The LEGO Batman Movie – Film Review

The LEGO Movie shocked everyone in 2014 by turning out to be one of the best movies of the year. It was not only hilarious, but heartfelt and inspiring, and wound up as one of the year’s biggest hits. Three years later, we return to the LEGO world, but not in the form of a sequel. The LEGO Batman Movie takes Batman, who was a supporting character in the original, and puts him front and center. And quite frankly, it’s the best DC movie in five years.

The LEGO Batman Movie follows Batman (Will Arnett) as he deals with a life crisis. He is loved and adored by the people of Gotham City, but he goes home every night and sits alone, missing the family that was taken from him. But everything he knows will change when he accidentally adopts a teenage orphan (Michael Cera), and the new police commissioner (Rosario Dawson) decides that Gotham is no place for vigilantes. When the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) develops a plan to prove that he is the greatest villain ever, Batman must learn to work with those around him to stop him.

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The original LEGO Movie was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, known for the Jump Street series, and showcased their trademark humor by sending up the clichés of modern blockbusters. Taking over the reigns from Lord and Miller, LEGO Batman director Chris McKay applies the same humor in the form of a send up to superhero movies and the huge amount of Batman lore. Every Batman movie and show is referenced, going all the way back to the 1940s, and a massive array of villains appear, ranging from The Riddler and Catwoman to The Eraser and Condiment Man. Fans of the hero are sure to appreciate all the ways McKay finds to poke fun at his very diverse and expansive history.

Another great aspect of the original film that LEGO Batman successfully replicates is its stellar casting. Will Arnett was also the voice of Batman in the original, so his portrayal is familiar, but he manages to add to it. In The LEGO Movie, Batman was mostly just a joke with a funny voice, but here, Arnett is able to add some pain to the deep voice that makes you feel for the character. It’s great voice work. Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes (as Alfred) are also great, and there are some wonderful surprise cameos, but Michael Cera and Zach Galifianakis absolutely steal the show. Cera’s Robin is so lovably optimistic that nearly everything he says will bring a smile to your face, and Galifianakis manages to turn the Joker into a truly human character with a portrayal that is both funny and strangely heartfelt.

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In fact, most of the movie is pretty heartfelt. Again like the original LEGO Movie, LEGO Batman has some good messages. Batman is lonely and struggles to move past the death of his family. This causes him to distance himself from everyone that cares about him, and these relationships get to be explored. But somehow, in a movie that gives Batman a surrogate father, an adopted son, and a potential love interest, the relationship between Batman and the Joker is the best part of the movie. Batman refuses to recognize the Joker as his greatest enemy, and this little subplot manages to lead to not only some hilarious sequences, but a few deep moments between the two that really drive the plot along. The sentimentality can get a little sugary at times, but it’s mostly done really well.

Even more than it is a heartfelt movie, The LEGO Batman Movie is a very funny movie, but possibly to a fault. A large proportion of the jokes in the movie land, but there are just so many of them, often a handful every minute. It never lets up for 100 minutes, which can get a little exhausting. But if being too funny is the biggest flaw in your movie, you did a good job. The LEGO Batman Movie manages to take everything that made The LEGO Movie great, combine it with everything that’s loved about the Batman property, and turn it into a movie that is clever, funny, heartfelt, beautifully animated, and enjoyable for pretty much anyone. Job well done.

Grade: 9/10

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Alien: Covenant – Film Review

In 1977, Ridley Scott released a film called Alien, and it became one of the most influential movies in sci-fi and film history. Since then, it’s spawned a possibly even more loved sequel in 1986’s Aliens, a few more sub-par continuations, two terrible crossovers with Predator, and a very polarizing prequel in the form of Prometheus. That film chose not to focus on the beloved Xenomorph species of the originals and was instead a sci-fi thinking piece tackling existential questions such as “Who made us?”. Many hated the direction Scott took with that film, so for Alien: Covenant, he decided to try to shift the franchise back towards what made it successful in the first place, and it only somewhat gets there.

Ten years after the events of Prometheus, over 2000 colonists are aboard the Covenant and on course to settle on Origae-6. During the trip, the ship’s crew receives a distress signal from a nearby planet and goes down to investigate. The new planet has no life in sight, but seems perfect for sustaining it. But while investigating, a few of the crew members start developing some strange symptoms, and the new planet quickly turns into a nightmare.

