reviews

Few filmmakers have crashed and burned – then resurrected themselves via a found-footage knock-off – like M. Night Shyamalan. After two lightly regarded, little remembered films (Praying With Anger, Wide Awake), Shyamalan wrote and directed The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan received Oscar nominations for Best Directing and Best Screenplay (he didn’t win), glowing magazine articles comparing him to Steven Spielberg, and the virtual blank check from Disney to make whatever he wanted next. That next film, Unbreakable, a semi-subversive, spandex-free, grounded take on superheroes and superhero mythology, underwhelmed commercially, but eventually became a cult hit with discerning critics and audiences. As Shyamalan moved on to the second biggest hit of his career, Signs, and a slow, but steady decline in audience interest and critical goodwill (The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening), an Unbreakable sequel didn’t seem like it’d ever happen, at least not in our lifetime.

The one-two combo of The Last Airbender and After Earth all-but-ended Shyamalan’s career as a big-budget filmmaker, but Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions backed Shyamalan’s last (in all senses of the word) attempt at a career comeback, The Visit. Career resurrected, Shyamalan created a long-delayed backdoor sequel to Unbreakable with Split, a horror-thriller centered a killer with multiple personalities, including a super-powerful persona, the Beast, set in the same universe. Based on the evidence of Glass, the third film in an unlikely trilogy, Shyamalan should have stopped there. Calling Glass a “disappointment” would be a gross understatement. It’s that and so much worse. Glass is Shyamalan, once again letting his outsized ego, invulnerability to criticism, and disrespect for audience, get the better of him. It’s not the badly handled, repetitive exposition dumps. It’s not the stagnant, flaccid, turgid middle section that seemingly goes on forever. It’s not the cringe-inducing dialogue (a Shyamalan specialty at this point). It’s all that and another “twist” ending that treats his characters, especially David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Unbreakable’s hero-protagonist, with an incredible amount of contempt, all to service a “twist” ending straight out of Marvel Comics X-Men.

Glass doesn’t so much center on the title character, Elijah Price / Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), the superhero-obsessed, megalomaniacal mass murderer, than on Glass, Dunn, and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), Split’s damaged, broke villain. When Dunn and his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), track down Crumb and his 24 personalities, including the Beast, to an abandoned factory in one of Philadelphia’s disused industrial parks, a superhero-supervillain fight breaks out. But before Shyamalan can spend his modest budget on Marvel-styled fight, a state-sanctioned psychiatrist, and Philly’s SWAT-equipped finest, capture them. Staple ships Dunn and Crumb to the nearby Raven Home Memorial Hospital. Before long, they’re in a salmon-colored room with a heavily drugged, drooling Price, listening to Staple as she lectures them about not about the superhero/supervillain thing, but about their “delusions of (superhero) grandeur.” Apparently, she’s become an expert in mental patients who think they’re superheroes/supervillains (raising a whole host of questions Glass doesn’t bother to answer until the few minutes).

Glass promptly stagnates, barely recovering in the final twenty minutes. Staple repeats her lecture several times, Crumb goes through his personality changes multiple times (McAvoy gives his all again, to diminishing returns), Dunn sulks in a room lined with high-pressure water pipes, and Glass languishes in a semi-comatose state. Until he (Glass) doesn’t, of course, otherwise Glass would never end (it already feels like that). While Dunn and Crumb basically share the same superpower (super-strength, semi-invulnerability), Glass’ claim to supervillain status involves his big brain, a brain turned bitter due to his life-long disability (brittle bones) and a deeply unhealthy obsession with comic books (which Glass sees as Greek myth-turned-into-modern-mythology). Eventually, Glass being Glass (a self-styled mastermind and at times, a painfully obvious stand-in for Shyamalan and his divisive relationship with critics and uncomprehending audiences), he sets a master plan in motion that involves Dunn, Crumb, and a media event that will reveal their existence to the entire world. [Insert multiple yawns here.]

