right after I wrote that sentence.

Clive and Elsa have created two hybrid creatures (named Fred and Ginger) by splicing the DNA of several different species together. The result resembles in what it would look if a brain and walrus had a baby – so yes, pretty creepy. The reason Clive and Elsa have created these combinations of various living things is due to the fact that when you put all these species together, you also create a protein that is very helpful to humans. Clive and Elsa want to take their research to the next step and create a hybrid that also has human DNA, making the medical gains of such a hybrid greater than those of Fred and Ginger. But it’s a much tougher sell to say that you want to make a part-human creature.

Clive and Elsa are told not to go to the next level by their financial backers. As you probably figured out, they go ahead anyway and splice human DNA and create the new being. With this science “miracle,” the human trait appears as the most dominant, but only barely. Features of the being include: a tail with a retractable stinger that contains venom, bird-looking legs, and speech composed of clicks and bird-like calls. There are other traits of the creation that Clive and Elsa come to call “Dren,” but they are much more enjoyable to find out on your own, since they are more hidden.

The film can be considered a metaphor about parenthood, as Clive and Elsa raise Dren while she grows at a rapid pace. SPLICE does work on a level more than just the Horror/Sci-Fi sensational aspects. But thankfully, the film doesn’t get completely lost in its metaphor or forget to create solid horror moments and memories (no details, I’m not going to ruin anything).
SPLICE does take its time with a nice creep to the big finish, which is fine and not a complaint. Both the horror and simply strange levels of the film gradually rise with the evolution of Dren, and SPLICE does have a crazy third act that can also be filed under awesome (I knew I was not going to go this whole review and not write the word awesome).

SPLICE has (and creates) a good time while playing off the works of previous great horror stories and films. The film generates some nice shocks and twisted laughs while clearly being heavily inspired by others.

HESHER - Written by James Wallace

Rating: 9/10
Writer: Spencer Susser, David Michôd
Director: Spencer Susser
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu
HESHER, a tale of angst and repression, tells the story of a young boy named T. J. (Devin Brochu) who loses his mother in a horrible car accident two months prior to when we first meet him. T.J.’s father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), is in a vegetative state of depression and despair, hardly leaving the couch or putting on pants that don’t have a drawstring. T.J.’s grandmother is the only one who sees the situation for what it is, yet the son and the father can’t see or hear what she has to say. For both are hindered by the past they hold on to…
Along comes Hesher (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), a greasy, tattooed metal-head that carries the looming presence of the grim reaper. Hesher embodies the boy’s pure unrestrained anger towards the world that has taken away his mother and given him his present situation. The man materializes into T.J.’s life like a dark and cloudy storm, sometimes protecting the boy, while at other times making his life more of a living hell than it already is. And he is there to stay, as he quickly makes himself at home, moving in to the family’s house without warning or wary. From there…well, let’s just say that hell breaks loose.
The only thing that seems to put a smile on T.J’s face in this time of depression is the presence of Nicole (Natalie Portman), an object of his affection in both a prepubescent crush and motherly form. Saving T.J. from a bully, the young woman enters just as quickly and randomly as Hesher. If he’s the storm, Nicole is the sunshine. But as they say, people are in your life for a reason and a season.

For T.J., this season in his life is a hurricane…and he’s in the eye of it.
At its heart, HESHER is truly a story of grieving and loss, when you are at a point in your life where you cannot move on, let alone accept the loss. For Paul, he becomes a zombie, ignoring the state his life is in, or even living for that matter. For T.J., it is quite the opposite, as he does not ignore but acknowledge, yet he is still unable to let go just the same – even to the point of attempting to buy back the family’s totaled car from the accident. And then the dark figure Hesher comes along, like a gas fire explosion (literally and figuratively), there to jar the family loose from the rut they are stuck in.
As Hesher, Gordon-Levitt becomes a chameleon, vacating from any signs of the earnest characters he has most recently played. In its place is a man without filter, limits, or hesitation. But Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic portrayal of Hesher is not evil, but rather one of 100% complete and total rebellion and anarchy. If anything says it all, it’s the giant middle finger tattoo he has on his back, which says a giant “fuck you” to the world as he turns his back on it again and again. And yet, what the actor thoughtfully brings to the role in that apathetic nature is an under-the-surface softness. Hesher’s affection and care for the grandmother, to the point that he’s kind enough to show her how to hit a bong. Picking up pieces of a plate off the ground after it has been thrown and broken by someone else (when he often flips tables himself and vacates the room). And the biggest element being his twisted love and protection for T.J., almost making you doubt that Hesher is a real person, but rather possibly an imaginary friend to the boy. The devil and the angel on his shoulder so to speak.

