Archive | February, 2017

Kill List – Review

23 Feb

I’m always up to the task of watching a movie that challenges the idea of genre and narrative form. It’s an excellent mode of expression to take preconceived notions of storytelling and flipping them on their head to create something new. For this to be a success, however, it has to be done right. Movies are archetypically based, so changing the formula can be a tough thing to do. This is exactly what Ben Wheatley attempted to do with his 2011 film Kill List. This was a very strange movie to watch, and I’m still kind of processing it, but it’s really a very interesting film to say the least, even if some of it doesn’t really work.

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Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who has been out of work for months after a particularly traumatizing assignment in Kiev. Shel (MyAnna Buring), Jay’s wife, talks their friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), and convinces him to recruit Jay to help in an assignment with a large payout. After some arguing, Jay agrees and the two hitmen meet their employer (Struan Rodger), who gives them a list of three people and all the information they need to execute the hits. As the two hitmen start their mission and begin working their way down the list, things seem a little bit out of the ordinary, and a dark secret connects the three targets on the list; secrets that contain brutality and sadism on such a level that it horrifies the contract killers and sends them spiraling into a mystery that they may not come out of alive.

I think it’s kind of a compliment to say that a movie keeps rattling in your brain and forcing you to think about it, even when you don’t particularly want to. That’s the relationship I’m having with Kill List. This film blends two genres together to create a mash of oddness. I can’t think of another movie that takes a crime thriller and puts it together with sadistic horror to create something that is as chilling and unforgettable as Kill List. I don’t think this movie is a masterpiece or anything like that, but I do have this feeling that Kill List will forever be somewhere on the back burner. I also have to give Wheatley credit in how he handles a lot of the subject matter. There are scenes that will make the squeamish leave the room post haste, but never does it go over the top into an exploitive affair. This movie effectively crawls under your skin without it being too much or overdone. It’s very well thought out film making and storytelling.

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At the core of this movie, though, is a really intriguing mystery. This is where I got really hooked. The film starts off easy enough with a story of a hit man forced back into the business, but it was enough to keep me watching. When things started getting strange for no reason is when I really started to pay attention. It was great trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on, and for the most part, there really aren’t any clues. You’re left to sit and watch and wonder. I was really dying to know what happened, but this is very ambiguous movie that is left for you to interpret. This might be where the movie falters for me just a little bit. I really wanted to know everything and have concrete answers, but Kill List has none of these to offer. That being said, this is an incredibly frustrating film that succeeds in leaving the audience baffled and freaked out.

When I say freaked out, I really mean freaked out. I’m a real sucker for well made and effective horror movies, so I do expect horror movies to go the extra mile. Technically speaking, I don’t know if I’d call Kill List a horror film. I really don’t know how I’d define it. Still, the last third of this movie is frightening, and I’m not ashamed to say it royally messed with me. I would love to get deeper into what happens, but the most fun you’ll have with this movie is the tension and suspense of it building to what is actually going on. Saying anything more would spoil some of that, so just know that I thought it was one of the creepier displays I’ve seen in a while.

To me, Kill List is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, stunning, difficult, but also extremely memorable. Despite all of the confusion I felt watching it and all of the questions left unanswered, I’m really thrilled that this movie didn’t remain under my radar forever. It’s one that I’m going to want to show to people just so I can see their reaction to it because there really isn’t another movie quite like this one.

Final Grade: B

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The LEGO Batman Movie – Review

22 Feb

Back when The LEGO Movie was released in 2014, I expected it to be one of the worst movies to hit theaters in a long time. I really thought I was about to sit through an advertisement for LEGOs that lasted over an hour and a half. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The LEGO Movie was one of the funniest movies I saw in a long time, and repeat viewings only seem to make it funnier. I will say I also had some hesitation about The LEGO Batman Movie. I thought maybe this was just going to be a watered down version of the first film, which is not something I wanted to see. I’m happy to report that The LEGO Batman Movie is another frenetic and brutally hilarious trip into this world made of LEGO bricks, even though it doesn’t quite match the energy of the first film.

