5 02 2017

M. Night Shyamalan makes smarter thrillers than your average Hollywood hired hand (as we’re now allowed to admit again). His latest, “Split,” showcases the director’s skill at using shot composition as a tool far scarier than the shaky cam faux-verité aesthetic plaguing the genre. Shyamalan understands that the artificial and the unnatural possess a deeply unsettling category that many filmmakers neglect to wield.

It’s a great stylistic match for this story, featuring James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with an advanced dissociative personality disorder that enables him to toggle between 23 different personas. The role serves as an obvious exhibition of McAvoy’s considerable range and technical precision; the mastery becomes quite scary when he eventually erupts in a fit of feral rage. His unpredictability makes decisions complicated for the three teenage female victims he kidnaps and imprisons, although one with a similarly dark past (Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey) possesses a special insight that proves valuable in outsmarting his personalities.

“Split” works well when Shyamalan allows it to function as a taut captivity thriller given the unknown variable of Kevin’s ever-shifting identity. He does disrupt the forward progress of that narrative with two separate cutaway stories, however. The first, repeated asides with Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betsy Buckley), sheds light on how he functions not as “less than” regular people but as something greater. The second, which provides background on why Casey seems equipped to handle Kevin, ultimately adds little to the film. I kept waiting for it to come full circle in a signature Shyamalan twist, but … well, without spoiling, the ending serves the filmmaker far more than it serves the film. Red herrings are fine, to be clear, but their worth is questionable when they disrupt the pace of the film to extent that this one does. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Visit

9 09 2015

The VisitM. Night Shyamalan might be moviegoers’ favorite punching bag, but for his latest outing as writer/director, he brought something to deflect the blow.

In “The Visit,” a found footage horror film, all action comes from the camera of teenaged Rebecca Jameson (Olivia DeJonge).  She’s an aspiring Albert Maysles who thinks she and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) upcoming trip to their grandparents’ rural Pennsylvania home might make a good subject.  Since their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from them for years, this visit will mark the first time they meet.

Don’t like a turn the movie takes?  Blame it on Rebecca, then.  It’s a pretty smart way for Shyamalan to avoid criticism.  And if moviegoers land one more punch on the battered director, it might be enough to push him into oblivion for good.

But “The Visit” looks like the first step toward the rehabilitation of his reputation.  The film demonstrates a rigor of style and storytelling not seen from Shyamalan since at least 2002’s “Signs.”  The limitations of his chosen narrative technique force him to exhibit more creativity and less bombast, both of which he does decently well here.

At times, the script feels a bit retrofitted for the found footage format; various scenes feel unnatural to film but unfortunately necessary to move the plot forward.  The scares are a bit on the conventional side, too.  Overall, though, “The Visit” proves a satisfying move in the right direction for a director once hailed as the heir to Spielberg.  He taps into anxieties about America’s growing gray population while also capturing something true about the current generation of teenagers and how the omnipresence of video guides their every action.  B / 2halfstars


22 01 2011

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again for good measure: I absolutely DREAD writing reviews for middle-of-the-road movies like “Devil.”  I didn’t hate it, so there’s no reason to rip it to shreds – and besides, I think M. Night Shyamalan took enough of a beating in 2010 with “The Last Airbender.”  But at the same time, I didn’t really like it either, so there’s no aspect of the movie I can praise – not the acting, writing, directing, or production values.  In essence, there’s nothing to talk about!

Yet being a movie reviewer, and you being a reader willing to go this far into a review, I’m obligated to give you at least three paragraphs about the movie.  So what is there to write now?  I could talk about the plot, which is stale and laughable but at least gets in and out in roughly 75 minutes.  5 people trapped in an elevator, 1 is probably the devil.  Who could it be?  You’ll find out if you watch the movie, but don’t expect any sort of terror, horror, or suspense in getting there.

