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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 20, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 03
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Ferociously suspenseful Split overflowing in personality
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SPLIT
Now playing


Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two high school classmates Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) have been abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy). They are trapped in an underground complex in a small room with two beds, a pearly white bathroom and a single door to the outside world; where it leads none of them know. Yet Kevin has no idea he's done anything because he's literally asleep at the wheel. Suffering from a mysterious psychological condition dubbed Dissociative Identity Disorder or D.I.D., the young man has 23 distinct personalities battling for control of his psyche, each one a totally unique individual that's nothing like the others.

But that's not the real problem for Casey and the other two teenagers. What they need be afraid of is the one additional personality that has remained submerged deep inside Kevin since this psychological split materialized. This beast of a creature has been hungering for release for a long time, these three youngsters exactly what it needs to satiate its desires and to come into the light and take control of the consciousness it's submerged within.

From the mind of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, the suspense-thriller Split fits comfortably inside the Signs, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable filmmaker's wheelhouse. It's a twisted shocker that's more complex and character-driven than a first glance would initially hint at, each narrative stratum revealing fissures of abuse and trauma allowing for villains and heroes to take shape in the most unimaginable of forms. It's an aggressively nasty bit of pulp filmmaking, all of it building to a conclusion that's as insidiously open-ended as it is fearlessly cathartic.

The initial descent into this madness and mayhem is the strongest part of the film. Shyamalan orchestrates the abduction of the three teens with precision, granting Tayor-Joy an early moment to establish her character's inner dynamics, showcasing who Casey is with minimal brushstrokes while also setting the stage of how she will make her decisions and when she will resolve to take action later on. He also introduces Kevin and his various dominant personalities with ingenious brevity, allowing the reactions of the imperiled captives to do the majority of the emotional heavy lifting without any extraneous interjections on his part.

Still, like a lot of Shyamalan's works the director doesn't always know when to say when, throwing in outside subplots that, while interesting, don't necessarily add a lot to the bigger picture. The most obvious of these involves our potential heroine. We've got an important flashback to Casey (portrayed by expressive, fresh-faced newcomer Izzie Leigh Coffey) as a child running around the woods with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke), and as integral to the character's mental makeup as these moments are, I'm just as certain I didn't need to see every single one of them.

The same could be said about an even more significant tangent involving Kevin's caring therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, delivering a delightfully minimalist performance). She's vital to the proceedings, and it's key that, as a viewer, we get to know her, that we have an understanding of how she works as well as just how much she worries about her patients, her whole life devoted to them. At the same time, a lot of what is going on with Dr. Fletcher turns out to be a massive red herring, almost as if Shyamalan is channeling his inner Stephen King, treating her much in the same way that the iconic horror author dealt Sheriff Buster in Misery or Overlook Hotel chef Halloran in The Shining.

On the flipside, tension builds beautifully throughout, Shyamalan doing a superb job ratcheting things up as Kevin's various personalities get ready for the arrival of the new one which will either lead them towards an unforeseen glorious future or ignominious, blood-splattered doom. Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, much like he did with 2015's masterful It Follows, lenses things magnificently, his long, moody takes creating a palpable sense of unknowing fear and apprehension that had me squirming in my seat. It's unrelenting, and while much of the climactic revelations are hardly surprising, the shock value manages to remain exhilaratingly high all the same.

This might be the best performance of McAvoy's career, eclipsing his award-worthy work in films as diverse as Atonement, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Filth. He makes all of Kevin's personalities distinct individuals yet ones that all still relate back to a decidedly damaged human figure who houses them all. It's a remarkable turn, the type of performance we seldom have the good fortune to see in a January release, the actor a magnetic treasure-trove of emotional complexities I was captivated by.

Nearly equaling him is newcomer Taylor-Joy. After making a stunning impression in last year's horror masterwork The Witch (and, to a lesser extent, the underwhelming sci-fi shocker Morgan), I found it impossible to take my eyes off the young actress in this. Her turn as Casey is extraordinarily multifaceted, Tayor-Joy revealing new and differing layers each time her character comes into the frame. There is something innately refined about what it is the actress is doing, the line she walks between hero and victim far more satisfying and, more importantly, empowering than I was anticipating it to be.

There is an elephant in the room, and it's one I cannot talk about. Just know that Shyamalan is back to his old tricks, his overriding impulse to play one last trick on the audience and unleash a climactic twist that forces an instant reevaluation of everything that's transpired fully on display. Part of me cheers his misdirection as far as this is concerned, loving the revelation so much I might have audibly squealed when I realized what was going on. Same time, this little bit of subterfuge takes this stripped-down horror tale into an entirely new direction I'm not sure it should have gone in, leaving me mulling the meaning of who is who and what is what in a way that's not nearly as nourishing as I think the director intended it to be.

