The Middle (Split, 2016)

split_posterAfter Signs, Shyalaman’s career took a hit.  Critics were brutal and try as he might, his films were not grabbing fans.  It was not until 2015’s Visit that he seemed to be picking up some steam.

In Split, we meet Casey and her friends who are abducted by a frightening man named Kevin.  It is quickly revealed that Kevin has a personality disorder with 23 known personalities.  His psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, is working to try and help Kevin become dominant. But he has kidnapped the young girls for nefarious purposes.  He is not a sexual deviant though. His personalities are preparing the way for a new and frightening personality…the Beast…and the girls are innocents that he demands as a sacrifice.

Like the Visit, Split received criticism for its treatment of mental health. And this is a big  part of the plot.  Due to the portrayal of the Beast, a super-human monster, I felt that the film narrowly avoided this being the notion that he was fractured. These were unique and individual people. However, I realize that some will disagree with this read…and I am inclined to in the light of Glass, but I will address this in the Glass review.

Split hinges almost entirely on McAvoy’s performance. He can be ominous, terrifying and yet sweet and kind…sometimes all in the same scene. A good actor should be able to pull this off anyways, but still, McAvoy does it well.

This felt like a return to form, with a small but perfect twist at the end.  Split is one of the strongest films Shyalaman has made since probably Signs.

The Beginning (Unbreakable, 2000)

unbreakable_posterAfter the wild success of the Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan re-teamed with Bruce Willis for another film. Of course, everyone wanted to know what he would do next.

Bruce Willis is David Dunn, a regular guy with a wife and kid whose life is forever changed when he is the lone survivor of a massive commuter train wreck.  But it is not that he simply lived…he walked away without a scratch.

A stranger, Elijah Price enters his world who is convinced that Dunn is a uniquely gifted man. He pushes David to look to his past, where David realizes he rarely has been sick, save one event. But aside from a near drowning, he has never broken a bone and can be very hard to hurt in general. Price convinces the skeptical David that he has amazing powers…he is strong, semi-impervious and also has a… sixth sense, if you will, that allows him to get a sense of a person when he touches them.

He starts to use this to stop criminals, trusting Elijah. The film juxtaposes the two men.  While Willis’ Dunn is seemingly indestructible, Elijah suffers from a unique condition in which his bones are severely fragile. So fragile that the most minor of pressure can shatter a bone.  But where his body is in constant danger of destruction, his intellect is great.  His power is the strength of his mind.

This works really well.  You see how Elijah is able to push David to become a believer in his situation, to embrace his power, in spite of his early skepticism. This also brings he and his son closer, as his son is excited by the idea that his father is a super-hero.

I really appreciate how Willis’ performance grounds the film.  You find yourself unsure if you can trust your eyes. But you cannot help but hope it is true…that David is not being manipulated into buying into a delusion. And Elijah Price’s certainly helps the viewer.

The movie does have a twist, but in comparison to the Sixth Sense, it seems a bit less…drastic. It is absolutely a game changer, as the film is set up as a realistic super-hero origin story.  This is one of Shyamalan’s best films.  Willis and Jackson deliver terrific performances in a compelling story.

Web of Doom (Unfriended: Dark Web, 2018)

unfriended_dark_web_posterIn the first film, a vengeful spirit killed a group of friends via Facebook. It was a sort of clever concept. In this low budget sequel, things are a little different.

A bunch of friends are in an online skype session when Matias confesses his new laptop was in the lost and found.  After discovering a collection of videos of people being tortured, they are contacted by the owner who wants it back.

One by one the friends are picked off as they realize they are not dealing with one guy, they are dealing with a group.  The gimmick of the entire series where it all plays out on a computer screen is pretty effective in building suspense.  But I must say…the film is just…bleak. At no point does the film even pretend there is a chance for the friends to “beat the system” so to speak.

I also found it a bit confusing.  The film does not portray the threat as supernatural, but whenever one of the Dark Web Guys appear on screen? they look all distorted and pixellated, while the rest of the image is pretty much fine. Are they just doing some special hacker thing?

