Split – A Review

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I’ve been going to the movies at a breakneck pace lately, trying to see all the probable Oscar contenders while they are still in the theater and easily accessible. This has been a more enjoyable Oscar death race than in previous years as, for the most part, I have really enjoyed everything that I’ve seen and while a lot of the movies are sad, they are not quite as soul-crushing as they have been in the past. I’ve done so well that on Saturday I decided to give myself a break and go to see a movie that has no chance at an Oscar, just for the fun of it. A palate cleanser, if you will, from all the very serious movies that I’ve been consuming. I decided to see Split, since the trailer had intrigued me and, because it was an M. Night Shyamalan film, before any spoilers became common knowledge. Because if M. Knight Shyamalan is known for one thing, it’s for his love of movie twists.

Shyamalan has had an uneven career – he put himself on the map with The Sixth Sense and followed that up with the solid Unbreakable. But after that, things got a lot more erratic; I personally like Signs, but that isn’t a universally held opinion, and The Village was something of a disappointment. People really hated Lady in the Water and The Happening and it’s been kind of downhill since. I don’t think I even know anyone who saw The Last Airbender. But I’m always rooting for Shyamalan to pull it together, even if his reliance on big reveals kind of takes the fun out of the big reveal. When you know a plot twist is coming, you spend a lot of time analyzing the movie trying to figure out what it’s going to be. And if you do figure out the surprise early, people get annoyed; I figured out the big secret of The Sixth Sense about ten minutes into the movie, much to the annoyance of everyone who was watching with me. They had all already seen it and I’d spend a year dodging any info about the movie until I finally saw it as a rental (this was back in 1999 when the rental was on VHS and you had to wait a really long time for movies to finally come out for home viewership). Everyone had been so excited to see my reaction upon learning the surprise, so my quick deduction of the situation took all the air out of the room. I still liked the movie just fine, even knowing the twist.

So I went into Spilt hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst; James McAvoy has been doing a lot of press for this movie, which can be a red flag, especially when the film is being released in January. And while Split is definitely not a perfect movie, I was relieved to find that Shyamalan put together a thrilling horror movie that mostly worked, thanks to very strong performances from McAvoy. The bar is set pretty low for what constitutes a Shyamalan success, but Split is a marked improvement from his recent offerings. I don’t know if this will lead to a Shyamalan renaissance or not, but it was a reminder of what he can do as a director. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this is a Shyamalan movie without a twist – or at least, without a twist as you’ve come to expect them.

Split is the story three young women, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) who are abducted after a birthday party. They are held captive by Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) who suffers with dissociative identity disorder and has 23 distinct personalities. These personalities take turn “in the light” controlling his behavior and his physiology changes with each identity. One of the personalities (Dennis) has kidnapped the girls to sacrifice them to “The Beast.” The young women try to figure out how to survive and how to navigate the many different personalities that they meet. Betty Buckley also stars as Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher.

This movie really rides or dies on McAvoy’s performance and he does a really impressive job of basically playing a handful of different characters (we don’t meet all the personalities). McAvoy finds the essence of each of these personalities and makes them feel like distinct and full realized people apart from them happening to share the same body. When Kevin is “Dennis”, “Patricia,” “Hedwig” and the other various personalities, McAvoy really does become a different character all together. He has to portray women, a nine year old boy, and various men. For Split to work, McAvoy needs to have the range to pull this off and he does so flawlessly. He’s also uniformly creepy, which helps add to the thriller atmosphere that Shyamalan is trying to cultivate. With a less capable actor, Split would be a disaster. McAvoy easily elevates Split and gives Shyamalan a lot to work with. Anna Taylor-Joy also deserves her recognition in her role as Casey. I was unfamiliar with her work prior to this movie, but she made an impression and has to do a lot of her own emotional heavy-lifting for the story to work.

The less I say about the details of the plot the better, but I’d argue that Split has a pretty strong first and second act, but doesn’t quite pull of the third act. This isn’t a film that cares a lot about closure or wrapping things up in a nice little bow, and while I normally have no issue with that, it isn’t executed well enough in Split for it to be satisfying or not feel a little messy. But what everyone will be talking about after seeing this movie is the Easter egg in the post credit scene. It occurs right after the film ends, so no need to stay in the theater for a long time, and it introduces an interesting concept. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but it definitely piqued my interest. If you aren’t sure what’s going on with the Easter egg, this will get you up to speed.