The claustrophobia of being stuck in an elevator isn’t exactly present as the movie frequently cuts back to the control room, where a skeptic and religious fanatic debate the events going on with a battered police officer (Chris Messina).  It’s packed with enough corny horror entertainment to keep you awake, but not enough to really keep you engaged.  In other words, don’t plan a movie night around “Devil.”  Plan to fold the laundry or do an hour of Facebooking.  C+

REVIEW: The Last Airbender

8 07 2010

You’ve almost assuredly heard all the bad buzz surrounding “The Last Airbender.” And yes, it’s pretty bad.  But don’t let the 9% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes convince you that this some sort of cataclysmic flop.  It’s no worse than any of the other mindless, soulless blockbusters that studios engineer to turn our suffering into their profit.

The root of the movie’s problems is producer, writer, and director M. Night Shyamalan and his decade-old hubris from creating one of the greatest thrillers ever made, “The Sixth Sense.”  The allure wore off in 2004 with the release of “The Village,” and it’s been all downhill since.  No longer can he coast on the glory of that one movie; you can’t feed America crap and then fall back on dusty laurels.  One can only hope that this wakes Shyamalan from his stupor, and he will go back to making good movies.  That would make one good thing that could come from “The Last Airbender.”

Everything suffers from Shyamalan’s ignorance.  His script is unimaginative and dull.  Simply put, he just cannot handle themes or dialogue.  The plot does move, although at the pace of molasses sliding down a mountain.  It’s no simple task to dumb down genocide, but Shyamalan does it with ease (and that’s not a compliment).

The acting is all pretty laughable, even Dev Patel (for whom I yelled “JAMAL!” upon seeing).  I normally don’t think ethnic casting too big of an issue, but it did bug me that the three leads were white and everyone else was Indian.  Unfortunately, the worst among the ranks is Noah Ringer, who plays top dog Aang thanks to his discovery at an open casting call.  Apparently, they weren’t looking for anyone with any talent or acting skills.  You could have stuck one of the E-Trade babies in the movie and gotten a more emotionally compelling and appropriate performance.  Never did I think I would see the day when I would pine for models turned actors, but watching “The Last Airbender” made me do just that.

The visuals aren’t terrible, and the bending of the elements looked pretty cool.  I could even get over the fact that the art of bending looks like a step-by-step instructional for urban dancing.  But once again, Shyamalan undoes what the visuals could have done for the movie by sculpting horrible action sequences.  His use of slow-motion is more than excessive, it’s outrageous.  And when the adrenaline-fueled action moves as slowly as the rest of the movie, you know you’re in for a painful ride.  C- /

Random Factoid #337

30 06 2010

I love a good surprise.

Some of my favorite movies are ones with twist endings.  It’s always such a thrilling feeling to be headed one direction for an entire movie and then have filmmakers pull the rug out from under you.  We celebrate plot twists, and they have made two directors with huge movies coming out in July – M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan.

But as I watched “Memento,” which I knew had a plot twist, I felt strange.  I was expecting the unexpected, which obviously makes the twist much more … expected and less effective.

Ditto for “The Sixth Sense,” which did actually get me though, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” whose plot twist I managed to call because I knew it was coming.

So is it really fair for us as bloggers to say that a movie has a twist?  Do we rob the thrill from the next moviegoer, who would be caught much more off-guard had they not been alerted?

Should I have even mentioned “Memento” and the movies that I did?

What To Look Forward To in … July 2010

10 06 2010

People are already calling summer 2010 one of the worst seasons in history.  Ouch.  Does July hold anything in store to turn the tide late in the game?  Let’s take a look.

July 2

M. Night Shyamalan give us his most mainstream movie yet with “The Last Airbender.”  Due to James Cameron’s mildly successful film “Avatar,” the Nickelodeon series opted to use only the last part of its name to avoid confusion (although you could make some good money from dumb moviegoers under the impression they’re seeing “Avatar 2”).  It got the quickie 3D conversion slapped on in the past months, which means I’m sticking to 2D here if I even see it at all. I’m worried that some backlash against the conversion could wind up really hurting this movie. But even before I knew about the added dimension, I couldn’t get myself too excited. No matter how extravagant and enormous they make it look, it’s still a Nickelodeon series. I have mixed feelings for Shyamalan; the only movie of his I actually liked was “The Sixth Sense.” I don’t know anyone in the cast save for Dev Patel, better known as Jamal Malik from “Slumdog Millionaire,” and he may end up being what draws me in to see it.