The film is just dark and depressive…and I am kind of wishing for a bit more hope in my horror lately.

UnderkKkover Brother (BlacKkKlansman, 2018)

blackkklansman_posterAccording to Jordan Peele, it took a bit of work to convince Spike Lee to take on the role of director for this film. Well, not to much… He sent Lee a copy of the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the Black Klansman.

It really is one of those stories that seems so insanely weird it almost cannot be true.  But Ron Stallworth is a real guy, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police department. And in the 70’s, itching to advance his career and take down bad guys, he struck up a relationship with the local chapter of the KKK., eventually, this crawled up the ladder to include ongoing conversations with David Duke over the phone.

Of course, there was the little snag that Stallworth is a black man…and that might have stood out a little.  And so the dDepartment decides there is a worthwhile investigation here. So, a white officer, Flip Zimmerman, is recruited to play White Ron.

Lee sees how absurd and humorous this appears on the surface.  And he plays that up a lot. But Lee also saw something deeper at play…a notion that today, we are seeing some of the same evils bubbling to the surface in the present. And the film is not subtle about it.

John David Washington is terrific.  He is both real and performers.  What I mean is that his performance can be very personable and real, yet turn on a faithless charm when Ron is playing the Klan for fools. Adam Driver is more muted…there is no real over the top behavior called for here. Washington and Driver have a good chemistry as men who begin as simple co-workers, but develop a strong bond due to needing to…in a manner…share a life.

The supporting cast is excellent.  From Laura Harrier to Topher Grace, we get a certain tongue in cheek, but not mere cartoon characters.

Lee uses some real visual flair in the film, adding a bit of a larger than life feel in some scenes.  But never at the expense of storytelling.

The film certainly takes some liberties (for example, David Duke did not find out that Ron Stallworth was black until around 2013) and yet, it did not detract from the story overall. Flipp is not a Jewish man in real life, but it added a certain effective story point within the film and gave a bigger story arc for Zimmerman.

Admittedly, the film does seem play it safe.  There is only one racist cop, the rest are, at worst, race agnostic. So, the racism functions outside the institution. This has a side effect of making the black activists represented by Harrier’s Patrice Dumas as being to unfair in their perceptions of the law. It is one bad cop, not the whole department.

However, BlacKkKlansman is a very entertaining and thoughtful film, and its shortcomings do not prevent the film from having a real impact.

Where the Bad Guys Go (Hotel Artemis, 2018)

hotel_artemis_posterIn some vague near future, slightly more advanced than where we are now in a society that is collapsing in on itself, two brothers are trying to complete a heist.  Wounded, they seek the Hotel Artemis.  It is a private hospital created specifically for the criminal element.  It is run by the Nurse and her assistant Everest (he is fixit man, security and policy reminder).  If you do not have membership, you cannot get in.

Things get tough for the brothers when a wounded Gangster they just stole from shows up needing medical intervention.  Will anyone get out alive? Is there a setup that was able to bypass the security of the Hotel Artemis?

First time director Drew Pearce delivers a simple and straight forward action film.  It almost feels like a John Wick spin-off. It is full of crazy action scenes, unique characters and a lead you root for in Sterling K. Brown.

Foster gives a great “world weary” performance, a woman who took the pieces of her shattered life and put them back together as best she could. Dave Bautista as Everest is remarkably engaging. Jeff Goldblum, well, this is Jeff Goldblum.

Hotel Artemis does not reinvent the wheel. But it is a whole lot of fun.

What’s In the Box?! (Bird Box, 2018)

bird_box_posterOne day, the monsters arrived.  People seem to be taken by a force and then kill themselves. If that sounds familiar, you actually remember 2008 M. Night Shyalaman film the Happening.  That film had people committing violent suicides and people trying to flee the city and solve the mystery.  The twist was that it was the trees that did us in.

Oh, sorry…spoilers.

The Happening is (for good reasons) not fondly remembered. It does have a couple very well done freaky moments. But it just becomes laughable.

Here, the problem is that…well…if you see the monsters…you are toast. And so, the only way to survive is to keep your eyes closed. For artist Malorie, this situation is even more troubling as she is pregnant.