Split in an enjoyable enough movie that, while flawed, is elevated by the hard work that James McAvoy does in the film. This is a good M. Night Shyamalan movie, which may not exactly be considered high praise for those who have forgotten what Shyamalan is occasionally capable of. Split is a creepy little film that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but that was still entertaining. Fans of M. Night Shyamalan will be relieved to something of a return to form and will be very excited of the potential of what this film represents. This was a nice little break from my Oscar death race, though my enjoyment of it overall was probably moderately impacted by the fact that I saw it in the middle of watching so many stronger movies. If hearing that Shyamalan is attached to a project usually keeps you away, Split is a step in the right direction for redeeming his image. Shyamalan owes James McAvoy big-time for that. He should at least send him a muffin basket.

Split is currently showing nationwide.

X-Men: Apocalypse – A Review

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Apocalypse – I really had higher hopes for you.

When the next villain was teased at the end of the confusingly titled X-Men: Days of Future Past, I was intrigued despite not knowing much about who Apocalypse was. The idea of a villain that was also a god had real potential, despite the fact that I knew he obviously would be vanquished as that’s kind of how these movies play out and these films take place before the original X-men movies, where no reference to Apocalypse is made. My comic book loving friends were also relatively pumped for the arrival of Apocalypse and his four horsemen (horsepeople?), so while I knew the ultimate outcome would be in the favor of the X-Men, I thought that Apocalypse would provide them with a real challenge.

Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse was ultimately disappointing. There were brief moments of excitement and fun, but this franchise is really beginning to show signs of fatigue. For me, it was too much of what we’ve seen in other X-Men movies without much personality or originality to liven things up a bit. There are only so many times that you can see the same basic character beats and plot lines play out before you get bored and I think Apocalypse was that point for me. Even the actors seemed pretty uninterested in what was unfolding around them; when you have Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy at your disposal, the end product should be a lot more interesting.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens in ancient Egypt, where Apocalypse (Isaac), believed to be the first mutant, rules. He is betrayed by some of his worshipers and entombed until being awakened in the 1980s. He isn’t on board with modern life and decides that he needs to destroy the world in order to save it (questionable logic at best). He then sets out to recruit his four “horsemen” to assist him, including Magneto (Fassbender), who has been a fugitive since the events at the end of Days of Future Past, which have made Mystique (Lawrence) something of a folk hero. Apocalypse also wants to tap in the powers of Professor Xavier (McAvoy) and…well, a bunch of other convoluted stuff happens. Needless to say, the good guy mutants want to put an end to Apocalypse’s plans for world domination. X-Men: Apocalypse also marks the first introduction of young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and new mutants Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Jubilee (Lana Condor). Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Lucas Till, Evan Peters and Josh Helman all reprise their characters from previous X-Men films.

At this point, the X-Men franchise really needs to find a new direction to go in, so it’s not lather, rinse, and repeat with these storylines. Magneto is always a bad guy…until he isn’t. We’ve been watching Xavier try to save his friend for nearly 16 years now and it’s getting a little boring – especially since we know that this battle will wage on for the foreseeable future of the franchise as this tension was at the heart of the original X-Men film. The same goes for Mystique, who we know won’t stick with the good side either. The allegiances in these films are so flimsy and the character arcs are simply rehashing the same issues that we’ve already seen play out several times already. The introduction of the new mutants might add some interesting dynamics if they were actually given something to do; Psylocke and Angel have maybe 10 lines between the two of them in the film; we know very little about them or what their motivations are in this whole fight. Munn is definitely a bad-ass, but I couldn’t have told you her character name without looking it up. There are so many characters in play that they have a tough time servicing all of them; I would have much preferred learning more about some of these new characters than dealing with the Magneto/Xavier dynamic for the hundredth time. If you have Jennifer Lawrence locked up under contract, you should probably actually use her. She doesn’t have much to do in Apocalypse, to the detriment of the movie.

A lot of these issues wouldn’t have been so problematic if they had done more with Apocalypse. Oscar Isaac is unrecognizable in the role, both because he’s hidden under all the blue makeup and because there is absolutely no trace of his charisma or charm. Despite his backstory, Apocalypse isn’t the big bad that I was hoping that he would be. Not only is what he is really trying to accomplish a bit unclear, but he seems to take a pretty haphazard attitude in reaching his goals. His recruitment of his “horsemen” is random at best; if I was putting a team together to destroy the world, I might want to do more research beyond “these are the first four mutants that I came across.” I’m not really sure what Angel is bringing to the table and I will never be convinced that Storm is a real threat. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to recruit some of the most powerful mutants out there, but he probably should have put more thought into the whole thing. In all honestly, I could probably have taken Apocalypse out, and my superpower is just being snarky.

