Glass Review

*Caution: Review contains major spoilers for both Unbreakable and Split*

 

If ever there were a textbook example of how to bring a movie trilogy to a satisfying close… Glass is the exact opposite of it.

Now, to be fair, not everything in Glass is terrible: The early portions show a lot of promise with the concept of a singular film serving as a sequel to two others, and the main players of Bruce Willis as Dennis Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price (AKA the titular “Mr. Glass”), and James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb (AKA “The Horde” due to the multiple personalities existing within him) bring with them all the talents they brought to Unbreakable and Split. But poor M. Night Shaymalan just can’t help himself. Instead of the satisfying conclusion to Unbreakable and Split’s respective mythologies we were hoping for – or the build-up to more Shaymalan super heroes and villains it could have been – we get an eye-rolling, stereotypical Shaymalanian plot twist that robs the third act of any and all momentum, with the remainder of the film limping feebly to get to the end credits.

It seems like “subverting expectations” is the big thing directors are going for these days. On one hand, I can totally respect that. Audiences don’t want to see the same thing over and over, and seeing something new or being surprised can be a real treat. But there are also times when maybe filmmakers should take a step back and not try to buck trends just for the hell of it. Subverting genre norms can indeed work wonders (M. Night Shaymalan did it himself with Unbreakable). But if you give me the option between a well-directed, good movie that may be a tad formulaic, or a clunky, bad movie that also happens to be original, well, I know which one I’d rather watch.

Glass seems like it’s actively trying to disappoint fans by the end of it. I’m almost impressed with how much effort seems to have gone into giving the “Eastrail 177 trilogy” as unsatisfying of an ending as possible.

Now, again, there is some merit to be had with Glass, but mostly in its first half. David Dunn now operates a security company by day, and dishes out vigilante justice at night. Having embraced his superhuman abilities since the events of Unbreakable, David has earned the monicker of “The Overseer” for the watchful eye he has over the city. The film begins with Dunn tracking down The Beast who, as anyone who watched Split will know, is the super-powered, animalistic personality of Kevin Wendell Crumb (who has a total of twenty-three other, non-super-powered personalities).

When Dunn finds Crumb’s hideaway and rescues his most recent captives, the fight that ensues – true to the nature of the series – is nothing flashy or pretty to look at. It isn’t heavily choreographed and there’s no spectacular stuntwork. It’s an appropriate slugfest between an average Joe and a mentally unstable individual who both just happen to possess super strength.

“There’s a little too much of THIS in the movie. A little more anything else would have been nice.”

But then…the fight abruptly ends, as both men (all twenty-five men?) are then taken into custody by the police, and are sent to a mental institution. Another patient of the institution is Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, the super genius with fragile bones who served as the deuteragonist/surprise antagonist of Unbreakable. Because of his super intellect, Price is under constant sedation to prevent him from causing harm or escaping. All three men are under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Stapler (Sarah Paulson), who believes all three men to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that there’s nothing truly ‘super’ about them.

And then… most of the film takes place in the mental institution. That’s right, this crossover sequel featuring a super powered Bruce Willis, an unhinged James McAvoy and an evil genius Samuel L. Jackson is predominantly relegated to the cramped rooms and halls of a mental institute. Gee, I’m sure that’s exactly what fans were hoping for after Split revealed itself as a surprise Unbreakable sequel just before the credits rolled.

Once again, in the name of fairness, I was onboard with the confined setting for a while, as it seems that the film was actually going to be more about David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Elijah Price as characters than it was going to be about the epic showdown between the Overseer and the Beast. In that regard, the “subverting of expectations” was making sense to me. But once Glass veers off and takes a wrong turn, it just keeps making them.

At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn is warned that villains come in different varieties, specifically “soldiers” and “masterminds.” Mr. Glass was revealed to be a mastermind, and when Split revealed that it was in the same world as Unbreakable, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s Beast gave us the answer as to who would play the role of soldier. All Glass really needed to be was the story of these three characters coming together. David Dunn taking on the Beast, the latter under the influence of Mr. Glass. And for a while, that’s what Glass seems to be building towards. But then it decides that isn’t good enough, and instead spends more time with Ellie Stapler trying to convince the established characters that they aren’t comic book characters before shoehorning in an utterly souring plot twist. Glass just overthinks what it needs itself to be, and ultimately stumbles because of it.

