M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker who exists in two different extremes. On one hand, he can set up interesting premises that draw us in with their mysterious, suspenseful, and horrific elements. On the other, the payoffs to these stories have been hit or miss (more often miss) with silly to incomprehensible closing acts. This is a writer/director who can give us good films like The Sixth Sense (1999) but then turn around and produce duds like The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), or After Earth (2013).
His career has been a mix of highs and lows, but in recent years it seemed like things were on an upswing. The Visit (2015) showed promise, but it was Split (2016) – a loosely based sequel to his earlier work Unbreakable (2000) – that appeared to be a return to form, with a bravura performance by James McAvoy. The fact that Split was so good only works to amplify how much of a disappointment Glass (2019) is. This is the third in a supposed trilogy, a capper that operates much like Shyamalan’s career – with a promising beginning, a stagnant middle, and a disastrous ending that completely flies off the rails. I know it’s still early, but we already have a nominee for one of the worst films of 2019.
Glass reunites all of the main players of Unbreakable and Split. We have David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a mild-mannered father who came to the realization that he has superhuman strength and can deduce people’s hidden secrets simply by touching them. There’s also Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) – better known as Mr. Glass – the evil genius whose body is so frail that a slight fall could break every bone in his body. And then there’s the aforementioned McAvoy, once again setting the screen on fire as Kevin, a serial killer inhabiting ten different multiple personalities, one of which is a brutal savage known only as “The Beast.”
Through a series of events, the three men are contained in a high security psychiatric hospital. They are looked after by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who takes it upon herself to dig deeper into their minds to point out why each of them believes they have supernatural abilities, and to perhaps cure them before they are locked away forever. Along for the ride are David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role from Unbreakable), Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) the lone survivor of Kevin’s crimes in Split, and Elijah’s mother (Charlene Woodward, also returning from Unbreakable).
Glass starts out well enough. Although Shyamalan’s work has been shaky, he’s always been a talented visual stylist. Mike Gioulakis’ camerawork is polished and refined. There’s good use of color throughout, distinguishing each of the characters – green for David, yellow for Kevin, and purple for Mr. Glass. Shyamalan sets a key interview scene between Dr. Staple and her three patients in a bright pink room. There’s no explanation for this, but visually it adds a nice texture to keep our eyes glued in. Light is also used in some clever ways. To keep Kevin’s personalities in check, his room is fastened with lights that flash when he exhibits aggressive behavior, triggering him to switch to a calmer persona.
Just as he did in Split, James McAvoy should be commended for taking on such a difficult challenge and accomplishing it with flying colors. Not only does he play different characters, who are all different ages, different sexes, and have different accents, but he has to go back and forth between them so quickly that it would be easy to lose track of who he is at any given point. But he makes each one so unique that there is no question which personality is currently “holding the light.” And when he plays The Beast, his body seems to literally grow in musculature. Even though this is his second go around with this character(s), McAvoy is no less fascinating.
The issues with Glass start at the writing level. The comic book motif, which was a part of Unbreakable, is expanded to a larger degree here but with far less effectiveness. In a time where audiences are subjected to comic book and superhero properties on a daily basis, having the characters dive into expository dialogue about how their predicament is comparable to that of a superhero story is laughable. Shyamalan’s screenplay has Mr. Glass explain the tropes of comic books as though it were some kind of revelation that no one was ever aware of. It comes off as condescending and patronizing toward the viewer. Not only that, but the dialogue is so forced that it feels unnatural. At one point characters will have a serious discussion and then someone will jump with a line like, “This is where the superheroes band together to take down the villain.” I applaud these actors for saying lines like these with straight faces.
The final act is an utter mess. Throughout the plot, we get subtle hints that the final confrontation between David, Kevin, and Mr. Glass will be an epic showdown, yet Shyamalan decides to shift down to something much smaller, meandering his way to an unsatisfying conclusion to each of the three character arcs. To make matters even worse, he closes out on a final twist that makes no sense, that comes out of nowhere, and left me feeling confused, bewildered, and frustrated. For a series that had a good part one and part two, to end with such a disappointing finale left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
M. Night Shyamalan has painted himself into a corner. He has become known as the “filmmaker with the twist endings,” and because of that his work has suffered because he has to come up more ways to surprise audiences even when a plot twist is not called for. Glass is the result of good ideas caught in a story that goes nowhere. Shyamalan works better as an underdog trying to prove himself, but once he gains some momentum he betrays himself with projects like this. Glass suffers from either trying too hard, or not trying nearly hard enough.