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Gotham City has a lot of problems, but none of them are a match for the awesomeness of the self proclaimed best superhero ever, Batman (Will Arnett). After stopping the Joker (Zach Galifanakis) yet again, he is taken aback when the Joker says he values the ongoing hateful relationship that the two share, but Batman quickly shoots down that thought which leads the Joker to plot his greatest attack on Gotham to date. Meanwhile, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) has been announced as the new police commissioner who vows to unify the police force and make it so that Gotham doesn’t need to just rely on Batman for protection. This comes much to the chagrin of Batman, who knows the Joker is up to something devious. With his new protégé, Dick Grayson, aka Robin (Michael Cera), Batman is forced to come to the realization that he is going to need all the help he can get when the Joker unleashes an absurd amount of villains on Gotham from the mysterious Phantom Zone.

The biggest thing I have to say about The LEGO Batman Movie, which is what I said about The LEGO Movie, is that I love its relentless style of humor. When a movie has so much humor and jokes jam packed into it that I have to watch it more than once is something I consider to be a strong positive. The days since I’ve seen The LEGO Batman Movie, I still find myself laughing because I’ll remember a scene or a line that didn’t stick with me right away, but came back to me nonetheless. This movie isn’t quite as hilarious as the first film in this new franchise, but it still made me laugh harder and more often than any other movie I’ve seen recently. It’s a pretty common misconception that just because something is animated and rated PG that it is something made solely for kids. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it’s worth noting that there’s plenty of jokes and references in this movie that are made just for all the adults in the audience.

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Beneath all the humor and over the top energy that makes this movie so great, there’s a lot of really good messages that can be thought about after the movie’s over. Again, these are messages that both kids and adults can understand and this film never panders to any specific demographic. There’s themes of friendship, family, and a very important one about self worth and knowing when to ask for help. It’s something a viewer of any age can really understand and support. Speaking of what’s hiding behind the barrage of humor, there’s an outrageous amount of Easter eggs, self referential jabs, and pop culture references. There’s enough to make your head spin, and and pop culture freak, comic book nerd, or cinephile will have a blast picking everything out.

Much like its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie has a very cool style and is animated very well. Things still look as if they could be done through stop motion using LEGO bricks, but it’s really just a very well done piece of computer animation. There were actually a few scenes in this where I was downright shocked by just how good looking it was. There’s one quick scene of a villain walking along the top of a plane in the beginning of the movie that got me hooked on the visuals, but the action sequences are what really sold this movie to me in terms of its animation.

Simply put, The LEGO Batman Movie is another relentlessly hilarious movie that gives me more hope for the LEGO movies to come. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first film, but it’s a leg above a lot of the other comedies I’ve seen of recent. The jokes are non stop, the references and jabs at itself and other franchises is a lot of fun, and there’s even some good messages to take away from it all. The LEGO Batman Movie is a film that can lift anyone’s spirits and provide some much needed laughs.

Final Grade: A-

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 & 2008) – Review

19 Feb

Science fiction, like all the other genres of film, can be done in one of two ways. On one side you there’s movies like Barbarella that have no real thought provoking qualities of any kind and serve as mindless entertainment. On the other hand, there’s films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which challenges the viewers to expand their minds and discuss the themes and implications that are artfully shown. In 1951, the movie world got one of the most revered and thoughtful science fiction films ever made up until that point. That movie is Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie which came with a heavy and relevant message. As with many classics, it also got the remake treatment in 2008, but my response to that may surprise some people.

Let’s start this review by looking at the classic original film.

