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Just when I hoped M. Night Shyamalan might be getting on a hot streak, here comes Glass, proving he’s still a stylish—yet sloppy—self-indulgent kook.

After one bomb after another during a 15-year stretch, Shyamalan showed us he was still capable of good cinematic things with Split, a 2017 a showcase for multiple personalities by James McAvoy and a creepy little thriller thanks to Shyamalan’s surprisingly deft direction. An after-credits scene showed us Bruce Willis as David Dunn, his super-humanly strong Unbreakable character, and the possibilities became very intriguing.

The director then announced his intention to make Glass, saying that Split was, in fact, the second part of what would be a trilogy. Glass would bring back the brittle-boned character of that name played by Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable, along with Willis and the newly introduced McAvoy character(s). OK, sounds good. Let’s go!

Well … shit. The new year has its first legitimate clunker.

Shyamalan is up to his old tricks again, turning in the kind of loopy, half-assed filmmaking that made the world scratch its collective head with The Happening, The Village, The Last Airbender, After Earth and Lady in the Water, all wretched stink-bombs. He has a remarkable ability to somehow employ writing that’s lazy and overambitious at the same time. He puts a lot in play with Glass, but he doesn’t seem to have an idea where to take it. Plot holes abound; there are so many that it’s hard to keep track of them.

First, he finds a way—an incredibly inane way—to get the gang together in some sort of mental institution where they are being studied by a too-nice-to-be-trusted doctor (Sarah Paulson). Then McAvoy gets a chance to do his switching-personality shtick for a good chunk of the movie while Willis virtually disappears, and Jackson’s Glass sits in a catatonic state.

Toward the end of the movie, the Shyamalan script starts rambling about the origins of comic books, asking, what do they really mean? He fixates on this like anybody really gives a crap, and the action dwindles away, replaced by the dopiest dialogue this side of a Fifty Shades movie. Shyamalan shamelessly teases a big showdown atop Philadelphia skyscrapers between McAvoy’s Beast and Willis’ strong guy. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know you are bored right now, but there’s a Kong vs. Godzilla-type showdown coming! Sit tight, you fidgety little buggers!”

Alas, the budget doesn’t really allow for that sort of CGI smackdown, so all we get is a fist fight on the hospital lawn—a very drawn out and uninteresting first fight. If anything, I am understating things when I tell you the fates of these characters are handled in a flippant, underwhelming, downright-awful way. Shyamalan takes a chance to do something worthwhile in the universe he created, but instead, he opts for blathering idiocy and preachy nonsense.

Anya Taylor-Joy, so good in Split, is reduced to a role that has her, for some nutty reasons, having sympathetic, huggy conversations with the dude who almost ate her. Spencer Treat Clark returns as Joseph Dunn, David’s now-grown son; he’s actually grown into a fairly competent actor … who is given next to nothing worthwhile to do.

Nothing makes sense in this mess, and Shyamalan takes all of the blame. Yes, Glass has the standard Shyamalan big twists in it, and they do nothing to substantiate the story or shock you in that good, Sixth Sense sort of way. He springs the so-called surprise on you, and you are left wondering, “Oh … wait … really? That’s it?”

I distinctly remember that “WTF?” feeling that hit me when Unbreakable abruptly ended with that dopey freeze frame. It felt like Shyamalan had completely betrayed his audience with a lame stunt. Well, that’s how I felt during most of Glass: I’d been duped again by M. Night.

Glass is now showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The key to M. Night Shyamalan’s recent success seems to be a limit on the amount of money he’s allowed to throw around.

After working with sizable budgets on big projects like The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening, Lady in the Water and The Village—all of which sucked major ass—Shyamalan almost made a good movie for $5 million with The Visit.

Now he’s finally made his first good movie since Signs back in 2002 with Split, a down-to-the-basics, creepy thriller propelled by excellent performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. The film—with a $10 million budget, according to IMDb—reminds us that Shyamalan can be quite the capable director (and writer) when he isn’t getting too carried away.

Taylor-Joy, so good in recent horror masterpiece The Witch, plays Casey, an introverted, outcast high school student attending a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) simply because she got a “mercy invite.” Casey’s stuck after the party, so Claire’s dad offers her and another friend, Marcia (Jessica Sula), a ride home. That ride never gets out of the parking lot, because a strange, angry man (McAvoy) winds up in the driver’s seat and sprays the girls with a chemical. They wake up together in a prison cell.

McAvoy’s character, as you know from all the trailers and previews, is suffering from a form of split-personality disorder. In addition to the man who kidnaps them, he’s a stately, mannered woman; a 9-year-old child; and several others. One of those others plays a big part in making this film more than just a psychological thriller.

McAvoy is bone-chillingly good here, seamlessly segueing into each personality, and giving each one an original vocal and physical spin. In ways, this plays out like a modern-day Psycho, with a few more personalities thrown in, and without the shower scene.

