Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cool Characters: Seek Shelter From The Three Storms

By Scott Tre

Some characters are meant simply to make a memorable entrance and look really cool.  Though they leave a huge impression you, you'd be hard pressed to explain their appeal to anyone if asked.  Your explanation would probably consist of describing a single moment, line of dialogue, or even a visual cue.  The younger you are the better, as cynicism and over analysis have yet to set in and ruin the enjoyment of such simple pleasures.

The three storms are the servants of David Lo Pan, the villain of John Carpenters cult classic Big Trouble in little China.  They are Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and lightening (James Pax).  They each have the power to control the element they are named after and combine it with unrivaled martial skill.    They have very little dialogue, and the few lines they do speak are barely understandable to western ears.

Their show stopping moment comes when they crash a melee between the Chang Sings and the Wing Kong, the two fighting Tongs of San Francisco's Chinatown.  The storms descend out of the sky and dish out superpowered whup ass.  As each one lands, they give a quick exhibition before getting down to business.  This is also the moment where the film itself goes into full on fantasy territory.

The costume design is a big part of the storms appeal.  The straw hats, capes and armor make the them look like bouncers in the Chinese mythological equivalent of an old west saloon.  Aficionados of martial arts cinema should recognize Carter Wong from his roles in the productions of Joseph Kuo.  Video Gamers should instantly recognize Lightening as the basis for the character Raiden in the video game series Mortal Kombat.

Though the storms had an absolute minimum of screen time, they played a huge role in earning Big Trouble it's cult status.  The film itself gave Western audiences a taste of Wuxia style imagery long before the conventions of Hong Kong action cinema were appropriated by Hollywood.  Perhaps in an alternate universe exists a prequel to Big Trouble in Little China that focuses solely on the storms, showing them laying waste to entire armies at Lo Pan's bidding.  One can only dream (sigh).

Perversions Of Science: "Splice" Ponders The Consequences Of Playing God

By Scott Tre

Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are about to become parents in a most unexpected way. In their quest to create a new species through gene splicing technology, they break protocol as well as every ethical and moral law known to man. Under pressure form Elsa, Clive indulges her illegal experiments with human. The result is Dren, a near perfect organism that is equipped to adapt to just about any environment.

Elsa claims that she just wants to see if their ideas are more than theoretical, that she has no intention of seeing this through to its logical conclusion. However, things get quickly out of hand as Dren grows at a prodigious rate. Clive and Elsa’s adherence to logic slowly gets revealed for the fa├žade that it is. As Dren blossoms into adulthood, Clive and Elsa’s relationship with her takes a number of perverse and unexpected turns. They discover in the worst way that nature has no limits, and that life refuses to be contained.

Splice is a strange beast that we have not seen the likes of in quite some time. The recent superhero movies based on Marvel characters always display scientific accidents as bestowing amazing powers on average Joes and thus creating a savior for mankind.Splice is more akin to David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, where scientific discovery bestows powers and abilities that unleash our worst subconscious fears.

The protagonists of such films are usually gifted. They are smart and ambitious, able to maintain intellectual detachment from what they do. This detachment often is communicated in their inability to truly connect with “normal” people. Alas, human frailties infiltrate even the most noble of endeavors and the experiments become less about science and more about some sort of subconscious personal gratification.

Splice was directed and co-written by Vincenzo Natali. Natali is already known to genre fans as the filmmaker behind the intriguing Sci-Fi B-movie Cube. Here he is given a bigger budget and more notable actors. The result is a film that is a spiritual descendent of the body horror classics of Cronenberg and the like, but much more polished and less visceral. Splice isn’t a true gore fest although it does openly flirt with some rather grotesque ideas.

The trailers sell the movie as being something of a geek show. While it does contain elements of that, it is much more concerned with generating tension and suspense. Natali does a good job of taking the story into outlandish territory, making us unsure if we’re supposed to gasp or laugh. If we decide to laugh, are those laughs intentional? Splice prods viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Natali does make certain compromises with the current marketplace. The third act of the film conforms to the patterns of more conventional thrillers and action pictures, but it still manages to end in a rather unexpected way that will have many squirming in their seats. Cube suffered a similar third act compromise by going into slasher territory. Fortunately, Splice does so without completely derailing and squandering the good faith generated by the first half.

The characters behave in ways that at times seem a bit unlikely and even implausible. They experience revelations and changes of heart that would seem to take a bit longer in real life. Since these possibilities have to be examined within the confines of a feature length film, some concessions have to be made. Also, the means by which they deceive the higher ups and hide Dren seem a little too easy. The film seems to be leading somewhere, so we forgive its inconsistencies.

The success of the film hinges in large part on the way it visualizes Dren. Part of the appeal of these films is the audience curiosity in regards to the look of the creature. We want to be disturbed and grossed out, that’s why we go to these movies. We also want something that we’ve never seen. The FX team manages to do all these things to a degree. Dren starts out as a tadpole like fetus with chicken legs. It has a venomous stinger for defensive and predatory purposes.

As Dren matures, it begins to take on more humanoid and female characteristics. The adult Dren is played by Abigail Chu, and her facial expressions are unhindered by extensive prosthetics or CGI. Though we are meant to connect with Dren, the movie never let’s us forget that she is an abomination. Her extremities and lower half are as foreign to us as her upper half is recognizable. Her appearance is that of a shaven, slender Minotaur.

Her design shows some slight Anime and Manga influences, though it is hard to pinpoint just what it is about them that gives that impression. Her wings are vaguely reminiscent of certain giant robot designs. This is evident in the scenes that show her “blossoming” and realizing her genetic potential. The somber color palette also suggests slight Anime influences, as does the fusion of technology, sexuality and gore. The leads even have a Manga styled poster hanging in their bedroom. Joel Silver and Guillermo Del Toro are listed in the opening production credits, and their tastes for modern comics and Japanese animation has been well documented.

Adrien Brody is excellent as the reluctant and thoughtful Clive. He is the weaker of the two, allowing his lover and partner to dictate the terms in the lab as well as at home. She exploits his lack of intestinal fortitude, and he allows this to go on until the situation becomes so extreme that he can no longer stand it. Sarah is also strong as the ambitious and strong headed Elsa.

Elsa’s overly aggressive and ambitious nature is rooted in her troubled relationship to her own mother. She bounds back and forth between sappy sentimentality and cold detachment. Neither of these characters stay true to the principles they claim to subscribe to in the opening passages, and by the final act we realize we don’t know them any better than they know themselves. Playing with the unknown has a funny way of revealing who we truly are.

Splice is an interesting oddity in a (so far) lackluster summer. Unlike other films in release right now, it is by no means suited to all tastes. There will be more than a few walkouts as many people will be uncomfortable with some the ideas the film raises as well as the means it takes to reach certain conclusions. It’s not as tight as it could be but it still makes for a satisfying whole. True fans of sci-fi horror will appreciate the films daring and craftsmanship. Casual viewers may be put off by those exact same elements. Movies like Splice separate the “men from the boys” in sense. I appreciate that. It’s rare that we get films that take chances without having their reach totally exceed their grasp.