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The world is sent into a frenzy when a mysterious UFO lands in Washington D.C. early one morning. The occupants of the ship are a humanoid alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his 8 foot tall robotic sentry, Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is here on a very important mission, and he makes it clear that he must speak to all the leaders of the world at once instead of talking to them one at a time out of fear that it would be seen as him taking a particular side. This idea is completely ruled out which forces him to escape his government overseers and hide out in a small boarding house. There he meets a woman named Helen (Patricia Neal) and her highly curious son, Bobby (Billy Gray), who soon become the only people he can trust. Now on the run from the government, Klaatu teams up with the world renowned scientist, Prof. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) to organize a meeting with all of the great thinkers, scientists, and philosophers from around the world to hear Klaatu’s message that could save the planet from catastrophe.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction films ever made, and with good reason. This film came out at a very complicated time in history, and it showed the follies of the situation with a lot more intelligence than its counterparts. The 1950s was loaded with alien invasion movies due to the fear that surrounded the Red Scare, but The Day the Earth Stood Still gives us a hero that looks at the situation calmly and tries to offer a solution. All this intelligent writing is made complete by a strong cast of characters and some really cool moments of science fiction. I can’t help but smile whenever I hear the words “Klaatu barada nikto” or thinking about the destruction Gort could unleash upon the world if need be. Let’s not forget Bernard Hermann’s eerie, theremin heavy score that sets the mood just right. This film perfectly encapsulates everything that is to be loved about this era of science fiction.

One minor complaint here has to do with the final message of the movie. The whole story clearly has a message of peace, open-mindedness, and acceptance, but Klaatu’s wording can get a little…should I say…awkward? His big speech at the end mentions how the planets he represents agreed to peace and are protected by a race of robots like Gort that act as law enforcement. The thing is that he kind of describes something resembling a police state. I don’t really think this is what the writers had in mind, but it does come off as kind of weird and never fails to pull me out of the movie.

Awkward wording aside, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a timeless tale of caution that should be praised for its clear, outspoken message to the masses of the time. The special effects, performances, and music are all exactly what this movie needs and it has earned the right to be called one of the best science fiction films ever made and to also have become an iconic landmark in film history. It’s intelligent and exciting and I find it hard to imagine there can be people that exist that don’t like this movie.

Final Grade: A-

Like it or not, the cinematic world was given the weight of a remake of a movie that has become a classic. While there was some judgement before going into it, I tried to keep as open a mind as possible.

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Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is a professor of astrobiology who also has the challenge of single handedly raising her stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith). Out of the blue, government agents arrive at her house and whisks her away to a secret facility that’s been tracking a UFO. The UFO finally lands in Manhattan, and a single figure emerges that identifies himself as Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). Klaatu is not alone however, as he also has with him a 28 foot tall robot sentry that is soon named GORT. After it’s clear the United States government will not listen to Klaatu’s warnings, Dr. Benson helps him flee from the government with the hopes that he will finish his mission to save the earth. What remains unclear, however, is if Klaatu’s mission will save the earth, but at the expense of the entire human race.

Like I said, I went into this movie with an open mind even after hearing mostly negative reviews from most of the critics I follow on the internet. I wanted to make my own assessment of the movie, and I think I have. The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, despite some serious issues with the plot and characters, isn’t that bad of a movie. It isn’t that great of a movie, but I can’t just say I hate the movie solely because it’s a remake no one really asked for of a classic science fiction film. Keanu Reeves as Klaatu was a really good choice, especially for the direction that the filmmakers wanted to take the character in. It’s also a very good looking movie, which wasn’t too surprising since the director, Scott Derrickson, was responsible for one of the best looking movies of 2016, Doctor Strange. It may not have the best special effects, but there’s something really appealing about them, especially the first time we see GORT. His monstrous size combined with the ship behind him made it a very memorable scene.

So while I do like the visuals in this movie, I will say that this is much more style than it is substance, which is kind of disappointing considering how thought provoking the original was. The remake, however, is much more of a CGI spectacle and the story sometimes gets lost amongst it all, especially towards the end. I also really couldn’t stand Jaden Smith’s character in this movie. Like not even a little bit. He does nothing but slow the action down and really only succeeds at getting the characters in more trouble than they should probably be in. If he wasn’t in this movie, it would be all the better for it. Something sort of nit pickey is also the fact that they changed the conflict in the movie to something that doesn’t involve violence, which is still relevant for the time, but I liked the idea that these aliens were coming because of our misuse of weapons and our constant states of war.