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Most mainstream audiences found Prometheus a little too deep and missed the presence of the aliens, but many loved the new direction and wanted to see where it would go. Covenant attempts to satisfy both groups, so naturally, it can be a little uneven. A lot of the film hits the same horror beats as the original Alien, including similar first encounters and final battles and a checklist of fallen characters. This can make it feel a little “been there, done that”, but the scenes are updated with modern technology, and they sure do look cool. There’s one completely original new battle towards the end of the film that never would have been possible in the 70s and 80s and is sure to be one of the most crowd-pleasing scenes of the year.

But at the same time, Covenant attempts to continue the rather deep creation arc started in Prometheus. The backlash did cause them to switch their end goal a bit, so if you were looking forward to seeing what Noomi Rapace learns on the Engineer’s home planet, you’re going to be a little disappointed. The main way that the Prometheus story continues is through David (Michael Fassbender), the very curious android that set many of that film’s events in motion. Covenant explores what David’s been up to in the ten years since, which leads to quite a few more philosophical questions. However, the film doesn’t completely commit to this plotline, as it is too busy appeasing Alien fans. But there is enough of it to pull you out of the tension of those scenes. With two completely different end goals in mind, the film struggles to get to either.

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Despite this story hurdle, Covenant succeeds in spades in the technical department. Ridley Scott is one of the best directors of all time, and he makes yet another gorgeous looking movie. Landscapes are beautiful, and production design of the Covenant itself is marvelous. Every shot is framed perfectly, allowing Scott to maximize the tension of each scene. And it’s very well acted. Katherine Waterston does fine work as the pseudo-Ripley, Billy Crudup perfectly captures the reluctant captain, and Danny McBride has a great dramatic turn as the ship’s pilot. But coming out on top for the second film in a row is Fassbender. He plays double duty as both David and Covenant’s on-board android, Walter. A few scenes involve the two robots talking to each other, and Fassbender and his multitude of accents play them magnificently.

Covenant would be a much stronger film if it knew what it wanted to be. Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus are all very different movies, but all three committed to what they were, and they all did great jobs of it (yes, even Prometheus). Covenant tries to be all three at once, and it just ends up being a weaker version of each. It’s too slow to just be a great action or horror movie, and too unfocused to be a great thinking piece. Acting is good, but David is pretty much the only character to be developed, so you don’t really care what happens to any of them, something that the previous movies worked hard to avoid. It’s still an enjoyable film, and fans shouldn’t be disappointed, but it lacks the focus to sit up among the best.

Grade: 6.5/10

Fist Fight – Film Review

The oddball pairing is one of the oldest hooks in comedy history. The concept of two comedians with very little in common thrown together to riff off of each other has led to some of the greatest comic moments in history, from classics like The Odd Couple to modern hits like the Jump Street series. The formula gets replicated again for Fist Fight, pitting legendary rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube (who had a supporting role in the Jump Street films) against It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day. Unfortunately, if this film is anything to go by, Cube and Day will not be joining the great oddball ranks anytime soon.

It’s the last day of school and English teacher Andy Campbell (Day) is just trying to make it through the day. The seniors are going all out with pranking teachers and, to make matters worse, the school board is making heavy job cuts, which Campbell can not afford with a very pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia). But when another teacher, Ron Strickland (Cube), loses his temper after a prank, he brings an ax to a student’s desk. In an effort to save his own job, Campbell sells out Strickland, which causes the latter to challenge the former to a fist fight after school. As news spreads, Campbell must try to make it out of the fight, keep his job, and make it in time to his daughter’s (Alexa Nisenson) talent show all at once.

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As you can see, this is a ridiculous set-up. Fortunately, Fist Fight knows it’s ridiculous. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t really do too much with it. The comedic potential of an over-the-top Senior Prank Day is huge, but the jokes are mostly pretty dry, ranging from using phones to turn off a TV in class to drawing penises on white boards to super-gluing supplies to the principal’s (Dean Norris) desk. There are a few inspired gags in here, like a mariachi band following the previously mentioned principal around all day, but most fall flat or simply rely on basic phallic humor. The rest of the jokes mostly involve different ways of saying Campbell is going to be destroyed by Strickland.