None of this is the fault of the actors, who do the best with what they’re given. There are also some nice fight sequences in the film that liven things up a bit, which is what you need in a movie like this. But it’s saying a lot that the most memorable and fun sequence in the film involved Quicksilver (Peters) and is basically a carbon copy of the scene that he had in Days of Future Past. Even the best part of Apocalypse is a retread.

Some other thoughts:

  • All these decade jumps make it very hard to keep track of how old everyone is supposed to be. Vulture investigates and not surprisingly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
  • I think they missed a real cross-promotional possibility by not using Metallica’s “My Apocalypse” somewhere in this movie.
  • A lot of criticism has been levied at one scene in particular in the movie.
  • Since I’m such a big Game of Thrones fan, I had a tough time seeing Sophie Turner disappear into the role of Jean Grey. Mostly, I was hoping she would get to keep those powers as Sansa Stark, which would be a pretty big game changer for her Game of Thrones character.
  • I wouldn’t want to be an X-Man, not because I wouldn’t want the powers, but because they seem to have no fun at all. There is absolutely no joy in any of these characters; I’m sure being a mutant is hard, but there’s got to be some fun to be had as well.
  • There was a post-credits sequence that made absolutely nothing to me. Screenrant explains what it all meant.

Honestly, X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t a bad movie, just kind of a boring one. It’s too much of the same old that we’ve seen throughout the franchise, which means that it’s predictable and showing signs of fatigue. They need to find a new angle or something new to say in order to breathe some new life into these films; they were able to do that when they did X-Men: First Class but that concept seems to have run its course. They should either clean house and focus more on new mutants or perhaps make a villain that lasts for more than one movie – anything that would shake up the same basic formula that these films are regurgitating with little variation. So many superhero movies are cranked out now every year that you really have to do something different to stand out. X-Men: Apocalypse was a perfectly serviceable superhero movie, but ultimately is just recycled storylines from previous X-Men movies. Hopefully this is a transition movie that will eventually lead to something a little more original or interesting down the road. Otherwise, this may be a franchise that will coast on fumes for a while.

X-Men: Apocalypse is currently showing nationwide.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – A Review

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“Let’s do the time warp again”

It seems like a required rule that at some point in a long running franchise or series there will be some mucking around in the space/time continuum. It may be something as simple as a flashback scene that helps to flesh out a story, fill in some missing information or help to round out a character that doesn’t have any lasting impact on the larger story arc. These momentary peeks into the past or future do not ultimately alter the timeline of the story. The more adventurous forays into time travel are more complicated, but they also have longer lasting consequences. While Friends flashing back to the high school prom served only as a reminder of how long Ross has love Rachel, films like Back to the Future and Looper illustrate the butterfly effect of moving through time – change anything while in the past and there is a ripple effect that can greatly impact the present.

I was excited for X-Men: Days of Future Past, since I greatly enjoy this franchise, but I was also a little wary. I don’t have the best track record with movies that involve time travel and there is always the very real possibility that moving through the past is just a gimmick to basically reboot the franchise. Characters can be brought back to life and existing characters may be altered. I don’t have a problem with that per se, except when it is done in a lazy manner, which I was not particularly concerned about for this film since the plot is loosely borrowed from a very popular storyline in the comic books. Execution in and of itself wasn’t as worrisome as the inherent complication that comes with these sorts of narratives – the rules and regulation for time travel and its impacts vary from movie to movie (and occasionally within a movie), often resulting in a confusing mess that is difficult to keep track of. So I went into Days of Future Past anxious to see the X-men again, but skeptical that I was going to be able to keep track of everything that was going on. Add in a very large cast of characters to draw from and the fact that I was going to a late screening when my mind was tired and this was a legitimate concern. I just didn’t want to be confused.

