D: M. Night Shyamalan / 117m
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Izzie Coffey
After a party at their local mall, birthday girl Claire (Richardson) and her friend Marcia (Sula) offer withdrawn classmate and pity invite Casey (Taylor-Joy), a ride home. But in the car park, a stranger (McAvoy) gets in the car instead of Claire’s father, and he uses a spray to render the three girls unconscious. When they wake, they find themselves in a locked basement room, but otherwise unhurt. Their abductor, Dennis, tells them that they’ll be perfectly safe, as long as they don’t try to escape; they’ve been taken because “someone” is coming. Meanwhile, Dennis attends therapy sessions with Dr Karen Fletcher (Buckley), but when he does he’s called Barry, and he’s a different personality altogether. And this is the point: Dennis and Barry are just two of twenty-three personalities living in the body of the man known as Kevin Wendell Crumb.
With one of the personalities sending urgent e-mails to Dr Fletcher on a regular basis, but Barry assuring her everything is okay, she suspects something has happened that has prompted this cry for help. As she attempts to work out just what that something might be, the girls make an attempt at escaping. Claire manages to get out of the room they’re in but she’s soon captured and locked in a separate room; the same fate eventually befalls Marcia. Casey tries to strike up a relationship with another of Kevin’s multiple personalities, a nine year old boy called Hedwig. He warns her that the “someone” who is coming is actually known as the Beast, and as Hedwig adds quite cheerfully, “He’s done awful things to people and he’ll do awful things things to you.” With Casey and Dr Fletcher arriving at the truth of things from different angles, it’s still down to the three girls to find a way out and back to safety before the Beast arrives.
With each new M. Night Shyamalan movie, it seems everyone is in agreement: he’s making better movies now from when he used to make absolute tosh like The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010). But while that may be true (and to make movies worse than either of those mentioned would be a feat in itself), it’s also true that he’s still not anywhere near to making movies as accomplished as The Sixth Sense (1999), or fan favourite, Unbreakable (2000). But while he’s still got a way to go, Split is certainly a good indication that he’s getting there. He’s helped in no small part by McAvoy’s incredibly detailed and nuanced performances as seven of Wendell’s multiple personalities, and Taylor-Joy’s practical captive with a relevant back story.
But while his cast go to great lengths to make his story at least halfway credible, and Shyamalan himself directs with great skill, as a writer he still manages to stumble too often for comfort, and the script fails to answer several important questions, the main one being, why is Hedwig’s drawing of the Beast not even remotely like the version we see towards the end – and especially after Dr Fletcher asserts that “an individual with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with their thoughts”? (Oh, really?) It’s about time that Shyamalan let somebody else write the script because it’s the one area in which he consistently lets himself, and his movies, down. In the end, it’s all nonsense, but it could have been much more enjoyable nonsense, and McAvoy’s dexterous performances could have been part of a better showcase for his talents.
Rating: 6/10 – let down by a script that starts off strong then slowly but surely runs out of steam and ideas by the halfway mark, Split still qualifies as a stepping stone on the path of Shyamalan’s rehabilitation as a quality movie maker; McAvoy is terrific, the eerie nature of the basement rooms makes for a good mise en scène, and then there’s that final scene, which, depending on your love for a certain movie, will either have you whooping with joy, or wailing in despair.
Andrew Garfield, Charlie Hunnam, Desmond T. Doss, Fantasy, Guy Ritchie, Hacksaw Ridge, James McAvoy, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson, Previews, Psychological thriller, Split, Trailers, True story, War
If you don’t know who Desmond T. Doss was, then prepare to be amazed. The trailer for Hacksaw Ridge introduces us to a man whose pacifist leanings led to his being the only non-weapons carrying member of the US Army during World War II, and who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage in rescuing over seventy-five men during the Battle of Okinawa. It’s an incredible tale, and judging from the trailer this could very well be in contention for a whole slew of awards once it goes on general release in November 2016. Advance word is overwhelmingly positive, and many people who’ve seen the movie already are praising its director, Mel Gibson – making his first movie behind the camera since Apocalypto (2006) – for the way in which he presents both the intensity and horror of the conflict on Okinawa, and Doss’s personal faith and its effect on the men around him. Andrew Garfield looks to have finally found a movie that allows him to step up to the mark in terms of his acting ability, and there’s advance word that Vince Vaughn (seen briefly here as a drill sergeant) gives his best performance yet in a movie. If all this early praise is to be believed, then this could prove to be one of the finest war movies ever made, and a reminder that Gibson, whatever his personal problems in recent years, is still a damn fine movie maker.
The latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, Split looks like an attempt at making a disturbing psychological thriller based around the notion that a kidnapper with multiple personalities – 23, in fact – is doing so at the behest of the strongest, most fearful personality of the lot… the Beast. It remains to be seen if Shyamalan can pull off this particular storyline with anything like the degree of credibility it needs (and having James McAvoy playing the central character, Kevin(!), will certainly help his chances), or if the mechanics of the narrative will require McAvoy to shift personalities at too rapid a speed for things to remain plausible. This being Shyamalan, it’s hard to tell, but what can be discerned from Split‘s first trailer is that he’s going for a taut, gripping viewing experience, the kind he hasn’t really tried before, and one without any supernatural elements either. It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan as a writer/director, but The Visit (2015) was a welcome semi-return to form, and he’s such a strong, distinctive, visually arresting director that it’s about time his skills as a writer were able to once again match those he has as a director.
At first sight, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword looks like a spirited romp through an alternative Arthurian timeline, one where the fabled King begins life as a child of the streets, but still ends up removing Excalibur from its stone and ruling a kingdom. And while there’s nothing remotely wrong with the idea of retelling the Arthur legend in such a way, what is obviously, clearly, undoubtedly, unquestionably and visibly wrong here is the way in which that idea has been executed. Guy Ritchie may be a very talented director, and he may have assembled a very talented cast – Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and, erm, David Beckham – but the tone of the movie is plainly off by a country mile. Martial arts fight sequences, modern day humour, large-scale battle sequences straight out of the Peter Jackson Middle Earth Playbook, and a visual style that apes any number of other fantasy movies made in recent years; all these aspects and more make the movie feel derivative and lacking in originality. While it’s evidently been created with the intention of being one of 2017’s must-see tentpole movies, here’s a prediction: come next March we’ll all be asking the same question, “Why, Guy, why?”
D: M. Night Shyamalan / 94m
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger
If you’re M. Night Shyamalan, and your career has become known more for the disappointing movies you’ve made rather than the global box office success of your third feature, then what do you do? Do you plug away at the kind of movies you like to make, where there’s a twist in the tail every time, or do you try something different? And what do you do if “different” still doesn’t work?
Well, if you are M. Night Shyamalan, then you keep coming back to the kind of movie that brought you international fame and fortune in the first place. You keep tweeking the idea to be sure, but in the end it’s the same mystery set up with a twist at the end designed to make viewers gasp, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” The only problem with that approach though, is that viewers will be expecting the twist and trying to work it out from the word go. The beauty of The Sixth Sense (1999) was that it was a movie with so little fanfare that when the truth about Bruce Willis’s character was revealed, audiences were properly surprised. But now, audiences are that much more savvy, and getting something past them like that is even more difficult.
But Shyamalan is a trier, and he certainly doesn’t give up easily. And so we have The Visit, his latest venture as writer/director, and a movie that is two parts Tales from the Crypt and one part The Twilight Zone. The set up is pretty simple: single mom (Hahn) decides to send her two young children – Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) – to visit their grandparents for the first time. Mom is estranged from her parents, but feels it will be good for her kids to meet them and build a relationship with them. Becca decides to film the trip and their stay, both as a record of the occasion and as part of a larger school project.
