Review – Split

For a director so renowned for twists and paradigm shifts, M. Night Shyamalan has seemingly saved the best one for his own career.

Split PosterBack in 2013, I wrote a piece on directors I felt should call it a day and Shyamalan was near the top of the list. It was hardly difficult to argue at the time – Lady In The Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) were all travesties, while the truly awful After Earth (2013) proved a new low.

This nadir proved something of a turning point as Shyamalan stripped everything back and returned to his low-budget roots by teaming up with micro-budget exploitation producer extraordinaire Jason Blum for 2015’s found footage flick The Visit.

SplitThe renewed promise of that movie is largely realised in this, their latest colaboration, which gifts James McAvoy the role of his career as Kevin, a man who exhibits 23 different personalities due to his being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID).

While the actual Kevin is largely an invisible bystander, three dominant personalities come to the fore – the threatening, uptight Dennis, the prim, manipulative Patricia and nine-year-old Hedwig.

SplitThis self-entitled ‘horde’ are compelled to abduct teens Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) for a purpose that becomes disturbingly clear as ‘Kevin”s visits to specialist psychologist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) reveal a 24th personality known only as ‘the Beast’ is waiting in the wings to show himself.

Shyamalan has spoken in interviews of the opportunities a low-budget (approximately $10m) provides when it comes to taking risks. While the concept of split personalities is hardly original cinema (Hitchcock’s Psycho remains the high watermark), the film’s frightening opening scene of a kidnapping in broad daylight serves as a shot across the bows that all bets are off.

SplitTight close-ups are used throughout, focusing on McAvoy’s saucer-like eyes and trapping us in Kevin’s fractured psyche along with his trio of victims.

Aside from a completely unnecessary narrative device that leads to each of the girls being in a state of undress, Shyamalan places a brain in each of their heads and has them taking action to find a way out of their perilous dilemma.

As the outsider of the group, misfit Casey is naturally the smartest and tries to play one personality off against the other. A pretty pointless back story, told in flashback, endeavours to give Casey the agency she needs to survive, but Taylor-Joy (fresh from an equally affecting performance in The Witch) does more than enough with the material given to her to make these scenes nothing more than a distraction – towards the end especially.

SplitWhile Taylor-Joy’s blood raw performance is excellent, it’s overshadowed by McAvoy giving it his all and then some in a dizzying turn. It’s the role of a lifetime for anyone brave enough to seize it with both hands and McAvoy unpacks what he brought to the table as a corrupt, mentally evaporating cop in 2013’s Filth and lets rip with a mesmeric barrage of verbal dexterity, contorted body language and unnerving unpredictability that somehow avoids falling into the pit of comical caricature.

The on-screen insanity masks some clunky dialogue, while it’s at least 20 minutes too long and, as a result, drags in places (there’s at least one too many visits to Dr Fletcher’s practice). Meanwhile, the very ending of the film will either make you smile at the director’s chutzpah or leave you wondering whether Shyamalan can ever truly leave the paradigm shifts on the shelf.

Nevertheless, Split is a B-movie treat for most of its running time – words you never thought you’d hear yourself say when describing another Shyamalan film.

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Review – San Andreas

Anyone expecting a disaster movie of disastrous proportions may be pleasantly surprised by this unashamedly dumb but fun multiplex-friendly popcorn fodder.

Since the release of the Charlton Heston-starring Earthquake in 1974, Hollywood has merrily laid waste to various parts of the world (mostly New York) in a multitude of different ways, be it attacking monsters, aliens, meteors or even solar flares.

Hardly a work of great originality or vision, but San Andreas is far from a disaster

Hardly a work of great originality or vision, but San Andreas is far from a disaster

The biggest culprit remains good old Mother Nature, though; and while we’ve sat through exploding volcanoes, extreme weather, tornadoes, tsunamis and floods, it’s hard to believe we’ve had to wait more than 40 years for another earthquake movie to hit the big screen.

Was it worth the wait? Well, kind of. There’s no doubt San Andreas delivers in the visual effects department, with Los Angeles and San Francisco being torn asunder by a cavalcade of super-destructive quakes; but anyone going into the movie with delusions of anything except nuts and bolts genre filmmaking should probably lower their expectations.

