Friday, January 20, 2017

Shyamalan Fans Will Probably Like SPLIT A Lot More Than Me

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

SPLIT (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

Ever since his big breakthrough, THE SIXTH SENSE back in 1999, I’ve been exceedingly mixed on the movies of M. Night Shyamalan. There’s some effective filmmaking there, but too often I’ve been reminded me of a sketch from The Ben Stiller Show back in the early ‘90s called “Bad Twist Ending Theater.”

Even what many people consider his best work like UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS have made me say “meh.”

I know many people feel the same way especially because the man’s name had become a joke in the last decade amid a string of critical and box office flops (LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH).

There were even many instances of audiences laughing or groaning (or both) at the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” during trailers for his films.

But now Shyamalan appears to be making a comeback with lower budgeted productions like last year’s sleeper hit THE VISIT, and now this new scaled down thriller, SPLIT, both of which are collaborations with horror mogul Jason Blum (the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, PURGE, and INSIDIOUS series).

SPLIT concerns three teenage girls - Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – being abducted by a psychopath named Kevin (James McAvoy). The kicker here is that Kevin has 23 different personalities so the girls, who have been locked by him in a room in a basement somewhere, have to learn how to talk with each one.

Well, at least seven of his personalities as McAvoy’s Kevin mostly embodies the personas of the girls’ OCD-afflicted captor Dennis, the well-mannered yet still sinister Patricia, the hip-hop loving 9-year-old boy Hedwig, and several other less dominant characters named Orwell, Jade, Norma, and Hamlet.

The girls, headed by Taylor-Joy’s Casey who is clearly the one most likely to get out alive, learn from Kevin’s that there is a 24th persona called “The Beast” which is soon to arrive.

Meanwhile, Kevin (or is it Dennis?) visits his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but denies that anything is going on when she suspects that his late night emails are cries for help. Dr. Fletcher specializes in dissociative identity disorder despite skepticism from the medical community (we see her participating in a video conference on Skype so that we can see how deep her knowledge of Kevin’s condition goes).

Casey tries to manipulate the innocent Hedwig so that the girls can make escape attempts, which result in them being separated in various rooms in what seems to be an abandoned mental institution with long hallways that lead to locked doors, endless boiler rooms, and supply closets.

Where it is that these girls is trapped is one of the film’s biggest mysteries, which I won’t spoil, but it completely keeps in line with the horror cliché that deranged killers often have access to a lot of property with seemingly endless square footage.

McAvoy is the major reason really to see this film as he gives a tour de force performance that serves each of this intensely creepy maniac’s multiple personalities. As the movie gets more and more convoluted in how it works elements of the supernatural into the mix, McAvoy never stops empowering a fearlessly unhinged presence. Never thought that suave, subdued Scottish dude in all those X-MEN movies could pull this sort of thing off.

However, the rest of the movie grew extremely tiresome in all of its tediously talky exposition (we get it, already! Kevin is two dozen completely different people all with different illnesses! Stop over explaining it!), the overused escape fake-outs, and predictable character arcs (Casey has flashbacks to a hunting trip with her father and a uncle who sexually abused her to, of course, inform us of the fire in her belly that will help her get out of this hellhole).

Taylor-Joy puts a lot of energy into her role as the film’s burgeoning heroine, so that’s another plus in its favor, but the movie is ultimately too transparent in its ambitions to be the truly terrifying experience it wants to be. That’s confirmed by its absurd ending (again, I won’t spoil), which has a very silly twist explanation (of course it does).

I also found Shyamalan’s visionary sense to be a bit sloppy – the film is plagued with badly framed shots, confusing cuts, and pacing that feels way off.

There is, however, a tag at the very end that I did like, and I bet the Shyamalan hardcore will adore. In fact, I predict that a lot of people will probably conclude that the final big reveal justifies the entire movie's existence. I can’t seriously say that I think that, but I confess that it was an exciting moment that made me rethink everything that had happened up to then.

