Wednesday, August 23, 2017


Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details**

While watching M. Night Shyamalan's Split with a mixture of excitement, dread and trepidation, the one question that kept reverberating through my mind was, "When is he going to blow it?" It isn't an unfair concern given the director's reputation and track record over the past decade, which resulted in the creative implosion of a career that's proven to be anything but unbreakable. This is his hail mary, a last ditch attempt to prove that flops like Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are anomalies. So now, after showing some renewed signs of creative life with 2015's The Visit, Shyamalan gives us Split, and right from its tense opening, it's obvious he's come to play again.

With a thrilling set-up, a fresh cast of rising stars mixed with established newcomers, and an ingeniously constructed script to support them, Shyamalan makes his best film. Hands down. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise considering I never quite shared the love others had for The Sixth Sense, it's not.  He gets everything right, firing on all cylinders, all while giving audiences the gift of two, maybe even three, award-caliber performances, one of which is so subtly powerful it's gone almost completely unnoticed. 

This is such a strong effort and the comeback so welcome that I almost feel guilty mentioning that giant elephant in the room known as the final scene. While it's a stretch to say he drops the ball as feared, and it does nothing to diminish the power of the overall experience, the decision to close the film in this way makes absolutely no sense because it has so little to do with anything preceding it. Shyamalan does something I've rallied against for years but has become so prevalent recently that it's reached epidemic levels, engulfing someone who could barely get his movies made just a couple of years ago. But what a homecoming this is, and even if its last 30 seconds cause concern, we should just relish what we're given: A compelling, meticulously plotted psychological thriller that methodically lays its groundwork before paying off in a pulse-pounding sprint to the finish that won't soon be forgotten. No twists. No games. To call this a return to form for him would almost be an insulting understatement.

Three teenagers, the popular Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and introverted social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are being driven home from a party by Claire's dad when a mysterious bald-headed man attacks him in the parking lot and drives off with and abducting the girls. The man is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), but the person responsible for the crime is "Dennis," one of Kevin's 24 personalities manifesting itself from abuse he suffered in childhood. Diagnosed with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder), he's currently being treated under psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's pleased with his progress in balancing these personalities despite recent red flags that indicate he's struggling.

Locked captive in an undisclosed location, the girls are exposed to "Patricia," a female personality who's assisting the voyeuristic, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," and 9-year-old "Hedwig," who Casey sees as the easiest to manipulate into helping them escape. With a panicked Claire and Marcia frantically trying anything possible to get out, it's clear that Casey's the introspective thinker of the three, laying back and assessing the most practical way out of what looks to be the most dire of situations. As Dr. Fletcher's suspicions grow, the girls fight for their lives while Kevin's personalities battle for dominance, including a dormant one that's potentially the most dangerous of all.

Like an expertly constructed puzzle box, the details of Kevin's unusual condition reveals itself the more dangerous and unpredictable he becomes. By taking a conceit that if taken at face value should be ridiculous and treating it every step of the way with a certain respect and plausibility, Shyamalan makes us buy in. While Multiple Personality Disorder is very much a real thing, the amplified version of it that this script presents most definitely isn't, but the movie explains it in such confident, mind-blowing detail through both words and actions that we wouldn't dare doubt any of it. But that's not to say this at all plays as some kind of dry psychology lecture, as it cleverly foreshadows what's to come, making and abiding by its own rules the entire way.

Two different cat-and-mouse games transpire simultaneously, with Kevin (or rather "Dennis") attempting to outwit Dr. Fletcher while the captured girls try to predict the unpredictable and forecast their window of opportunity for escape. It all clicks largely due to McAvoy, who prior to this came across as a dependable enough actor who carries a film just fine, the true extent of his talents remaining somewhat untested. But he does here is miraculous tour de force, dropping on a dime to believably shift gears between all these distinctive personalities, some of whom are even posing as other personalities. That we not only get this, but can determine with relative ease exactly who he is at any given moment, is a true testament to the high-wire act he pulls off.

At times a performance within a performance within a performance, how MacAvoy completely changes his voice, movements, posture, tone and even physical appearance (often multiple times during a single scene) defies and breaks the boundaries we have in our heads while watching. It looks exhausting, but if this performance doesn't work, the entire premise crumbles, and the psychological backbone of the screenplay doesn't stick. Also helping hold that up is Betty Buckley, who as Dr. Fletcher helps dispel the myth that there are no vital roles left for actresses over 60 not named Helen Mirren.

Buckley, last known to many for putting her head through a window in the Happening's most embarrassing scene is completely redeemed with a part far worthier of her talents. Going face-to-face with her troubled patient in some of the most important, narrative defining scenes, she's magnificent, finding just the right balance between motherly compassion and tough, brutal honesty, juggling some of the more expository exchanges and sudden revelations like a pro. She, like McAvoy, must switch gears at a moment's notice when the full, dangerous extent of Kevin's condition begins to surprise even her.