Of the three primary characters, only Kevin and his various personalities gets any real time to shine. We even get to see a few more of Kevin’s twenty-four personalities, which gives McAvoy plenty to do. If only Glass were as interested in the Unbreakable side of the spectrum. Once the film gets to the mental institute, David Dunn doesn’t so much feel like the hero of the story so much as a player who happens to be in it. We never really get a sense of motivation from Dunn. And Mr. Glass himself – the namesake of the movie – gets surprisingly little screen time. Of course Samuel L. Jackson steals the show when he’s allowed, but he rarely seems allowed. That’s a true shame, because Unbreakable made Mr. Glass into hands down the best character in any M. Night Shaymalan film.

“Each superhuman has a close affiliate: David has his son, Glass has his mother, Kevin has…his kidnap victim…”

Glass also ends up finding its own ways to cripple the characters that Unbreakable and Split built. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the sole survivor of the Beast’s crimes, suddenly seems to hold pity for the kidnapper/murderer/cannibal, which seems to undermine her character growth from Split (I get that Kevin is an ill man, but he literally became a comic book monster, so… kind of hard to feel too sorrowful for the guy). Her sympathy for Kevin can – at the worst of times – almost come off as romantic, which pretty much obliterates her character arc entirely. Combine that with David Dunn’s lack of presence, and Mr. Glass’s limited screen time, and the movie ends up feeling squandered in many different directions.

“Is it too much to ask for a little more Mr. Glass in a movie named after him?”

Once again, I have to admit that there are moments of Glass that are good (one of my particular favorites sees Mr. Glass consoling Kevin’s perpetually nine-year old personality, Hedwig, by reassuring him that he too is ‘special,’ despite not boasting the superhuman abilities of the Beast. It’s one of the few moments that reminds us why Mr. Glass is such an interesting, charismatic character). The film is at its best when it feels like a continuation of Unbreakable and Split. But the more it delves into its own story, the more it seems to go off-the-rails and lose any consistency in themes or tone. It’s as though Shaymalan took his best film (Unbreakable) and his comeback (Split), and put them together while simultaneously forgetting to include the strengths of both films. The director’s infamous weaknesses come into play (“what a twist!”), which makes it feel as though Shaymalan refuses to learn from his past mistakes. That these weaknesses have found their way into the joining together of Unbreakable and Split ends up turning what should have been something special in Glass into a bastardization of both parties involved.

Glass should have been an easy win for Shaymalan. And while it’s far from the director’s worst work (we are talking about the man who helmed The Last Airbender here), it is, unquestionably, his most disappointing film. By the end of it, I can’t imagine any fans of Unbreakable and Split walking away satisfied.

 

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Split Review

*This review contains spoilers in regards to the “twist” at the end of the film…but that twist should be common knowledge by this point anyway. There are no spoilers in regards to key plot details*

Split was seen as something of a return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan. The once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable seemed to lose his touch with critics and audiences (and general storytelling coherence) with his post-Unbreakable career. Whether it was relying too heavily on forced twists in obvious attempts to recreate the buzz of The Sixth Sense, or just helming outright cinematic disasters like The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan became more of a parody of himself than he was adding to the legacy he started with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Critics found 2015’s to be a step in the right direction for Shyamalan, before Split arrived a year later and was considered the director’s  comeback. Although it doesn’t reach the same heights of Unbreakable, Split is unquestionably Shyamalan’s best film since (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).

This is pretty appropriate, because (here comes the twist spoiler) Split takes place in the same fictional universe as Unbreakable. Wisely, the film never advertised itself as a sequel, and for the most part, it’s a standalone film. It’s only after the story is done that we get a cameo by Bruce Willis returning as David Dunn that it’s confirmed that the psychological horror film Split is a companion piece to the 2000 super hero flick. It seems like an odd connection, but it makes more sense than it sounds.