When they arrive at their grandparents’ place, they find Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie) to be a pleasant, welcoming couple. However, it’s not long before they begin to realise that Nana and Pop-Pop might have a few issues related to their age. Nana exhibits strange behaviour during the night, from wandering (apparently) aimlessly through the house to scratching at the wall outside their room – and without any clothes on either. But Pop-Pop explains that Nana isn’t too well, and Becca and Tyler sympathise and continue their stay – even after they play hide and seek under the house and find Nana under there with them and chasing them on all fours.
But Pop-Pop also exhibits some strange behaviour. He keeps going out to the shed each day and depositing a package there. Tyler investigates and finds that Pop-Pop has his own problems. And still the children continue their stay, even as they begin to suspect that good old Nana and Pop-Pop might not be in the best of mental and/or physical health. FaceTime calls with their mom don’t help, as she’s focused on the holiday she’s enjoying with her new man. But as the week of their stay progresses, events become more unnerving and both Becca and Tyler begin to look forward to going home, just as Nana and Pop-Pop begin to think it might be a good idea if they stayed longer.
Let’s get the twist out of the way. It comes along with roughly fifteen minutes to go, and for seasoned veterans of this kind of movie, will have been guessed a long time before then. It’s not a particularly difficult twist to work out – Shyamalan provides enough clues – and when it comes it’s done in a suitably effective way. But while some viewers may feel it’s an unnecessary turn of events, advance knowledge actually doesn’t make the movie any less effective (as far as that goes). What it does do though is give Shyamalan the chance to ramp up the tension of the last ten minutes and inject some much needed energy.
The Visit lives or dies by how convincing the children’s reaction to their grandparents’ behaviour is. Today, with children being a lot more aware of the wider world around them, and of what is and isn’t right, being holed up with a couple of elderly people who exhibit bizarre behaviour that might lead to their being violent, doesn’t seem like something that two kids of Tyler and Becca’s intelligence would endure (even for their mom’s sake). But they do, and in reality we wouldn’t have a movie if they didn’t, but equally, in reality they would have been out of there the moment they saw Nana scratching at the walls in the all-together. Shyamalan is clever enough to invoke the sympathy card but when Becca surprises Pop-Pop “cleaning” his rifle, they still opt to wait out the week.
Suspension of disbelief is pretty much a standard requirement for horror thrillers, and The Visit requires it just as much as any other, similar movie. But here the basic set up is so banal, so bland, that when events become disturbing and threatening, Shyamalan can’t come up with a convincing reason for the kids to stay. And he’s not helped by the decision to use the found footage approach, which leads to several moments where suspension of disbelief is not only required but stretched to its limits (just how many times can a camera be dropped/left in exactly the right place to record things?).
But while the movie’s more sinister elements aren’t entirely successful, with several references to Grimm’s Fairy Tales added to the mix, where Shyamalan does succeed is with his cast. DeJonge and Oxenbould are terrific as the children, siblings who fight and argue with each other all the time but who are clearly devoted to each other at the same time. Becca is a budding cineaste and talks about movie making as if she were an auteur; DeJonge captures the child’s need to feel and be treated like an adult with surprising precision. Tyler’s wannabe rapper feels like a way for him to deal with not having a father, and Oxenbould gives Tyler a wonderful braggadocio in these moments (even if his rapping is awful). As Nana and Pop-Pop, Dunagan and McRobbie don’t overplay their “issues” and prove remarkably effective at providing the chills beneath the sweetness of the couple’s exterior affability.
Made on a small budget but with a degree of creativity that makes the movie a lot more entertaining than some of Shyamalan’s other movies – The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) to name but two – The Visit still doesn’t quite mean a return to the early form Shyamalan showed with The Sixth Sense. But it’s a better found footage movie than most, tells its story with a refreshing lack of gimmicks, and might just be a sign that Shyamalan is turning the corner and starting to make good movies again.
Rating: 6/10 – not as eerie or as frightening as its writer/director may have wanted, The Visit is nevertheless a worthwhile entry in the found footage genre (even if it’s not technically “found” footage); good performances bolster a script that doesn’t fulfill its own potential, but most viewers will find the movie an okay watch that doesn’t insult them too much of the time, or deliberately.