Besides bringing back Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, Dunn’s son, Shyamalan also brings back Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the lone survivor of Wendell’s rampage in the previous film, and Charlayne Woodard as Price’s mother. Turning Joseph into the elder Dunn’s guy-in-a-chair makes sense on one level, especially given Dunn’s Batman-inspired, vigilante heroics. Likewise Woodard’s role as Mr. Glass’ long-suffering mother, but Casey’s involvement makes little to no sense (another Shyamalan sadly). Why Casey, the lone survivor of an incredibly traumatic event that left two other young women dead would first have any sympathy or empathy for her captor isn’t a question Shyamalan bothers to ask, let alone answer. Why she agrees to get pulled into Crumb’s treatment by Staple also remains a mystery, though it’s obvious Shyamalan wanted to use the “power of love” as theme and plot device. But that’s nothing compared both to how little Dunn appears in the film and what Shyamalan does with Dunn in the final few minutes – and that’s before an interminable wrap-up that doesn’t carry or convey the emotional weight Shyamalan thinks it does.

If the plot of James Wan’s (The Conjuring series, the Insidious series, Saw) big-screen adaptation of DC’s Aquaman – a reluctant hero born of two worlds, one technologically advanced beyond all (or rather some) imagination, forced to set aside his selfishness, ego, and contempt and embrace his heritage, literally fighting for his birthright in trident-to-trident combat in an arena, followed by loss, redemption, and the rest – sounds more than vaguely familiar, it’s because it should. Though likely unintentional, Aquaman’s credited screenwriters, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall (Wan shares a story credit), followed the Black Panther template practically beat for reverse beat, turning a reluctant outsider into a reluctant hero and leader while turning his born-to-be-king brother into a hardcore, ideological warrior eager to bring a world of hurt and pain to those who’ve wronged his underwater-dwelling people (and all marine life too). Basically, it’s superhero template filmmaking, but like Black Panther, it’s the details, it’s what you do within and outside the confines of that template, that dictate whether the result will be genre-elevating commercial or political art like Black Panther or – in the case of Aquaman – purely commercial entertainment. (more…)

It took 11 years, five movies, and the departure of director Michael Bay, but Transformers fans – the fans who grew up on the 1980s animated TV series/Hasbro commercials – finally get the live-action Transformers film, Bumblebee, they’ve always wanted and maybe even needed to help justify their decades-long love of the series. With paired down, grounded visuals, an intimate sense of scale, and an emphasis on the unbreakable bond between a teenaged girl, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), and a fugitive soldier-robot, B-127, from a dying, warring planet of self-aware, transforming machines, plus a nostalgia-heavy ‘80s setting, Bumblebee delivers the first, near great entry in a franchise that had all but dissipated the enormous goodwill of longtime fans with Transformers: The Last Knight two years ago. And it all took was a coherent, compelling script by Christina Hodson (Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Unforgettable) and deceptively competent direction from Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), making his live-action debut after a career in stop-motion animation. (more…)

Adapted, produced, but not directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit mega-series) – that honor (assuming it’s an actual honor) goes to longtime Jackson collaborator and visual effects man Christian RiversMortal Engines, a steampunk Mad Max meets Star Wars (all of them) crossed with The Terminator sci-fi tale that unfolds in a wholly absurd, post-apocalyptic future, earns the no longer rare distinction of being both a franchise starter and a franchise ender rolled up into one disappointing package. An overlong, over-loud, derivative revenge-plot occasionally elevated by semi-inventive production design and semi-convincing CG, Mortal Engines was made for the long forgotten and currently non-existent fans of Philip Reeve’s 2001 YA novel, the first in a quartet that obviously piqued Jackson’s desire to find another potentially profitable, spectacle-driven sci-fi or fantasy series. Apparently, though, someone forgot to tell Jackson or his legion of collaborators at WETA digital and elsewhere. (more…)

Looking back, it wasn’t the military might, economic power, or moral right that won the Cold War for the United States and its Western European allies, but onetime underdog turned world heavyweight champion and Reagan-era propagandist Rocky Balboa (writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone) who entered the ring against symbolic incarnation of the Russian Soviet Empire, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and knocked him down flat. America won, but it took another four years before the Soviet Empire dissolved into Russian and former Eastern and Southern satellite countries. Thirty years later, the Soviet Empire might be a half-forgotten memory, but for Rocky and Drago, the Cold War never really ended. It just went into a deep Artic freeze, waiting for the perfect opportunity – a stealthy, unexpected, ultimately rousing combo of carefully calculated nostalgia and the one-two punch of filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan – to thaw and get the sequel Stallone apparently always wanted. (more…)