Escape rooms are a lot of fun. You and your friends are placed inside of a room – usually decorated with a specific theme – and try to solve a number of puzzles or retrieve a key that will eventually help you to “escape” within a specific time frame (usually an hour). Escape rooms promote critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. I’ve done a good handful of them, and the best ones immerse you in the theme or story as though you were in a real-life adventure. It would only make sense that the movie industry would try to capitalize off of this, and thus Escape Room (2019) has come to be.
Directed by Adam Robitel and co-written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, Escape Room borrows the same basic idea of the game, but amps up the stakes by going for a horror approach. Here, when time is up, the contestants’ lives are put in jeopardy. The premise is a carbon copy of what goes on in the Saw (2004) franchise, although this one stays relevant subdued – you’re not going to get any “torture porn/body horror” type of bloodshed.
The story is a half-baked concoction of underdeveloped characters stuck in a situation that is all too familiar. We have six strangers, all of whom come right out of the “generic character” handbook. Their traits and personalities are so thin that they’re more archetypes than actual people. Let’s run down the list: there’s the College Introvert (Taylor Russell), the Bearded Truck Driver (Tyler Labine), the Wounded Soldier (Deborah Ann Woll), the Outcast (Logan Miller), the Nerd (Nik Dodani), and the Hotshot Wall Street Stock Broker (Jay Ellis). All six have been mysteriously invited to participate in a new escape room by an unknown company with a cash reward as an incentive.
Why would anyone want to take part in this? It’s strange that a group of people would jump into this invitation given that they have no idea what kind of company would go out of their way to reach out to them. I’ve gotten plenty of emails from random strangers from different countries asking me to give them my information in exchange for money, but that doesn’t mean I actually follow through with it! Clearly, these characters are way too gullible (and frankly dumb) to have any kind of reasonable common sense.
Just as the characters meet up and make their introductions, they immediately thrown into the game. It’s at this part where things actually get interesting. The production design (Edward Thomas), art direction (Mark Walker), and set decoration (Tracy Perkins) does a commendable job of making each room distinctive of one another. The group faces a number of rooms one right after the other, each one packed with its own booby traps and clues on how to get out. The way each is set up is impressive. They have to traverse their way through an office waiting room, a snow room, a pool hall flipped upside down, and a hospital room, amongst others. Each one gets progressively more bizarre the further they advance. I especially liked the pool hall room, where everything is reserved so it seems that the characters are walking on the ceiling. Marc Spicer’s cinematography plays around with the perspective, seeing the characters climbing up the walls but making it look as though they are crawling on the ground (imagine the rotating hallway in Inception or Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding).
This is the kind of stuff that can make for a pretty fun flick, and in some ways Escape Room does that. But it doesn’t go far enough with the ludicrous nature of the story. Instead, it throws together some weak dramatic backstories to the characters that doesn’t reveal all that much about them. This information is shown in flashbacks, done so quickly that it works more as time filler than to character nuance. Each member of the group has some dark past or secret that they would rather not share. The game forces them to, but for what purpose? What exactly will be accomplished by making them face their past and confront traumatic experiences surrounded by people they don’t know? And what good will it do if the game aims for them to perish anyway?
These are the kinds of questions Escape Room fails to address, even though the plot hinders on them. To make matters worse, not only do the questions go unanswered, but the narrative introduces a set of even bigger questions with the sole purpose of setting up a sequel. In a way, the film itself is its own game room – it sets up a trap that ensnares us for a length of time, and when we think we’ve made it out it blindsides us with the possibility of more to come. This is a rabbit hole I’m not so sure I want to go down.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has lived an exceptional life. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York (as Joan Ruth Bader), Ginsburg studied at Cornell, attended Harvard, and earned her law degree at Columbia. She spent much of her career focused on gender equality and women’s rights, arguing (and winning) many cases brought forth to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg as a nominee for Associate Justice on the very same Supreme Court, which she accepted and has served on until this very day. During that time, she gained pop cultural status under the nickname “The Notorious R.B.G.”