Chief Raymond 'Ray' Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) and estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) in San Andreas

Chief Raymond ‘Ray’ Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) and estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) in San Andreas

Carlton Cuse’s screenplay ticks off the clichés with shameless abandon. Our hero, LA Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is brilliant at his job, but his personal life is a mess. His estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is filing for divorce to shack up with wealthy real estate developer Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), while his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is slipping further away.

Just as all hope for a reconciliation appears dead, the San Andreas fault dutifully decides to shift its tectonic plates, causing a cataclysmic series of ever-increasing earthquakes and giving Ray the chance to save Emma and Blake – and his marriage – from the ensuing chaos.

Blake (Alexandra Daddario) hangs out with brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) in San Andreas

Blake (Alexandra Daddario) hangs out with brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) in San Andreas

As many a Roland Emmerich movie has attested, the performances in disaster movies generally play second fiddle to the sensory-shredding effects. While San Andreas isn’t really any different, it at least tries to make you root for its key characters, thanks in no small part to the central performance of Johnson – an underrated actor who refuses to  phone it in despite the ramshackle material he occasionally has to work with.

Johnson gives a solid turn as Ray and even comes close to welling up in one reflective scene opposite the reliable Gugino. Daddario is less engaging, although she’s made to look better than she actually is opposite a pair of annoyingly posh English brothers played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson.

"You're not paying me enough!" - Paul Giamatti plays seismologist Lawrence Hayes in San Andreas

“You’re not paying me enough!” – Paul Giamatti plays seismologist Lawrence Hayes in San Andreas

Paul Giamatti, meanwhile, adds an extra bit of gravitas to the film (think Ian Holm in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow) as another of those genre staples, the scientist no-one listens to until it’s too late, while the wooden spoon goes to the sleep-walking Gruffudd, whose make-up-ridden face is looking particularly strange these days.

To say San Andreas follows a narrative straight line probably won’t come as a surprise, but there’s a guilty pleasure to be had in watching the west coast sliding into the Pacific. Hardly a work of great originality or vision then, but San Andreas is far from a disaster.

Review – Selma

A defining moment in a nation’s history gets the film it deserves in this sure-footed drama that forsakes hagiography and gets to the human story between the lines.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

With such weighty material to work with, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb could so easily have served up a Hallmark-friendly Martin Luther King, Jr greatest hits package that ignored the man.

However, without MLK’s speeches to work with following the decision by his estate not to allow their use, the filmmakers have instead been liberated from the baggage those words bring with them to show us that King was a man just like anyone else; one trying to make the right choices in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

The strength of Selma comes from showing us King the politician, King the opportunist, King the strategist; while also having the bravery to sideline MLK for stretches to focus on his fellow activists as they prepare for the crucial 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.

The length of the journey ahead is powerfully juxtaposed in the opening reel as King accepts the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, while in the next scene a Baptist church is bombed in Alabama, killing four young black girls. This is followed by Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) having her voter registration form denied in Selma by a white registrar on ridiculously spurious grounds.

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

Despite being granted an audience with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), MLK’s (David Oyelowo) calls on the Commander-in-Chief to enact legislation that will enable black citizens to register to vote unencumbered falls on deaf ears, with Johnson stonewalling the “voting thing”.

With Selma chosen by King as the staging post from which to march, the town becomes a hotbed for racial tension as a brutal police force, led by its racist Sheriff stand in the way of the peaceful protesters and state Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) stokes the fires from a safe distance.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

By narrowing in on a relatively brief, but critical moment in the civil rights movement, Selma gives itself the luxury of being able to spend a healthy amount of time with some of the key figures, including Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common), John Lewis (Stephan James) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Just like any political movement, conflicting views exist on what strategy to take and DuVernay lets these scenes play out as tensions rise.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, presents King in a number of different ways, from the powerful orator with a gift for stoking a crowd with just the right amount of passionate indignation, to the leader getting his hands dirty on the frontlines. Away from the hullabaloo, Oyelowo paints MLK as a sinner doubting his path and struggling to maintain his marriage to the fiercely strong Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in the face of huge pressure.