Cube and Day don’t really shine as brightly as they should either. For the most part, the funniest moments of both come down to reactions. Day utilizes his manic panic mode, while Cube does his typical angry shtick. It can be funny at times, but both men have shown to be so much better in the past. Where they do really succeed, though, is in the titular teacher fight. It’s both violent and funny, and both actors commit themselves to the bit beautifully.

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While the main actors may not work as well as they should, some of the supporting players really kill it. Jillian Bell steals every scene she’s in as a horny drug addict who also happens to be a guidance counselor, and Kumail Nanjiani does likewise as the school’s security guard. On the other hand, Tracy Morgan really doesn’t do much as a hyperactive gym teacher, and Christina Hendricks is unneeded as a borderline-psychopathic drama teacher. A lot of Day’s and Cube’s best moments are responses to the crazy actions of the support characters, even if only about half of them can stand on their own.

Like any comedy like this, main character Campbell is subjected to a life lesson. As corny as it may be, the film actually becomes better because of it. Once Campbell’s outlook on things change, a lot more jokes stick and the overall experience becomes much more enjoyable. And as ridiculously unrealistic as this school is, it actually does have something to say about how administrators distribute resources. Despite this, Fist Fight remains an only moderately funny film that can’t help but feel like a long sitcom episode. Director Richie Keen is a sitcom director after all, and if his film debut is any example, he’s better off sticking with them.

Grade: 4/10

Get Out – Film Review

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele dominated the comedy world for the first half of the decade with their hit show Key & Peele, a sketch comedy series that touched on a wide variety of racial and social issues. Since the show’s cancellation in 2015, Key has gone on to have a very successful career as a supporting player in various comedies. Peele, on the other hand, has decided to dip his feet into directing, and that’s where Gets Out comes in. While certainly humorous at times, Get Out is a straight-up horror film. But unlike so many, it’s a genuinely smart one that manages to both scare you and provide interesting commentary on race relations and social interaction, making this a true breath of fresh air.

Get Out centers around photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as he travels with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her family. Beyond the normal fears of meeting the parents of a significant other, Chris is worried about how the family will react to finding out that he is black. The meeting with Rose’s family (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones) is awkward, but still friendly, but Chris begins to notice some strange behavior among the various black residents in the neighborhood, including family housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson). Things keep getting weirder, and Chris must try to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.

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Get Out does so many things rights, and at the center of all of this is what it has to say about race relations. The film has some very smart commentary. None of the white characters in the film are loud-and-proud racists, but the dialogue given to the interracial conversations is spot on at capturing the subtle ways that nervousness is shown between the two races. These conversations come off very cringey, but in an intentional way. For example, Rose’s father states randomly that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could and tries to speak in a “cool” way. This cringiness makes you uncomfortable, which helps the horror scenes pay off even more than they already would.

For a first time director, Peele is very good at directing horror scenes. The scares themselves aren’t completely original and he’s not above using a jump scare, but he is excellent at building up tension properly in a way that allows these more clichéd moments to feel earned. The camera is staged perfectly to build up maximum tension, the score is great and works well to set the mood (as done a genius use of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”), and scenes are set up in ways to make you as uncomfortable as possible. The horror direction is truly masterful, and certain scenes, including a hypnosis halfway through and the film’s entire third act, are sure to give you chills that will stick for awhile.

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Peele is strongest at directing the horror scenes, but he still succeeds in spades at building a story that is interesting with characters we care about. The mystery of the film really is intriguing and will have you on the edge of your seat. Chris is a relatable every-man with human flaws, and he never becomes a stereotype. Daniel Kaluuya plays him well, giving him a charm that is easy to root for. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are excellent as Rose’s parents. They make their characters likeable and hateable at the same, which is exactly what we need from them. But stealing the show is Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend and a proud agent of the TSA. He helps Chris figure out what’s going on and serves as the film’s comic relief. He is superb in that role and nearly all of his jokes land perfectly.

As demonstrated by its success, Get Out is a much needed film in today’s environment. It shines light on real issues in a really intelligent way without compromising the truly entertaining film around it. It’s not without its flaws though. The racial subtext can be a little heavy handed at times, and the film never reaches its full potential by staying one-sided in its commentary. The reasoning behind the mystery of the film is also very weak, essentially coming down to “because we want to make it a race movie”. Regardless, Get Out is a genuinely scary, funny, and entertaining film with great performances and award-worthy direction. It has a lot to say and goes about it very cleverly. It’s an important film that should be viewed by those of all races.

