Unbreakable Glass?

unbreakableglassSomething of a strange night, this. I started with the newly-arrived 4K UHD edition of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a film I haven’t seen in many years – not since back in the DVD days, to be honest, as I’d bought it on a R1 disc back in my multi-region/importing days. I’d seen the film at the cinema and loved it and rated it highly, even if, as I’ve noted, I’ve not put that to the test with a re-watch in a long time. This new 4K edition served the best opportunity, and I’m pleased to note that the film really held up very well indeed. As the end credits rolled, Claire noted that we still had Glass -the final film in a trilogy of Unbreakable, Split and Glass– on the Tivo, recorded last Winter and still unseen. Remembering that Split (which I’d only watched once, a good while ago itself) only teased its Unbreakable link at the very end in a geek-friendly coda, the temptation to just go ahead and see what Glass was all about, even though the evening was growing late, proved irresistible. A late night then with an unforeseen movie double bill.

So let’s start with Unbreakable. What a culture shock that film proved to be, mainly because of the fact that its – shockingly – more than twenty years old now. It came out pretty much before Marvel made superhero movies so de rigueur that they almost seem boringly popular and routine now, and before Zack Snyder’s slo-mo action sequences became cinematic shorthand in 300, Watchmen and a DC Snyderverse that still shows signs of an HBO resurrection. Unbreakable posited putting superhumans into our real world and explaining comicbook mythology as something more meaningful than one might expect: perhaps not something new to comicbooks themselves but certainly perhaps to the wider movie-going populace at the time, predating the film of Watchmen, and shows like The Boys etc. 

Also, what a shock to see Bruce Willis in his prime actually acting again, you know, making an effort, in what is actually one of his most understated, rewarding roles where he actually plays a character working away from his comfort zone- no smirks or wisecracks here, here he plays someone rather introverted, emotionally compromised and maybe even a little dim. Reminded me of his turn in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Twelve Monkeys that came out a few years prior, another great performance in a decent movie… whatever happened to Bruce Willis? And when is that Twelve Monkeys 4K UHD coming out? 

Unbreakable is full of that kind of stuff, coming back to it so may years later- how young Samuel L.  Jackson is, and my goodness, Robin Wright (then Robin Wright Penn) looks so young too. Wright is great in this, and Glass, which I’ll be coming to shortly, sorely suffers for lacking her presence. But of course, Unbreakable is over twenty years old now, these things are inevitable, and become part of a fascination of their own. Just watching Bruce giving a shit proved fascinating enough. I think one of the most rewarding things regards Unbreakable is just the fact that it reflects a time before costumed heroes in spandex took over blockbuster cinema, and when superhero films could actually be subtle.

The 4K disc of Unbreakable looks pretty great too- conforming to the films muted tones, the HDR is subtle but when it works, it really elevates the film and of course the lift in detail is really marked. Overall its a great filmic presentation and another example of just how 4K discs can prove their worth, its really quite gorgeous (alas, all extras are relegated to the Blu-ray disc, and its a shame nobody deemed it worthwhile making anything new- this is one of those times when a commentary track or featurette offering some perspective could have been interesting). 

So anyway, a fast forward of almost twenty years (and maybe twenty comicbook issues) brings us to Glass, a film that I gather has been fairly widely maligned by fans of the first film. The differences between the two feel so distinct its almost as if the films had different directors, but of course, its M. Night Shyamalan at the helm again for a film that serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split but really feels more akin to the second than the first. The tonal shift between Unbreakable and Glass is marked, particularly for me as a viewer having just re-watched Unbreakable only minutes before. Is it the influence of the Marvel and DC comicbook films, perhaps, sneaking in? Glass feels more pulpish, less grounded than Unbreakable, certainly. It lacks the focus of the first film, this one feeling like it slips all over the place and leaves its cast with little to do other than serve a plot seemingly hellbent on closing it all down, albeit it actually ends positing a possibility of new spin-offs in the grand Marvel/DC tradition, which feels like the film peculiarly negating its own raison d’etrere.

I enjoyed Glass, although it is clearly inferior to the first film -and possibly Split, too, although I haven’t seen that more than once and that was awhile go- but I can certainly sympathise with fans who feel, like with Alien and Prometheus, that they rather wished they could pretend Glass never happened at all and that Unbreakable exists on its own terms seperate from anything else. Maybe its another example of ‘we should be wary of what we wish for’. Its not that Glass does anything quite as radical as turning Space Jockey’s into tall bald men, and I can understand M. Night Shyamalan reaching for closure, but all the same it feels so pulpish in comparison to the tense reality of the first film. Mind, the first twenty minutes or so work very well, giving us a glimpse of how David Dunn has spent the intervening years using his powers to help people as some kind of hooded vigilante, and there must be more than a few fans wishing that Shyamalan had just continued that- its perhaps the Unbreakable sequel most fans wanted, and its true that Shyamalan should perhaps be commended for instead trying to go somewhere different, but where he went…

Its not that he went all One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but isn’t it peculiar chance that it features Sarah Paulson as a psychiatrist when she soon after played Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ratched, the prequel show to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest set in another asylum with her treating crazy patients? I just think that the central conceit of the film, that the three individuals from Unbreakable and Split are placed into a psychiatric facility to prove they are crazy rather than actual super beings, is just a step too far. We have seen what they are capable of, and the world has, too, if only it is clips on social media etc. and the revelation at the end, that she is trying to do them a mercy rather than otherwise simply terminating them (because she works for a Higher Agency that knows such beings exist and seeks to destroy them) falls rather flat. The central flaw of the film for me is how it wastes such a fine actress as Paulson, with a character that is woefully underwritten and one-dimensional: the film needed a character with more fire and vigour and presence. I’m certain the flaw is because Shyamalan can’t resist the twist, that he thinks all his films need one final twist to surprise viewers, when he should have forgone that late twist and revealed it earlier to better serve the film and overall plot. Let the film tell its natural tale rather than hamper it for the sake of a mediocre surprise. Establish the HIgher Agency and its cause, and what Paulson’s Dr Staple is trying to do, maybe give her some personal agency to that too, and then portray the battle of wits. If The Beast (James McAvoy, remarkable as ever as he switches personalities) is David Dunn’s nemesis, then surely Dr Staple is Mr Glass’ nemesis, ironically becoming a super villain (or heroine) character herself for good measure (becoming the very thing she and her masters are trying to undo). 

Glass frustrates then with a sense that it should have been much better. Its difficult to criticise Willis, because even though he’s clearly not in the same league as he used to be, he could well argue he is underserved by the script which, as per Paulson’s character, leaves him with little to do or much to work off. We get a brief explanation of why Robin Wright is missing but it doesn’t really serve Dunn’s character arc at all and the explanation feels almost pointless (indeed better left unsaid, perhaps). Maybe his wife’s death could have driven Dunn to a mental breakdown and that might have put him into the mental hospital, you know, a narrative more elegant than what we got. Jackson is very good and has the best arc (hence why the film bears his name, perhaps) but again, much of the fire and brimstone he could have brought to it is rather nullified by keeping that twist on the side-lines. 

Shyamalan proves to be his own nemesis, then, perhaps.

 

Bring on the Bad Guy!

split

2017.46: Split (2017)

It has been a long time since I actually looked forward to a film from M. Night Shyamalan; probably as far back as Unbreakable back in, 2000. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and after the great The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, his further films, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water clearly showed him to be a director/writer who loved one-line concepts, nifty ideas from which he would extrapolate a movie, often complete with a ‘twist’ stinger. The idea works in theory – Rod Serling did it consummately well with the classic The Twilight Zone anthology series, but a movie is a different beast to a half-hour tv show and it soon became tiresome, for me, anyway, and I finally gave up with The Happening, a film with the most ironic title in film history, as far as I’m concerned, as nothing happened for the whole bloody film.

I never watched The Last Airbender, or After Earth, or The Visit.

Split is a return to form, though, and even teases an Unbreakable 2 at the end (which is titled Glass, perhaps to dispense with the problem of calling it either Unbreakable 2 or Split 2, and ahem, avoid any risk of splitting fans). That said, I think some of the positively ecstatic reviews are more a result of  James McAvoy’s brilliant turn as Dennis, a character who has 23 personalities with a 24th threatening to surface with horrific results, than the quality of the film itself. McAvoy is pretty phenomenal, completely convincing as ‘Dennis’ keeps appearing with a different personality. The viewer is quickly able to identify each distinct personality as much from McAvoy’s visual ‘ticks’ and his voice as much as from what clothes he is wearing. Indeed, later on in the film as the personalities seem to switch during single shots McAvoy’s performance becomes almost breathtaking in its subtlety and clarity.

Beyond McAvoy’s performance, though, the film does fall into problems. The films heroines (captured teenagers imprisoned by Dennis for a grisly fate at the hands/teeth of personality #24) are a pretty bland bunch, and like many  M. Night Shyamalan films, the film is ultimately just too long to sustain its one-liner plot. The film is also surprisingly low on scares/tension until the end, and even there the final ‘twist’ is unfortunately a little weak. If Unbreakable was a superhero origin film, then Split is a supervillain origin film, so what was ostensibly a horror/thriller becomes, in ironic movie split-personality fashion, a superhero genre film- yeah, another one. Which in hindsight is rather fun, I guess. But maybe it is one clever conceit too many and M. Night Shyamalan falling into his old pitfalls.

Still, certainly a return to form for the writer/director and hopefully it bodes well for his next film- yes, one I’m actually looking forward to. So job done, I guess.