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.

 

Ratched (Season One)

atchedposterThis was brilliant and appalling in equal measure.

Firstly, and here’s why I waited until now to watch it (this originally dropped on Netflix in September last year) – what’s the preoccupation with prequels and origin stories? This series could be about anyone, they could have written about an original character and told the exact same story, it didn’t need to be Mildred Ratched of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It could have been any nurse, in any asylum, in any place (in fact it probably is, as the film took place in Oregon, not this series’ California), and the character as far as I recall (its been many years since I last saw the film) was not some super-heroine needing an origin story.

So what gives? Is it all just about having a ‘hook’, a gimmick, to hang a series over, to make ‘selling’ it easier?  Is this where we are now with getting anything greenlit by a studio? Are creatives so bereft of ideas that they have to mine all their film collections looking for any possible narrative hook to spin from? Or is the only thing studios/streamers understand now the Marvel MCU/Disney Star Wars school of carpet-bombing an IP for any possible spin-off?

To add a further mix of confusion, this is essentially a remake of Ryan Murphy’s second season of his American Horror Story, which was titled Asylum, and even stars one of that season’s stars, Sarah Paulson, as the titular character Mildred Ratched. Like Asylum, Ratched is full of bizarre characters, crazy situations, gory deaths, violent ends: a delirious cacophony of excess. People are lobotomised, boiled, shot, burnt, impaled, stabbed, smothered…

Not once but several times did I shake my head and comment to my wife “these characters are all monsters.” You could argue there is not one redeemable character or anyone slightly approximating ‘normal’ here at all: a rogues gallery of misfits and oddballs. Indeed it has a pretty formidable cast lining up as these freaks: Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Corey Stoll, Amanda Plummer, its a pretty cool bunch of character actors competing in the chew-the-scenery stakes, and I’d argue the show actually gets stolen by Sophie Okonedo who plays a patient with multiple personalities: she is absolutely the best reason to watch this show. She’s a murderous female Two-Face multiplied by ten and I could watch her in a show of her own (hey, maybe this show has already got its own spin-off sorted).

One sequence has a prisoner on Death Row being taken to his execution room, the viewer having been shown in slow graphic detail the process of said execution via lethal injection. Once in the execution room however, the waiting Governor Wilburn (D’Onofrio) gleefully pulls aside a white sheet covering the apparatus to reveal it has been replaced by an electric chair. The prisoner shrieks in horror as he’s strapped in while Wilburn reaches to the power switch and fries his victim- here’s a politician who gets his own hands dirty for the votes.

You either accept the camp, pulpish fun of it all being written in big thick crayon or snort in disgust and reach for the off button: as much Wretched as Ratched. For my part I actually enjoyed it but I admit feeling a little guilty about that- I was watching it aghast at some of the twists and turns feeling I was being had most of the time. A character is shot in the stomach and near death one minute and a few scenes later is up and walking around fine (the scenes in between being about another character on the run from the police and caught the next morning only adding to my confusion re: the passage of time). You just cannot take it seriously as it stumbles over plot holes and characters doing bizarre 180’s just because it suddenly suits the plot (such as there is one). Usually you get an interest in a character just before they get murdered in horrible fashion but the six characters that survive to the end of the finale are thankfully the best and hint at great possibilities for a second season.

I was a fan of Murphy’s American Horror Story show and rate Asylum as its best offering by some margin, so watching a Greatest Hits remake of that show was pretty perfect for me. Murphy would be no doubt horrified at me lazily summarising Ratchet as Asylum MkII but it appears pretty clear to me. I’m just mystified why they likely wasted so much money getting the rights to the Mildred Ratched character at all, any links to the film appear pretty tenuous to me so far and it would be no worse being something wholly seperate, unless the second season ties things up somehow. But tonally, this is definitely more American Horror Story than One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by a very considerable gory margin.

Bird Box (2018)

bird1Netflix ends the year on something of a high, as this apocalyptic thriller is pretty solid stuff. Bird Box is based on a 2014 novel I have never heard of, and follows a reluctantly pregnant woman, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) on a journey to salvation over a five-year period during what is essentially the End of the World. Alongside Bullock, the film contains a pretty heavyweight cast (Trevante Rhodes, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich) with a fairly high-profile director, Susanne Bier at the helm. I appreciate Netflix Originals might always have a hard time escaping a stigma of ‘straight-to-video’ and ‘tv movie’, but projects like this really should help break that. Besides, it also suggests that movies like this, which aren’t necessarily box-office gold by any means, can yet get made in a cinema environment dominated by noisy blockbuster franchise stuff- indeed, I think some mixed reviews of this generally stems from people expecting it to be something it isn’t (i.e. a huge ‘event’ horror blockbuster). Its really a character-based thriller rather than the graphic apocalyptic horror some might expect- although, that said, the early scenes of society crashing down are pretty graphic and convincing.

The talent involved both in front and behind the camera certainly suggests that Netflix might be onto something, and that perhaps something genuinely great might be in the offing someday. Bullock is very good in this film, with an interesting character arc and an involving performance, clearly taking the project very seriously.

Very often I was watching this wishing that The Walking Dead series (by now having descended into self-parody) had taken this route- I always like the dramatic tension of taking desperate characters and putting them in an enclosed space with a very real external threat. In The Walking Dead, the outside threat of the zombies has become almost a routine turkey shoot, we don’t feel the threat or smell the decay or the fear of, well, the walking dead overcoming everything. At least in Bird Box the apocalypse is horrible and scary, and wisely doesn’t explain everything. There is an awkward moment when one of the characters expresses what he thinks the unseen monster/s are and explains he did his research on the internet, but on the whole the film manages everything superbly well. I like the threat being unseen and unknown and largely unexplained- its the physical and mental results of that threat that drives things forward and I think leaving it unexplained helps. It could be demons, it could be aliens, in the end, it doesn’t matter.