While in the Hedwig persona, McAvoy has a memorable dance scene—a welcome funny break in the movie. McAvoy even saves what could have been a hokey finale by delivering his final major monologue with such ferocity that we buy into it. McAvoy’s great work here has a place alongside Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Kathy Bates in Misery.

The last act of the movie, when Shyamalan takes things into strange monster-movie territory, is truly scary. I won’t give away any secrets; go see the movie, and have some fun with it. Well, “fun” might not be the right word. It’s pretty freaking bleak.

Taylor-Joy is becoming a new kind of “scream queen.” She has an amazing array of expressions, and Shyamalan takes advantage of this. Rather than shrieking her face off as the terrorized often do in horror movies, Taylor-Joy is a restrained, conflicted kind of horrified. What she lacks in volume, she makes up for in major intensity.

Following up her terrific performance in The Edge of Seventeen, Richardson takes the normally vain “popular” character in horror films and gives her a lot of depth and smarts. Betty Buckley does well as a therapist (basically this film’s Dr. Loomis, although less crazed) trying to help the McAvoy characters handle their afflictions. Shyamalan himself shows up for a fun cameo, and stick around for the credits, which include a powerful Easter egg.

Given his current trajectory, Shyamalan could be one or two films away from giving us another masterpiece. Split is one of his best, and proof that we weren’t all crazy back when we figured he would do great things behind a camera.

Split is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Barry is the second film released in 2016 to depict a young Barack Obama—and it’s not nearly as good as the first (Southside With You).

Devon Terrell makes his screen debut as Barry (Barack) Obama, a young man introducing himself to New York City and Columbia University back in 1981. Director Vikram Gandhi shows the young Barry smoking a lot, drinking bad beer and sharing his weed. (We don’t actually see him smoking weed, although a friend takes one of his joints out of an ashtray.) The movie establishes Barry as a normal college kid trying to fit in.

One of the film’s main subplots is his romance with a fellow student named Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy). All this subplot does is make young Barry look like a total douchebag, as he leads on a perfectly nice girl who loved him, and leaves her stranded at a family wedding. It would be one thing if this girl actually existed, but she didn’t, so it seems a bit odd to make Obama the center of a complicated young-romance story that plays out in the most stereotypical of ways. Despite a good performance from Taylor-Joy, it’s also boring.

Blame Gandhi, who gives the movie a sleepy pace and no true sense of direction, for this film’s failure.

Barry is currently streaming on Netflix. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

While Luke Scott has definitely inherited some directing chops from his dad, Ridley, his feature-directing debut is hampered by a derivative script.

Morgan shows that Luke Scott knows how to produce some major visual flair (his dad is a producer, by the way) and has an ability to draw good performances from his cast—but the movie itself is a pastiche of other science-fiction and horror films, most notably his dad’s own Blade Runner.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an artificially created humanlike being. She’s only 5, but she looks like a teenager and has superior intellect and physical skills. She’s been genetically engineered to age quickly, and while she is basically a well-meaning entity, her behavioral wires get a little crossed up sometimes—resulting in violent “errors.”

Morgan goes ape shit when she’s not allowed outside. This results in Dr. Kathy Grieff, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, being on pain meds for the whole movie while she wears bloody gauze on one eye. The “corporation” that helped create Morgan sends out an icy company woman, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess the matter and recommend a course of action regarding Morgan.

The setting for the film is visually pleasing; it’s an underground laboratory in the middle of a pine forest. This setting also gives the film a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (minus the snow). Morgan is always monitored through a glass wall and video cameras (shades of Ex Machina).

Giving another great 2016 performance (after The Witch), Taylor-Joy gives Morgan some dimension. Dressed in a grey hoodie and sporting a silvery skin tone that makes her look like a skater girl with terrible makeup skills, Taylor-Joy rises well above the conventionality of the role. She delivers a tragic android who probably would’ve led an interesting life had her personality dials been turned down just a tad.

Mara’s presence always feels a little off, something that the story eventually explains in a fashion that isn’t as shocking as screenwriter Seth W. Owen wants it to be. Paul Giamatti shows up as a behavior therapist who intentionally pushes Morgan’s buttons during a personality test. His fate is rather easy to predict.

The cast is peppered with a few more greats, including Toby Jones as the lead scientist who has a big, unnatural attachment to his creation. Michelle Yeoh also shows up as another scientist and Morgan’s mother figure, while the aforementioned Leigh has a few scenes that she imbibes with her usual reliability.

It all looks good thanks to stellar work from cinematographer Mark Patten, who worked in the “camera department” while not leading the shoot for Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s an impressive debut for Patten, while Max Richter provides an excellent soundtrack.

These good performances, great visuals and slick sounds make it more of a bummer that the movie feels a bit stale. I, for one, was not at all happy with the payoff—a big twist that felt completely unnecessary and cheap. Had the movie wrapped up on a more original note, it could’ve been decent-enough genre fare.

Morgan is a near-miss. A few too many scenes play out in a way that will have you correctly guessing what happens next. Scott will be constructing a scene with major tension, but then it will fall flat due to that predictability. It does continue the promising career of Taylor-Joy, who almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. She’s not done with horror films; she will headline the scary looking Split from the mildly resurgent M. Night Shyamalan next year.