With all these problems, I still had a pretty good time with The Day the Earth Stood Still. It certainly is a movie that has been forgotten over the years since its release, and I’m not going to forcefully remind people that it exists and they should see it, but it also really doesn’t deserve the hate that it gets. It’s a movie that works best as a time waster for a boring afternoon, and that’s it. That’s more than can be said about a lot of other remakes.

Final Grade: C+

In conclusion, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is a landmark science fiction film that deserves to be respected. It’s one of the best there is and that’s that. The remake, however, doesn’t hit the right spots like the original did, but it’s still a pretty fun and disposable movie. If you’re going to just watch one, make it the original.

The Flowers of War – Review

10 Feb

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Zhang Yimou’s newest movie, The Great Wall. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m going to hold all judgement until I actually do, but I wanted to point out that Yimou is still responsible for some really fantastic and visually striking films that shouldn’t be ignored. The two that I’m most familiar with are Hero and House of Flying Daggers. In 2011, Yimou went in a sort of different direction with the historical war/drama film, The Flowers of War, a chronicling of the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This film has a lot of power behind the story, and the performances are to be praised along with the visual flair behind it. There is something holding the movie back from being a classic, however, and some of the detractions of his newest film can also be noticed here.

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in 1937, Nanking is completely overrun by Japanese troops, which puts every person in the city in extreme danger of torture and murder. Amongst these people are John Miller (Christian Bale), and American mortician hired by a Catholic church for his grim services, and a group of schoolgirls looking for cover wherever they can. One of the schoolgirls, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), runs into John on his way to the church, and he escorts her to safety there. While they are in hiding, a group of prostitutes, led by the beautiful and strikingly wise Yu Mo (Ni Ni), also find refuge in the church. These different people all have major differences in beliefs and practices, but they are soon forced to overcome these biases to protect each other when a representative for the Japanese, Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), makes his and his troops presence known and essentially barricades them inside the church until he can figure out what to do with them all. Thus begins a daring escape plan formulated by the reluctant John and Yu Mo to get as many people to safety as possible.

Right off the bat, The Flowers of War has a subject that is very difficult to tackle. This is a very dark time in human history, so it must really be handled with care. Luckily, under the direction of Zhang Yimou, I think that it’s handled very respectfully and without any kind of exploitation. That doesn’t mean that there is no controversy surrounding this movie. One interesting thing to point out is that this movie is banned in Japan for reasons that are pretty obvious. This film definitely shows the horrors that were inflicted by the Japanese unflinchingly realistic detail. There’s also been some critics who have pointed out that this is another example of a “white savior” story arc. I’m not one to usually point this out, but I do see where these critics are coming from. The entire cast is made up of Chinese and Japanese actors with Christian Bale being the only western actor for most of the movie. While it’s fine that he’s in the movie, a lot of the film revolves around him protecting the people inside the church. That being said, unlike some other movies that suffer from this cliché, the supporting characters do handle themselves very well and show smarts and grit in times of suspense and intensity.

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When I think of the movies by Yimou that I really like, the first things that come to my head are the colors that highlight every scene of his movies. The Flowers of War is toned down a little bit, but don’t be fooled. This is a beautiful movie to look at and, even when something isn’t jumping out at you in a shot, just look at the framing and lighting. Zhao Xiaoding, who has worked as Yimou’s cinematographer on House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, returns for this movie and works perfectly with Yimou to frame and light this movie just right. There’s not enough that can be said about the visuals. There’s also great usage of slow motion photography and one particular tracking shot that sent shivers down my spine. Say what you will about anything in this movie, you have to give a lot of credit to the technical proficiency and artistry behind the camera.