Malorie soon joins a group of survivors in a house. Blocking the windows, they find themselves finding inventive ways to survive. But as the months tick by, they find that they must take bigger and bigger risks.

The film is focused on Malorie and her children and her detachment from life. The children are born after the event and simply named Boy and Girl.  The three are trying to take a boat down river to a sanctuary. Using flashbacks, we get to see how the relationships within the house grow and break down…where trust becomes hard to come by.

The “keep your eyes closed” part is the most gimmicky, and yes, does evoke last year’s wonderful a Quiet Place. Unlike a Quiet Place, we do not share in the characters’ experience. With Bird Box, although there are a few brief moments seen through the blindfolds of characters, the camera remains in third person.  Admittedly, forcing us to be blind whenever the characters are would get pretty obnoxious.

One of the really nice tricks is the film never tells us what the monsters are. We know people see them and then also seem to see loved ones… but we only see or hear the effects of their movement, not the creatures themselves.  There are some really interesting artist renderings at one point, but really, who knows if this is really what the creatures look like or merely what the artists saw in their heads.

Bird Box is, thankfully, a much more effectively done take on a general idea like the Happening.  The film has a really good cast and some really effective sequences.

Life In Excess (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018)

crazy_rich_asians_posterIn Jon Chu’s adaption of the book by Kevin Kwan, Rachel and Nick have been dating awhile. Nick invites her to go with him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding.  What Rachel is unprepared for is the discovery that Nick comes from one of the richest families in Singapore.

As she tries to integrate with the family, many see her as nothing but a gold digger.  Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is a proper woman who believes Nick should not be involved with an American. And so begins a comedy about being in love and facing obstacles.

Crazy Rich Asians is, oddly enough, one of those rare situations where a pretty standard romantic comedy is also an important moment for entertainment.  It has been almost 25 years since Hollywood has produced a movie with an almost entirely Asian cast.

So does it work?  Yeah. As far as romantic comedies go, no new grounded is broken. The is a wacky friend, a sassy gay friend, an untrusting mother of the boyfriend. The film has an over the top bachelor and bachelorette party. Some of this is amped up by Rachel finding herself surrounded by opulence. Even her college friend Peik (Awkwafina) is from a fairly rich family.

But the story is well done.  The jokes are funny and the emotion is there. Nick is the decent rich guy (as is his sister Astrid). Rachel is kind but determined. And the film actually finds a thoughtful resolution with its central conflict.

One of my favorite gags occurs right at the start of the film, when there is a fun view of “telephone tag” after someone sees Nick and Rachel in a restaurant.  And the film has a really great (and in Hollywood tradition, largely attractive) cast.

Crazy Rich Asians did not rewrite the romcom, but it did do it exceptionally well.

A Bitter Harvest (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017)

three_billboards_posterWhen grieving mother Mildred takes the drastic measure of renting three billboards asking the local Police Chief Willoughby why he has not arrested anyone in the rape and murder of her daughter, the town is thrown into strife. Many believe it is unfair to call out Willoughby. Officer Dixon (an abusive racist cop) is especially incensed, because he feels she has attacked a great man. Add to that, Willoughby is facing a death sentence with cancer.

Three Billboards is a very good film. I want to get that out of the way.  The film is heartbreaking, angering and funny.  Frances McDormand’s Mildred is both sympathetic and a bit infuriating. In one scene, on a date, she is forced to face that she can be quite insensitive. You understand she is in a lot of pain, but she is remarkably out of touch with the world around her, even when people reach out in kindness.  And Woody Harrelson turns in a solid performance as the exasperated Willoughby, a man who seems to believe everyone in town is basically good, including racist Dixon.

And this is kind of the problem the movie has. See, Dixon is a violent racist, one scene plays it up for laughs. In another he violently attacks a the owner of the billboards and punches the man’s secretary in the face. And he just gets fired. Yet the film wants us to see this as a lead up to his redemption. And the film never earns that. There is no evidence he has seen the light for his racism. And even when he has a noble moment, in the end, he and Mildred go on a mission that…well…is morally dark.