Due to the nature of the role, comparisons between Buckley's character and Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films are practically inevitable, but I hesitate giving more credence to this being mistakenly categorized as some kind of horror slasher, which it surely isn't. There are points where Dr. Fletcher guides the narrative, but never to the extent that you'd think it's her story since Buckley provides such strong, low-key support opposite McAvoy's performance, invisibly steering each scene they share. Her work not only stands out as a real keeper, but feels absolutely crucial to the story's success.

Shyamalan has called Casey Cooke his favorite character he's ever written, so it's probably fitting that the actress cast as her, the still relatively unknown Anya Taylor-Joy, gives what ranks among the most powerful performances in any of his pictures. Anyone who saw her highly praised turn in 2015's supernatural period horror film The Witch or as college student Barack Obama's girlfriend in Netflix's Presidential origin story, Barry, already knew she had something really special and was worth watching. But as Casey, Taylor-Joy gets to dig fairly deep, playing a girl whose own volatile history equips her with the emotional tools necessary to not only cope with horrifying predicament she and the girls find themselves in, but connect with Kevin's personalities at a level no one can, aside from Dr. Fletcher.

From the opening sequence, time seems to stop as we're uncomfortably drawn into Casey's reaction, she uses only her giant eyes to convey all the terror, fear and unpredictability such an abduction would likely entail. This happens a lot throughout, as Taylor-Joy's most memorable scenes often have little to no dialogue at all and consist of her strategizing her next move in the presence of two girls who have far less interest in formulating a game plan.

While childhood flashbacks involving her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke)  are sporadically used to explain the character's past, and they do work, I'm willing to believe we'd probably know anyway just by Anya's facial expressions, demeanor and body language throughout. Any information coming our way rarely feels like a shock or twist (as it often does in Shyamalan films) but rather a confirmation of what she was silently and subtly telling us the entire time.

Unconventional in both presence and looks, Taylor-Joy definitely doesn't fit your typical movie star mold, but in the best possible way, so it would be a shame if after two incredibly successful genre performances she gets pigeonholed as some kind of reigning "scream queen" when she should be competing for dramatic opportunities far beyond that. Her performance stands as the best from an actress so far this year, regardless of how you choose to classify it. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are fine in their underdeveloped roles, which require them to panic in various states of undress, but it's their co-star that commands all the attention as they fade into the background.

Strangely, it's hard watching the last third of this thriller without comparing it to another surprise sleeper hit from earlier in the year, Jordan Peele's Get Out. While the content isn't at all similar and this certainly doesn't carry the same subversive social commentary, both pull off the extremely difficult transition from psychological drama to full-blown horror without missing a beat. And they do it by setting up the premise so well and believably that when the train starts careening off the tracks, it makes sense within the context of the world that's been created. Shyamalan goes very far, but reasonably, likely surprising many who went in expecting a final twist of the knife, because, you know, that's what he does.

What we do get is something that feels like an additional scene past the point where the movie should clearly conclude. In a broader sense, the ill-conceived final moment doesn't make that much of a difference in that it doesn't effect the actual narrative and plays more as an Easter egg or add-on. But if that's the case, then why do it?  It's a real stretch linking the now 17-year-old Unbreakable with Split, and even if Shyamalan did it masterfully within this single scene (which he doesn't), there's still no justification for its presence.

The closing scene just doesn't belong here, and neither does Bruce Willis, whose distracting cameo is more likely to induce head-scratching reactions questioning its purpose rather than build excitement for a potential "Shymalaniverse." Someone needed to tell him this isn't a Marvel movie, and I say that as someone who wholeheartedly agrees that the unfairly maligned Unbreakable probably did deserve a sequel years ago and stands as Shyamalan's most worthwhile accomplishment, at least until this. But it only gets harder justify that when he continues to make these kinds of decisions.

There's this devastating, incredibly acted scene in the police car when Casey's told she's being sent back to live with her uncle that I wish was the last thing we saw in this film. It's just perfect, and could easily be used in an Oscar clip reel sent to Academy members touting Anya Taylor-Joy's lead performance. That's a pipe dream, but only because Shyamalan made it one by not knowing what he had. If he did, there's no way he would have wet the bed with that ending instead of putting the closing emphasis on a character who was actually in the film.

Let's not kid ourselves into thinking an Unbreakable sequel is happening for any other reason than the fantastic work Shyamalan does here on Split, but it seems that in his mind he's just making superhero movies, not realizing that the main appeal of his films was how they never outright acknowledged that.  While he's obviously done something far more substantial with this, it's that lack of self-awareness that's made him his own worst enemy at times. And yet, that's somehow fitting for a filmmaker who's spent a career both thrilling and frustrating audiences in equal measure.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Neon Demon

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcoate, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R 

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological horror thriller The Neon Demon introduces us to one of the least confident protagonists to recently carry a film. At least initially. So innocent and unsure of herself that every word she speaks is phrased as a question, there's this doe-eyed, stuck in headlights look that seems to define her. You start thinking that regardless of her looks, it may be impossible for this girl to find legitimate success as a model. After all, this is L.A. She'll be (literally?) eaten alive by the insecure, ambitious competition who can smell fear, and a serious threat, from miles away. It turns out, we don't even know the half of it.

