Movie Review ~ Old

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village.  Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.  The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it. 

This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos.  Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016.  Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+). 

The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas.  Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.  Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists.  Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen.  For a while, Old even feels like something new.  Then…some tired tricks resurface.

Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in.  Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family.  At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week.  The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.

Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be.  There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach.  Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete.  Then…the first dead body is found.

In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught.  Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them.  Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.

It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation.  The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged.  That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.

To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is.  He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us.  It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from.  Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade.  There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go.  The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded.  I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.

I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone.  You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained.  He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it.  He thinks it’s better than what he promised.  You wish it were better than what you got.  That’s nothing new. 

Movie Review ~ Glass

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Security guard David Dunn uses his supernatural abilities to track Kevin Wendell Crumb, a disturbed man who has twenty-four personalities.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing that this is a spoiler-free zone I have to say up front that while you’re not going to get much in the way of big reveals when it comes to Glass, it’s impossible to talk about the movie at all if you haven’t seen the two films that came before.  So if you haven’t seen Unbreakable or Split and don’t want to know key plot points, now is the time to turn back.

We good?

Okay…let’s get on with it.

Director M. Night Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings that send the movie and audience into a tail spin right at the conclusion, calling into question everything we’ve been watching for the previous two hours.  At first, it was a fun parlor game to predict what he had up his sleeve until it became evident that the twist was both the most interesting thing about the film and its downfall.  At the end of Split, Shyamalan lobbed a soft curveball at us before the credits but then laid out a whopper when he brought back Bruce Willis’ character from Unbreakable for a brief scene that suggested the two movies had a common bond that would become evident in a future film.

With the unexpected success of Split (not to mention 2015’s scary romp The Visit) Shyamalan was able to parlay his renewed good standing in Hollywood and his hefty profits into capping off a trilogy supposedly always at the back of his brain.  That seems like a convenient way to pat yourself on the back in hindsight but, okay, let’s just go with the claim that Shyamalan always imagined he’d make Unbreakable, Split, and Glass as a trio of films that suggested real life superheroes and mega villains truly did walk among us.

So where did we leave off with the previous films?  At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn (Willis, Looper) had just accepted his developing powers that gave him the ability to see the bad deeds of others just by touch while his body proved to be indestructible.  At the same time, the mysterious Mr. Glass, (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) with a rare disorder that caused his bones to break with the greatest of ease, showed his true colors as a master criminal that orchestrated multiple catastrophic events in an attempt to find a man like Dunn to be his foe.  Shyamalan’s late-breaking twist gave way to an abysmal wrap-up via on screen text that did no one any favors.

The last time we saw Kevin, James McAvoy’s (Trance) disturbed Split character with dissociative identity disorder, he had transformed into a 24th personality known as The Beast.  Though his kidnapping victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The VVitch) managed to escape, The Beast has joined with the rest of the angrier personalities within Kevin to form The Horde and has continued to hunt young girls that are “unbroken”.  Casey’s recovery has included fleeing her abusive uncle, taking up residence with a foster family, and attending the same school as Dunn’s son, Joseph ( Spencer Treat Clark, The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

The movie begins with Dunn doling out vigilante justice as The Overseer in a very Michael Myers stalker-ish way, with his ultimate goal to hunt down The Horde and find a new batch of missing girls.  When Dunn and Kevin are captured by the ambitious Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave) and brought to a remote psychiatric hospital for testing, Dunn is reunited with Mr. Glass who has been waiting over a decade to initiate the next phase in his evil plan.

I wish I could say that Glass is the amped-up finale it’s being advertised as but sadly it’s a movie that coasts instead of soars.  While the first third of the film creates some genuine interest as we see the characters from previous films crossover, it quickly devolves into talky repetition that feels indulgent on several levels.  Shyamalan can’t quite get out of his own way where the crux of the story lies, falling into a black hole of superhero mythos he can’t adequately tie into the action onscreen.  The finale especially feels like a convergence of so many ideas that aren’t fully realized, making it all feel slightly half-baked and not as satisfying as I would have liked.

