Monthly Archives: January 2017

Getting Crowded In Here

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ spins a devilish multi-personality web

Film Title: Split

Split
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy & Betty Buckley
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
PG-13
In theaters Jan. 20, 2017

Most actors work for years to get single juicy part in a major movie. Not everyone is as lucky as James McAvoy.

In the thriller Split, the Scottish star—best known for his portrayal of Professor Xavier in the X-Men movie franchise—gets almost two dozen, all at once.

As Kevin, a deeply disturbed young man with “dissociative identity disorder,” sometimes he’s Mr. Glass, a fastidious maintenance man. At other times he’s Hedwig, an unbridled 9-year-old boy; or Miss Patricia, a cross-dressing matriarch, or Dennis, Orwell, Jade, Norma, Hamlet or one of his other distinct personalities, 23 in all, each with his own manner of speaking, dressing, walking and talking.

Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley

The title refers to all those different personas, split into separate slices. Kevin—or is it Dennis?—is seeing his longtime psychiatrist (veteran actress Betty Buckley), Dr. Fletcher, who’s trying to sort them—and him—all out. She considers him a puzzle and a prime example of the mysteries of the mind.

But Kevin also has a much darker side: Dr. Fletcher has no idea that he’s also a psychopath who’s kidnapped three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sulu) and is holding them captive in a subterranean lair. Where are they? What he’s planning on doing with them—or to them? Can they escape? What—or who—is “the beast” he keeps telling them about? Why does he keep talking about “purity” and “evolution”?

Director M. Night Shyamalan is practically a brand name unto himself, known for his twists, turns and last-minute surprises in movies like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, Lady in the Water and The Visit. Here he takes somewhat standard horror movie stereotypes—teenage girls stripped to their undies, tormented by a crazy, creepy guy—but gives them a unique, Shyamalan-ian spin, and he doesn’t take the story where you’re probably thinking it’s headed…or where other movies with similar setups have gone.

Mental health professionals may disagree with the director, who also wrote the screenplay, especially about whether childhood traumas and suffering can “unlock the brain to the unknown and the supernatural.” That, you might remember, was somewhat of a theme in Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable (2000), starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

But you certainly can’t deny Shyamalan’s imagination and his style. He weaves a devilishly demented web of clues, and you never know exactly where he’s going until he gets there. And when he does—well, hang on. It gets wild, in more ways than one.

Anya Taylor-Joy

Anya Taylor-Joy

As the lead hostage, Casey, Anya Taylor-Joy (terrific in last year’s breakout horror movie The Witch) proves her resourcefulness—mainly because of a backstory, explained and unfolded in flashbacks that reveal how her own childhood “scars” gave her some formidable survival skills.

But this is McAvoy’s show, as he switches from one “alter” to another, sometimes in a single scene. It’s a bravura acting job, unsettling and terrifying. Taylor-Joy gives a great performance in a role that calls on Casey to contain her panic, call on her past and confront more than one kind of beast.

Shyamalan, known for his final-scene shockers, saves a whopper for the very end. I won’t give it away, but I will say it made me wonder if the director might be thinking that Split could be split off into even more films, bridging Shyamalan’s own movie past with his future. Based on what I’ve seen, I say start splitting, Mr. S!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sounds of ‘Silence’

Martin Scorsese’s epic new drama looks for God, not gangsters

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in 'Silence.'

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in ‘Silence.’

Silence
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver & Liam Neeson
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R
In wide release Jan. 13, 2017

The director best known for hoods, gangsters and thugs turns his eyes to God in this epic tale of two Catholic priests who face persecution and death as they travel to Japan in the 17th century to spread their Christian faith.

Martin Scorsese, the cinematic maestro whose iconic work includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, transforms the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo into a sprawling historical drama about faith, centered on God’s “silence” in the face of human suffering.

In the movie, two young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail across the globe to Japan to seek their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). In the Land of the Rising Sun, Christianity has been outlawed, Ferreira is missing and there are rumors that he’s dead—or worse, that he’s renounced his faith, or apostatized, and become a Buddhist monk.

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

And in Japan, talk about a “war on Christians”: Local villagers are rounded up and subjected to various heinous tortures if they do not publicly disown their faith—crucified in the ocean, burned alive, beheaded, scalded with hot water, hung upside down and slowly bled to death.

When a missionary priest is captured, he’s forced to watch the torture until—unless—he will apostatize and publically denounce and deface his God.

For Rodrigues and Garrpe, this is no exotic Japanese vacation—it’s some 350 years before Disneyland Tokyo, BTW—and they are the only two Catholic priests on the whole island. How far, and how long, can they spread the seeds of their faith without being caught? Can they find out what happened to Father Ferreira? Can they come to understand why a benevolent, loving God continues to let Christians suffer, if holding on to faith is worth all the terrible pain it causes—or if God is even listening at all to their prayers?

These are big, unwieldy questions, and Scorsese tackles them head-on. Silence is a big, sometimes unwieldy movie. It’s two hours and 40 minutes long. Its majestic cinematic scope, grand scale and thorny theological themes will probably put it out of the mainstream, at least for a lot of viewers, down at the multiplex. And it doesn’t have one single note of music, even on the opening or closing credits; it begins and ends with the sounds of nature, a symphony of crickets and frogs.