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

It’s a marvellously rounded and multi-faceted performance from Oyelowo and no mere caricature. The actor may have MLK’s preaching vocal inflections down to perfection, but there’s a lot more going on. Ejogo too gives an excellent account of herself as someone who isn’t just the wife of Martin Luther King, but a woman in her own right.

The infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ horror show, when the protestors’ initial march on March 7, 1965 was thrown into chaos when they were brutally attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police on horseback is distressing to watch and brilliantly shot by Bradford Young as terrified marchers flee through the eerie fog of tear gas whilst being mercilessly beaten.

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Some have criticised the film for a heavy-handed depiction of Johnson, in particular for suggesting he authorised J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to dig up dirt on King. He’s portrayed as an opportunist (much like any other politician then) whose mind is reluctantly turned by the infamy of Bloody Sunday and at one point utters the ‘N’ word in conversation with the implacable Wallace (not one of Roth’s best performances). It’s perhaps fair to say that DuVernay doesn’t invest as much into these scenes as she does elsewhere, but every film needs its villain and the political establishment (led by the President) is it in the case of Selma.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land.

Review – Whiplash

If music be the food of great cinema, then Damien Chazelle’s note-perfect study of the human cost of aspiring to greatness is a rich feast indeed.

Whiplash is one of the discoveries of the year and should not be missed. Good job? Great job more like

Whiplash is one of the discoveries of the year and should not be missed. Good job? Great job more like

Whiplash lives up to its name by snapping the viewer back and forth with an intensity as ferocious as J.K Simmons’ demonic black-clad conductor Terence Fletcher.

The crucible of sound and fury that is the Shaffer Conservatory music school makes Fame‘s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School look like kindergarten, while the complex relationship between Fletcher and gifted jazz drummer student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) has the air of Frankenstein and his monster.

Andrew (Miles Teller) gets the first of many bollockings in Whiplash

Andrew (Miles Teller) gets the first of many bollockings in Whiplash

Fletcher at one point states to Andrew: “There are no two words more harmful to the English language than ‘good job’.” Fletcher’s style of teaching (if that’s what you can call it) is to bully and excoriate those he deems worthy of interest in order to, so he claims, unlock the greatness within them.

His drill instructor approach terrifies many of the students in his elite class, but for Andrew it propels him to the next level and soon every waking moment is taken up with obsessively refining his talent in the hope of winning Fletcher’s approval.

Andrew (Miles Teller) gives it what for in Whiplash

Andrew (Miles Teller) gives it what for in Whiplash

The story behind how someone becomes great in their chosen field has long captivated filmmakers who, like most of us, have a morbid fascination with the price that is often paid to reach the very top. While we marvel at the skill they display and the accomplishments they make, the human cost can be terrible and it this we are drawn to.

One of the more striking examples in recent years was Darren Aronofsky’s superb Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer slowly loses her grip on reality as she strives for artistic perfection.

Andrew (Miles Teller) gets friendly with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) in Whiplash

Andrew (Miles Teller) gets friendly with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) in Whiplash

Whiplash may not be as weirdly horrific as that movie, but it shines just a harsh a spotlight on its protagonist, whose growing arrogance and unhealthy determination to succeed at all costs make us question our sympathy for him at the hands of Fletcher.

The way he treats love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is revealing, particularly during their first date when he reacts disdainfully to her admission that she doesn’t yet have her whole life mapped out in front of her. The same goes for his father (played by Paul Reiser), who is also a teacher but more of the ‘good job’ school. Andrew’s reaction to his dad during a dinner scene involving family friends is also telling in that it reflects the influence Fletcher is having.

Fletcher (J.K Simmons) opens up a can of whupass on Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash

Fletcher (J.K Simmons) opens up a can of whupass on Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash

That said, there’s no denying the commitment Andrew has to his craft, especially in the film’s near-wordless final reel; a gladiatorial battle of wits between master and student that is one of the most electrifying and exhilarating scenes of the year. Some critics have accused it of being too manipulative, but it’s in keeping with the characters with whom we’ve spent the previous 90 minutes.

Blood, sweat and... drums in Whiplash

Blood, sweat and… drums in Whiplash

Teller treads a very fine line between unlikable and sympathetic and is utterly convincing behind the drums. For a movie such as this to work, you have to believe the actor is actually playing the instrument in question and in Teller’s case nary a shred of doubt exists.