While I genuinely like all the actors in the movie, I struggle with praise for any of them here.  McAvoy has the showiest role…and he knows it.  Wheras in Split the shifts between Kevin’s multiple personalities seemed like an actor exercising considerable control in delineation of characters, in Glass we get to meet even more of the alters and that starts to trip up McAvoy early on.  With Shyamalan giving him far too much room to play, the performance feels overworked.  You’d be forgiven if you forget Willis is in the movie, he’s so low-key Paulson practically has to shake him awake in their scenes and he outright disappears for a long stretch in the middle section of the film.  Jackson seems to having more fun than the rest, if only Mr. Glass had been giving any new defining character trait in this film…but it’s just a repeat of work that’s been done 19 years ago.

This is all too bad because the film is rather well made thanks to thoughtfully constructed scenes by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.  Let it also never be said that Shyamalan doesn’t fill the screen with visual clues for audiences to pick up on along the way.  Even working with a smaller budget, Shyamalan has stretched his coin with intelligence, spending the money on important visual effects and keeping the location shooting to a minimum.  What they didn’t spend money on?  A decent make-up artist.  Poor Charlayne Woodard looks like she’s melting under her old-age make-up as Jackson’s mother – we never forget the actress is five years younger than that actor playing her son.

As with most Shyamalan films, the filmmaker rounds out Glass with a coda to send audiences out with more to think about and I have to give some credit to the director for finding a way to get us back in his corner right at the very end.  It’s not quite enough to make the movie a true success but it doesn’t shatter the film experience completely.

Movie Review ~ Split

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I hate to say it, but M. Night Shyamalan brought it all on himself.  With a succession of movies, the writer/director (producer, cameo, etc.) introduced sophisticated ideas wrapped in a mystery to less and less fanfare.  Known more for his twist endings than the sum total of his accomplishments, the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs began to lose himself in the inner-workings of his storytelling. Sacrificing plot, good dialogue, and characterization for that one moment, “the twist”, that would entice an audience into sticking with the film despite the absurdity of it all, it wasn’t long before Shyamalan’s name stopped being the selling point and instead became an Achilles Heel.

Laying low for a few years and producing the occasional movie or TV show, Shyamalan emerged from the shadows with 2015’s The Visit, a tight little scare fest made for a small fee which wound up doing surprisingly good business.  Showing he wasn’t entirely beholden to his twist endings (though that film did have one), good will led Shyamalan back into the conversation and it felt as if his second act in Hollywood had begun.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Shyamalan’s Split, and to keep spoilers squashed I won’t tell you much, is to do your best to go in without thinking of this as the horror film its being falsely marketed as.  True, the film boasts a few nerve jangling moments and an overall sense of dread usually reserved for films with a high body count, but I made the mistake of expecting a thrill ride when in reality Split is more like an uncomfortable Sunday drive.

A trio of girls celebrating a birthday at a local mall are abducted in the parking lot and held captive in an underground compound by a man (James McAvoy, Trance) with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  While two of the girls (Jessica Sula & Haley Lu Richardson, both largely forgettable) plot a way of escape, the third (Anya Taylor Joy, Morgan & The Witch) takes a different approach, recognizing their captor could be manipulated depending on which of his 23 personalities they are talking to.  Time is running out, though, for several of the identities talk of a 24th personality, The Beast, that’s “on the move.”  Meanwhile, the man’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, Carrie), disturbed by a concerning change in demeanor for her patient, attempts to lure out the new personality that’s been causing trouble.

To me there are two short films going on here with overlapping ideas that Shyamalan couldn’t quite stretch to feature length.  The first is the kidnapping plot with its increasingly desperate attempts at escape from the teenagers and the second is a film centered on the psychiatrist exploring the inner workings of DID.  Both have some value and are staged nicely by Shyamalan with tight close-ups that give the film a claustrophobic feeling but to really take on discussions of mental illness Split needed to choose which story to tell and it never can decide.

Taylor Joy’s saucer-eyes look great in a Shyamalan close-up and the actress keeps a sense of mystery along the way that’s as interesting as it is slightly creepy.  Through flashbacks we see her as a child spending time with her father and uncle; there’s something off about these memories and as the film progresses, we begin to see why.  Shyamalan throws a lot of unspoken feelings at Taylor Joy and asks her to fill in the blanks which she winds up conveying quite convincingly.

Surprisingly, it’s Buckley that nearly steals the show…though considering her storied history on stage and screen it’s not that surprising at all.  Her therapy sessions with McAvoy’s character(s) give the film it’s most crackling edge and I kept wondering if these intimately crafted scenes hadn’t originally been written for the stage.  Buckley doesn’t appear on screen as often as she should but her performance here makes you wish she would.

At the end of the day, though, this is McAvoy’s picture and he walks away with the whole kit and caboodle.  There’s such a very fine line between honest and camp when it comes to playing a character with multiple personalities but McAvoy approaches each with a level of dignity and respect.  True, there are some moments McAvoy got too actor-y for my taste but overall it’s a dynamic, full-bodied performance that goes far beyond simply changing his voice or how he holds himself.  With each new personality introduced, McAvoy seems to change appearance entirely which makes the impending arrival of the feared 24th identity even  more ominous.

Audiences familiar with Shyamalan have been well trained to prepare for a twist but my advice would be not to look too hard.  There are a few late-breaking turns that won’t come as a total surprise and one big shocker at the end you’re either going to love or hate (the audience at mine was an audible mixture of both) but Split is less concerned with fooling its audience and more interested in bringing them into the mind of trauma victims coping with their past in the present.  It’s not an entirely successful film (and at nearly two hours, a too long one at that) but it’s stuck with me just like Shyamalan’s earlier work did.

The Silver Bullet ~ Split

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Synopsis: Kevin, a man with at least 23 different personalities, is compelled to abduct three teenage girls. As they are held captive, a final personality – “The Beast” – begins to materialize.

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Thoughts: There was a time when the presence of director M. Night Shyamalan’s name on a poster or movie trailer would elicit a little shiver down your spine. Then came a string of overstuffed, self-serving duds that found his name removed from all marketing materials in order to not tip off audiences he was involved. Then along came the surprisingly strong (and scary!) The Visit in 2015 and Shyamalan got some of that clout back…and I’m hoping that Split continues the Shyamalan-aissance. The latest thriller with a twist finds James McAvoy (Trance) with multiple personalities holding three girls hostage and there’s some nice potential here for some spooky scenery chewing. With January no longer that foreboding dumping ground for useless films that it once was, could Split ring in the New Year with a yelp?

Movie Review ~ The Visit (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.

Stars: Kathryn Hahn, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Olivia DeJonge

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I remember seeing the preview for 2006’s Lady in the Water and when director M. Night Shyamalan’s name appeared the entire audience squealed with terrified delight.  By that time, Shyamalan had become synonymous with twist endings and scary tales more interested in the human side of horror than blood and guts.  After The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village Shyamalan was riding high but he’d wind up drowning with Lady in the Water, a self-serving bit of poppycock that felt more like an ego trip than a fully formed movie (Shyamalan wrote, directed, and had a significant role in the film…an ill-advised move).

It was all downhill from there as Shyamalan followed up Lady in the Water with his first R-rated flick, the hysterically terrible The Happening in 2008 featuring a too-serious Mark Wahlberg having a conversation with a plastic plant he thought was out to do him and his family harm (!).  Things only got worse with 2010’s The Last Airbender before he hit rock bottom in 2013 with After Earth, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, two actors with possibly even bigger egos than Shyamalan.  In the span of several years, Shyamalan’s name went from being the top selling point of a movie to a moniker that spelled box office poison.

I’m not sure what happened in the last few years but Shyamalan must have taken a long hard look at his career and made some changes for the better.  He scored as the producer and occasional director of Fox’s eerie mystery show Wayward Pines and he’s back in top form with The Visit, a keep-the-lights-on at night thrill ride that could have gone very wrong but winds up hitting (almost) all the right notes.