I am very happy to report that it wasn’t an issue; there may be some moments in the story that stretch credibility and logic, but for the most part Days of Future Past is such a fun and entertaining ride that it doesn’t much matter. The time travel aspect is fairly easy to follow and allows the filmmakers to figure out how to bridge the original X-Men trilogywith X-Men: First Class. It also permits them to cherry pick the biggest stars from both periods of the franchise – I call this the Jennifer Lawrence effect – and the audience gets to have its cake and eat it too, with two versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. It’s obviously very early, but I have to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the early frontrunner for my favorite movie of the summer. I just had a really good time.

When we first meet up with the X-men in the film, the future is looking pretty bleak. Mutants and the humans that support them are being exterminated by Sentinels, giant robots that are able to morph and adapt to various mutant powers. A small band of X-men have been able to elude capture by using Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) ability to send people’s consciousness back into their younger selves to warn them of imminent attack. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professer Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hatch a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to stop the Sentinels from being created by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and prevent this dystopian future from happening. He’ll need to recruit the younger versions of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy) to help him, a difficult prospect as the two were not exactly pals back in 1973. However, he’ll need them both to reach Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who is the key to everything. This all may sound a little confusing, but I assure that it is easy to follow on the big screen.

What I liked in particular about X-Men: Days of Future Past is that it does a really nice job of balancing both action and story. There are some fun and engaging fight scenes in the film, as to be expected from a summer comic book movie and the effects are top notch. It’s a thrilling ride and well-executed. But none of the explosions and battles would mean much if there wasn’t something behind it – that’s something that a lot of summer blockbusters still haven’t figured out. This is not a problem in Days of Future Past because the characters are so well defined and there is still room for additional character growth and real emotion. These mutants might be able to control people’s minds or instantly heal themselves, but they are also going through some stuff. It also doesn’t hurt that Days of Future Past has a pretty stellar cast, boasting multiple Oscar winners and other excellent thespians. When you have that kind of bench to draw from, you can go deeper with your characters and trust that your actors will be able to deliver – which they uniformly do. Many of these actors have also played these characters in multiple films – I think this is Jackman’s seventh time out as Wolverine – so they understand who these characters are and their motivations. That added dimension helps invest you in all the action sequences, because you actually have some investment in what happens to these mutants. The visual imagery never outweighs the story.

I also appreciated the more pared down focus of this film – there are a lot of X-men and it is easy to get bogged down with so many characters to juggle. Days of Future Past is smart about it; while many members of the X-Men universe turn up throughout the film, a lot of them are simple role players. It’s a nice way to have the best of both worlds – we get to see some old friends, but the film doesn’t worry about giving everyone a story line or a moment to shine. All the characters are there to support the greater good, which is a tight and fun action movie. The obvious candidates take center stage, but other characters get some smaller individual moments. This paring down is essential – failure to do so would result in a sprawling story that in attempting to service everyone wouldn’t do right by anyone.

This leaner and meaner X-men story means that there is room to introduce some new characters. While the character of Trask isn’t particularly well defined, Peter Dinklage is such a freaking force of nature that it really doesn’t matter that he is just “evil scientist guy.” He lights up the screen in every scene that he is in and has such charisma that he makes way more of Trask than was probably on the page. That man is a national treasure. Evan Peters, best known for American Horror Story, also steals most scenes that he is in and provides some fantastic comic relief. I don’t believe they ever call his character by his mutant name, but fans of the comics (or people who read the Internet like I do) will know who he is. A great addition to the cast.

Some other thoughts:

  • Hugh Jackman gets naked in this one for no real reason, but it was much appreciated.
  • I do have one bone to pick with Marvel – Evan Peters character is ALSO played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the upcoming Avengers movie. That is way too confusing; I have enough to keep track of without two different actors playing the same guy in movies that are released pretty close to one another. Stop hurting my head, Marvel!
  • I enjoy The Pete Holmes Show sketches where he fires the X-Men. The latest is Magneto:

 

The bonus of having a large junk of the film set in the 70s? We already know from American Hustle that J-Law looks great in the clothes!

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All in all, X-Men: Days of Future Past was a very enjoyable cinematic experience. The return of director Bryan Singer brought a steadying hand to a franchise that was starting to wobble and the end result is an entertaining and action packed film that breathes some fresh life into the series. The cast, writers and director have figured out how to balance the humanity of these characters with their inhuman abilities and create a well-rounded film. There are some moments that slightly defy logic, but you are having so much fun that you don’t even care that everything might not hold water under closer examination. Definitely one of the better X-men entries in the film canon; not only did I like Days of Future Past, but I am more excited for X-Men: Apocalypse. Go see this film, bub.