New on DVD and Blu-Ray: ‘Splice’ and ‘Agora’

Splice

One of the most disappointing films to witness this year was Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. This is not because it is a bad film, in fact, it is quite good. It’s just not good enough. The trailers made the film out to be a slasher film, but within the first ten or twenty minutes, it is obvious that it is really something more. For the first hour or so of the film maintains its momentum as a modern day retelling of Frankenstein, in all of its tragic glory. There are some wonderful moments and fascinating elements to this part of the film. I love the dynamic between Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody. They are believable nerds and still real people with a house. They do goofy things at the office and are cute together. But the real star of the show is Dren. She is not an antagonist. She is a tragic result of technology gone too far. All she wants is to fit in, but she can’t.

The film however, does not hold or even take advantage of its wonderful concept and it doesn’t ever do what the audience really wants to see: what happens if Dren were in a public place trying to fit in? The last third turns into the slasher film it was made out to be, except that it isn’t even good by slasher film standards and has one rather disturbing sex scene.

Despite our unanswered questions, the film is a solid rendition of a classic fable and has the boldness to deal with the controversial subject matter of cloning. This is an intelligent film. It just doesn’t execute its intelligence.

This isn’t a DVD I intend to go out and buy, but I would recommend taking a look at it and I probably will view it again sometime down the road. The features are pretty limited to a simple, formulaic director’s feature that actually clears up one question I had about the film: when was Dren computer animated and when was she real? It turns out they used two actors, a young girl and a woman in her twenties. The process of combining CGI with a real person worked wonders on the half human creature and the process is rather interesting.

Natali is an intriguing director and Splice is a real step forward for him. He is best known for writing and directing the first Cube film. Granted it is no cinematic masterpiece, it is a solid bit of entertainment that, like Splice, was actually somewhat thought-provoking. His work is very philosophical and original. Rotten Tomatoes informs me that he has another film that is simply called Nothing. Nothing apparently deals with the same plot as Cube only without the cubes, just nothing. Except for a turtle. I am mildly intrigued. But Splice was more than intriguing; it was a step into Sundance Film Festival, a chance to work with A-list actors, and a moderately successful mainstream film. I hope to see more from Natali in the future; maybe next time he will carry his momentum to the end of the film.

Agora

Alejandro Amenabar is another director that has exhibited much potential and taken a step in a new direction. Unfortunately, Amenabar’s step was in the opposite direction (at least in terms of commercial and critical success). Amenabar has previously been very successful with critically acclaimed films such as The Others and The Sea Inside, and now with Agora, he found little release at all and found critics baffled and split on what to make of his latest venture.

What should be made of his latest venture? It should be viewed and praised. Agora is not by any stretch, a masterpiece. But it is a bit of ambitious and original filmmaking that for the most part succeeds. Agora is the story of Hypatia (played convincingly by Rachel Weisz), a Roman scholar who also happens to be a woman that begins to question Christianity in favor of religion. Ultimately, she is a tragic figure, a scientific martyr of atheism. This is an agnostic’s Passion of the Christ.

The film is unique in that is isn’t trying to be an overly dramatic epic, hence it’s two hour run time and focus on a small scale story rather than a traditional battle of some sort. It is a human, intellectual story set in ancient Rome. Quite honestly I can’t compare it to anything in that respect.

The DVD renovation of Amenabar’s historical flick is given a significantly better treatment than Splice. The features here are in full swing. The director’s commentary is mesmerizing; there is a storyboard section, a glorious photo gallery, deleted scenes that are of actual consequence to the film, a director’s introduction to the film, and my personal favorite: a mini-documentary called “Journey to Alexandria.” Typically these mini-documentaries serve as little more than the bare minimum of a few shots of the director and all the actors saying in brief statements what a great experience working on the film was. But with Agora, the documentary actually explores the movie and the history of the legendary Hypatia. It really is an excellent release.

Oh yeah, and it looks great in blu-ray.

On the art of DVDs:

I am pretty anal about the look of my DVDs, although not enough so to actually affect my choice of purchase. Still, it is nice to have a collection the looks good. In artistic respects, neither Splice nor Agora fared very well. I pretty much always hated the poster advertisements for Splice. They are mostly close-ups of Dren without any real artistic or commercial value. The DVD art is even worse. It is a full body view of Dren that looks like it belongs on the cover of Vogue. It looks like model and the word Splice looks like a brand name. The combination looks more like a shampoo company than a psychological horror film.

Agora had a wonderful starting point, with a poster that captured the tone of the times and the scientific theme. The new art looks more like the overly-dramatic battle epic that the film is not. But, this art may be more commercial and may cause people to actually see the film. I certainly hope so. That would actually redeem the ridiculous close-up of a dagger and the hideous tagline: “A Holy War Becomes Hell on Earth.”

Other Ventures:

The awful remake of one of my personal horror favorites, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the apparently successful remake of The Karate Kid are both available to fill the void of the mainstream crave for rehashed ideas and unoriginal concepts.

The Exorcist is available on blu-ray alongside The Last of the Mohicans and Robocop. And finally, The Human Centipede is on DVD. Reportedly, “Second Sequence” will feature a twelve part centipede. I’m content to not see either.

Film Misery Recommends:

Check out Agora and Splice, keep your expectations low and be entertained, they’re worth a rent. The Karate Kid has its audience; if you are part of it, go for it. Otherwise avoid this week’s new stuff and catch up on The Exorcist as crisp and clear as you will ever see it.

I am currently revamping the DVD/blu-ray column. Tell me what you think about the new layout or what you would like to see in the future.

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  • Andrew R.

    I like the layout, although more detail on your opinions of The Exorcist for this time would have been nice.

    My opinion-best horror movie ever. Should’ve won Picture, Director, and S. Actress, deserved its nominations for Actress and S. Actor, and the technical nominations were deserved.

    The Best Picture nomination shows the Academy had balls, as the film was, as we all know, shocking. But I wish it had won Score. Tubular Bells is iconic.

  • Jose

    No mention of Beuty and the Beast Bly-Ray or Grindhouse Double feature?

    Layout is pretty cool by the way.

  • Excellent piece, Davin. I have not seen ‘Splice’ or ‘Agora’, but now I think I’m going to have to.

  • Thoughtful review of Agora. I particularly like the comment on the DVD extras. I saw Agora in NYC when it first came out and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. Amendabar distorted a little history, but that’s what artists do. For folks who would like to know more about the historic Hypatia I highly recommend a readable biography by Maria Dzielska titled “Hypatia of Alexandria” (Harvard University Press, 1995.) I also have a series of “reel vs. real” posts on my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com) that discusses the history behind the film.

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