Posts Tagged ‘james mcavoy’

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Don’t look now, but M. Night Shyamalan has two (admittedly modest) hits in a row — so maybe the “career death” capped off by After Earth was the best thing that ever happened to the man Time magazine once referred to (waaaaaaaay prematurely) as “The Next Spielberg.”

Of course, that was in no way a label Shyamalan himself ever asked for, especially considering that his “gotcha twist”-heavy career seems to be at least circumstantially indicative of a guy who was trying to ensconce himself more as “The Next Hitchcock” than anything else, and the stylistic debt he owes — and has, perhaps, always owed — to The Master Of Suspense has never been on more clear and present display than it is in his latest, 2017’s Split.

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First, I suppose, the good : James McAvoy gives a performance — or perhaps that should be a series of performances — for the ages as troubled/troubling kidnapper Kevin Wendell, a man who suffered devastating abuse as a child that resulted in his developing an acute case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID) that plagues him to this day. Enter Barry, Orwell, Jade, Patricia, Dennis, Crumb — and one more who will be making his way to the forefront before all is said and done. McAvoy flat-out kills it in all these various roles, and his mental, emotional, and in some cases even physical transformations are a thing to behold. You’ve never seen an actor do what he does here, and chances are you’ll never see it again. This film is worth the price of admission just to watch McAvoy do what he does here.

In a way, you even end up feeling sorry for his co-stars : Betty Buckley, who in another more sane and just world should have had a Meryl Streep-like career, is particularly superb as Kevin’s sympathetic-but-conflicted therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, and Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a quietly devastating tour-de-force of her own as “final girl” kidnap victim Casey Cooke, who coincidentally also harbors some tragic and deeply-held secrets that have made her into something — other than what she may have otherwise been. For their part, Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson also do the very best they possibly can with limited screen time as fellow victims Marcia and Claire, respectively, both of whom are dispensed with in plot terms rather quickly in order to narrow the film’s almost claustrophobically-tight character focus. So, yeah, there’s some great acting on display here from many, but make no mistake — this is McAvoy’s show all the way.

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Ten million bucks is small change for Shyamalan compared to previous efforts, of course, but following on the heels of the equally-budget-conscious The Visit, it’s becoming clear that more modest productions are better suited to the auteur‘s vision and talents. Locations here are few in number but very effectively utilized, and what visual effects are on offer don’t make their presence known until the final act, and really deliver a deliciously savage gut-punch that, granted, requires an even heavier level of suspension of disbelief than most films if you really want to feel it, but chances are that between McAvoy’s performance(s) and Shyamalan’s scripting and direction, you’ll be more than ready to buy in.

As far as Shyamalan’s ever-present twists and turns go, there are some real doozys here, but the last and biggest of the bunch seems to be generating the most controversy — I’ll refrain from revealing too much for fear of being ostracized by the ever-present “spoiler police,” suffice to say that I can see why detractors claim that this Marvel- style mid-credits “zinger” that effectively ties the present film in with a previous entry in the director’s ouevre is being derided as being of the cheap n’ easy variety, but that the hell; for my money,  it was an admittedly no-risk bet that paid off, however modestly. It doesn’t add anything vital to the proceedings, to be sure, but it doesn’t detract, either, and for long-term Shyamalan fans it’s probably offers a nice little thrill. I guess that I could take it or leave it either way, personally, but in a pinch, I’ll take it.

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What I can’t take, though, is Split‘s rather disturbing, quasi-fascistic, and poorly-thought-through thesis that Shyamalan drops on us in the form of a “philosophy bomb” that stains an otherwise quite-effective thriller — pain and suffering, you see, aren’t just good, solid “character builders” in his view, but may even show the way forward for human evolution. You read that right : the terrible and debilitating abuse suffered by Kevin and, as it turns out, Casey, isn’t a bad thing — it’s turned them into veritable fucking superhumans. Obviously, this idea can be extrapolated to chilling extremes without much effort : beat your kids, and they’ll grow up to be Superman? Please.

So, yeah — Split was cruising along rather nicely until that horseshit “idea” reared its decidedly ugly head. The end result? A truly “split” decision — this flick is equal parts remarkable and morally and intellectually indefensible.