The setup of the film is simple enough: three teenage girls; Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped as they’re leaving a party, and are held captive in an underground building. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), with Kevin possessing twenty-three different personalities in his body.

It is those multiple personalities within Kevin that help elevate Split from being just another horror movie. Some of Kevin’s personalities, such as the “nine-year old” Hedwig, are friendly to the girls. Others, such as “Patricia” and “Dennis” are more sinister. Kevin’s (current) dominant personality, Barry, is just an average guy working at a zoo. But he’s quickly losing control of Kevin’s body to Patricia and Dennis.

This is where things become a little more “comic book-y,” as Patricia and Dennis both worship a soon-to-be-unleashed twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, who possesses superhuman strength and agility. The Patricia and Dennis personalities are behind the kidnappings, as they plan on ‘sacrificing’ Claire and Marcia – whom Kevin’s wicked personalities deem “unsure” due to their sheltered lives – to the Beast once it awakens (Casie, the heroine of the movie, wasn’t an intended target, but was at the wrong place at the wrong time).

It sounds a bit silly when I type it. But similar to how Unbreakable made a grounded superhero by exaggerating reality, so too does Split with its eventual super villain. It exaggerates DID and concepts like mind over body into the realms of fantasy. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes that different personalities of people with DID can exhibit different body chemistries from one another, but believes the foreshadowed “Beast” to be a figment of Kevin’s imagination, as opposed to another personality, given its promise of outright superhuman ability.

As you might expect, the film is about Casey, Claire and Marcia trying to escape captivity, often by means of finding an Allie in Kevin’s less malicious personalities, with the constant threat that Dennis and Patricia might take over. It’s a fun take on horror tropes that keeps things interesting, and allows for McAvoy to display a good range of acting ability. The film also takes a number of detours into Casey’s troubled childhood, with her harsh past coming into play with her survivability.

Split is a unique movie in that it has since become regarded as the first super villain origin story movie. That’s actually a pretty accurate description, and it cleverly masks this super villain origin story under the guise of a horror film. And Split ultimately works on the levels of both horror and an origin story.

Admittedly, the film does lack any real surprises (though I suppose that’s a godsend compared to the wonky twists Shaymalan is known for), and the horror elements lose some of their psychological edge when the super powers come into play. But overall, Split is a solid effort. It takes a tried-and-true horror setup (escaping a captor), adds a nice spin on the equation through its villain’s multiple personalities, and does a good job at character growth for both Kevin and Casey. And it’s all held together by McAvoy’s versatile (often creepy, sometimes humorous) performance.

 

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Unbreakable Review

*Minor, non-specific spoilers included in this review*

 

Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 feature, has quite the interesting history. As Shyamalan’s directorial follow-up to The Sixth Sense, audiences and critics had a lukewarm reception to Unbreakable. The Sixth Sense made a huge impact at the time, especially with its big twist at the end (which, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious). Audiences expected another psychological thriller in the same vein as The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable was a subtle super hero film masquerading as a drama (the super hero aspect was underplayed in marketing, as Disney – who distributed the film under their Touchstone banner – felt the genre wasn’t “lucrative” enough. My, how times change).

Over the years, however, Unbreakable not only gained a cult following, but is now often regarded as M. Night Shyamalan’s best film. Shyamalan himself even regards it as his personal favorite film he’s directed. All this praise is with good reason: Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.

Now, given the director’s shaky resume following Unbreakable (to put it lightly), that may sound like a backhanded compliment. But I say this is Shyamalan’s best film with complete sincerity, as Unbreakable was not only a great movie in 2000, but is a rare example of a film that has become deeper and more relevant with age. It would still be two years until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man turned the super hero film into the go-to genre for blockbusters. And yet, Unbreakable felt like a deconstruction and rethinking of that very genre before it really kicked off.

Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard and everyman seeking a purpose in life as his marriage begins to fall apart. On his way home from a job interview, his train (the “Eastrail 177”) crashes. Miraculously, David is not only the sole survivor of the train crash, but walks away from the disaster completely unscathed.