While also being great visually, Yimou has shown his strengths at telling a story, and it works here for the most part. He gets the best out of his actors, for sure. Christian Bale and Ni Ni are fantastic, and the child actors are also put to great use and feel very natural. There’s a lot of power in the telling of this story, but it doesn’t really keep the power going for some parts. The film starts off very strong and just keeps building in tension and drama, but it starts to fall apart during the overlong third act. This is when the planning of their escape starts, which is all fine, but there’s a romance that forms and a lot of other unnecessary scenes of dialogue that could have been cut out or trimmed down. It just felt awkward having this slow down happen so late in the movie after so much has just happened. This is the film’s biggest detractor. It has a nice flow for most of the movie, but the third act feels so unnatural and weird at times that I started to check how much time left a little bit too often.

The Flowers of War is a really good retelling of a very dark time in human history. Zhang Yimou continues to show his strengths as a director and storyteller, even though the narrative starts to slump heavily during the overlong third act. The characters in this movie are very well rounded and it’s a beautiful film to look at. I can see people getting upset over the certain elements of the movie, but I think they should try to get past it, if not just a little bit, to see the greater story being told. This isn’t a classic, but it’s a valiant effort from a very talented film maker.

Final Grade: B+

Once Upon a Time in America – Review

8 Feb

Sergio Leone is best known for helming the epic spaghetti western trilogy that features A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and perhaps his most famous film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His final feature film, however, was something very different from his previous works. In 1984, Leone released Once Upon a Time in America, a film that has become a sprawling gangster epic. When it was first released, its run time was cut down to two hours and twenty minutes and the chronology of the movie was changed to make it happen in chronological order, while the original length was more like 4 hours with a story told through flashbacks. The shorter version is the one people would much rather forget, so today I’m going to be looking at the longest cut, which runs over four hours, set in the proper order, and features scenes not shown in previous American releases.

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After living a life of crime and excitement, small time New York gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) is forced to leave the city and go into hiding for over thirty years. After all this time away, he is mysteriously called back to New York City by an unknown part for an unknown reason that involves a bag full of money that was stashed in a locker at a train station when Noodles and his friends were kids and just getting started in their life of crime. Upon his return, he is overwhelmed with memories of meeting his best friend and partner, Max (James Woods), a friendship that over the years got more and more strained as motivations and relationships stood in the way of their goals. As Noodles starts piecing together the mystery of who summoned him, he also takes the time to reflect on the decisions and the action that got him to the lonely place he finds himself in the later years of his life.

One of the most important thing about any movie is the characters that are created for the audience to relate to or understand or anything like that. To me, some of the most memorable characters come from gangster movies because I really enjoy the depth of the best gangster characters, but I also see the more revolting sides of the personality as something that truly gives their characters weight. That how most of the characters in Once Upon a Time in America are created. Noodles and Max are two sides of the same coin and create a relationship dynamic that is typical for this genre but feels different and, because of the film’s run time, explored in a much finer way. Even the side characters in the film have unique character traits that make them memorable, and never does the large cast ever seem to blend together in any way. De Niro and James Woods are both excellent in their roles, and I also have to give props to Elizabeth McGovern for her role as Deborah, a character with one of the most unsettling stories of all the characters in the film.

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While crime and typical gangster themes are explored in this movie, the themes explored in Once Upon a Time in America feel grander in scale than most movies in this genre. Part of the reason these themes resonate so well is the fact that the story is told through flashbacks and not in chronological order. When Noodles returns to New York City, there’s this noticeable level of sadness and disconnect that he feels towards everything. When the story goes back in time to the 1930s, we see why these feelings exist. This creates themes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the strongest of all those explored, regret. To me, that’s what stuck with me the most is the regret that Noodles feels towards his life and his choices. This makes every death or separation feel all the more powerful.

I can’t talk about a Sergio Leone movie without talking about his artistry behind the camera. Like all of his other films that I’ve seen, Once Upon a Time in America is a gorgeous cinematic experience. The sets that are built combined with his wide angle style of shooting makes this epic film seem grander than most. The color pallet is also something to notice with the past having a much warmer pallet as compared to the present time where the world is covered with neon lights and blues and grays. His collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who worked with him on his previous two films, also adds a lot with his camera work and lighting. Finally, I have to mention Ennio Morricone’s beautifully realized score that turns the emotions, loves, and losses of the characters into incredible music. It’s a solid reminder of why he’s my favorite film composer.