I must admit that when I heard The Visit was a found footage film my heart sank a bit for Shyamalan…what was he doing tapping into the genre that has two feet, hips, and a chest already in the ground (see the wretched The Gallows if you don’t believe me)? While I still marvel at the fact that even in moments of high horror the person holding the camera manages not only to keep a hold of the device but also frame things like a recent film school grad, I have to say that Shyamalan makes good use of the found footage angle and finds a few new ways to exploit the trope.

Opening with Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) nervously sending her kids off to her estranged parents’ house for a week, Shyamalan offers just enough back story to push off from, choosing not to linger too much in history.  We know that Hahn’s single-mom hasn’t seen her parents in 15 years and her two children have never met them.  They’ve tracked her down and want to meet their grandchildren and, as a way to make-up for her behavior when she left home, she agrees.

That’s fine and dandy for her kids Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day) because they want their mom to spend time with her new boyfriend and also to help build a bridge between the grandparents they’ve never known and their mom who carries a heavy burden of guilt that she won’t speak about.  It’s nice to report that DeJonge and Oxenbould are not only good child actors but that Shyamalan didn’t sketch them in the typical annoying kid kinda way…these are normal, decent kids with big hearts.

Arriving in a rural Pennsylvania town, they’re greeted by Nana (Deanna Dunagan, excellent) and Pop-Pop (character actor Peter McRobbie) and aside from some awkward first meeting jitters, all are soon settled in a quaint farmhouse near a frozen lake.  Nana makes good meals and Pop-Pop seems interested in the kids and what their life has been like.  It all goes swimmingly until…well, things get weird.

Over the next several days and nights red flags start to pop up that give the siblings cause for some concern.  I have to be careful what I say because the last 2/3 of the movie is full of spoiler-heavy turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out what exactly is so off about the grandparents. The “big twist” that Shyamalan is so well-known for is fairly easy to predict, but even if I did have some notion of how it was all going to turn out Shyamalan throws in interesting curveballs that throw you off along the way.

And did I mention it’s scary?  Like, legitimately scary.  I’ll easily jump as much as the next person if there’s a jolt of loud music or something leaps out at you, but Shyamalan has cleverly crafted sequences with the kind of sustained scares rare to not only the found footage genre but the horror genre in general.  More than once I had a rash of goosebumps emerge and felt my cheeks flush with an uneasiness that was exciting/scary/fun all at the same time.  Amidst all the expected shrieks there’s one highly effective scare and another gross out moment that had our audience rightfully speechless.

If the film has some flaws, it’s in a few more light-hearted moments that can throw off the balance of the tone of the film.  I can absolutely see why Shyamalan would want to toss in a few comedic moments to ease some of the tension (Oxenbould’s rapping skills are put to good use…maybe one too many times) but they are oddly placed in the middle of some fairly frightening moments, creating the feeling that it’s all one big joke to the director.

No matter, even these small moments don’t detract from a film that winds up being about more than just scaring you but manages to teach a small (if heavy-handed lesson) before the credits roll.  If this is the new Shyamalan, then I welcome him back with open (and slightly petrified) arms.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Visit (2015)

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Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.

Release Date:  September 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s been rough going for director M. Night Shyamalan these past years.  The once-hot director went from being an Oscar nominated A-lister to a joke of an easy target after releasing wacky yarns that didn’t play as well as his earlier work like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable.  I remember a time when the appearance of his name in the trailer would cause the audience to shriek…first with terror with first looks at The Village and later in laughter with The Happening.  It got to a point where his name wouldn’t be in any of the promotional materials because he had such a stigma following him around.  Shyamalan’s latest film employs the tired hand-held camera angle but part of me thinks this could be a nifty little horror morsel if Shyamalan is able to put a decent plot and solid scares ahead of any big twist he may be planning.  Cautiously optimistic about this one…