At the memorial service for those that perished in the accident, David receives a message to meet with the owner of Limited Edition, a comic book art gallery, who is fascinated with David’s situation.

The owner of Limited Edition is one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a super genius born with Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition which makes the bones extremely fragile and easy to break, earning Price the monicker of “Mr. Glass” during his childhood. Price – a lifelong fan of comic books – has long held a theory that there may be some truth to the superhuman nature of comic book heroes, and that if someone with his extreme frailty exists, then there may exist his extreme oppose, a person who is more or less unbreakable. That is to say, a super hero.

David Dunn, naturally, believes Price to be a kook. But Dunn’s young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), believes there’s something to Price’s theory. The rest of the film is more or less an origin story, with Dunn coming to the realization that there may have been something more to his miraculous survival than sheer luck. And as David and his son try exploring and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities, they are under constant watch by Price, who begins an uneasy friendship with Dunn.

What really stands out about Unbreakable is that it’s a very grounded super hero film. Dunn may possess traits of invulnerability and superhuman strength, but it’s never presented as particularly farfetched. For example, Dunn begins learning of the depths of his strength when his son adds about two-hundred extra pounds to his daily weightlifting, far more weight than Dunn previously thought he could lift. It may not be ‘realistic‘ per se, but it’s an exaggeration of reality. David Dunn is not about to leap tall buildings or shoot lasers out of his eyes.

There’s nothing wrong with heroes with more fantastic powers, of course. But in this day and age when it seems every blockbuster features numerous characters who can destroy cities with their every grudge match, it’s really interesting to look back on a movie that – in 2000 – tried to subvert that. This was five years before Batman Begins grounded Batman, a super hero who already doesn’t have super powers. But Unbreakable tells the story of a man who possesses superhuman abilities, yet convincingly presents it as real. David Dunn never ends up donning a super suit, though he does end up with raincoat that reflects the capes and cowls of many heroes. Even when David Dunn confronts his heroic nature to stop an evildoer, it doesn’t culminate in an epic battle with a super villain, but saving a family from a (depressingly real) home invasion.

Elijah Price, knowing a thing or two about comic book heroes, often dissects the genre, its heroes and its villains when trying to help David find his place in this mythos. In retrospect, Unbreakable almost seems to be a commentary on the super hero genre, while simultaneously embracing and rethinking it. I enjoy the MCU as much as anyone, but Unbreakable seemed to predict the over saturation of the genre it loves and expresses a means to keep it fresh and unique years before the genre needed help in those departments.

It’s not just genre subversion that makes Unbreakable a captivating entertainment. It also works on a more human level, with David Dunn and Elijah Price being two brilliantly realized characters. Just as much of the film is focused on Dunn trying to work things out with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) for the sake of his son as there is to Dunn’s discoveries of his superhuman nature. And by description (a man who believes comic book superheroes are real), Elijah Price may sound crazy, but the film does a great job at understanding his mindset, and his yearning to discover his opposite.

Unbreakable works as both a character-driven drama and as an alternative super hero flick. It takes its time to tell an origin story that may only serve as the first act in any other super hero movie, and it’s all the better for it. If Unbreakable features one grave flaw, however, it’s the ending.

No, I’m not talking about the film’s twist (which, unlike many of Shyamalan’s plot twists, feels neither forced nor a crutch for the entire film to hold onto). That twist actually helps shake up the film from a character standpoint. But even Unbreakable’s most diehard fans will tell you that what comes immediately after said twist is disappointing. And that’s because, after the twist, the movie just abruptly ends…with on-screen text. It’s weird, because you can’t imagine there would have been all that much movie left anyway, but it would have helped the movie come to a far more satisfying close if we actually got to see these ending events unfold, instead of simply being told “here’s what happened.” It’s a popcorn fart of an ending to an otherwise captivating movie.

Ending aside, Unbreakable remains a standout feature in the super hero genre. And uniquely, it has only become a greater standout over the course of time, and the countless super hero films that have been released since. Unbreakable is a low-key character drama and innovative dissection of the super hero genre that has, like a fine wine, only gotten better with age.

 

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