Movie Review: “Split”

Starring
James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley, Brad William Henke
Director
M. Night Shyamalan

I kind of feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. Despite the fact that the majority of his directorial efforts make people want to drown kittens, I want him to prove his doubters wrong. Yes, this reeks of Stockholm syndrome, but it is true just the same. Somewhere in that head of his is another killer story.

But “Split” isn’t it. Shyamalan explores some interesting ideas about the true worth of a person, the power of belief, and the lengths that the mind will go to normalize things that just aren’t normal (insert your own current events joke here), but the whole turns out to be much less than the sum of its parts. He also pulls a stunt at the end that seems cool in the moment, but sad once removed from the moment.

Kevin (James McAvoy) is a horribly broken man. As a result of childhood trauma, he has developed 23 different personalities, but with the help of therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), he has managed to keep them in check and live a normal life, all things considered. One day, though, one of the more dominant personalities assumes control and kidnaps three teenage girls in a mall parking lot. This personality assures the girls that he won’t hurt them, but that is only because he is saving them for The Beast to do with them what he will. Doctor Fletcher has heard about this Beast for years but considers it a bogeyman story the dominant personalities tell the others to keep them in check. The girls’ best chance to escape appears to be Hedwig, the youngest personality in the bunch who has aligned himself with the other dominants.

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Movie Review: “Hidden Figures”

Starring
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali
Director
Theodore Melfi

In the wake of famed astronaut John Glenn’s recent death, it seems appropriate that some of the unsung heroes of the Friendship 7 mission (and the NASA space program in general) have finally been given their due in director Theodore Melfi’s new movie, “Hidden Figures.” An incredibly timely and well-told story that serves as a nice counterpart to 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” the film shines a light on the African-American women who helped put Glenn into space during a time when neither African-Americans nor women were given those kinds of opportunities. Though it risks falling into the same traps as other feel-good dramas (after all, it’s basically an underdog sports film for the STEM crowd), “Hidden Figures” rises above its formulaic plot thanks to some terrific performances from the cast.

In the early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a race to see who could get a man into space first, and with the U.S. desperately lagging behind its Cold War rivals, NASA needed all the brainpower it could get. What most people don’t know is that many of these employees were women (several of them African-American) who worked at the Langley Research Center in Virginia as human computers performing the complex calculations on the agency’s various projects. But because they were black, these brilliant mathematicians were tucked away in a room on the segregated west campus and largely ignored.

That all changes when math whiz Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) is promoted to the all-white east campus to work under NASA official Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) on the Atlas rocket launch. Though she’s treated like a second-class citizen by her co-workers (not only does she have to run half a mile across campus just to use the colored bathroom, but she can’t even share the same pot of coffee), Katherine quickly proves herself instrumental to the program’s success. Meanwhile, fellow colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a headstrong supervisor who takes it upon herself to learn how to operate the IBM computers that will eventually replace her, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer who’s stymied by a law that prevents her from attending the classes required to advance in the field, make strides of their own through hard work and determination.

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Movie Review: “Live by Night”

Starring
Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Scott Eastwood
Director
Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel “Live by Night” is apparently getting savaged by the coastal press. “Makes ‘Black Mass’ look like ‘The Godfather’” is a quote that my colleague Jason repeated (but the source of said insult won’t be credited here). To be fair, the final 10 minutes are kind of awful (though faithful to the source material), but everything that comes before it is handled competently enough that putting it beneath “Black Mass” feels like the kind of thing an angry lover says. “You’re dumping me? Well, you’re nowhere near as good as ‘Black Mass’!” “You take that back!” “Never!” Silly, silly, silly.

As Ben Affleck directorial efforts go, though, “Live by Night” is easily his weakest. It’s stylish but a bit too familiar, lacking the intensity of Affleck’s best work. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a Prohibition-era film that takes place mostly in Florida, inviting comparisons to “The Untouchables” and “Scarface” whether Affleck wants them or not.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a Boston-bred, disillusioned soldier from the Great War and son of a proud Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is a petty thief who runs under the protection of a local crime boss but doesn’t think of himself as a gangster. He draws the ire of his boss’ rival when he is caught having an affair with the rival’s mistress Emma (Sienna Miller), so when Joe is popped in a bank robbery, he and his father seek the protection of Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to make sure Joe isn’t killed while in jail. Upon his release, Joe agrees to work as Maso’s point man in Tampa, overseeing the rum shipments. He encounters a whole new set of problems (racism of a different stripe, mainly), but does a great job expanding the Pescatore business down south. And for his efforts, he is still treated like a second-class citizen, because he’s the son of an Irish man working for Italians.

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Movie Review: “A Monster Calls”

Starring
Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
Director
J.A. Bayona

“A Monster Calls” is unflinchingly honest, a harrowing tale of a boy who yearns for escapism but instead receives an unwanted but much-needed dose of reality. There isn’t a wasted word in its script, the cinematography ranges from gorgeous to bleak to terrifying, and at its core is an outstanding performance by 14-year-old Lewis MacDougall, starring in only his second film. In fact, he upstages a sci-fi legend without even trying.

The life of English boy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is, well, shit. His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from terminal cancer (his father left the two of them long ago), he is bullied at school, and as his mother gets sicker, he is forced to spend more time with his stuffy grandmother (aforementioned sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver). He stays up late drawing as a means of avoiding his recurring nightmare. One night shortly after midnight, he is visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), which comes to life from the yew tree that is visible from his bedroom window. The monster tells Conor that he is going to tell him three stories, and then Conor is going to tell the monster a fourth one, and the story must be true. The stories the monster tells Conor do not offer him any comfort, and as his mother’s condition worsens, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point where Conor has difficulty separating the two, acting out in one world when he thinks he’s in the other.

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Movie Review: “Assassin’s Creed”

Starring
Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams
Director
Justin Kurzel

“Assassin’s Creed” is not the video game adaptation that fans have been waiting for. What makes the action film most disappointing is that it comes from director Justin Kurzel, who crafted last year’s visceral adaptation of “Macbeth,” which also starred Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Kurzel’s latest has style to spare, but it’s missing the soul and emotion from his previous work.

Calum Lynch (Fassbender) has just been given a second chance. Michael Leslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage’s script opens with the convicted murder on death row. With his last words, Calum says that he’ll meet his father in hell, but instead of dying, he wakes up, disturbed and shocked, in an unknown location and greeted by Sofia (Cotillard), a scientist who wants to rid the world of violence. She informs Calum that one of his ancestors, Aguilar de Nerha, was an assassin in 15th century Spain, and he has the power to relive his memories through a contraption called the Animus. Sofia and her father, Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), are looking for the “apple,” a MacGuffin that will cure people of violence and destroy free will, and Calum and Aguilar’s memories can lead them right to it. Despite the high stakes, most of the film’s events are inconsequential.

Calum is a blank slate. We know his terrible past, and he describes his aggressive personality, but there’s little internal life to the character, which isn’t true of most of Fassbender’s performances. The world and the rules are the primary focus of the script, not the characters. In the first act, there’s plenty of information revealed but very little of it regards Calum and why we should care about him and what’s beneath the aggression. The character’s underwhelming attempts at comedic relief don’t help matters, either.

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