Hey, Marvel, what’s next? Because frankly, I’m not entirely sure what we’ve got here. Is director Matthew (Kick-Ass) Vaughn’s X-Men:First Class a reboot? A standard-issue prequel? A sidebar item before we get back to the main story? It’s never made entirely clear, and frankly between this and last year’s X-Men Origins:Wolverine, it’s hard to say exactly where this license-to-print-money cinematic franchise is going. Which is not to say that it’s a bad flick in and of itself. It’s pretty decent, and in fact starts off almost looking like it’s going to be a serious shot in the arm for the property in general. But by the time it’s over, even though what we’ve witnessed is by any standard a pretty solid superhero flick (that starts to fizzle a bit the longer it goes on, but a lot of them to do that so we won’t hold that against it too terribly much), we’re no more clear about just what the next X chapter is going to be than we were when it started.

Because frankly there’s not much point in a sequel to this one. The story of a young Professor x (James McAvoy, who’s usually a pretty solid actor but here seems to be more or less mailing it in ) and Magneto (portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who delivers a sterling performance and has by far the best material to work with here as a Holocaust surviving-mutant who’s hunting down the Nazi monsters responsible for the murder of his mother, either directly or indirectly — and who, at certain angles, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Ian McKellen, so kudos for a terrific casting job here, fellas) and how they assembled and trained the first mutant superhero team in preparation for a conflict with a seriously evil (and apparently immortal) son-of-a-bitch named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a terrific scenery-chewing turn), who’s manipulating the Cuban missile crisis in order to bring about World War 3 and the destruction of mankind/takeover of Earth by mutantkind, and how Xavier and Magneto came to go their separate ways at the close of said ordeal, is pretty much an open-and-shut story. And enjoyable, mostly entertaining one, to be sure, but not really an open-ended one.

There are some surprises along the way, and some diversion from established comic-book continuity that will certainly enrage some fans and thrill others, but on the whole you never get the sense that you’re watching the rebirth of a legend here or something. It’s just backstory filler. Good backstory filler, competent backstory filler, at times even enthralling backstory filler (especially the opening concentration camp scenes), but backstory filler nonetheless.

Which isn’t to say that anyone apart from McAvoy seems to be just going through the motions. Vaughn has adopted a swingin’ ’60s visual sensibility, particularly in the “time marches on —” montage-style scenes, that  works quite well , is terribly theme-appropriate, and also, frankly, exhudes a type of playful fun. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone fame tunrs in a terrific performance as the young Raven/Mystique, who in equal turns pines longingly after Xavier but sees more worth in Magneto’s vision for the mutant’s future. January Jones, despite having a name that instantly marks her for being drawn and quartered on mere principle alone, is coolly confident as the sexy Emma Frost (although she looks a lot better from a distance and, sorry to dwell on the physical, just sort of looks weird in some of Vaughn’s lingering close-up shots). Rose Byrne is supremely competent, if unspectacular, as CIA liason/potential Xavier love-interest Moira MacTaggart. Oliver Platt does his — well, Oliver Platt — as — errrmmm — Oliver Platt (his G-Man character doesn’t have a credited name). And the story is certainly clever even if it does lose some momentum early on and never really gets it back.

But the whole thing’s also a bit schizophrenic. It starts off looking like it’s headed for Christopher Nolan-style superhero realism and ends with ridculous code names for the characters and an agonizingly-drawn-out, way-too-OTT scene of Xavier getting shot that might pack more dramatic wallop if we actually thought he might die, but seems just plain self-indulgent since we know that he doesn’t and this is how he ends up in his magic wheelchair.

On the whole, then, X-Men:First Class would be a lot more effective if it knew what it was, and what part in the overall ouevre of the series it was supposed to be filling. As it is, it feels like nothing so much an an enjoyable, generally-well-executed diversion, that does the best it can given its rather not-completely-thought-through remit. Where it all goes from here is anybody’s guess, and while you’ll more than likely be pretty entertained by this movie(I certainly was), you won’t come away from it with any answers about where the X-Men concept is headed in the future, and that’s something that the powers that be at Marvel and 20th Century Fox need to start figuring out fast before they kill their golden goose not so much through incompetence as sheer aimlessness. What’s next, indeed.