Glass (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan films typically don’t have the best reputation, and for the life of me, I just can’t understand why. Who doesn’t love a beautifully shot mainstream thriller that is guaranteed to have at least one major plot twist? I’ve seen the majority of Shyamalan’s films in theaters (I even saw Lady in the Water five days in a row) because they’re always a treat and well worth the money. Recently, I headed to theaters to see his latest masterpiece, Glass, and it was exactly as amazing as I expected it to be.

Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Split come together in Glass to complete the trilogy we didn’t know we were already watching until recently. Only the Master of Surprise would take a film from 2000 (Unbreakable), throw in pieces of it at the end of a 2017 film (Split), and combine the two into a concluding film in 2019 (Glass). Personally, I love what he’s done. This surprise trilogy has given me hope that the end of all my favorite movies may not truly be the end. There’s always hope!

David Dunn aka The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), both characters from Unbreakable, work in a home security store while secretly teaming together to bring some vigilante justice to the streets of Philadelphia. Joseph does all the research and tech stuff while David uses his super-human gifts to take down criminals. The duo is set on finding the location of four missing teenage girls, who happen to be kept prisoner by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a.k.a. The Horde (James McAvoy), the main character from Split. The Overseer ends up locating the girls and has a classic superhero versus supervillain showdown with The Horde very early on in the film. Once the fight really starts to heat up, authorities catch them both. After being captured, they are taken to a psychiatric facility to be studied alongside Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable. Mr. Glass is probably my favorite character in Glass. He’s this insane master manipulator wearing a suit comparable to Prince’s in Purple Rain, and he made me laugh way more than I expected to. Once this trio is brought together, the plot becomes absolutely insane and unpredictable. You just have to see it to believe it.

Glass is a strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the “bad guy” mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide. I will definitely need to see this at least one more time to wrap my head around everything, and I’m more than willing to do so. I enjoyed the complex stories within stories in Glass, but unfortunately, that’s not something everyone appreciates (hence the horrible reviews).

-Britnee Lombas

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet

Split (2017)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I left M. Night Shyamalan’s last trashy horror experiment, The Visit, with mixed, but cautiously positive feelings on the director’s redemptive comeback potential. That film’s follow-up, Split, laughs in the face of my caution by revealing a filmmaker who excels as a stylist & a tension-builder on a near-masterful level, a newly confident auteur who’s just starting to get a full grasp on what he can accomplish within his own artistic boundaries two decades into his career. He just happens to be a near-masterful stylist that makes undeniably stupid movies. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t really deserve it (think Richard Kelly’s The Box as a reference point). When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

James McAvoy stars as a mentally unstable blue collar worker suffering with the scientifically controversial Dissociative Identity Disorder. While his well-meaning therapist quietly studies him from a distance and tries to build a high-profile career around his exceptional example, the troubled man’s more unsavory personalities begin to dominate his daily actions, keeping his less harmful multiples in the dark. This is not the empathetic, humanist portrait of D.I.D. delivered in United States of Tara, but it’s just as silly & wildly inaccurate. Much like with The Visit, there’s an indelicate genre film cheesiness to the way this movie handles mental health issues that doesn’t exactly deflect criticism, but pushes its depiction so far outside the context of reality that you’d have to reach pretty damn far to be personally offended. McAvoy’s unhinged villain is a scary white man with a debilitating mental disorder who sets in motion a confined space/women-in-captivity thriller plot when one of his most violent alters kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a basement for a vague, menacing purpose. The film slowly evolves into a very strange beast in that basement, both asking you to sympathize with the troubled man (an abuse survivor) and to fear the impending revelation of his 24th alternate personality, described as an all-powerful, inhuman monster that will test “the limits of what man can become.” He threatens his captives with ominous declarations like “You are sacred food,” and “The time of ordinary humanity is over,” but nothing could possibly prepare them for the brilliantly stupid weirdness that goes down in the film’s third act.

Of course, the most readily recognizable calling card for M. Night Shyamalan as an auteur is the last minute twist and I’ll do my best to avoid Split‘s ultimate destination out of respect for that trashiest of traditions. I will say, though, that Split‘s best quality is that its Big Twist Ending does not at all cheapen or undercut the plot the film lays out before its arrival. In fact, it at first appears there may be no twist at all. Everything Split introduces as a central theme and a narrative thread, from the therapist’s assertion that D.I.D. might be able to unlock “the full potential of the human brain” & “all things supernatural” to the way privilege can soften competence to the life-long effects of childhood familial abuse to one of the imprisoned teens (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) utilizing survivalist skills her father taught her while deer hunting in a Final Girl context, is fully explored in a linear A-B story with very few sharp turns or gimmicks to distract from their impact. Then, when each storyline is fully satisfied & neatly concluded, the Twist Ending arrives to recontextualize everything you’ve seen until that point in a way that expands the film’s scope & somewhat explains its oddly goofy tone instead of shifting its reality entirely. It’s still stupid, but it’s brilliantly stupid.

