Friday, January 18, 2019

Unbreakable 'Glass' Splits

Just give me some metal to bend and we could end this here!

Beware the ides of March, and the films of January, especially if said film comes with the label "from M. Night Shyamalan." No good can come of that, and the proof lies in Glass, Shyamalan's third film in what can only loosely be called a trilogy, one that began with 2000's Unbreakable, and was followed up by the thinly related Split in 2017.

Split centered on serial killer Kevin Crumb, (James McAvoy), a damaged man with multiple personalities, or DID (dissociative identity disorder). One of his personalities is known as The Beast, and he's a snarling mass of shirtless, sinewy muscle with super-strength and possible indestructibility.

Glass takes place a few weeks after the events of Split. Kevin has evaded capture and has four more teenage girls chained up and ready for the slaughter. (Kevin's torture and murder of teenage girls is never given the gravitas it warrants; it's cast aside as just an unfortunate side effect to his disorder, which is obviously far more interesting than some female victims.)

One of those victims was Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Split's Final Girl, who returns in Glass, seemingly none the worse for wear after her stay in Kevin's basement a few weeks earlier. We're to believe that since she came from an abusive home, she can recognize the pain that fuels Kevin, and may be be able to save him. So what if he murdered two of her schoolmates! He had an abusive mother!

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has less sympathy for the killer. In the 19 years since his encounter with Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), David has lived the life of an undercover superhero, donning his cape rain poncho to fight crime, garnering nicknames that range from "the Tiptoe Man" to "the Overseer." (He prefers the latter.) His hunt for Kevin, who has been nicknamed "the Horde" by the press, results in a wall and window smashing fight in an abandoned warehouse, and eventual capture by the authorities.

These "authorities" are actually headed up by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist "specializing" in delusions of grander. She's determined to prove that both David and Kevin are not as super as they think they are, and what better way to do that than to lock them up in the same facility Mr. Glass has been sitting in, basically comatose, for almost two decades?

She's such a calming presence, with her cream colored sweater dresses, and soft spoken demeanor, that you can almost buy that she merely wants to save these men. (Although, again, one of them is a serial killer, so maybe he doesn't really deserve saving?) But her whole premise, that they didn't really do the superhuman things they think they've done, could so easily be proven wrong--just have David bench press 500 pounds!--that I wouldn't blame you for thinking there might be something else going on. Because of course there is. This is an M. Night Shyamalan movie!

To be honest, I never really understood why Shyamalan became such critical darling, even if it was short lived. The Sixth Sense, which is almost universally recognized as his best film, was a solid enough supernatural thriller that it didn't need to rely on its twist ending to save it (which is good, since I saw that twist coming halfway through). And Unbreakable was a serviceable follow-up, with an intriguing concept--superheros are real, and comic books are their coded history--and an ending that wasn't so much a twist as a sucker punch.

But following those two films, twists and gotcha endings became Shyamalan's thing, to the detriment of story. If you start to think about the plots of Signs or The Village--at all--they become completely laughable. Badly written dialogue and overwrought performances didn't help, and a string of even worse films became the ultimate plot twist in Shyamalan's career: from critical darling to cinematic pariah.

I'll give Unbreakable this: it's succinct. I dare you to watch it now and not be a little surprised at the abrupt appearance of intertitles explaining the resolution. Glass is not so tight, depending on Jackson to spend most of the film's second half on exposition, detailing (again) his theory about comic books and superheros, his ultimate plan, and, in the film's only real bit of comedy, the tropes both comic books and the film we are watching depend on.

There's some satisfaction in seeing the Unbreakable characters again. How can you not root for Mr. Glass, just a little bit, once that side-parted afro, iridescent purple suit, and white ascot returns? And Willis's understated David Glenn, a character who does not scream "superhero," is ultimately just a nice guy trying to do the right thing. (Spencer Treat Clark also returns as David's son Joseph, as does Charlayne Woodard as Elijah/Mr. Glass's mother, in old-age makeup so heavy I was afraid it was going to plop off her face at any moment.)

And both Unbreakable and Glass contain an intriguing concept at their centers: what if there were superhumans and mastermind among us? How would that really play out in real life? But this is a concept that has been tackled more than once in numerous superhero movies that followed Unbreakable, and Glass's take on the subject now feels neither fresh nor subversive.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Melissa McCarthy Asks 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

 Third time's the charm.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the third Melissa McCarthy film released this year. The previous two, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, were painfully unfunny comedies that relied too heavily on McCarthy's charm and comedic chops to save them. But in the true story Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy gets serious, and gives her best and most surprising performance in years. (Yes Melissa, you are forgiven for those previous missteps.)

Set in a 1992 New York City straight out of a Woody Allen film, with lovingly framed shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, snow that is never anything but white, and a classic jazz standards soundtrack, it presents an aesthetic vision of New York that is the stuff of fiction, despite it being based on a true story.

But that's because this is how Lee Israel (McCarthy) envisions her New York; her reality is far grimmer. Fired from a copy editing job for drinking--though really, for just being an asshole--she's desperate for money. Her agent (Jane Curtain, who should be in more movies), refuses to give her a $10k advance on her next book--a biography of vaudevillian Franny Brice--because she knows a book like that isn't worth even a $100 advance.