While Gordon-Levitt’s performance is top-notch, the rest can be said for the entire cast. Rainn Wilson also takes a bit of a departure from the roles we are so used to and fond of with the comedic actor. He wears Paul’s skin like a suit two sizes too big and heavy, displaying like a mask the expression of depression on his somber face and in his droopy eyes. Similarly, Natalie Portman plays Nicole, a young lady in a quarter-life crisis state of depression, with an honesty and vulnerability. There are moments where she looks uncomfortable in her own skin, which seems to be so tight it’s suffocating her. So much so, you just want to hug her and tell he that everything is going to be okay. Which is where Devin Brochu steps in as T.J., serving as the tiny vote of confidence in the girl’s otherwise insecure world. Brochu plays the boy with a realistic and honest portrayal of childhood innocence and innocence lost to the degree that it’s downright heartbreaking. Again, it just makes you want hug him and tell the boy that everything is going to be okay.

Luckily, Hesher is there to do it for us, in the only way he knows how. By talking about his balls. But there, in his shocking yet oddly poetic monologue at the film’s conclusion, as he delivers it to a elderly funeral crowd with a PBR in hand, Hesher reveals to us what everyone in life must at some point realize. That life can be shitty and unfair, but you have to look at what you do have versus what you don’t. If not, you will move through life never truly living it. And while he may be an outcast of society, we see that Hesher is the only one that really understands what he has chosen to turn against.

For his first feature, director Spencer Susser (who wrote and directed the award-winning short film about a zombie love story entitled I LOVE SARAH JANE) displays this melancholy world beautifully, both visually and on the page. The film is extremely well-written, filled with moments in which one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or feel terribly awkward. And yet the layered script stays above the surface, never hammering its message into your head, only going below through well-inserted symbolism and well-placed monologues. Visually speaking, the film is just as well-arranged, at times kicking you in the balls like the metal themes it’s infused with, while at other times unfolding like an emotion-filled concerto.

In the end, HESHER is just that. It’s operatic in nature, with ups and downs and more downs and ups that unfold as a great comedic tragedy (or tragic comedy depending on how you look at it.) It is a complex, heavy, and often humorous film that gets right to the heart of pain and subsequent convalesce. Sometimes with a middle finger held high, while at other times with the tenderness of a gentle touch.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review has been edited since the time it was originally published.

BOY - Written by Rusty Gordon
Rating: 8/10
Writer: Taika Cohen
Director: Taika Cohen
Cast: Taika Cohen, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, James Rolleston

I have never seen Taika Cohen’s previous feature EAGLE VS. SHARK, but after seeing the director’s latest film BOY, I have been hit by a strong wave of desire to see all work done in the past and in the future by this director/screenwriter. Cohen’s definitely got that thing referred to as talent.
Cohen’s BOY is about an eleven year old, nicknamed Boy (James Rolleston), growing up in New Zealand during the eighties (the same time and place that Cohen was raised). Just to be clear, according to Cohen, Boy is not based on him as a kid, and I would consider him to be a pretty reliable source in this matter. But Cohen’s familiarity with the period and kids of the time he is depicting does make the film’s setting and characters easy to buy, as well as easy to have fun with. Cohen knows just how the kids of this time act, talked, dressed, and worshipped Michael Jackson.

Boy’s love for Michael Jackson is established early on in a opening sequence that displays the untainted imagination of an eleven year old. This introduction, by means of a class presentation that Boy is giving about himself, features Boy’s enthusiastic words matched with a hilarious series of images. Boy mentions his dad holds the record for punching out the most people out in a rugby game, and we see his father matter-of-factly punching men onto a pile of unconscious bodies; it’s one of the many great sights that appear during this intro. This sequence is what those with hearts would call magical. And it immediately tells us that Cohen’s heart and sensibilities are where they need to be.

BOY allows us to spend and an hour and half with an endearing kid that makes us laugh with his comically naive view of the world, and a brazen attitude. We get to see Boy perform funny and believable acts for his age, like telling his pet goat exaggerated stories about his day, and saying things that adults are too aware and boring to say. Cohen nails the naturally funny nature of kids. He also attempts (and succeeds) at giving the film a relevant and well-executed message formed around the return of Boy’s father, Alamein (played by Cohen, making it clear that writing and directing are not his only skills).