And that’s a thing that even a non fan like me can concede – the guy’s no Hitchcock, but his work can often be masterful in the fine art of making moviegoers think twice.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

SILENCE Tests My Faith In Scorsese

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SILENCE (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

It is well documented that, in his childhood, Martin Scorsese attended a Roman Catholic seminary, and dreamed of being a priest.

Of course, he later chose making movies over practicing religion, but that didn’t mean that he ever abandoned his spiritual faith.

Religious themes and imagery appear in all of Scorsese’s films whether they’re in your face like Christ himself on the cross in his controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial novel, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, or subtly, like the tiny cross around Henry Hill’s neck in his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s “Wiseguys,” GOODFELLAS.

But in this, his adaptation of a book he read between making LAST TEMPTATION and GOODFELLAS, Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence,” Scorsese dives deeper into the questions that have plagued him his entire career: how far can or should one go to save his and/or others’ souls? How can we serve a God that allows such extreme suffering? What if we are praying to nothing at all?

Set in the early 17th century, SILENCE concerns Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two Jesuit priests, named Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who travel to Japan to find a former mentor of theirs, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after hearing that he renounced his religion to escape persecution.

This is during what was called the “shogun era” of Japan, in which Christianity was outlawed, and those captured practicing it were interrogated, tortured, and killed.

With the questionable help of an alcoholic guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), Sebastião and Francisco sail to the coastal town of Tomogi where they administer to the villagers.

The priests stay in hiding, nightly meeting with the Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), but they are found out and after having to endure witnessing some intense torture scenes that I’ll refrain from describing, they separate and the film follows Garfield’s Francisco while Driver’s Sebastião disappears for a large chunk of screen-time.

Francisco gets captured by Japanese authorities and is taken to Nagasaki to be interrogated by Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), an elder, sinisterly smirking Japanese official, via Inoue’s sleazily charismatic interpreter (Tadanobu Asano).

In captivity, Francisco is given a choice: either step on “fumi-e,” a plate that has an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary carved into it, to repudiate his faith, or they will torture and kill the other captives.

Neeson’s Ferreira, looking like a shamed version of the Jedi master he played in THE PHANTOM MENACE, even shows up to help Francisco make this difficult decision.

For most of its two hours and forty minute running time, SILENCE moves very slowly with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s camera staying very still for lengthy shots.

You’ll feel like you’re really out in the harsh, grayish green mountain terrain of Japan, waiting for something, anything, to happen through long passages of this often plodding narrative.

The hardcore Scorsese fan in me was scanning the screen with excitement during the first 20 minutes, but that lost momentum as the film did the same for roughly the next 40, then that fading enthusiasm got regularly jolted back into temporary immersion by various violent moments up until the end.

Garfield, who as he gets shaggier on his journey looks more and more like Jesus as the film progresses, puts in an invested performance, as do his cast-mates (Driver does a lot with a little), but it might be Kubozuka as the desperately conniving Kichijiro that gives the film the most energy.

This last year, Garfield also played another devout Christian in a historical drama whose belief system gets put to the test under extreme circumstances. That would be HACKSAW RIDGE, where he portrayed conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved many lives in World War II. I hate to say this, but HACKSAW RIDGE is a better, much more compelling film about conviction and sacrifice than SILENCE.

Obviously, I hate to say that because HACKSAW RIDGE was made by Mel Gibson, and this is, you know, f-in’ Scorsese!

Since this was a 30 year in the making passion project, I so wanted to love it, but there was a serious disconnect between the action and imagery on screen, which admirably is as straight forward as can be, without visual trickery or flashing editing; and my fully surrendering myself to the experience. That’s something I’ve been able to do with so many of Marty’s movies throughout my movie-loving life, but it just wasn’t happening here.

Then again, I’m still processing it so maybe one day I’ll see it differently. There have been a number of Scorsese films that get better with repeated viewings (like CAPE FEAR, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD), and those that I appreciate more (NEW YORK, NEW YORK, KUNDUN), as I get older, and wiser and all that crap.

But, you see, the reason I’m saying these kind of things, that is, making excuses for not liking a movie by one of my heroes, is because I’m a devout follower, who wants to believe that all of the man’s works are masterpieces – some blinding, some in hiding.

SILENCE is as much a test of Francisco’s faith as it is a test in my faith in Scorsese. I so want to believe his latest film is a masterpiece in hiding, and not the seemingly passionless project I suffered through, but I just can’t put that in a prayer yet.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES: A Cornball Crowd Pleaser That Is Inspirationally On Point

Now playing everywhere:

HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)

There are times in this film, currently the #1 movie at the box office (take that, ROGUE ONE!), that young moviegoers may feel like the filmmakers are comically stretching reality way too thin to make a point.

Like in the scenes that show mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) having to walk, and sometimes run, a half mile across the campus of Virginia’s Langley Research Center, to the “colored” ladies room several times a day during her long shifts.

But, as folks who know history will attest, this was the era of “separate but equal” segregation, and their framing of Ms. Johnson’s predicament is apt as it symbolizes how rough it was for many African Americans in the workplace.

There are other times when it seems that director/writer Theodore Melfi’s (ST. VINCENT) movie takes some liberties with some major moments as when astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell, portrayed as much as a dreamboat as possible) tells the team of engineers that he’ll be “good to go” on the launch of the rocket that officially put a man in space for the first time if they “get the girl to check the numbers” – referring to the aforementioned Ms. Johnson.

But according to transcripts of the event, that actually happened, and this film portrays it perfectly. There’s just no way around that being a feel-good, empowering moment in which we see how important the contributions of black women like Johnson, and her colleagues - Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – were to NASA, back when the space program mattered the most.

That would be the ‘60s, when the U.S. was in a space race with Russia to being the first to put a man on the moon. The story focuses most on Henson’s Johnson as she adjusts to being assigned to the Space Task Group headed by group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Costner’s Harrison is a stern by-the-book boss who doesn’t appears to have a racist bone in his body, but Johnson’s co-workers, especially NASA engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) all give her disgusted looks (it should be noted that Stafford didn’t exist; he’s an amalgam).

Things get worse when Johnson finds that her all-white office mates have labeled a small empty coffee pot “colored” for her.

Henson’s Johnson also gets a love interest in the form of Mahershala Ali, who’s really been making a name for himself lately in such worthy projects as Luke Cage and MOONLIGHT. Here Ali, as a smooth-talking military man, gets to join the movie’s male contingent in having to learn that the times are indeed a-changin,’ and they should never underestimate any woman’s abilities.

Meanwhile, Spencer’s overworked Vaughan, told repeatedly by her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) that she won’t be getting a promotion, learns the programming language needed to program the new IBM computer which leads to her being made NASA’s first black supervisor.

The third lead, Mary Jackson as played by musician/model Monáe in her first starring role in a major motion picture, may not get the lion’s share of screen-time, but makes the sassy best of her storyline involving sweet talking a judge into letting her take classes at an all-white school so that she can get a degree in Engineering and become NASA’s first black female engineer.

Many critics have called HIDDEN FIGURES: “THE HELP meets THE RIGHT STUFF,” and, yeah, that’s valid. There is certainly a lot of cheesy, made-for-TV-style packaging surrounding this unapologetically inspirational history lesson, but at no times does that diminish the film’s earnest tone and heartfelt spirit.

Henson, best known as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, owns her role as the central protagonist as she holds her own with Costner, who’s right at home here as he’s been in a bunch of movies set during this era, and Parsons, whose character is like a racist Sheldon Cooper without any snarky one-liners.

Spencer gets the film’s maybe funniest and most on point moment in a bathroom scene where has a supremely cutting comeback to Dunst as her superior. I won’t spoil it, but will say it really riled up the audience at the advance screening I attended.

It’s a big cornball crowd-pleaser for sure, but HIDDEN FIGURES earns its place as a piece of primo entertainment with an important message. That being, if, as a people, we can overcome assholish, bigoted oppression, we can reach the stars.

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