At one time, Israel had a successful career as a magazine writer and celebrity biographer, penning books about Estee Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. Her biography of What's My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen was even a New York Times bestseller. But times are changing, and Israel is getting left behind. She's no longer getting paid to do the only thing she knows how to do, her rent is overdue, and her cat is sick.

When opportunity literally falls into her lap, in the form of some typed missives stuffed into a Fanny Brice biography, signed by Brice herself, one can hardly blame her for what she does next: she stuffs the letters into her bag, tries to sell them, and when she's told they'd be more valuable if they had a little more oomph, she adds that oomph herself, and is quickly on a new career path: literary forger, composing letters as witty as the real thing. (She dubs herself a "better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.")

McCarthy's Israel is a definite misanthrope who freely admits she prefers the company of cats to people. She's a heavy drinker and demands respect from people while rarely affording it to others. But as played by McCarthy, you can't help but root for her as her forgeries increase, and her money troubles start to melt away. McCarthy is perfect casting because she's never afraid to look and act ugly, but she has that natural humor that helps the soul of Lee Israel shine through. (She actually was a pretty good Dorothy Parker.)

Ricard E. Grant is also hilarious and haunting as Lee's only friend, Jack Hock, an aging, self-proclaimed queen, who used to run in the same literary circles as Lee, until he drunkenly peed in a coat closet during a fancy soiree. His huge, hungry eyes are like a Keene painting with a hangover, and Lee, who is even poorer in friends than she is in money, allows him to latch on to her.

Director Marielle Heller clearly has a love for interesting faces. Every actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a such a unique and real look, from Dolly Wells as Anna, a bookshop owner Lee develops a crush on, to Anna Deavere Smith as Lee's ex-girlfriend, to, of course, Ben Falcone, McCarthy's real life husband, who has a small role as an unscrupulous book dealer. There's not a generically pretty face in the entire movie, and I loved that, not just because it's refreshing to see, but because it helps this story of a master faker feel even more real.

Friday, October 19, 2018

'Halloween', Trick Or Treat?

I told you! My house isn't on the trick or treat map!!

If your two best friends were murdered as teenagers by a masked killer who had escaped from a mental institution, and you yourself barely made it out of that massacre alive, how do you think you'd fare in life?

There have been six sequels to the original 1978 Halloween. Three of them--Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween Resurrection--also featured final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). But this year's Halloween, coming 40 years after the original, is the first to seriously ponder how much an attack by a knife-wielding maniac can fuck up your life.

Which, sure, isn't exactly an uplifting premise for what's supposed to be fun slasher movie. But director and writer David Gordon Green, and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, manage to inject some humor into the sequel, and Jamie Lee Curtis only briefly allows her Laurie to delve into self-pity. For the majority of the film she's a fiercely competent, gun-touting, basket case; the final girl turned vengeful grandma. Curtis steals every scene she's in.

It's been 40 years since the Night He Came Home, and Laurie Strode has weathered a few divorces, and is semi-estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), though still in contact with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). She lives in a tricked-out fortress in the woods outside Haddonfield, Illinois, forever preparing for what she assumes (hopes?) will be the inevitable return of Michael Myers.

This Halloween cleans the slate, erasing all the events and myth-building of the previous sequels, including deleting any relation between Michael and Laurie, ("Wasn't that her brother?" Dave, a friend of Allyson's asks; "No, that was just something people made up," she replies), returning Michael to his mysterious, stunted roots.

Giving Michael Myers some kind of backstory, with ingrained intent, never made him scarier, and it's something the previous sequels and reboots all needlessly did. He's a guy who murdered his actual sister when he was six, and he's remained a stunted, murderous six-year-old ever since. He came home was home. And he chose Laurie and her friends because she was the first girl he saw when he got there. And now? He just wants to pick up where he left off.

That's scary enough.

Director David Gordon Green has had an eclectic career, beginning with lyrical, Terrence Malick-esque dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, before moving on to the stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness. This is his first horror film, and I think his experience with quieter movies serves him well here. While he never mimics original director John Carpenter's fluid, Steadicam cinematography, he does keep his camera blissfully still when its most important, building suspense with longer takes and quiet unease.

He also scatters tension-relieving humor throughout, letting frequent collaborator Danny McBride's comedic voice come through in some very funny offhand exchanges from characters both minor and major. This humor is also important because the message at the heart of the film is pretty bleak, and much more introspective than anything in the previous sequels: Trauma begets trauma, and it can have an affect on families for generations.

Still, this is a Halloween movie, and it knows it has the please the fans, which it does, to a point that some might even call pandering. Along with Jamie Lee Curtis's return, we've got original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle donning the mask for several scenes as The Shape, and a voice cameo from P.J. Soles. Carpenter's famous score is also reprised by the man himself.

New characters also basically mirror those in the original, from an obsessed doctor dubbed "the new Loomis" (Haluk Bilginer), to a babysitting friend (Virginia Gardner), and her wisecracking ward (an absolutely hilarious Jibrail Nantambu). I also appreciated the callbacks to some of the original's minor characters.