Sometimes I don’t catch everything when it is initially released, particularly indies.  I want to give them their fair shake, so I’m going to feature movies when they open in my hometown if I missed them before.  The first of these movies is “Solitary Man” starring Michael Douglas and thank heavens it’s not Michael Cera (that’s code for Jesse Eisenberg).  In her glowing review of the movie, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly called this, not “Wall Street 2,” Douglas’ best shot for Oscar glory.  The story seems friendly enough and the character seems an Oscar type.  Rounding out the ensemble are Jenna Fischer (“The Office”), Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, and Mary-Louise Parker, so it seems pretty audience friendly too.

July 9

I’ll get to the mainstream fare later.  First, I must cover the indie comedy hit of the summer, “The Kids Are All Right.”  More to come later in an “Oscar Moment,” but expect it to make a splash a la “Little Miss Sunshine” and “(500) Days of Summer.”

Adrien Brody steps back into the horror arena after … let’s just say, going places in “Splice.”  This time, he’s rebooting the “Predator” franchise along with Laurence Fishburne and Topher Grace.  “Predators” proudly flashes the name of producer Robert Rodriguez.  But here’s what I want to know – will sequel/reboot/remake fatigue catch up with moviegoers by July and kill this movie?

I’m so excited for the release of “Despicable Me.”  Not because I want to see it, but because I’m so tired of seeing the stupid trailers with every movie I have seen for the past year.  My guess is families will still be choosing “Toy Story 3” over this.  Not even Julie Andrews can save a movie that proudly boasts the participation of an executive producer from the “Ice Age” series as if they had Steven Spielberg.

If you are looking for some shaky-cam horror, “[Rec] 2” comes out.  Strangely enough, I must have missed “[Rec]” 1.  But I did know about the predecessor to “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the big indie of 2010 so far, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Opening in Houston on July 9 is “Restrepo,” the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for documentary features.  It takes a look at the grittiest and most intense location of fighting in Iraq and its effect on the soldiers who fight there.

July 14/16

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Meanwhile, opening two days earlier to get out the way is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest blockbuster.  It starts Nicolas Cage as the sorcerer and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice.  I’ve been saying for quite a while now that Baruchel needs a big breakout; maybe he will get it with this once people match his face to the voice in “How to Train Your Dragon.”  On the Nicolas Cage front, the role seems kind of kooky.  Perhaps this is his Jack Sparrow?  I may end up seeing this solely for villain Alfred Molina, who rocked Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2.”

Officially released on June 18 but not hitting Houston until July 16 is “The Killer Inside Me,” starring Casey Affleck and Kate Hudson.  Apparently it’s based on one of the most brutally violent and disturbing stories ever.  I’ll trust Kubrick here.

July 23

I’m hoping “Salt” becomes this summer’s “Wanted.”  Just an enjoyable, action-packed movie that doesn’t try to wow you, only entertain you.  Angelina Jolie makes one BA action heroine … or villain, depending on what happens in this movie.

Kiddie fare comes for the third straight weekend with “Ramona and Beezus,” starring Disney Channel sweetheart Selena Gomez.  This could do well because it’s an adaptation of the beloved series that has been around for decades, and it has an impressive adult cast including Sandra Oh, Bridget Moynahan, John Corbett, and Josh Duhamel.  Then again, it could also just fade into the mist of the other kids movies.

Opening on the indie side of things is “Life During Wartime” starring Allison Janney.

July 30

I’m honestly scared of “Dinner for Schmucks.”  I love both Paul Rudd and Steve Carell to death, and the plot here just reeks of a bomb.  My worst fear is that this and “The Other Guys” become the “Land of the Lost”/”Year One” comedy flop combo of 2010.  Maybe Zach Galifianakis can save it…

But what reeks of a stinker even more is “Cats and Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore,” a sequel that no one really wants.  And “Charlie St. Cloud” reeks of Zac Efron.

Meanwhile, there’s some good indie drama with “Get Low,” starring Robert Duvall.  See my Oscar Moment for further commentary.

Can July save the summer?  Will “Inception” rule the roost?  What will be the BEST movie of the month?  Let me know by taking the poll … DEADLINE IS JUNE 25.