You don’t have to be a verbal anti-Disney critic or an all-around cynic to recognize that Ralph Breaks the Internet, the six-years-in-the-making sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, the incredibly inventive videogame-inspired animated film and modest box-office hit (by Disney standards), functions as keen, insightful storytelling, and a cautionary tale about our social media- and Internet-obsessed culture, and maybe most importantly of all to Disney’s shareholders, as a two-hour commercial for Disney’s wealth of pop-culture products. Ralph Breaks the Internet never breaks stride during its nearly two-hour running time – a compliment in and of itself – when the story segues into a branded exercise in modernizing Disney’s princesses or throws tangential asides for Disney’s other, more recently purchased studios – and cinematic universes of their own, Star Wars and, of course, Marvel’s stable of superheroes. (more…)

Less an artistic leap forward than a strictly commercial one, Widows, director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years A Slave, Shame, Hunger) six-year-in-the-making follow-up to the 2012 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, tries to strike a path between The Wire-influenced social and political commentary and a conventional heist thriller with a semi-subversive gender twist. It almost succeeds, largely due to McQueen’s keen eye for visual composition, intuitive sense of pacing, and an incredibly strong, talented cast that begins, but doesn’t end, with Academy-Award Winner Viola Davis (Fences), Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (the never-ending Fast & Furious series), and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale). And that’s just the top-line cast. Several paragraphs can be devoted to every perfectly cast, note-perfect performance in Widows. (more…)

When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them went all Scooby Doo on moviegoers two years ago, swapping out a Colin Farrell mask for a Johnny Depp, a hundred million Harry Potter fans cried out in agony and disappointment. Whatever his personal failings (many, by tabloid accounts), Depp had long lost his luster as a genre leading man, devolving into one of the highest paid cosplay performers in Hollywood. It’s not that Depp, once considered a talented, if eccentric, performer, can no longer act. It’s that Depp has lost interest in acting ages ago, exchanging goofy accents, over-broad physical acting in exchange for one lucrative paycheck after another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but Depp and his steady descent into a caricature of himself mirrors the diminishing returns of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a prequel/spin-off series set in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter cinematic universe. (more…)

What the world didn’t need – and quite possibly, didn’t want – was another adaptation of Dr. Seuss 1957 stone-cold, illustrated classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” After all, we already had the perfect expansion of Dr. Seuss’ story more than 50 years ago, a 26-minute TV special directed by Chuck Jones and narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. But as we’ve learned over and over again, where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s a major studio eager to bring another adaptation (remake, reboot, reimagining) to the big screen and separate nostalgic parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, from their bank and debit cards. And with the Illumination Entertainment, the fine people who brought the Minions to vivid, if annoying, life in the Despicable Me series and their own spin-off, a class act like Dr. Seuss and the Grinch seemed like a no-brain, surefire excuse to print (digital) money. Unfortunately, the aggressively mediocre, ultimately forgettable results match the obvious lack of ambition on the part of Illumination’s executive board. (more…)

Amidst the startling Marvel cancellations on Netflix the past few weeks, fans have become a little uncertain about the future of the Marvel Defenders series. Luke Cage and Iron Fist have been axed, either to disappear into non-existence or to transfer, somehow, onto Disney’s upcoming streaming service. One of the series that lives on, though, is Daredevil. With the third season recently premiering, fans can buzz about that instead of worry about the Netflix Superheroes. And boy is this new dip into Daredevil’s life an interesting reprieve.

Last fans left Daredevil, AKA Matt Murdock, he had a building collapse in on him and his beloved doomed assassin, Elektra. It seemed finally they both got to die as heroes, successfully running from the darkness within them.

Of course, it’s hard for superheroes to stay dead. Against all odds, and never explained, Murdock manages to wash through the sewers and out of the collapse. His suit is destroyed and he’s badly wounded, but he’s alive. Then, he’s found and taken to his childhood home, the church orphanage, and is cared for by the nuns and priest who know him best. (more…)