Once Upon a Time in America is both a technical achievement while also acting as a haunting tale of impulsion and consequences. This is the kind of movie that can serve as a reminder to any cinephile as to why they love movies and the process behind their creations. Sergio Leone is truly a master of his craft, and everyone involved successfully created one of the most memorable gangster films ever made. Just make sure you stray away from the heavily cut American release and find the longer versions to truly get the full impact of the story. It’s not one to be missed.

Final Grade: A+

Near Dark – Review

3 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow has had a very interesting career in Hollywood, and she has a fair share of really good movies supporting her filmography. Her most recent feature, Zero Dark Thirty, garnered plenty of controversy, but I can’t say that it wasn’t a very well made and designed film. I also recently reviewed Point Break, which was one of her earlier efforts but still packed enough over the top entertainment to keep me interested. Today, I’m going back even further to her 1987 film Near Dark. This is a extremely interesting and well thought out take on modern vampires, and this is easily one of the best vampire movies ever made.

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Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young farmhand that helps his father on their farm in a small south western town. One night, he meets the beautiful, yet mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), who seems in a rush to get home and in her panic bites Colton on the side of the neck. Colton is then taken off the road by Mae’s travel companions. The leader of the group is Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein). Along with them is the sadistically violent Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller), a kid who is much older than he looks. It also turns out that these travelers are vampires who roam the countryside looking for easy prey. Colton now is being forced by these vampires to accept his new life and kill in order to survive. This leads Colton on a wild ride of murder and utter chaos.

If you look close enough, you might notice that the cast to this movie is pretty close to the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens. As many people know, Bigelow and Cameron were married for a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cameron recommended these actors to Bigelow, and it worked out great. Henriksen is one of the most recognizable character actors working in film and television with good reason. He’s constantly bringing his best to every project he’s in and Near Dark is no exception. The same can be said about Bill Paxton, who really brings it in this movie. Because of Paxton’s excellent performance, mixed with Bigelow’s creative writing and direction, the character of Severen can easily be remembered as one of the great cinematic vampires. The rest of the supporting cast, along with Pasdar in the lead role are all very believable and do their jobs well, I just have to point out Henriksen and Paxton especially do great work.

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While the story of Near Dark is a pretty standard vampire tale, there are so many elements and scenes that put it a leg above the rest. For one thing, the vampires in this movie look like they could just be any person on the street. They aren’t pale or have fangs or anything like that, but they are just as vicious as any other traditional vampiric predator. There’s also a big focus on the affect that sunlight has on them. In fact, it’s one of the main components of the story. They don’t rest in coffins during the day, but they do have to take whatever precautions necessary not have a beam of light touch them. If it does, their skin burns and smoke starts rising off them. It’s really super cool. There’s also a now famous scene that takes place in a bar that really puts this movie up with other class-A horror films.

There have been so many vampire films made over the years that it’s hard to make the idea seem fresh and exciting. What Bigelow did here was take the vampire horror genre and mix it with the western genre to create a very unique feeling and looking film. There’s so much excellent imagery in this movie from the RV with the tin foil wrapped around the windows, to the vampires with blood dripping from their mouths in the bar scene, to an excellent shootout which results in lots of exposure to sunlight. These images are so well constructed and make this movie feel like such an original take on the lore of vampires. That’s really what I want to praise this movie for. Above all else, it is an original take on a tale that everyone knows so much about, but the newness and originality of this movie makes it feel so fresh.

Near Dark is a wonderfully original vampire film that grabbed me from the start and wouldn’t let up until the credits began rolling. It acts as a horror film, a western, and an action adventure movie all in one. I really tried my best to find something negative to say about this movie, but I had such a fun time with it that I don’t think it’s possible. This is one of those one of a kind movies that I could watch again and again without getting bored.