Alamein was previously in prison, and comes to visit while Boy’s grandmother is at a funeral. Alamein has a decent heart, but he is irresponsible and foolish, and just too selfish to be a good father. He’s a thirtysomething man that dreams too much, instead of making genuine improvements in his life. Boy and Alamein’s relationships shows Boy the dangers of losing yourself in dreams – you do not properly develop, making greatness unachievable.

Taika Cohen’s BOY is a thoughtful film about childhood that is too honest to be without moments of pain, illustrating how the wonderful, innocent hearts of kids will ultimately get hurt, and then toughen by the inarguable truths of life.

HIGH SCHOOL - Written by James Wallace

Rating: 8.5/10
Writers: John Stalberg Jr., Erik Linthorst, Stephen Susco
Director: John Stalberg Jr.
Cast: Matt Bush, Sean Marquette, Adrien Brody, Michael Chiklis, Colin Hanks

HIGH SCHOOL tells the tale of straight-A, straight-laced student Henry Burke (ADVENTURELAND’s Matt Bush). He’s a good kid yet, on one fateful day, Henry makes one wrong move as he reconnects and reminisces with childhood-friend-turned-burn-out-pothead Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette) over a fatty joint. Bad timing for Henry to take up smoking the reefer, as the school’s gestapo, Principal Leslie Gordon (Michael Chiklis), along with the help of Vice PrincipalBrandon Ellis (Colin Hanks), enacts a plan to drug test the entire student body, expelling anyone who fails in hopes to reimage the school after an incident involving a spelling bee and a blazed student. In short, everything is “Phuc-ed.”

With his chances of valedictorian and a future at M.I. T. on the line, Henry and Travis grow a far-out plan. They will get the entire high school high.

But where will they get all that Mary Jane? Why, a drug dealer, of course! But this is no ordinary drug dealer. After all, they don’t call him Psycho Ed (Adrein Brody) for being…not psycho. Ed, a former law student and viable genius of sorts, has invented a special strain of crystallized THC marijuana. A perfect little sweetener to any dish.

The dynamic duo steal the drug, baking it into brownies for a fundraising bake sale, which are distributed throughout the entire school, faculty and all. As you can imagine, it’s a literal high school. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Again, they don’t call him Psycho Ed for nothing, as the boys soon find out as he tracks them down and “cordially” asks them to pay the net worth back (something to the tune of $50,000). That’s not all though, as a series of unfortunate events unfold, putting the young men in a worse off situation than they were when they started down this tale of toking.

HIGH SCHOOL is as straight-forward and enjoyable as a teen coming-of-age stoner comedy can be (whether you’re baked or not while watching it). But, do not misunderstand, there’s a heartbeat here where others of the genre rarely have a pulse. First-time writer/director John Stalberg evokes a keen Hughesian sense of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF with a healthy dose of RISKY BUSINESS, as well as a few other great comedies with hearts of the 80s. Stalberg presents real kids with real problems, acting within a higher-than-life situation. And while the situation they’re in may be out there, it harkens back to the trouble that everyone got themselves into at least once in their formative years. The script gets to the heart of that feeling, when you yourself were a kid, operating in a world that never went beyond those large glass doors leading to the hell you knew as 9th through 12th grade. It was a time where every problem, no matter how laughable and insignificant now, was life-altering and possibly life-ending at the time. After all, it was the only world you knew. Who was dating who was your politics. Who hated who was your war. HIGH SCHOOL allows you to reflect on this time, taking you back to that feeling of fear and emotional-heightening, as well as allowing you to laugh at it now that you are much, much “older” and “more mature.”

The film’s main players are oddly chosen but seemingly fitting in every way. Both Brody and Chiklis sound out of place at first thought, which is exactly what makes them pitch-perfect in their extreme personalities. As Gordon, Chiklis is Ed Rooney-esque, in his almost thespian take on the school’s tyrant. Similarly, Brody comes across hysterically funny in his portrayal of the drug-dealing, tattoo-covered, corn-rowed gangster with an eye twitch and paranoia for frogs that say “Whut?”