It goes without saying that Ginsburg is an extraordinary character whose work went against the assumptions of – not only what it means to be a woman in America – but what it means to be a woman working in a field (still) dominated by men. Her story is a fascinating tale of perseverance and intelligence. It’s too bad that the film based on her life, On the Basis of Sex (2018), lets her dohttps://macguff.in/movie-profiles/on-the-basis-of-sex/wn with a mundane, conventional approach at telling that story. This is a biopic that we’ve seen far too many times before, stuck in neutral while it weaves through a person’s life like a two-hour highlight reel.
I’m certain that director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman have the utmost respect and admiration for Ginsburg, we sense it throughout the narrative. But as we travel through time (the story starts at Ginsburg’s entrance into Harvard and ends with her first big gender discrimination case), the events of her life skim by without having any kind of significant dramatic weight. For example: one of the constants of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was the relationship she had with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), whom she met in college. When Marty was diagnosed with cancer at an early age, the event shook them, and yet it plays out as a mere blip with no emotional resonance.
The pacing is at a rush, painting large brushstrokes and skipping on the details. We’re told how Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class, has a keen understanding of the law and how it must adapt to the changing times, but we never see the effort she put to get there. We fly past her education, and the years she spent as a professor at Rutgers is a mere afterthought. The real Ginsburg (who is now well into her 80s) is a renowned workaholic – known to stay up until the early morning with her nose in case files – to the point that Marty had to remind her when to eat or sleep. We never get that impression from the film version of her.
Felicity Jones does her best with her performance, but she’s stuck in a narrative that forces her to be a typical biopic character. The dynamic Ginsburg shares with her daughter (Cailee Spaeny) plays like Lifetime Movie of The Week: at odds one moment and then loving and supportive the next. By the time we get to her first major case of gender inequality – arguing a tax law that prevented a non-married man the means to care for his ailing mother – Jones (and the production) is in full on Cliché Courtroom Drama Mode, stock full of big speeches backed by a sentimental score cluing us in on how important this all is as though we didn’t already know.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is that the filmmakers never touch upon Ginsburg’s service as a Supreme Court Justice, which may arguably be the most interesting era of her life. Her forceful liberal stances, her influence on important cases including her numerous dissents, her surprising friendship with the staunchly conservative Judge, Antonin Scalia, her love for and involvement in the opera, and her influence on the millennial generation – these are all absorbing facets of her character that are worth delving into. And yet, Leder and Stiepleman decide to push this all aside in favor for the same old kind of underdog tale. It’s strange really; given that the themes of sex are just as timely now as they have ever been, that the resulting product feels outdated.
It’s even more unfortunate that the film – which was reportedly stuck in limbo for years – has come out the same year as the documentary, RBG (2018). RBG takes a far better look at who Ginsburg was and is, and how much her work has played a role in the modern cultural landscape. It’s an engrossing and surprisingly touching examination of Ginsburg, maybe because we get to see the real person instead of a glossy recreation. RBG is one of the better docs of the year, whereas On the Basis of Sex is one of the more forgettable experiences you’ll have at the theater.
If it sounds like I’m being tough toward On the Basis of Sex, it’s because when you have a person this important, who has meant so much to countless people, they deserve a film that really gets to the heart who they are. The best biopics don’t simply rattle off statistics or a laundry list of accomplishments, they dig deeper to uncover the person behind the icon. That humanistic approach allows us to step into their shoes, to make us understand that any regular person is able to accomplish great things if they put their minds to it. This film did not do that.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX - Official Trailer 2 - In Theaters This Christmas - YouTube
Robert Zemeckis, a director responsible for some of the most beloved big budget film experiences in cinema. He started with fun and subversive comedies before moving into creating some of the most indelible movies ever. And over that time, he has created a reputation for using cutting edge special effects that still have a heart to them. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Flight, Castaway, Contact, The Walk. It’s a litany of mainstream entertainment that also deals with character and emotion wrapped in a highly entertaining shell.