Final Grade: A

Split – Review

1 Feb

Recent years have not been very kind to M. Night Shyamalan, a film maker that was once a titan in the world of suspense thrillers. Since his 2008 bomb, The Happening, things just seemed to be getting worse as time went on. Last year, Shyamalan made a film called The Visit, which I have yet to see but I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard some positive things about it. Now, I can really say without a doubt that Shyamalan is back on course with his newest film, Split. I was hesitant when I first saw the trailer. It looked cool, but trailers can be deceiving. When I left the theater, I was overjoyed that Split was everything I wanted it to be, but it also exceeded those expectations.

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After a small birthday celebration, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends are kidnapped by a seemingly random man named Dennis (James McAvoy). They wake up in a room in an undisclosed location and soon learn that Dennis is not what he first appeared to be. Dennis is also a woman named Patricia who is also a kid named Hedwig who is also over 20 other people. Having suffered with such an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder for so long, he’s gotten quite close with his doctor, Karen (Betty Buckley), who also has theories that these many personalities can give people with this disorder an evolutionary leg up over other people. Back at the girl’s make shift prison, Casey starts to work at better understanding all of this guy’s personalities, but when Hedwig mentions that the Beast is coming for all of them, she begins to formulate new ideas to escape before this terror makes itself known.

I really had such high hopes for this movie. I wanted Shyamalan to show that he still has it in him to make a really kick ass thriller movie, and that’s exactly what I got with Split. I knew I was in for a treat when the credit sequence started. The black background and twisted lettering were great, but what really hooked me was the ominous music that sent a chill down my spine the same way the Signs theme did the first time I saw that movie. The music by West Dylan Thordson is in no way overbearing and it seems to relish in its subtlety. It creeps in whenever the occasion really calls for it which is the mark of a great score. This combined with the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis makes for a great combination. Gioulakis previously worked as cinematographer on It Follows, which was a fantastic looking film, and that same kind of wispy camera movement and confident head on framing makes the same kind of impact in Split.

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The real star of the show here, though, is James McAvoy. McAvoy gives the best performance of his entire career and possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen in a very long time. You know you’re watching a great performance when you no longer see the actor playing the role, but become so convinced that the actor is no longer there and just the character. McAvoy succeeds in doing that in this movie, but what makes it even more impressive is that he makes me believe that a whole lot of characters are real and not being played for a camera. He completely transforms himself into these roles, and each personality has a different stance or walk or way of speaking that makes them feel completely separate from the others. One scene in particular has McAvoy switching between people, and that to me is one of the most impressive parts of the movie. I also have to give credit to Anya Taylor-Joy, who showed that her performance in The Witch wasn’t a fluke and that she is able to maintain a sincere performance despite insanity happening all around her.

While this is truly an incredible movie, there is something I have to get out of the way in terms of negativity. Shyamalan is no stranger to drawn out scenes of exposition, and Split is a major offender. Betty Buckley does a good job playing Dr. Karen, but a lot of her scenes do just exist to explain to the audience what’s going on with one of the personalities or her strange theory that links the whole movie together. To be fair, this is a strange story and exposition is necessary, but there’s so much of it in this movie that it can get kind of distracting. I can definitely forgive this however, because most of the movie is spot on. On the opposite side of the long exposition scenes, there are scenes of visual dread and fear that will be seared into my mind for a long time. There’s one particular moment during a chase towards the end of the movie that is one of the freakiest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Split is a really strong outing by M. Night Shyamalan, and I’m hoping this marks a grand return for someone who has always succeeded in freaking me out and guessing all the way to the end of his movies. This is a really strange film filled with ideas and clues to dig away at to find meaning. It’s also a film that showcases the talents of its actors and behind the camera artists, with James McAvoy really stealing the show with his one of a kind performance. This is a truly suspenseful thrill ride with an ending that will knock your socks off. I highly recommend it.

Final Grade: A