Marquette and Bush give earnest yet humorous performances in their rocky bromance, playing male teens more realistically than others of the bloated, stereotype-filled sub-genre of teen comedies. It’s nice to see characters that reflect who kids really are and how they really act versus ones that reinforce the bullshit we spend years trying to shake during and after high school.
In the end, HIGH SCHOOL has just as many laughs as it does sentiment. It’s an achievement in a genre that is often two-dimensional, both in humor and substance. Not to mention that it totally makes you feel high…on life that is!

BURIED - written by James Wallace

Rating: 9/10
Writer: Chris Sparling
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Actor: Ryan Reynolds
BURIED stars Ryan Reynolds as contract driver Paul Conroy who, while working in Iraq, finds himself mysteriously buried alive in a coffin after he is knocked unconscious in an insurgent attack on his convoy. And in a MacGyver-esque twist, he is armed with nothing more than a lighter, a cell phone, and the will to fight for his life.
But time is running out for Paul, as he must race against the clock to find someone to pay his ransom of 5 million dollars before 9 PM, or he will be left to suffer a horrible fate below the Earth.


The very idea of the film raises a few questions in itself. The most prominent being, “How does one (director, actor, and/or writer) maintain suspense, belief, and general interest for 94 minutes when the film takes place entirely in a 84 by 28 by 23 inch pine box?” Most would assume with flashbacks of the attack, cut-aways to people Paul talks to on the phone, and other conventional methods of exposition. But no. No flashbacks. No cut-aways. No conventions.
Instead, director Rodrigo Cortés, with the help of a brilliantly written – and once infamously blacklisted – script by writer Chris Sparling, never lets up on the tension, building it and building it with moments of sheer panic-causing devices (for both the character and the audience). In short, everything that could go wrong for Paul pretty much does.

The film is shot as beautifully as it is confined; being completely lit by the natural light that Paul has himself (whether it be Zippo, glow sticks, cell phone light, and a shifty flashlight). You feel as if you are right there, in the enclosed space with Paul, feeling as claustrophobic and panic-ridden he feels. Furthermore, agreeing and finding logic with his every choice, despite a few obvious logic problems. Sure, you can apply the old “Why is she running upstairs when she should be running out the door?” logic of horror and suspense films here. “Why is he doing this? Why is he not doing that? Why is he not calling this person?” But, I pose this question…have you ever been buried alive in a coffin by terrorists? Didn’t think so…but if you ever are, BURIED is a pretty good field guide on how to handle the situation.

And just as Paul handles it as well as can be expected given his unfortunate predicament, Ryan Reynolds plays the character as perfectly as one could play someone stuck…well, you know. With such a belief and intensity, yet glints of tension-filled humor, that he’s the only actor you can think of wanting to watch in a dark box for an hour and thirty-four minutes. So much so that there are moments in the well-balanced comedic and dramatic actor’s struggle that you wish you yourself could go find him and dig him up. Yes, it is that hard to watch at times, as Paul begins to give up at times, yet presses on, holding out for the hope that he will be rescued.

What makes this so hard is that you know all along that you can’t rescue Paul. And that no one can and will. And that he knows this ultimately. As this situation realistically plays out many times in this post-9/11 era, hostages of this war on terror seldom, if ever, are rescued. But that doesn’t stop you, or Paul, from having hope, no matter how hopeless you soon find the situation to be.

What doesn’t help the film, or Paul’s situation, is that it has not one, but two moments of false hope in its conclusion. One, the first and unnecessary, takes away from the other, the second and gut-wrenchingly fitting. It doesn’t ruin the film (just like I won’t for you by divulging specifics) but it certainly hinders the surprise of the untimely finale.
As a side note, other arguments against the film heard round Sundance have been in reference to cell battery life, cell range, cell tracking and cloning, Paul’s oxygen supply, etc. To this I acknowledge but at the same time refute. That’s like posing the argument that JAWS isn’t believable because a shark like that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t behave in such a way. Or that you couldn’t take the shark on without a bigger boat. Without these liberties and devices, this wonderful movie wouldn’t have been possible. And that is exactly what it is. A movie. And a near perfect one, despite a few logic problems and plot holes here and there.

That does not mean that this film is not a complete and utter accomplishment in cinema across the board, on all levels of filmmaking from direction to cinematography to writing to acting to editing. It is minimalist filmmaking at its best, stripping away all convention, returning the currently-fleeting suspense genre to its Hitchcockian roots. From its commentary on government, terrorism, corporate greed, and the endurance of the human mind, BURIED keeps you completely immersed for every single second of its 94 minute runtime, never leaving the box it takes place in but always thinking outside of it.

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