Grade: 8.5/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Film Review

With 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel proved just how powerful they had become. They took one of their most obscure properties and turned it into one of the biggest films of the year. But the Marvel brand can’t take all the credit. The irreverent humor of director James Gunn mixed with a fantastic cast portraying extremely loveable characters, not to mention a soundtrack for the ages, combined to turn Guardians into a cult favorite. Three years later, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 arrives with immense hype. Fans around the world have been excited to see what our favorite a-holes would do next. And for the most part, they shouldn’t be disappointed.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes place a few months after the events of the first film. The Guardians have become famous across the galaxy and have been spending their time completing odd jobs for those in need. After Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to steal valuable goods from a gold-skinned alien society that they just helped, they find themselves shipwrecked with the angry race in pursuit. However, they find a man named Ego (Kurt Russell) on the planet on which they crash landed, who reveals himself to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Quill sets off to Ego’s planet with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista), while Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to fix the ship. Disaster ensues.

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As you can tell from that synopsis, this isn’t a really plot driven movie. What James Gunn rather cleverly decided to do was create a simple set-up and just let the characters loose. Structurally, this is rather like Guardians’ version of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the second film in a space opera series, which sees the group split up and the main hero encounter his long lost father. That film is considered an all time classic because of the way it focused on developing the characters and expanding the mythos, rather than simply replicating the first film. Guardians 2 is certainly no Empire, but it took the same successful strategy of that film. We learn a lot about the Guardians here. Backstories are further explored and relationships are developed more, making us love these characters even more.

With all this character development, the main cast have to put themselves through some dramatic scenes, and they commit beautifully. Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper remain the heart and soul of the franchise, infusing Quill and Rocket with a loveable warmth while being sarcastic and witty. As Drax, Dave Bautista has the least to do, but he knocks it out of the park with jokes and shows a very surprisingly nuanced emotional turn in one scene. As for side characters, Karen Gillan remains over-the-top as Gamora’s vengeful sister Nebula, but manages to tone it down a bit and commit well to her emotional moments. But stealing the show is Michael Rooker, returning as Yondu Udonta, a shamed Ravager who helped raise Quill. He captures the character perfectly, and Yondu’s arc is the best in the film.

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While these scenes of character development are strong and played well, they don’t exactly flow well. Pretty much all of them come from two characters yelling at each other, followed by one of them announcing something deep that instantly gets the emotional scene rolling. It hits you very abruptly in an “oh okay, this is happening” kind of way. And with so much humor all around it, it can be very tonally uneven. The humor is as great as before, if not even better, but it doesn’t always mesh well with the serious moments. A little tonal adjustment would probably turn Vol. 2 into a much less jarring experience.

Even with that flaw though, fans are going to love this movie. It’s absolutely a crowd pleaser. There are tons of jokes, many of which land perfectly and will be quoted for weeks after the movie’s over. The action scenes are really cool to watch, and Baby Groot is the most adorable film character in years. He’ll have you constantly cracking up, but he never becomes too much or overused. However, so much attention is given to creating crowd-pleasing moments and developing characters that the plot is lacking. There really is no major conflict for the first half of the movie, and the whole effort can’t help but feel very much like a long sitcom episode. It’s good for allowing characters and relationships to develop, but there’s no plot hook to engage you. Still, Vol. 2 is a great addition to the Guardians canon, and you’ll most likely leave the theater ready for the next adventure.

Grade: 7.5/10

A Dog’s Purpose – Film Review

So just a few weeks before the release of A Dog’s Purpose, a video was leaked by PETA showing the filmmakers putting one of the dogs in a dangerous situation against its will. Suddenly, the cute dog movie turned into one of the biggest controversies of 2017 so far. Many have decided to boycott and not see the film. However, it has since come out the video was edited to mislead the public, and that no abuse took place. So don’t not see A Dog’s Purpose because you think animals were mistreated. There are more than enough legitimate reasons within the film itself to not see it.