But it looks gorgeous. Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, his collaborator on Gangs of New York and Casino, and Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (Hugo, The Aviator, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Scorsese depicts Japan as a lush, sprawling wonderland. Even the film’s horrors have a savage, artful beauty, like modern-day movie paintings of Christian martyrs rendered on the big screen.

SILENCEAndrew Garfield is having a great run, coming off director Mel Gibson’s critically acclaimed Hacksaw Ridge and now right into this role, making a back-to-back pair of exceptionally strong performances that show his depth and range. Adam Driver continues to impress, and I was disappointed when his character was dismissed halfway through the movie to go his separate way. He’s a much more interesting actor than Garfield, but Garfield has better hair, so hey, I get it.

But one of the movie’s most memorable performances comes from Asian TV veteran Issey Ogata. As the ominously nicknamed Japanese “Inqisitor,” Inoue Massashige, he gives forceful pushback to Rodrigues and his message of Christian evangelism. By turns sinister and menacing, comical and humorous, and sympathetic and pragmatic, he’s one of the film’s most compelling, complex and pivotal characters.

“Am I just praying to nothing, because you are not there?” Rodrigues, near madness, asks God at one point. It’s one of the questions that ring deep and long in the powerful, potently quiet spaces of Silence, long after the last cricket chirp has faded away.

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Boston Strong

Mark Wahlberg leads all-star cast in drama built around 2013 Boston bombings 

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Patriots Day
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Melissa Benoist, Alex Wolff & J.K. Simmons
Directed by Peter Berg
R
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

After escaping an exploding oil rig just a couple of months ago in Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg is now back on the job as Boston police officer, hobbled with a bad knee and thrust into the middle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Both Deepwater Horizon, based on the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and Patriots Day were directed by Peter Berg, who also worked with Wahlberg on Lone Survivor, the 2013 true-life military drama about a team of U.S. Navy SEALs on a mission to capture a notorious Taliban leader.

The two Bergs seem to have a thing for real-life action sagas.

An ambitious, sprawling, detailed dramatization of the events around the bombings that killed three people and injured more than 250 others at the 2013 Boston Marathon, Patriots Day takes its title from the Massachusetts state holiday on which the iconic race has been run for more than a century.

Director Berg, aided significantly by the gritty, street-level, you-are-there cinematography of veteran lensman Tobias Schliessler, packs some serious multiplex meat to the factual framework of the widely reported contemporary event, one that received massive media coverage at the time. He creates a gripping, freshly compelling story by first introducing us to a wide variety of characters that we come to care about, each of whom is intricately woven into the narrative tapestry as the movie unfolds, creating a stirring theme of “Boston strong.”

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg & John Goodman dig into the case.

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg & John Goodman dig into the case.

Walhberg gets top billing as Boston police Sgt. Tommy Saunders (a composite character based on several real individuals), who becomes key to the investigation as it becomes a citywide manhunt for the suspects. He’s surrounded by a terrific cast in a spectrum of supporting roles, including Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Termo Melikidze) and his younger brother Jahar (Alex Wolff), who carried the homemade, pressure-cooker explosives in their backpacks before leaving them in the crowd close to the marathon’s finish line.

John Goodman plays Boston Police Commission Ed Davis. Kevin Bacon is FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers, who steps in when the bombing is declared an act of terrorism. J.K. Simmons hovers around the edges as Jeffrey Pugliese, the police sergeant in Watertown, outside Boston, until the fleeing suspects finally arrive there to meet their violent Waterloo.

Melissa Benoist gives a chilling performance, far away from her good-girl type as TV’s Supergirl, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s white, Boston-born Muslim-convert girlfriend. Khandi Alexander (who played Maya Lewis on TV’s Scandal) is riveting as an “undercover” interrogator.

Other, lesser-known actors portray the movie’s real heroes, like Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the MIT campus policeman who refused to let the terrorists take his service revolver, even after they’d shot him. Jimmy O. Yang (from HBO’s Silicon Valley) plays a young Chinese-immigrant college student whose path fatefully crossed with the bombers after the marathon.

Rachel Broshahan (Rachel Posner on the Netflix series House of Cards) and Christopher O’Shea (Jareth Glover on TV’s Madam Secretary) portray newlywed race spectators who were both seriously injured in the explosions but survived. Their mini-story is one of the movie’s most moving, and bookends its overlay of hope, resilience and community-wide, real-life rebound.

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Michelle Monaghan

Definitely stay for the epilogue, when you’ll meet some of the real people—including Jessica and Patrick—depicted in the film.

“These images in my head,” Walhberg’s character tells his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in the bombing’s horrific aftermath, “they ain’t goin’ away.” The powerful images in Patriots Day will linger with for with you for a while, too. But so will its bigger, uplifting depiction of a town and its citizens united—healing, tougher than ever and determined to not let the bad guys win—after an almost unthinkable tragedy.

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You Rang?