An all-out assault on the senses brought to you by the filmmaker who previously polarized audiences with Drive and Only God Forgives is almost daring us to point out the superficiality of his latest effort. Don't take the bait. That's the entire point, even if that doesn't necessarily make it any more enjoyable to watch. Some of the content arriving in the picture's last third, and one scene specifically, is both disgusting and disturbing, making you wonder how this somehow managed to evade the MPAA's dreaded "NC-17."

The actual story, which is strangely Refn's most straightforward yet, serves as background noise to sights and sounds that aren't quite like anything recently brought to the screen. And yet, all of it works a bit better before all the subtext becomes text, and the heavy foreshadowing leads us into crazy land, the film might have seemed a little less ridiculous minus that eventual destination.  But it also may have been a hell of a lot less fun. There's no doubt that it looks and feels great, despite my lingering doubts as to whether it transcends those pleasures to become something more than a shocking horror genre exercise.

16-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from a small Georgia town with aspirations of becoming a model. After having her first photoshoot with a guy she meets named Dean (Karl Glusman), she soon scores an interview with modeling agency head Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who's so impressed with her potential that she refers her to a test shoot with renowned photographer Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). Despite forging a friendship with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse's rapid, meteoric ascent draws the ire of her modeling peers, the older, more experienced Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate).

In an industry when you're washed up before you hit twenty five, the girls notice this newbie is accomplishing in just a few short months what they couldn't during their entire careers, as Jamie seems to transfix everyone with a youthful, fresh-faced look and appeal they've gone under the knife many times to try to duplicate. The claws are out and they smell blood, doing all they can to undermine the competition and preserve their jobs. For the shy, introverted Jesse comes the test of whether she can withstand it, or more accurately, adapt to survive in a world where looks are the most valuable commodity.

Much is made of Jamie's youth, so the casting of Fanning makes a lot of sense as the main point is that she's entirely too young to be exposed to an industry that devours its young. She also has an entirely different look that serves her well in the role, making it somewhat plausible that all these top shelf agents and photographers would be falling all over themselves when she arrives. It gets to be a bit much at times with that, but at least we get it, whereas with another another actress lacking such an distinct look, we might not. Of course, the character's fifteen, which Hendricks's agency owner quickly adjusts up to nineteen since eighteen is "too on the nose."

The others girls take an immediate disliking to her that grows with each new opportunity, the most memorable of which comes in the form of a Goldfinger-style photoshoot featuring a genuinely unsettling turn from an intense, gaunt-looking Desmond Harrington from TV's Dexter. You're kept on edge watching the whole time, both fearing for Jamie's safety yet opening yourself up to the idea that this might simply be all for the sake of some kind of twisted performance art. Either way, it's creepy, and Cliff Martinez's sparse, haunting 80's electronic score only serves to makes it that much creepier.

For a while the film constantly walks up to that line and teases, like with Jamie's interactions with a sleazy motel manager named Hank, who Keanu Reeves plays with scenery-chomping gusto in a welcome excursion to the dark side. Between this, John Wick, and his lead role in 2015's underrated home invasion thriller, Knock Knock, it's getting to the point where he's entering Nicolas Cage territory, but in the best way, where we literally can't wait to see what's next. There's some more going on here too, like an unwelcome animal intruder and the increasing sense that these models are much more than merely jealous. As this happens, a change comes over Jamie as well, with all roads leading to what feels like an inevitable showdown.

Described in its conception as a combination of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's somewhat ironic that it's actually more successful when drawing from the former. The suspense and anticipation for what eventually occurs, and the accompanying drama driving it, is actually far more intriguing than the craziness that arrives in the final act. While it's clearly trying to make a point about how humankind's obsession with physical beauty is destroying us from the inside-out, Refn delivers it in such a silly, ham-fisted, over-the-top manner that it comes off as ridiculous rather than scary.

The last half-hour is kind of difficult to process, if we're even supposed to. As for Fanning, her performance is exactly what it needs to be, even if I remain uncertain what it's all in the service of since her character could be viewed as kind of a cipher. It's been a breakthrough year for her between this and even more resonant work in 20th Century Women, marking the evolution of a mature talent who's child acting days are now comfortably behind her.

For all the film's mind-blowing visuals and bombast, I found myself struggling to extract more than just a begrudging respect and admiration for its craft. You can only shock so much before the credits roll and you're left contemplating what it all means. cenes of necrophilia and cannibalism can leave a searing imprint, but without a connection to the characters, it only goes so far. In terms of delivering psychological thrills, it's tantalizing on more than a few levels before completely abandoning that idea in favor of pure sensationalism. The Neon Demon is meant to provoke a strong reaction and does, but the only thing you're left contemplating when it's over is whether it was the right one.