DVD Catch-Up: Youth in Revolt(6/17/2010)

6-17-2010YouthinRevolt

The normal order of things in Hollywood is that there are movies stars and then there are character actors.  The movie stars are (mostly) glamorous people who make careers out of playing their glamorous selves while character actors spend their time blending into their roles.  There are always exceptions like Robert De Niro, who has the heart of a character actor but the profile of a movie star.  Exceptions going the other way are a bit rarer but they exist, someone like Joe Pesci for example certainly gets character actor roles but he plays with a consistent persona throughout his career.  I’d pose that Michael Cera is one such actor who has basically held the same “you know what you’re getting” persona, while hardly being what you’d call a movie star.  Simply put, Cera is typecast and I don’t really see him ever playing anything other than a socially awkward teenager.  His latest effort, Youth in Revolt, is apparently based on a book but it certainly feels like it was written to be a vehicle for Cera’s established persona.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a good-hearted sixteen year old who is (unsurprisingly for a Cera role) awkward around women.  Twisp reads a lot and tends to speak like a character from some kind of classic novel.  Twisp lives with his divorced mother (Jean Smart) and her shady boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) in Oakland.  After the boyfriend rips off a group of angry sailors, the family decides to lay low in an RV park called Clear Lake.  While on this little vacation Twisp meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a beautiful girl who seems to be his intellectual equal and after a meet-cute Twisp feels like he has a shot at her.  He has two obstacles however: another suitor named Trent Preston (Jonathan Bradford Wright) and Sheeni’s fanatical Christian parents who have decided that Twisp is some kind of heretic.  Eventually Twisp needs to return to Oakland but he really wants to be in Clear Lake with Sheeni.  The two hatch a plot: Sheeni will get Twisp’s biological father (Steve Buscemi) a job in clear lake and Twisp will perform destructive acts of rebellion in order to be sent to live with him.  However, Twisp doesn’t exactly take naturally to rebellion so he forms an alter ego named François Dillinger to help him raise hell, and it only gets crazier from there.

I had a lot to be weary of going into this movie; it had every sign of being an obnoxious “indie” quirkfest, one of many to emerge in the wake of Wes Anderson (Nick Twisp bears more than a few similarities to Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer), and the gratuitously claymation title sequence seemed to confirm my fears.  The first fifteen minutes were kind of hard to get through but as I watched I found that a lot of the movie’s quirks (with the definite exception of the animated transitions) felt a bit more natural here than they do in other similar films.  This is largely because the film was so refreshingly non-formulaic in the way that the story played out.  Twisp’s picaresque journey does not conform neatly to the beats of average romantic comedies, rather than simply watching a relationship play out and fall apart, we’re given a fairly strange odyssey to find rather than necessarily court the love interest.

Quirky side characters played by interesting actors like Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Adhir Kalyan, and Justin Long are introduced and function as characters for nice little chunks before disappearing right in time to not overstay their welcome.  I also found the movie reasonably funny at times.  I mentioned earlier that I’m getting sick of Cera, but there is definite amusement to be found in the way he plays with his established persona here.  Seeing him interact with his alter ego (who isn’t really all that more intimidating than the regular ego) definitely made me giggle a handful of times.

This is not to say that I recommend the film without a handful of reservations.  The movie really isn’t as smart as it thinks it is and it’s very misguided in the way it’s made.  At its heart I don’t think this has anything particularly interesting to say about youthful rebellion (or anything else for that matter), and the main character is often a selfish dope without the charm to really carry a movie.  That said, in an indie-scene filled with artificially “quirkified” mainstream films like (500) Days of Summer, it was nice to see these techniques applied to something that was genuinely quirky to begin with.

*** out of Four

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Splice(6/4/2010)

6-4-2010Splice

Modern horror films aren’t devoid of good ideas, but it sure seems like it sometimes.  Aside from maybe Romantic Comedy, there are few genres that seem to get away with churning out movie after movie that doesn’t even pretend that it isn’t a carbon copy of other movies in the same genre.  Whenever something remotely original does happen in the genre it will immediately be followed by a dozen blatant rip-offs: The Exorcist was followed by a bevy of Religious horror movies, Halloween was followed by dozens if not hundreds of movies about Co-Eds being stalked by killers, The Ring was followed by dozens of J-Horror remakes, and Saw was followed by a bunch of other “torture-porn” films.  It probably wouldn’t be entirely fair to cite originality as the main virtue of the new thriller Splice, as it is derivative of David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly, but it doesn’t feel like a cash-grab ripoff either.  Instead it feels like a genuinely ambitious attempt to use the horror and science fiction genre for something greater than simply making the easily frightened teenage girls in its audience jump at loud noises

Set in a not-to-distant future, Splice follows a pair of young biologists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who are partners in science and lovers. The two are working in the field of genetic engineering and their latest breakthrough is a pair of cloned animals that have been created by splicing together the genes of a number of animals.  Their company is satisfied with the creations and want to use it to harvest an important genome, but the two scientists are not satisfied.  They know they can make further breakthroughs if they add human DNA to their hybrid formula, but their boss (Simona Maicanescu) balks at the notion.  This does not deter the two scientists, who decide to secretly form the DNA hybrid.  They initially plan to simply freeze the concoction in a test tube, but in the heat of the moment they instead decide to fertilize an embryo with it.  To their shock the unborn creature, which they’ll come to call Dren, grows very fast and soon outgrows its incubator.

The hybrid monster, Dren, is a pretty interesting creation.  Played by a French performance artist named Delphine Chanéac, Dren looks like a bald woman with strange eyes, reversed legs and a tail with a stinger.  The film does not specify the exact concoction of animals used in its creation, but it shows signs of bird, reptile, amphibian, and non-human mammal DNA, but it is also a very human creature.  Dren looks like a pretty realistic creature, and while some questionable CGI is needed to bring it to life as an infant, the filmmakers have mostly relied on very effective makeup effects to render its later stages of life.  From a scientific perspective, there are aspects of the creature that seem a bit more plausible than others.  The fact that Dren ages particularly fast seems to have less to do with science than it does with moving the story along faster, and the way that some of the creatures animalistic traits emerge by surprise at key moments doesn’t seem wildly plausible either, but the movie makes up for this by having a fairly realistic design for Dren in the first place.

More interesting than the creature itself is the way that the two young scientists react to it.  Elsa is the one who was most instrumental in the creation of Dren and she attaches herself to it much quicker.  There’s a clear surrogate parenthood between Elsa and Dren, while her partner Clive is initially quite freaked out by their invention.  Elsa treats Dren like a daughter, clothing it in a frilly dress and tries to teach it to read and behave a rather chilling image in its own way when you consider that this is a creature with a stinger-clad tail.  There is however an interesting reversal in parental sentiments later in the film, and that’s before the film starts to enter some surprisingly Freudian territory in its third act.

The movie is being advertised as a conventional monster movie, and this might lead audiences to expect something a bit different than what they’ll actually be getting.  The creature in this movie is not really hostile for most of the movie’s runtime and when more conventional horror thrills emerge during the last fifteen minutes it really isn’t the film’s finest moment.  The scares here are really more cerebral, with the sight of this unholy creation being generally unsettling regardless of what it’s doing.  This will probably make the movie unappealing to those looking for a few easy scares with a date over the weekend, but the movie will offer many rewards to those looking for something more ambitious out of their horror films.  We’re currently in the doldrums of summer and an authentic, though accessible, movie like this is a valuable commodity during times like these.

***1/2 out of Four