If I have one complaint, it's the choice to up the body count and the gore this time around. One of the best things about the original was how once Michael set his sights on his target, he never strayed. It was Laurie and her friends he was after, not any other townspeople, and certainly not any kids. (Dogs on the other hand...) And the violence was relatively bloodless. Gore wasn't the goal, scares were.

Alas, we live in different times,  and even though Michael is now a man in his sixties, he's killin' like a twentysomething, leaving a trail of blood and brain matter in his wake. Luckily, Laurie Strode's no longer fighting like a scared teenager. Welcome the grandma's house, Michael.

Friday, September 14, 2018

'Don't Leave Home' And The Creepy Tiny

Image: Cranked Up Films
Are we all just puppets in a giant dollhouse?

I saw director Michael Tully's indie horror film Don't Leave Home the same weekend I was dazzled by the elaborate circus dioramas at the now defunct Bay Area museum Playland-Not-at-the Beach (the dioramas, and almost everything else from the museum, will be up for auction Saturday!), so it was a plate-o-shrimp moment when the film's opening credits began to roll over close-ups of spooky dioramas.

Don't Leave Home is actually the second horror movie this year (Hereditary being the first) to center on artists who work with miniature dioramas, and I'm not quite sure why tiny reproductions of real things lends itself so well to the creepy. Is it the association with childhood and dollhouses? Or the idea that we might just be tiny puppets manipulated but some creator's larger hand?

Ann Margaret Hollyman stars as Melanie Thomas, an artist working on the opening of a solo exhibition which centers on depictions of mysterious Irish legends and disappearances. One of those events involves Father Burke (Lalor Roddy) an Irish priest who, in 1986, was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young girl praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shortly thereafter, the girl went missing, seemingly vanishing into thin air. At the same time, her image disappeared from the priest's painting. While the priest was ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing, the event was deemed an "evil miracle," and he was forced to go into hiding.

When Melanie gets an unexpected art commission from the same reclusive Father Burke, via his "assistant," Shelly (Helena Bereen) she impulsively accepts the invitation to Ireland, and takes up residence in the former priest's creepy and remote mansion, where she is instantly warned that she might see some...things, but not to trust her eyes.

While what follows too often depends on the "is it a dream or reality?" trope, the film does manage to produce some scares, and several very eerie images, culminating in a party scene and art auction that rivals Get Out on the "white people be hella creepy" scale.

Along with Get Out, Don't Leave Home brought to mind Rosemary's Baby, Robert Altman's Images, and the aforementioned Hereditary. But unlike Hereditary, which I felt was done in by an unsatisfying ending, Don't Leave Home ends on an almost perfect note, with a final line that haunted me for days.

Don't Leave Home opens today at San Francisco's Alamo Drafthouse.

Friday, September 7, 2018

'Peppermint' Will Leave A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

She's mastered the arts of combat and DIY hair highlighting

As a fan of Alias, the TV show that launched Jennifer Garner to stardom, I was looking forward to seeing her kick some ass again in Peppermint, knowing it may be the closest thing to an Alias movie we might ever get. And kick ass she does, along with some throat slitting, arm and leg cracking, face punching, and nut kicking. And that's all before she whips out her arsenal of military grade firearms. 

Most Alias fans would say that all sounds pretty promising. Alas, if Peppermint were a good movie, it wouldn't be opening in September

Garner stars as Riley North, working mom to Carly (Cailey Fleming) and wife to Chris (Jeff Hephner). Chris briefly considers partaking in a shady "driving" job with a friend but backs out before it happens. That decision never reaches the bad guys, who take their revenge out on him and his family.

Riley survives the massacre, but thanks to a corrupt police department, D.A.'s office, and judge, the three easily identifiable killers (pro tip: if you want to enter a life of crime, reconsider those distinguishing face tattoos; or at least consider a mask) are set free. Thus is born Riley North, avenging angel.

Five years after the murders, Riley has returned to Los Angeles after falling off the grid. Those years allowed her plenty of time to travel the world to learn the fine arts of cage fighting, bomb making, and gun slinging. She wants to kill the men who murdered her family, as well as everyone associated with them.

That's where the whole thing gets problematic. The killers are Hispanic. The drug cartel they work for are Hispanic. Almost all of the bad guys are Hispanic, and every Hispanic is a bad guy, (aside from one cop who the film wants you to think may be a bad guy). If that's too subtle for you, a shoot-out even happens in party supply warehouse filled with pinatas. Peppermint is so obviously playing into current conservative fears over illegal immigrants and MS-13, it could be used as a wall-building propaganda film.

Now, it's not like I'm looking to a violent vengeance film from the director of Taken and The Transporter to provide some subtle commentary on race, poverty, and the circle of violence (though it would be nice), but it does make me question the ultimate intent here. I could think of no worse a time for a director and star to release a movie like this if they aren't people who believe Mexico is only sending us rapists and killers.

In other words, what's a nice girl like Jennifer Garner doing in racist trash like this?