‘A Monster Calls’ scares away terrors of childhood

A MONSTER CALLS

A Monster Calls
Starring Lucas MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver & the voice of Liam Neeson
Directed by J.A. Bayona
PG-13

J.A. Bayona knows that childhood can be a scary, perilous time.

The Spanish director’s first major movie, The Orphanage (2007), was a poignant, unnerving haunted-house horror tale about ghosts of the deep past. His second, The Impossible (2012), swept a couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three children away in the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Now A Monster Calls finds a 12-year-old boy, Conor (Lucas MacDougall), visited in the night by a giant “tree monster” who tells him a series of stories to help him cope with the inevitable consequences of his mother’s incurable cancer and the bullying of his schoolmates.

_MG_5478.CR2Is the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) a fantasy creature from Conor’s dreams, a figment of his fertile imagination, or one of his pencil drawings come magically to life?

Like the ancient, towering tree that “becomes” the monster every night, just past midnight at exactly 12:07 a.m., there’s a lot going on both above the surface and beneath it in this beautiful-looking film of great depth, heart and soul. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a boy and his mom (Felicity Jones, who’s terrific), and how he gets tangled up by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), who’s now remarried and living stateside.

Not to mention those bullies, who tease and threaten him, push him around, ambush him in the schoolyard and debase his artwork.

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Felicity Jones plays Conor’s mom.

Conor is haunted by a recurring nightmare about being on the maw of a dark, seemingly bottomless pit, where he’s holding on for dear life to the hand of his mother, who’s fallen over the edge. Curled up one evening on the couch with her, watching King Kong on late-night TV, it’s no wonder Conor can relate to the great beast, dogged by biplanes peppering him with gunfire until he can no longer hold on to the top of the Empire State Building. The mighty Kong loses his grip and falls to his death.

Conor’s eyes fill with tears and he asks his mom why Kong had to die. Why did people hate him? Why did they kill him? “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” she tells him.

A MONSTER CALLSYoung people will certainly be able to relate to Conor and his plight, an adolescent symphony of anger, resentment and righteous rage that will ring true in a variety of circumstances. Grownups will appreciate the movie’s craftwork and gorgeous artistry, especially when the monster tells Conor his stories; each one is a mini-parable with a lesson, illustrated and animated differently.

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. If they more of them were as cool as a storytelling tree that sounded like Liam Neeson, maybe the world might not seem like such a scary place.

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Space Racers

Spotlighting black female brain power that boosted America’s space program

DF-03283_R3 - Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in ‘Hidden Figures.’

Hidden Figures
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe & Kevin Costner
Directed by Theodore Melfi
PG
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

Behind every successful man, the old saying goes—as archaic and sexist as it may be—there’s a woman.

In the case of this movie, it’s literally, historically true.

Hidden Figures is the story of a group of black women who broke through racial and gender barriers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to work as mathematicians and other number crunchers and help NASA get America’s first astronauts, and its space program, off the ground.

In the pre-digital age, there were known as human “computers,” doing complex calculations about flight trajectories, orbit, reentry, splashdown and recovery with pencils, paper and pure brain power.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe star as their real-life counterparts Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner is the director of the Space Task Group, spurring his engineers to find a way ahead of the Soviets, who’ve already moved into an early lead in the space race. If you got a rousing rah-rah pep talk from the guy from Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Draft Day and McFarland, USA, wouldn’t it make you push that pencil just a little bit harder, a little bit later into the night, to beat the ruskies?

Jim Parsons—Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory—plays another egghead, time-shifted here to suit the situation: He’s a prickly lead engineer wary of a woman—and a Negro woman, at that—coming into his group. As the gentlemanly military man who courts Johnson, Mahershala Ali continues to add to his growing resume, on top of his breakout in the movie Moonlight and his recurring appearances in TV’s Luke Cage and House of Cards. Kristin Dunst is a supervisor who struggles to overcome the era’s hurdles separating employees into whites and coloreds.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the "computers," the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the “computers,” the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

Glen Powell plays young hotshot astronaut John Glenn, who won’t get into his space capsule for blastoff until NASA brings in Johnson to double-check the crucial—life or death—math on his orbit and re-entry.

But the clearly movie belongs to its three central stars, and director Theodore Melfi (who also directed Bill Murray in the wonderful St. Vincent) gives them all plenty of room to shine in a story that oozes inspiration and rings with righteous pride, thanks to the zippy, well-rounded script by Melfi and Alison Schroder, based on the nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all bring spunk, sass, heart and humor to their roles.

The title “hidden figures” refers to just how deep behind the scenes women like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were at NASA—and elsewhere—in the early 1960s. Even though their contributions proved to be immense to the space program, they were practically “lost” in a sea of white men in white shirts. But it also refers to the math required to get America into space and headed to the moon—numbers “that aren’t there yet,” as Costner’s character tells Johnson, calculations so advanced, they hadn’t been invented, figures waiting somewhere yet to be found.

Katherine Johnson was the woman who found them.

The movie tells the “hidden” story of three super-smart, headstrong women who made tremendous strides in a time of shameful segregation and civil unrest, a time when a group of black women helped white men get into space—but couldn’t use the same bathrooms, coffeepots, water fountains or schools.

Three women, it reminds us, who had another kind of “the right stuff.”

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