As for Luke Scott, he’s a director worth watching. Daddy just needs to find his boy a better script to play with the next time out.

Morgan is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Critics got all excited about The Witch, focusing on a New England family leaving a 17th century settlement to live in the woods on their own. We tend to perk up when movies are nearly perfect.

As for mass audiences, not only did they stay away; I saw some pissed-off, freaked-out people walking out during screenings.

Now that The Witch is out on Blu-ray and available to stream, you’ll get a new chance to be spooked by strange goats, creepy kids, way-too-religious parents and baby-mulching ghosts.

In what stands as the performance of the year thus far, Anya Taylor-Joy is terrific as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of William and Katherine (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie). She and her four siblings—eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a pair of boy and girl twins, and a toddler boy—are making do in their new surroundings.

Not even 10 minutes into the movie, Thomasin loses the toddler during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. Thing is, the toddler was only a couple of feet from her face when he disappeared. This would be where that unrelenting terror I mentioned before kicks in.

Writer-director Robert Eggers gives a major shit about the details, making the costuming, props and surrounding landscapes look totally authentic. All of the performers do great work with accents, and the cinematography—done mostly with natural lighting—sets the mood.

There’s a witch in this movie, and she shows up early. She’s not a good witch at all. There are other witches, too. You will meet them along the way. You won’t like them.

Taylor-Joy, in her first major film role, delivers a breakthrough performance that will surely take her career to new levels. Scrimshaw has a possession scene that will go down in the books as one of the best since Linda Blair barfed pea soup in The Exorcist.

The movie is open to many different interpretations. My personal interpretation is as disturbing as movie interpretations get. This Eggers fellow definitely has a screw loose, and we horror fans are benefiting from it.

Special Features: There’s a brief making-of, and a question-and-answer panel after a screening featuring Eggers and Taylor-Joy (whose actual speaking voice is quite surprising). You also get a commentary with Eggers, who isn’t afraid to tell you about his dissatisfaction with particular shots and edits.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Remember how let down you felt when The Blair Witch Project never even showed a witch? Remember how you never really saw anything scary in the film, unless you count Heather Donahue’s snot and twigs as really scary?

The Witch, the Sundance Film Festival-award-winning directorial debut from Robert Eggers (who also wrote the script), actually has a witch in it. She makes her first appearance early on in the film, and she’s doing a bad thing—a really, horribly disturbing, oh-that’s-how-this-movie-is-really-going-to-start?! bad thing.

Set in 1630s New England, with an exceptional attention to detail, this masterpiece offers various ways to interpret its events and themes. Eggers has made a horror movie with some major meat on the bones that stands among such classics as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

Oh lordy, is this film creepy. The sense of dread kicks in immediately after William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from his New England settlement for getting a little too over-the-top with his religious beliefs. He and his family—his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie); their little baby; their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw); and creepy twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), must head out into the forests and fields to make a life away from government and society.

The family has a lot of issues. William leans a little too hard on the Bible stuff, as does Katherine. Caleb is clearly going through puberty, and stares at sister Thomasin’s boobs in a way that surely would get him put in a time out in Sunday school. Thomasin, a budding woman, is starting to think there’s more to life than listening to her dad spout religious psychobabble and milking goats all day. As for the twins, well, they’re just a couple of scary kids who scream and dance outside while allegedly talking to the family goat, Black Phillip.

Let me just get this out of the way right now: You will hate Black Phillip. Black Phillip will give goats everywhere a bad name. The next time you see one of those goats shouting like a human being in a YouTube video, it’ll hit you in a much different way.

Thomasin engages in a simple game of peek-a-boo with the toddler, and the witchery commences. The Witch takes place decades before the Salem witch trails, and the movie seems to be asking the question, “Say … what if all of that hysteria was based in truth?”

While Eggers’ film is not in any way historical, the setting does provide a deliciously nasty premise for an outrageous horror movie. His period details, including the excellent costuming and structures, suggest what the times might’ve been like. When you throw in witches drinking blood and shoving apples down kids’ throats, you get a scary vibe that is all too real.

There are many ways to interpret The Witch. Some will see it as a straightforward witch tail. Others might see it as an allegorical tale of religious zealotry and radicalization. And still others might chime in and say it’s about going through puberty with super-uptight parents.

All of the interpretations work—and that’s what makes the movie so much fun for those of us who like to spend days playing guessing games about movies we’ve seen. I’m still thinking about the significance of certain moments, who was actually doing all of the dirty deeds, etc. I’m also remembering how unsettling Mark Korven’s score is, and thinking Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography should get some Oscar consideration.

I’m definitely hung up on Black Phillip, that damned staring rabbit, and those twins screeching and dancing in the barnyard. Eggers knows what is freaky—and The Witch pulls no punches. It will leave you frightened by apples, rabbits, twins, goats, muskets, pilgrim hats, babies, milk and—oh yeah, witches.

The Witch is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews