Film Review: “Split”

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is more commonly known as split personality disorder (SPD) or multiple personality disorder (MPD). The 90’s was full of daytime talk shows, like Oprah, talking to people who allegedly suffered from the disorder. The TV appearances didn’t add much credence to the ongoing debate over the diagnosis and legitimacy of the mental illness in the scientific and psychological communities. Instead it provided housewives with fodder and a free-pass for Hollywood to rejuvenate one of their favorite horror/thriller tropes. Now in 2017, the disease is back in “Split,” but not without a ferociously unique bite.

It’d be unfair to say that Kevin (McAvoy) kidnapped three women from a suburban Philadelphia mall. There are nearly two dozen other distinct personalities in his brain that could have done it or plotted to do it. However, just like his victims, we’ll soon find out that Dennis did it, but not without a little help. The trio of girls will also meet Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, and a handful of Kevin’s other internal personalities. The one victim that “Split” will tend to focus on is Casey (Taylor-Joy). Unlike her fellow captives, she isn’t crying or screaming for help. Casey seems to not only have a grasp on the situation, but an understanding of Kevin.

Another person with a deep understanding of Kevin is Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). She’s talked with Kevin and nearly all of his personalities, but she’s unaware of his latest emotional developments and actions. She doesn’t view Kevin as a freak of nature, but as someone/something more. She believes Kevin’s DID makes him superhuman in nature, with personalities that not only control his mind, but his body, enhancing or crippling some of his physical attributes. That’s why it worries her that there are rumblings of a 24th personality, nicknamed ‘The Beast’. But is it just rumors between Kevin’s personalities or is there truly another personality, which can climb walls and feast on human flesh, lurking inside Kevin’s brain?

There’s more psychological and emotionally scarring at work in “Split” other than the harmful effects of DID. The mental traumas that Kevin and Casey endured previously before the current abduction predicament are revealed and make them more human. The level of empathy for the inherent villain of the movie, Kevin, is nurtured through light-hearted humor, the innocence of some of his personalities, and the one honest moment where the audience finally meets the real Kevin. McAvoy and Taylor-Joy find wordless ways to make their characters sympathetic, simply by letting tears well up in their eyes or flashing various facial tics at the right moment.

“Split” isn’t quite a return to form for Shyamalan, but more of an evolutionary step in his directing and writing. For years he’s been the twist guy that throws in some jump scares for good measure, but he’s dropped a lot of that in “Split,” relying more on atmosphere and the ability of his actors and actresses. But there’s a light joy to his movie, almost understanding that a movie about a man with DID should surely have a few jokes. Although anyone suffering from the disease and anyone without a funny bone in their body from the medical community would say otherwise. That’s not to say “Split” isn’t without its faults.

It runs a little bit too long and sometimes pushes the envelope without any purpose other than to visually or emotionally upset the audience. That may be Shyamalan tinkering with the formula since he is in new territory. “Split” is a restricted thriller, relying more on drawn out suspense and claustrophobic anxiety. “Split” is a slow boiler with enough tension to make you jump at the slightest movement. It also has Shyamalan working with a tragic villain for the first time since “Unbreakable.” If “Split” is Shyamalan’s apology for everything in between “Signs” and “The Visit,” then apology accepted.

Film Review: “Morgan”

Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy and Toby Jones
Directed By: Luke Scott
Rated: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Sometimes when I watch something so promising, and filled with so much talent, I wonder if I genuinely missed something when I walk out not liking it. “Morgan” features veteran talents like Paul Giamatti, Ridley Scott as producer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a script that made 2014’s Blacklist (a list of the best unproduced scripts currently floating around Hollywood). So here I am a week removed from watching “Morgan” and I think to myself, I didn’t miss anything. It’s a bad movie.

Anya Taylor-Joy (someone who’s bound to get an Oscar nominating performance one of these days) is stuck as the science experiment gone wrong, Morgan. The five-year-old, by human years, is actually around 18-by-whatever-made-up-logic-this-movie-makes-years-old. She’s the end result of a human embryo breeding project. She’s birthed with some of the best genes out there as well as a couple of super human capabilities that are never really explained. After a month, Morgan is able to walk and talk. After a couple of years, she’s a self-sufficient preteen with a childlike wonder about the world. After five years, she’s capable of inflicting bodily harm on her creators and show signs of deep hatred. And after Morgan stabs a scientist in the eye for no apparent reason, it’s time to bring in the corporate business suits.

“Morgan” has the capability to deliver a message about cloning, the inability to understand raw human emotions, and eugenics, but instead focuses more on visual technique. “Morgan” ends up being all style with no substance. The groundwork is there as we watch sterile and emotionless scientists suddenly become parents, growing up and watching Morgan’s guileless nature. Then we watch as the parental instinct kicks in when the scientists try to understand and defend Morgan’s growing sociopathy. She may be a monster, but she’s their monster. Another missed theme is how corporate culture looks at the numbers more than the human impact, but I digress because this movie failed on all thematic levels.

But even as the movie slowly falls apart, “Morgan” still has one final chance to deliver upon any resemblance of meaning behind its script. The writers, producers, and director, fail to give anything outside slick visuals, bruising action sequences, and a disquieting environment for its characters. The third act of the movie turns out to be more of an experiment in forbearance as the twist of the movie slowly gets unraveled. Although I figured out the twist about 30 minutes in while another critic I spoke to after the movie figured it out five minutes in. I guess even M. Night Shyamalan could recognize “Morgan” has a bad twist.

It’s really unfortunate watching Taylor-Joy get generously applied with Dave Chappelle white face make-up and play in one of the more frustrating creature features in recent memory. Taylor-Joy popped up on the scene earlier this year in “The Witch” and has a lot of talent waiting to be displayed. She does a fine job relaying Morgan’s genuine wonder and empathy, while balancing Morgan’s uncharacteristic murder streak. Taylor-Joy does all this well, but it’s hard to piece together the mind of her character when the movie continuously jumps back and forth between Morgan’s personalities.

It doesn’t help that the movie states she’s only five, despite having the mind and body of a full blown teenager. Is she a test tube bred deadly assassin battling teenage hormones with the id of a child progressing too quickly into an adult world that she has no comprehension of? If so, why is this experiment worth anything to anyone, especially a company? Those are questions no one making this film ever thought to ask and inherently asking that question gives away the movie’s twist.

Just like its character, “Morgan” lacks any growth, meaning, or excitement. Whenever the movie gets close to developing a theme or message, it reverts back to finding meaning behind violence like a Kindergartener throwing a temper tantrum, frustrated that it couldn’t find a way to expel upon its interesting premise. If this is the final movie of the summer, the summer certainly goes out on an uncreative whimper.

Film Review “The Witch”

Directed by:
Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 33 mins
Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s the 1630’s in Puritan New England, and we’ve just watched a family leave the safe confines of their settlement to go out on their own. It’s unsettling. It’s unsafe. And it’s just the beginning.

The Witch, Robert Eggers’s first feature film premiered to much acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and after having seen the film, it’s no surprise. Eggers has managed to create a fresh film in an often-described, stale genre. We follow Thomasin, a teenage girl masterfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as her family leaves the community under the threat of church banishment to settle on their own in a remote patch of land. That just happens to be next to an imposingly dark, tall forest. When the family infant is stolen right from under Thomasin’s nose in the most terrifying game of peekaboo that you’ll ever see, we watch as a family based on faith and loyalty unravels. Possession, accusations, suspicions, and paranoia mount as things continue to go from bad to worse for the family. Oh, and did I mention there’s a witch in the woods?

Eggers got his start doing production design and that background influence is strong in the film. The color work is deliberate. Just as the lives of the characters are bleak and their faith restrictive, so too is the landscape Eggers has placed them in. It’s gray, dull, and repetitive; so much so that when we do encounter the witch, we are almost relieved, as she comes with color in her scenes. What at first feels like a breath of fresh air in the barren landscape soon encircles us with a feeling of dread. These vibrant colors do not belong in this world. This type of unease is helped along by the superbly discordant score, which both pulls us in and jars us away throughout the film. The actors do an expert job playing a family on the verge of destruction, walking that fine line between rationality and unsteadiness. The camera work keeps you on the edge of your seat- never have I been so terrified of a goat before.

Watching The Witch is a study in psychological stress. It’s slow-paced and deliberate, and it leaves you with the feeling that you’ve seen something that you weren’t supposed to. The fact that the film is largely based off of historically real accounts of events of that time period only adds to this overwhelming feeling of unrest. This is not the film to see if you are looking for a “jumpy” horror film, but if you are looking for something that will get under your skin and will still have you thinking about it days later, The Witch is for you.

The Witch opens on Friday February 19th


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