I think this was best addressed by video essayist addressed it best in his video “How (Not) To Discuss Racism In Film.  I am including it here, but please note there are massive spoilers.

My Favoritest Flicks of 2018

The movies I dug in 2018.

  1. Annihilation: A phenomenal feast for the eyes and mind…this quiet and slow burn body horror film drew me in from the first frame. Truly great and imaginative Sci-Fi.annihilation
  2. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse: Great characters, great story and some of the most inventive looking animation I have had the joy of soaking in, this film lives up to the hype. People are telling you it is that good because it is that good. I have seen it twice in the theaters. This is usually something I reserve for films I felt strongly (positive or negatively) about, but seem to be out of line with the majority. This time? It was all to just enjoy it all over again.  Sony has raised the bar with animation and super-hero movies in a single movie.spider-verse
  3. Sorry to Bother You: Boots Riley’s darkly hilarious satire of race and class starts out seemingly setting a high bar with its creative visual approach, only to take a totally bizarre out of left field twist. Brilliant and unexpected.
  4. Hereditary: Another slow burn film, this time in horror. Unflinching at times, much of the film explores grief and loss in the face of ongoing tragedy and questions the very nature of evil. at times, it seems to be maybe a film where we are watching a family collapse and lose it’s grip on reality…until maybe it is not.
  5. BLACKkKLANSMAN: While not a perfect film, it is one that manages to look at a moment of history and see it reflected in today.  The film is pretty blatant in this, sometimes to the point of seeming a little to on the nose.  But it is a funny, dramatic and engaging film with great performances.blackkklansman
  6. Black Panther: Ryan Coogler gave us one of Marvel’s strongest films to date. It carried through some of T’Challa’s lessons learned in Civil War and gave him an interesting challenge. The film effectively blended the super-hero and super-spy genres, with a great cast of characters I look forward to revisiting.
  7. Crazy Rich Asians: Like Black Panther, this was a film in part hyped up due to it being rare. The first Hollywood film with a pre-dominantly Asian cast in about 25 years. And so there was a real push to prove the masses would see the movie, as well as Asian Americans. Luckily, the film brought more than a need to succeed to the table. Sure, it is a pretty generic plot…but the jokes land more than they fail. The cast is terrific and engaging (and this being a Hollywood film, largely very attractive) and the film is entertaining.  Crazy_Rich_Asians
  8. Mission Impossible: Fallout: It is not often that a Franchise gets better with age, but Mission Impossible has managed to become more interesting as they go…starting around the third film. The core group of characters all have chemistry and the new additions are solid.Mission_Impossible_fallout_bathroom
  9. Avengers: Infinity War: This one was kind of a tough call. It is clearly a film that ended in the middle of the story.  And there are some good arguments against the film…but I still liked this one. The film balanced its various storylines quite effectively, the character interactions were, at times, golden. It had a villain with a terrible but identifiable plan. We will see if Endgame alters my feelings at all.
  10. Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mister Rogers was a formative and unique part of the PBS landscape for generations. A challenge to colder views on masculinity that told children that they matter simply for who they were, Fred Rogers spoke to kids as people. He knew they had questions and needed answers, and that shielding them from some of the darker parts of our world was insufficient.  I miss Fred Rogers. I wish we had more men like him.
  11. Bumblebee: How the hell did a Transformers movie crack my top ten? The movie had a heart, some great human characters and well executed special effects.  A smaller cast of Transformers allowed for Bumblebee to shine.Bumblebee Trailer screen grab Credit: Paramount Pictures


My runners up? Ocean’s 8 was a terrific entry in the heist franchise. Aquaman was a fun film, but was edged out by Bumblebee. Teen Titans Go was fun, but it was largely cotton candy…and just cannot compete with Spider-Man. I enjoyed Ralph Breaks the Internet…it was cute. Ant-Man and the Wasp was a nice pallet cleanser after Infinity War.  For the most part, I enjoyed Solo and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom. And I enjoyed the Incredibles 2, which was a decent follow up to the original.

well, Onward to 2019!!!

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