However, almost 20 years ago now, along with the likes of James Cameron, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, he was committed to the future of digital effects. They all saw a future in the recent 3-D experience. So, he became instrumental in either directing or producing movies that leap with both feet into the uncanny valley. Beowulf, Monster House, Jim Carrey‘s Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, to varying degrees of success this chapter of his career seems like it’s left a lot of audiences cold. These mo-cap CGI extravaganzas are the very definition of CGI faces feeling less real than less realistic animations. His latest foray into this realm is the new film Welcome to Marwen.
Steve Carrell stars as Mark Hogancamp. He is a photographer/artist who lives a hermetic existence in his small home. He has suffered a major brain trauma where one night a group of neo-Nazi types beat him almost to death outside a bar and left him for dead. His life was saved by a waitress from the bar, but after lengthy rehabilitation, he is still left with a very altered personality and partial amnesia. He can’t remember much of his life before the attack. He can’t draw any more like he used to due to lack of some fine motor skills. He can speak and reason, but he has trouble with many day to day actions and is living the extreme version of PTSD. His one outlet is toy town he created in his backyard he calls Marwen. Using toy dolls and models he creates elaborate dioramas where he tells stories with still photographs.
It is in these imaginary scenarios that Zemeckis unleashes his CGI obsession as Mark imagines himself as Captain Hogie, a WW2 hero surrounded by beautiful warrior women that resemble the various ladies in his life. This imaginary team routinely fights Nazis that keep invading Marwen. The dolls come to life in the guise of Janelle Monae, Gwendonline Christie (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones), Merrit Weaver (Denise from The Walking Dead), Eiza González, and Diane Kruger as the evil fairy in charge of the attacking Nazis. In Marwen Mark gets to be the brave hero that he doesn’t get to be in real life. When Leslie Mann as Nicol moves in across the street and takes an interest in his art, he starts to open up slightly to the outside world.
This is a true story that was previously covered in a renowned documentary Marwencol. Much like he did with The Walk, Zemeckis is taking a real life incident that was portrayed in a popular documentary and remaking it as a CGI fantasy. So this sometimes begs the question, why remake it? In the case of The Walk, the 3-D IMAX imagery helped to place the audience up on top of the Twin Towers themselves. But here, the CGI story feels like it diminishes the real life incident. This is a story of a man using art to express and work through trauma that he couldn’t communicate himself.
In art there is a concept called closure. Think of the act of reading. The reader is actually doing most of the work for the art to be realized. The words are just two dimensional figures and yet whole stories are created in the reader’s head. The same can apply to painting and photography. The still image captures a moment and the observer does the work of filling in the moments before and after or the things not shown. In the film, when Nicol is curious about Marwen and asks Mark about the town, her curiosity is the magic. And the same goes for us. When we see Mark’s still images we are drawn into his world. We get to do some of the work of trying to communicate with him. But in this film, the story is spoon fed to us. The abstract is made overt. The motion capture images of turning these actors into animated dolls may be technically well done, but somehow it feels less magical than a real guy posing simple dolls.
Also, though not to be too critical of the filmmakers since I’m convinced their hearts are in the right place, but this movie looks for us to be overly sympathetic to a white man who got beat up once. Every day on the news nowadays we are seeing minorities abused by authorities or simply shot by police. Neo-nazis in real life attack people of color. But in Hollywood whitewashing fashion we are meant to spend all of our empathy on yet another white guy. Don’t get me wrong, this man suffered real trauma and it is sad. No one should have to deal with that. But stories like this and worse are happening all around us and we’re becoming numb to it in the real world. Ideally we can feel for this guy AND the real abuses as well. But in the mean-time maybe films could find a bit more nuance.
There is technical skill here. The special effects are impressive. And Mark Hogancamp’s story is interesting and sad. Overall this movie is pretty good, but misses greatness by a long way. Maybe if Zemeckis would dial back the motion capture obsession and deal with real humans more, audiences might get back on board.