The Films of Vincenzo Natali
Cube (January 22/13)
Vincenzo Natali's directorial debut, Cube follows several strangers, including Maurice Dean Wint's Quentin, David Hewlett's Worth, and Nicole de Boer's Leaven, as they find themselves confined to a series of seemingly identical rooms (some of which contain deadly traps) - with the movie subsequently detailing the dwindling survivors' efforts at escaping from the maze. There's little doubt that Cube gets off to an impressively engrossing start, as Natali kicks the proceedings off with a grisly sequence detailing a hapless victim's (Julian Richings' Alderson) encounter with one of the Cube's aforementioned traps. It's a solid introduction that paves the way for a sporadically captivating yet decidedly uneven narrative, with the rather limited nature of the film's premise - the entire thing does, after all, transpire within a series of identical-looking rooms - resulting in a hit-and-miss feel that is, fortunately, more hit than miss. The inclusion of several absolutely spellbinding stretches - eg the survivors attempt to cross a trap-laden room without making a sound - goes a long way towards sustaining one's interest through the erratic midsection, although, by that same token, there's little doubt that the film does begin to palpably run out of steam as it crosses the one-hour mark. It's clear, too, that the decision to offer up a human villain smacks of desperation and needlessness, as the Cube itself is menacing enough to ensure that said villain's exploits can't help but come off as a lamentable distraction (ie his presence is seemingly a result of Natali's need to pad out the running time). The movie rebounds nicely for an impressively enthralling final stretch, however, which ultimately does cement Cube's place as an inventive (if inconsistent) bit of sci-fi fun.
Cypher (July 26/05)
That Cypher is only being released now, two years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, doesn't come as much of a surprise, given its confounding storyline (there's no doubt the folks at Miramax were baffled at how to market the film). To label Cypher as inaccessible isn't much of a stretch, and it seems clear that viewers looking for a mindlessly engaging thriller are going to be sorely disappointed (and extremely confused). The film's storyline, revolving around nondescript businessman Morgan Sullivan (played by Jeremy Northam) and his efforts to survive as a corporate spy, is almost impossible to follow for at least half an hour, but director Vincenzo Natali keeps things interesting by employing a distinct, visually arrested sense of style. Along with cinematographer Derek Rogers, Natali uses a variety of off-kilter camera tricks to mirror Sullivan's increasingly paranoid frame of mind - something that's cemented by Michael Andrews' odd yet effective score. But the film never quite takes off, primarily because Brian King's screenplay - although intriguing - is so complicated that the viewer is constantly trying to catch up (as a result, it becomes more and more difficult to get into the movie as it progresses).
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Splice (May 5/10)
Vincenzo Natali's first feature since 2003's quirky yet underwhelming Nothing, Splice follows genetic researchers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) as they surreptitiously create a new organism that contains both animal and human DNA - with the resulting creature, named Dren by Elsa, inevitably transforming from Clive and Elsa's surrogate child to a far more malevolent force. It's a relatively familiar premise that's utilized to engaging and consistently surprising effect by Natali, as the filmmaker - along with fellow screenwriters Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor - perpetuates the off-kilter atmosphere with a number of startling shifts in tone that effectively stymie the viewer's expectations on an impressively consistent basis (ie the movie is far from the balls-out horror effort promised by its promotional materials). It's only as Splice moves into its progressively conventional third act that one's interest begins to wane, with the movie's downward spiral triggered by a misguided and thoroughly difficult-to-swallow turnabout for one of the central characters (ie this person does something that's hardly in keeping with their otherwise pacifistic nature). Likewise, Natali's heavy-handed emphasis on the narrative's domestic elements ultimately bogs down the movie's already-cluttered final 20 minutes. Still, as a sci-fi thriller filtered through an art-house lens, Splice certainly succeeds in bringing a fresh perspective to a well-worn genre and it's finally relatively easy to overlook the film's smattering of underwhelming attributes.
Haunter follows morose teenager Lisa (Abigail Breslin) as she comes to the realization that she and her family are (and have been for quite some time) actually dead, with the movie detailing Lisa's efforts at convincing the others of their ghostly state and, eventually, solving a crime involving a mysterious evil spirit. It's ultimately clear that Haunter fares best in its opening half hour, as the movie, directed by Vincenzo Natali and scripted by Brian King, effectively puts a fresh spin on a decidedly familiar subject matter - with the engrossing atmosphere heightened by Natali's stylish visuals and a string of engaging performances. (Haunter does, after all, boast an eclectic - and very Canadian - supporting cast that includes David Hewlett, Peter Outerbridge, and Stephen McHattie.) It's only as the movie progresses into its uncomfortably stagnant midsection that one's interest begins to wane, as Natali, seemingly stifled by King's claustrophobic screenplay, slowly-but-surely transforms Haunter into an oppressively theatrical and aggressively off-kilter piece of work. The continuing emphasis on Lisa's investigation into what happened within the house proves disastrous, and there's little doubt that the film, as a result, grows more and more repetitive in the buildup to its thoroughly anticlimactic finale (ie none of this is the slightest bit interesting, ultimately). The end result is Natali's weakest film since 2003's Nothing, which is a shame, for sure, given the strength of both the setup and the performances (Breslin is especially good here, certainly).