A Dog’s Purpose centers around a dog named Bailey (in-character narration by Josh Gad). Bailey is owned by a boy named Ethan (KJ Apa), and the two become inseparable best friends. We follow Ethan’s childhood and teenage years through the eyes of Bailey until the dog passes away and is reborn as a K-9 sniffer in the possession of Officer Carlos Ruiz (John Ortiz). Bailey goes through multiple lives as he tries to determine what his purpose in life is as a dog.

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The premise of A Dog’s Purpose is cute, if you can ignore some of the logistical flaws behind the whole reincarnation thing. Bailey is obviously adorable, so it isn’t hard to watch the dog for an hour and a half, and Josh Gad works wonders as the narrator. As we’ve seen in Frozen, he captures that innocent warmth perfectly, and some of the questions he raises in his narration about humanity and existence are actually pretty profound. It isn’t too overwhelming for kids, but deep enough that adults can get something from it. Bailey himself is easily the best part of the movie.

That said, he’s also pretty much the only good part of the movie. The gimmick of seeing things from a dog’s point of view is executed fairly well, but it unfortunately exists within one of the cheesiest human dramas on camera. All of the requisites are hit. Alcoholic father? Check. Problem kid at school? Check. Perfect relationship that hits a bump? Check. Life-changing disaster? Check. Crippling injury that gets in the way of future prospects? Check. It’s all here and it’s all done in the blandest and crudest way possible. The father progresses from being simply strict in one scene to being an abusive alcoholic the next, and it’s extremely jarring. The jealous kid at school does something so illegal and morally wrong, that it’s jaw-dropping, but he acts surprised and regretful after it’s over, as if he was expecting something else to happen. The film just throws problems at Ethan. Nothing develops naturally. It’s all there simply as a platform to see what Bailey thinks.

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It’s also not acted very well from pretty much any of the human characters. This includes not only Apa and Ortiz, but also Dennis Quaid as a character I won’t spoil and Britt Robertson as Ethan’s girlfriend. They’re all very dry here, along with the rest of the supporting cast. Watching these human characters isn’t really exciting, especially in the second half. In Ethan’s story, you’re at least wondering what in the world they’re gonna think up next, but Ortiz’s story takes some weird wannabe-thriller twist, and the next owner’s story is so bland that I can barely recap it. If Bailey’s narration was removed from the film, this wouldn’t even be Lifetime-worthy material.

There is actually a pretty good chance that you’ll find yourself tearing up at times. There is emotion, and the various scenes of Bailey passing on will hit particularly hard for dog owners. But none of the emotion is really earned. The screenwriters simply take something that they know makes viewers get emotional and throws it in. It’s just not a well-written film. Visually, it’s fine to look at, thanks to director Lasse Holström’s experience and the refreshing farm-boy-America setting. A Dog’s Purpose could be a very good film. The perspective of a dog is a cool framework and what they did with it is admirable, but it was dropped into a story that is so overdone and poorly executed, that it just isn’t really worth it.

Grade: 5/10

Sleepless – Film Review

January is the go-to month for studios to drop bad movies that they have no confidence in. So it’s hard to go into Sleepless, an action-thriller marketed as a Jamie Foxx version of Taken, with much confidence. The result really isn’t that bad, though. While this is, no doubt, a generic action thriller that the world could survive without, it’s a pretty well-done one that isn’t too hard to enjoy.

Sleepless follows Vincent Downs (Foxx), a lieutenant for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who smuggles drugs on the side with his partner, Sean Cass (T.I.). After stealing a shipment of cocaine from wealthy casino owner Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney), Vincent’s son, Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson), is kidnapped and held hostage until he can return the drugs. Creating a huge obstacle for Vincent is Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan), a fiercely dedicated Internal Affairs agent with her sights set on him. This leads to a wild goose chase throughout Rubino’s casino as Vincent tries to clear everything up before the vicious mobster who wants the shipment (Scoot McNairy) gets involved.

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This is surprisingly a pretty fun movie. Director Baron bo Odar is pretty good at staging action scenes. There are cuts, but not as many as in some films, such as the aforementioned Taken series. And the cast is game. Nearly everybody, even young Octavius J. Johnson, gets a chance to throw hands and they pull off the choreography very convincingly. Foxx definitely has some action hero in him. He’s got the physicality to pull off action scenes and the cold demeanor to act tough in between them.

The plot is taken almost beat-for-beat from 2011 French film Sleepless Night, just updated for an American setting. That film was very well received, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the plot is pretty engaging. Everything moves at a brisk pace with no downtime, and it can be pretty fun trying to figure out who is on what side throughout all of the madness.

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That said, the plot falls apart with its characters. Everyone makes decisions that only serve to advance the plot. The whole movie could honestly have been resolved without any harm in about 15 minutes if wiser decisions were made, but where would the fun in that be? The actors do a fine job making the characters interesting, but the decisions that the characters make are just baffling. Scoot McNairy’s mobster is vicious enough to get under your skin, but he’ll risk getting caught torturing someone in public. Michelle Monaghan’s detective is admirably determined and dedicated to her job, but won’t follow protocol out of pride. And so on.

Sleepless is not a great movie, but it doesn’t try to be. Its goal was to entertain and distract the viewer for an hour and a half, and at this, it succeeds. The action is pretty good and the cast is fine all around (except T.I., whose hilariously over-the-top performance is enough to recommend the movie on its own). The plot may be a little ridiculous at times, and character decisions can be infuriatingly pointless, but it shouldn’t be too hard to enjoy yourself and move on.

Grade: 6.5/10

Split – Film Review

It’s official: M. Night Shyamalan is back! Once the most promising director in Hollywood after a handful of popular thrillers at the turn of the century (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), the director became a laughing stock after some not-so-good big budget outings (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth). After 2015’s decent found-footage horror film The Visit hinted at a return-to-form for Shyamalan, he returns this year with Split, another low budget psychological thriller. Split confirms that Shyamalan is at home with these small-scale thrillers. He returns to the genre he made his own with a familiar touch that has been missed greatly over the last decade, and one that he hopefully won’t leave behind again.

Split follows three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) who find themselves kidnapped and trapped in a basement by a man named Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin is revealed to be suffering from a severe case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning he has 23 distinct personalities living within his body, some of which have gone rogue. The three girls must try to manipulate the traits of each personality to attempt to escape, while Kevin’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) tries to unravel the mystery behind a dangerous 24th personality that is threatening to reveal itself.

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When the main plot device of your movie is a man with multiple personalities, the entire movie hinges on the performance behind these personalities. Luckily for us, James McAvoy exists, and he hits it out of the park with a multi-part performance that is layered, nuanced, and masterful. Split is nothing without him. We don’t get to see all of the personalities. Most of the attention is focused on just four: a creepy pervert named Dennis, a “proper” British woman named Patricia, a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, and a fashionable artist named Barry. McAvoy truly perfects his portrayal of all four of these characters, giving each their own tics and intricacies. From his voices and speech patterns to his facial expressions to the ways he walks and expresses himself, you truly believe that these are four different people. He’s creepy, he’s funny, and most importantly, he’s believable. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance.

The rest of the cast is fine, but have nothing on McAvoy. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula could be replaced by any teenage actor for similar results, but Anya Taylor-Joy brings a welcome creepiness that she first demonstrated last year with The Witch and Morgan. Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, is essentially the main character of the film, so she becomes a lot more fleshed out than the other two girls. Casey is the weird girl at school who is only with the other two at all because Richardson’s character was trying to be nice. She’s also the smartest of the group and has a very unique way of reacting to their situation. This is explored through a series of flashbacks to Casey’s childhood with her father and uncle that reveal a lot about why she acts the way she does. It’s an interesting little mystery, and gives added weight to the encounters between Casey and Kevin. Betty Buckley is also very good as the psychiatrist, providing a sense of warmth and care for Kevin.

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If there’s one thing we can confidently say, it’s that Shyamalan knows how to create suspense. He paces the film brilliantly. There are essentially two types of scenes: the main story, which follows the three girls as they learn new things about Kevin and his multitude of personalities while trying to escape; and the exposition, which include scenes of Buckley and McAvoy in appointments talking about new developments in his condition. These scenes blend well together. The exposition scenes hint at something that eventually gets explored in the main story. You know it’s coming, but you’re not sure how it will play out, leaving you on the edge of your seat. Further explanations by Buckley continue to hint at further developments, and the cycle continues. Suspense is nothing without payoff, and thanks to brilliant work from McAvoy and Shyamalan, that comes in spades.

Now if you know anything about Shyamalan, you’ll know that there’s a twist in here somewhere. And Shyamalan knows that you know this, which helps him to geniusly create what is possibly his greatest twist ever. It’s one that will make you want to watch the whole movie again with a new perspective, and probably improve your overall opinion of the film as a whole. That said, if you aren’t “prepared” for the twist, so to say, you probably won’t appreciate it. To prepare you would be to spoil it, so unfortunately, there is going to be an audience that ends the film a little confused. (It’ll be a split crowd!… I’ll walk myself out.) Still, there’s a great chance that they’ve enjoyed the ride throughout. Split is a nice, small, suspenseful thriller that manages to mostly stay original and subvert expectations, while boasting a career performance from James McAvoy. Shyamalan proves he still has it and will leave you anxiously awaiting what he’s got coming next.

Grade: 8.5/10

John Wick: Chapter 2 – Film Review

John Wick was one of the biggest surprises of 2014. It did what so few films in recent years have been able to, which is to actually be a fun movie with action that is believable. Helmed by stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the first time directors were allowed to put their expertise to use and stage set pieces with amazing choreography and little to no cuts interfering with everything. Add in a game Keanu Reeves in the lead role, and you’ve got yourself a cult classic. Really all that the highly anticipated Chapter 2 had to do to be successful was recreate the fun action of the first, but yet the now-solo Stahelski somehow managed to do what so few sequel directors can do: improve on the first.

John Wick (Reeves) is a retired assassin who just recently had to break out his guns again to enact revenge on the Russian gang that stole his car and killed the puppy left for him by his late wife. Hoping he can now settle into a quiet life, John is quickly approached by an old colleague named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who is now requesting that John follow through on a debt he made to secure his easy retirement. John is once again thrust back into the underground world of assassins for one last mission, but a brutal betrayal leaves him with much more than he bargained for.

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The first John Wick was a pretty straightforward movie. A retired assassin kills a bunch of Russians to get revenge. The end. But the film hinted at a universe that was so much bigger. The underground assassins organization that John belongs to is led by Ian McShane’s Winston, operates in private hotels where “no business may be conducted”, uses mysterious merit tokens as currency, and is known to exist and is ignored by the police. That’s really all we know, but it was enough to peak people’s interest. Chapter 2’s plot dives a lot deeper into this world and shows just how wide it reaches. The scope (and budget) is much bigger this time around, and you’ll find a smile on your face every time you learn something new about this insane universe.

But, of course, you would still be engaged even without the many plot developments because of how absolutely awesome the action sequences are. In a world where action is usually staged by cutting together ten different shots to make it look like something is actually happening, it is so refreshing to be able to see John do a barrel roll, elbow someone in the face, and then shoot another point blank in one clear take. The stunt experience of Stahelski is felt in every shot. He knows how to make action look convincing and his passion for believability is the driving force behind what makes this film so great.

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Obviously, great direction would mean nothing if there wasn’t someone in front of the camera capable of pulling it off, so luckily we have Keanu Reeves. He may not be the best actor in the world, but his general lack of expression serves the tired assassin well and, more importantly, he really is a bad-ass. 52 year old Reeves gives Tom Cruise a run for his money as he spends the film pulling off very impressive stunt work and making every movement seem believable. His two rivals within the organization are played by Common and Ruby Rose, and they’re both great in their action scenes as well.

The only real problem with the first John Wick is that it was almost too simple. It was certainly an excellent showcase for some great action scenes, but it can get pretty tiring after an hour and a half of basically just that. Chapter 2 corrects this problem by making the plot so much more complex. There are twists. Things happen to keep you on the edge of your seat and the stakes of every fight seem so much stronger. However, the film is beat by the original in one regard and that’s emotional resonance. You certainly still feel for John, but there’s nothing like the first film’s puppy murder to really get you going and want everyone in John’s path dead. That said, you’ll still have a lot of fun with John Wick: Chapter 2. There’s a clear sequel set-up, so you know Chapter 3 is on the way and hopefully it can continue to improve on what came before. With Stahelski handling this series and Leitch releasing the Charlize Theron-led Atomic Blonde this summer, things are looking good for the future of the action genre.

Grade: 8.5/10

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