Be that as it may, Split is still really entertaining. Shyamalan, after a bunch of disasters one after the other, now seems back on pretty firm ground, both this film as well as 2015's giddily enjoyable found footage shocker The Visit showing the director back in control of the majority of his creative faculties. This movie, even with some interesting side tangents I still need to think about and ruminate on, is ferocious, and coupled with sensational performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy proves to be a January spellbinder worthy of a viewer's undivided attention.


Dim-witted Sleepless impressively mediocre
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SLEEPLESS
Now playing


After a midnight theft of a shipment of cocaine goes wrong and leaves two men dead, Las Vegas detective Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) and his partner Sean Cass (Tip 'T.I.' Harris) take charge of the investigation over the vociferous objections of dogged internal affairs officer Detective Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan). She believes the two are dirty, while Downs and Cass want to be handling things in order to make sure fingers don't get pointed back at them. It's going to be a battle of wills, Bryant certain hers will be the one to win the day as she attempts to learn the truth about what it is her prey is going to extremes to hide.

But there's a wild card butting its way into this law enforcement main event. Casino magnate Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney) was the guy scheduled to receive the lost cocaine. He in turn was selling it to Rob Novak (Scoot McNairy), the merciless enforcer for his feared mob family and not the type of guy you promise product to only to not deliver at the negotiated time. Understandably, Rubino wants his drugs back, and he's kidnapped Downs' 16-year-old son Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson) in order to force the detective to get the shipment back for him.

Little is as it appears in Sleepless, director Baran bo Odar (The Silence) and screenwriter Andrea Berloff's (Blood Father) violent remake of French filmmaker Frédéric Jardin's well-thought-of 2011 action spectacular Sleepless Night. Downs isn't who he is supposed to be, but neither is almost anyone else save the detective's son and his emergency room nurse ex-wife Dena (Gabrielle Union), the pair of them likely the only truly honest characters existing inside this nihilistic maelstrom of a thriller's labyrinthine crevices. It's an examination of how living in the aberrant extremes of society's underbelly can darken even the purest heart, the line between hero and villain practically nonexistent by the time push meets shove and the excrement runs smack-dab into the fan.

All of which would be fine if the movie's plot wasn't so boneheaded, shooting itself in the foot every few second before finally emptying the entire clip into regions of the body that are far more lethal during the insanely flabbergasting, depressingly brain-dead excuse of a climax. This story just gets dumber and dumber as it goes along, and for all of bo Odar's talents nothing he or his gifted cast can do can disguise just how dim the last act of his Hollywood debut ends up proving to be. By the time the double-cross turns into a triple-cross before morphing one more time into a quadruple-cross (or, at the very least, some meandering semblance of one), I wanted to throw my arms in the air and scream, a potentially fine remake destroyed seemingly because no one in charge of its making cared if the main narrative components made any sense or had any basis in actual everyday reality.

I was initially intrigued. The early scenes, while owing a major debt of gratitude to Michael Mann's Heat, crackle with electricity and passion. Foxx plays Downs with world-weary intensity, his dead-eyed stare sending chills down my spine, especially as he grows more and more afraid of what will happen to his son if he can't recover the drugs and return them to Rubino. Monaghan is equally appealing, her Mutt and Jeff rapport with David Harbour, playing Bryant's laidback partner Doug Dennison, is lived-in and genuine, the duo sporting a somnolent camaraderie that's easy to emotionally relate to and grasp. Finally, McNairy is an exceptional villain, the venom spewing from his mouth hinting at dangerous terrors even the Devil would likely blush at if they ever made the transition from threatened fiction to blood-splattered truth.

But a sense of time in this darn thing is entirely out of whack, spurious deadlines coming and going, and it's never entirely clear how many hours it is all of this is happening in. Also, the metaphorical duality between Downs and Bryant is obvious and silly, so heavy-handed it almost becomes laughable by the time things reach their circus act of a clown car conclusion. Yet none of it compares to the actual lunacy of the climax itself, certain characters appearing for no practical reasons, while other supposedly intelligent individuals suddenly act as if their skulls are filled with nothing more substantive than fluffy bits of cotton candy.

Even though I've heard a number of positives about Jardin's Sleepless Night, sadly I've never found the time to give it a look for myself. With that being so, I cannot say how closely Berloff's script mirrors the source material or how much she has changed in order to Americanize the setting and the characters. Not that it matters. This is dumb stuff, there's just no other way to say it, and even if I liked the initial setup and felt the scenario was solid for a visceral B-grade thriller, the avalanche of stupidity that's ultimately unleashed is just too massive to ignore. There's a reason Sleepless has been dumped into theatres by its studio with precious little fanfare, its level of ludicrous mediocrity almost impressive if it weren't so gosh darn disastrous.








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The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Ghost Light Theatricals
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Miss Universe heats up in Manila with Colombia, Brazil and host country Philippines emerging as favorites
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Radiohead to play Key Arena in early April
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Ferociously suspenseful Split overflowing in personality
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Dim-witted Sleepless impressively mediocre
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