As genuinely creepy as Split can be in any given scene, especially once it finds itself in the threatened sexual assault territory of generic teens-in-their-underwear horror, it’s also a sublimely silly affair. McAvoy at one point has way too much fun making a show out of his solo bedroom dancing after a character desperately pleads, “I want to hear your Kanye West albums.” He also delivers what is sure to be a strong ironic contender for an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for him to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game. I don’t think I’ve ever left one of his films this deliriously giddy before and it’s an exciting feeling. I now need to see whatever expertly dumb thing he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

“You know their story . . .”

In the press/apology tour for Victor Frankenstein (critics have not been kind), director Paul McGuigan has been quoted as saying that Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is “dull as dishwater“, not a surprising sentiment in light of how his film approaches its source material. Victor Frankenstein has the same reverence for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has for its Brothers Grimm origins. It’s so distanced from the novel, in fact, that I didn’t spot a single mention given to Mary Shelly in the final credits. Not even a “characters by” shout-out. Oddly enough, I think it’s that exact flippant approach to the now classic horror tale that makes the film an enjoyable (and mostly intentional) camp fest. Well, that & over-the-top performances from James McAvoy as the mad scientist Frankenstein, Daniel Radcliffe as the groveling Igor, and Andrew Scott as a soft spoken police inspector on a mission from God.

At first, it seems as though Victor Frankenstein doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table for a property that’s been already adapted for the screen roughly 50,000 times (including last year’s dismal I, Frankenstein). McAvoy’s feverish, spit-flinging performance is inspired in terms of camp value, but the movie’s early declarations like, “Life is temporary, so why should death be any different?” and “The world remembers the monster, but not the man . . , But sometimes the monster is the man,” aren’t particularly fresh, but rather a stitched-together homunculus made of old leftover movie parts. Eventually, however, a clear narrative appears. As the God-fearing police investigator starts butting heads with Frankenstein, it becomes clear that the film is a campy battle between Atheism vs. Christianity, Science vs. Faith. The policeman is incensed that the mad scientist is on a mission “to create life in direct, violent action against God,” claiming that he’s “in allegiance with Satan.” Frankenstein snaps back, “There is no Satan, no God, no me.” This aspect of the film is obsessively explored to the point that is plays as 100% sincere, but ultimately feels just as ridiculous as any of its outright horror comedy gags.

Half-cooked philosophy aside, there’s plenty of goofy charms that make the film surprisingly enjoyable as a camp fest. An early origin story for Igor that features Harry Potter crouched over in heavy clown make-up works as literal bread & circuses. Moving the narrative from a remote castle to the inner city gives it a distinct Tim Burton tone, particularly the movie Sweeney Todd. The film’s costume design is gorgeous (especially in the love interest & Downton Abbey vet Jessica Brown Findlay’s dresses & McAvoy’s vests), but the rest of the imagery is absurdly nasty. Grotesque practical effects surrounding bodily horror like eyes & other organs suspended in jars, steam punk medical tools, abscess fluid, and an early Frankenstein monster prototype (a chimp-esque “meat sculpture” homunculus made of dead animal parts) are all pitch perfect in their absurdity. The actual Frankenstein monster almost feels like a last-minute afterthought, but is ultimately satisfying in its design, looking like a mutant pro wrestler or Goro, the big boss character from Mortal Kombat, except with extra internal organs instead of extra limbs. Ultimately, though, it’s the over-the-top acting of its three heads that sell the movie as an absurdist slice of mindless entertainment.

It’s difficult to say if this was an intentional element to the movie’s  Max Landis screenplay, but the film also has an interesting level of homosexual subtext in the relationship between Igor & his master, which manifests both in subtle moments of body language & romantic jealousy as well as more obvious moments like when Frankenstein shouts about sperm in the only scene where he’s shown conversing with women. Again, it’s difficult to tell if this was Landis’ screenplay or McAvoy & Radcliffe’s performances in action, but it’s just another element in play to a surprisingly enjoyable film with an already-negative reputation due to its indifference for its source material & flights of ugly frivolity. Victor Frankenstein‘s latent homosexuality (which really does stretch just beyond the bounds of bromance), laughable atheism, and grotesque body humor all play like they were written in a late-night, whiskey-fuelled stupor, the same way the film’s monster was constructed by the titular mad scientist drunk & his perpetually terrified consort.  I know I’m alone here, but my only complaint about this film is that it could’ve pushed its more  ridiculous territory even further from Mary Shelly’s original vision, with Victor planting wet kisses on Igor’s cheeks & Rocky Horror‘s “In just seven days, I can make you a man . . .” blaring on the soundtrack.

-Brandon Ledet