As good as Teller is, however, Simmons is out of this world. It’s a part any seasoned actor would love to sink their teeth into, but Simmons makes it his own and imbues Fletcher with an unpredictability that’s frankly mesmirising.

Whiplash is one of the discoveries of the year and should not be missed. Good job? Great job more like.

In Retrospect – The Thing (1982)

Fans of John Carpenter’s gleefully gory sci-fi horror may have felt their pulse quickening when stories emerged earlier this year of ancient bacteria coming back to life after lying dormant in the arctic tundra for thousands of years.

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience

Thankfully, said bacteria pose no danger (we are told) to humans or animals, but the same can’t be said for the parasitic organism that unleashes industrial-level havoc on a remote Antarctic research station after having been dug up by unwitting scientists.

Carpenter had already shown himself a master of genre cinema in such classics as Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and Escape From New York (1981) and went one better with his adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? by fusing horror and science fiction into a singular nihilistic entity.

The memorable opening from John Carpenter's The Thing

The memorable opening from John Carpenter’s The Thing

A painful box office failure on its release – thanks in no small part to it having been released on the heels of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and on the same day as Blade Runner The Thing, like its relentless antagonist, refused to go softly into the night and instead ground out a cult following.

One of the strengths of the film is its tremendously strong cast, each of whom treats the material with the respect it deserves and gives their character a distinct personality. The cliques and clashes that already exist among the cabin fevered occupants of the American research base are already there before the Thing shows up.

Macready (Kurt Russell) makes a discovery he'll soon regret in The Thing

Macready (Kurt Russell) makes a discovery he’ll soon regret in The Thing

Carpenter has never been one to waste a shot and launches into The Thing as he means to go on with a husky running towards the station as it’s being chased down by two strangers in a helicopter frantically shooting at it. It’s a memorable, action-packed opening that immediately introduces us to the film’s adversary and impishly undermines the old saying ‘man’s best friend’ (the director has more fun a little later when Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious plays in the background).

The director cleverly fades scenes out early on to heighten the suspense and make you question who the dog is visiting. Indeed, rarely has a canine’s neutral expression been laced with so much foreboding as it stares out of a window or looks off camera.

Blair (Wilford Brimley) loses it in The Thing

Blair (Wilford Brimley) loses it in The Thing

The moment the Thing finally shows itself is as shocking as it is grotesque (“it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is” as Richard Masur’s Clark succinctly points out). It’s here the film could so easily have gone off the deep end, but it’s down to the then 22-year-old Rob Bottin’s sensational creature effects (assisted by veteran Stan Winston, who declined opening titles credit in order to give full kudos to Bottin) that it works so brilliantly.

Ask anyone what they remember most about The Thing and, more often than not, they’ll point to the scenes where the creature appears, most indelibly in the celebrated chest defibrillation scene, wherein David Clennon’s bewildered Palmer speaks for all of us when he sputters “you’ve gotta be f**king kidding…”.

"You've gotta be f**king kidding..."

“You’ve gotta be f**king kidding…”

The sense of encroaching paranoia and hopelessness (“Nobody trusts anybody now. There’s nothing else we can do; just wait.”) is amplified both by Ennio Morricone’s menacing synth score, built around a simple two-note structure, and the hugely impressive production design. While filmed mostly on artificially frozen sound stages in Los Angeles, the decision to also film on a purpose-built research station in British Columbia in the depths of winter pays off immensely. The location adds a desperate remoteness that underlines just how vulnerable and threatened the team are.

Led by Kurt Russell’s increasingly mad-eyed Macready, the film is chock full of memorable performances, in particular Wilford Brimley’s crazed Blair and Donald Muffat’s station leader Garry, who gets one of the film’s best lines when he says: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this f**king couch!”

Things start going very, very wrong in The Thing

Things start going very, very wrong in The Thing

It isn’t perfect; characters are implausibly sent off on their own instead of staying together and make other odd decisions in order to keep the film going, but master of suspense Carpenter outdoes himself by constantly turning the screw.

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience.