Glass

I’m afraid I feel compelled to start my comments here with a bad joke. My opinion on this film is not as clear as a pane of…oh, you know.  There was a lot that I liked about the concept, set up and visualizations here, but there are plot holes, trails not followed and an ending that is frustratingly opaque. “Glass” should be better than it is, but in many ways I don’t think it can. M. Night Shyamalan has created a set up for his super hero epic, but stops short of committing to the characters he created to continue his mythologizing of comic books. I suspect a lot of people will be pissed off at this.

I was a fan of “Unbreakable” when it arrived 19 years ago. The notion that a sequel might be coming was appealing but not essential to me. I pretty much got the point of that story and it felt complete. After pitting out with some films that are reviled by film fans, Shyamalan seemed to redeem himself with an effective thriller with “Split” two years ago. In a surprise, as the film was wrapping, it is revealed that this story was taking place in the same world as “Unbreakable” and it set up this sequel with just a little bit of effort. The problem he now faced is making that set up pay off.

To begin with, the return of Bruce Willis in a film by Shyamalan is promising. A couple of hours before going to see this, I watched the “Death Wish” remake from last year. Willis seemed to be sleepwalking through that part, but here he feels more invested and his grizzled beard and careworn face match the super hero character in the shadows that he is representing.  The opening section of this film re-establishes his David Dunn as “The Overseer” a mysterious vigilante who punishes lawbreakers and tries to protect those in jeopardy. David works in conjunction with his son, who has become the guy in the headset to his father’s avenger. I think a stand alone story of David’s life as this character would have worked pretty well a decade ago. It would also give us a chance to see how important the discovery of a real superhero would be to a community. Alas, we only get the most effective scenes in this movie, the stalking of the neighborhood in search of “the Horde”, and the rescue of four potential victims of “the Beast”. Having the grown actor who played David’s son Joe in “Unbreakable” return to be his partner works well and gives a sense of continuity to a story with a nineteen year gap.

James McAvoy repeats his impressive trick of channeling multiple personalities through the one body that we know exists. There is a little bit more of a carnival trick to the performance in this film with the rapidity with which he must change characters. It’s almost like a voice over actor, doing all of the characters they voice, in a conversation. It is amazing, but it does feel a bit like a trained seal act. One of the drawbacks of the script is that we never really get to understand this character because it changes so often, Just as we start to get a sense of motivation, the personality switches and it becomes cloudy as to why things are happening. “the Beast” becomes a coherent character at one point, rather than just the monster that all the others were in fear of. If this is the dominant personality and it took complete control, maybe our interest level would be a bit higher.

This is a very talky picture. While in the first section of the movie, there are a couple of action scenes, the second act is all slow burn set up with Samuel Jackson’s Mr. Glass playing a somnambulist villain, lying in wait to spring his plan. Shyamalan is honest enough to leave a trail of bread crumbs so that the twists of the escape and subsequent confrontation are justified, but there in lies the problem.  Having been so meticulous with laying that groundwork, he turns right around and violates that trust with another pivotal character. The fourth lead in this story turns out to be a critical element of the climax of the film, but that is not set up at all. What appears on the surface to be a passive agenda of discovery turns out to be the main plot of the film and it just doesn’t work well.

As I dance around spoilers and sharing reveals, it is a little difficult to ignore some plot holes that might foreshadow the twist. The psychiatric institution that the characters all occupy, is the least populated facility you can imagine. The security for supposedly dangerous individuals is nearly non-existent. Maybe that will all be explained away by the films’s advocates as a deliberate act in the twist, but it just looks like it is slapdash storytelling to me. For a guy who has spent 19 years in prison heavily sedated, Mr. Glass has programming skills that are just a little too neat. Finally, be careful here, this may be TMI: the idea that an on-line video will spark a shift in paradigms, rather than ten thousand deconstructions is simply not realistic.

Unlike in his previous work, where the twist endings have been earned [whether you liked them or not], the ending here feels like a cheat. It also includes a downer moment that will deflate fans of super hero movies and stories. I can’t say that the idea that the three films in this series are all an origin story doesn’t make sense. From a comic book perspective it probably does. I just doubt that there will be any subsequent use of that idea, because the audience is not likely to make an investment in something that is shoveled on them in the last ten minutes of a six plus hour journey they have taken. I suppose though that this is where the ultimate controversy will rest. My enthusiasm however  is mostly exhausted.

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Atomic Blonde

Set in 1989 as the Berlin Wall is about to come down, “Atomic Blonde” is a Cold War Spy thriller with a kick. The twist is that instead of James Bond we have Jane Bond, so all those people who have made that casting suggestion to EON Productions can now all cool their jets. Director David Leitch comes off of a long career as a stunt coordinator and he previously was an uncredited director of “John Wick“. He clearly has an eye for action scenes and stages some brutal fights for star Charlize Theron to kick ass through. From a shoot em up perspective, this is a fairly successful film. However, as a spy thriller with delusions of franchisehood,  it leaves a bit to be desired.

Let me give you a little background on the literary character of James Bond as a prelude to discussing Lorraine Broughton, the English spy played by Theron. After Ian Fleming died, the literary 007 lay fallow for a few years. there were attempts to revive the series in the late sixties and seventies, but they never paid off. Sometime during the 80s, the publishers got their crap together and found a new author to pen Bond novels for several years. John Gardner had success in this field on his own, but the Bond Franchise would certainly be a jewel in his crown if it succeeded. Gardner wrote a more than a dozen Bond adventures, but he had too obvious a formula after a while. Inevitably there would be a double cross by one of the characters and occasionally there would be a triple cross. That is what is happening in this film. Double and triple crosses, however without the clarity of a narrative context. In other words, these things just happen out of the blue without much set up and certainly no trail that would allow an audience to participate in the process. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman made it work in “No Way Out” because there was a ticking clock, and mixed motives that distracted us. “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t bother to clarify anything. The end of the movie is a head scratcher and I was able to make sense of the first “Mission Impossible” film.

James McAvoy is the suspected double and at the end of the story, you need to be able to clarify why he has acted in the manner that he did. It’s almost impossible to explain because it makes no sense. We know he fits a particular type but we are not clear on his motives or why any of this had to go down the way it did. The film is structured like a police procedural, where the suspect is telling a story that we get to see, but it it interrupted by side tracks and events that the subject would not have been aware of. “The Usual Suspects” made an effort to tie things together with bits of information in the background of the interrogation, this film does no such thing. So watch this for the action and style and forget about trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Theron is ice cold as a blonde killing machine, and she plays the part of a spy being debriefed with the right amount of frustration with her superiors. Toby Jones is the MI-6 section supervisor who cross examines her and they have a couple of nice testy moments. John Goodman is a CIA advisor that she is reluctant to speak in front of, but we don’t know why until the end of the film. It also makes no sense but at least it counteracts the bad taste that another twist was going to leave in our mouths. Sophia Botella was in “The Mummy” earlier this summer and in “Star Trek Beyond” last summer. She gives a solid performance as a French operative in over her head, and interestingly as a romantic interest for Theron, even though her part is mostly meaningless. Between Theron and Botella, fishnet clothing may end up in short supply in the European markets.

The look of the film is good and the style choices for the lead are interesting. I appreciated that when a character had been in a fight, that there were signs that a fight had taken place. The degree of punishment for the fight participants, whether winner or loser, is never quite believable because it is so over the top, but I suppose that is what makes it a fantasy spy film rather than a leCarre’ story. It is a cool film, but not as cool as you want it to be given the trailers. Once again, all the best stuff is in the ads and there is not enough saved for the film.

Logan

The X-Men franchise has been going pretty strong for the better part of two decades now. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have grown older in their roles as Wolverine and Professor Xavier. I don’t know how they will replace Jackman, but Stewart has been gracefully edged aside for James McAvoy in the last few outings, including a dual casting in “X-Men: Days of Future Past“. The two of them have been cast in this capstone film, which basically cements their exits  from the franchise. This episode is tonally very different from any of the other films, including the last outing for Jackman which was “The Wolverine” back in 2013.

Most of these films have been cartoony super hero stories with a new “big Bad” to fight against in each edition. There is some subtext about ethnicity/sexuality and culture but usually it comes down to some big action sequences that everyone is looking forward to. “Logan” has plenty of action scenes but they are mostly a series of mutants versus mercenaries, and usually involve a car chase or two. No stadiums are lifted into the air, the Statue of Liberty is not at risk, and the wold does not seem to teeter on a single moment. The darker subtext here has to do with genetic manipulation for intentional purposes. Since the film is set ten years in the future, it is safe to make some jokes about GMO crops and GMO humans. The Frankenfood that most alarmists are worried about is mocked, but the human process is the thing that provides some depth to the movie.

 

Let me share a quote with you from my review of the 2013 film: “ I know the film is PG-13 because we get only one f-bomb, and the blood from all the fighting and evisceration that is taking place, stays mainly on the characters. Body parts don’t come flying off the screen, there are no fountains of blood spraying the walls, and the violence remains mostly in the imagination.” Apparently, director/writer James Mangold felt the same way, or else he read my comments and decided to fix this deficiency. “Logan” is R-rated for blood and language. It’s not a surprise that when freed from some contractual restrictions, Wolverine would find colorful uses for the f-adjective. What is a little more of a shock is the degree to which the claws get set free. The number of times the three prongs end up in the head, throat, or chest of a bad guy rivals John Wick’s kill count. It gets a little wearisome at times. Let’s throw in another character with claws, and the dismemberment, decapitations and general viscera is way up. If you have trouble with violence that looks really violent, then this film may not be for you.

I mentioned that the tone of the movie is different. Both Charles and Logan have medical issues in this movie. In a different X-Men Universe, there would be brilliant blue furry mutants and mystic scientists working to discover solutions for their problems. Instead, we have a pair of overworked caregivers who are struggling to get by while hiding from the world. Some vaguely hinted at disaster has made the X-Men disappear. Getting the pill count and schedule is hard enough, but some characters also need assistance in going to the toilet. That’s not something you will see in the comic books I bet. Another thing that will show how different and dark this world is, no one is spared in the story. Sympathetic characters die and often in gruesome ways. I thought we were being set up at one point for a secondary character to use some skills that are human based, but no. As soon as we hear about those accomplishments and start thinking of how they might be used, the character is dead. The warmth of friendship or humanity is held out only long enough to make us feel something when it is snatched away.

Overall I liked the movie quite a bit, but I have my reservations. The violence is continuous without the self awareness of a movie like John Wick. There is background missing that would make the story a little more interesting, and just as we get some monologing to  explain it, a bit of violence jumps in and cuts it off as if to say “That’s not the story we are telling here.” This is really an elegy for the X-Men characters we have known and a passing of the torch to new mutants. It feels like the studio has set up the whole franchise for a second reboot since they got started. The Deadpool 2 teaser at the start of this film has nothing to do with this movie except for a brief reference to Logan as a joke. The mood of the opening teaser is incredibly different from the movie that follows it. The final tip off for where this is all going to end up is contained in the use of a Johnny Cash song in the trailer and a different Cash song in the end credits. The dire and desperate voice of Johnny Cash is a natural for Mangold to use. He was after all the director of “Walk the Line”. It is also a Cliff Note sized clue that this movie is a tragedy and not an adventure.