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Movie Review: “Glass”

The story of M. Night Shyamalan’s career is certainly a dramatic one, encompassing massive hits like “The Sixth Sense” and catastrophic failures like “After Earth.” Heading into one of his films, it’s never quite clear whether it’ll be a success or a truly memorable disaster. But fortunately (for both Shyamalan and audiences), “Glass”—the third in a superhero-themed trilogy that began with 2000’s “Unbreakable” and continued in 2016’s stealth sequel “Split”—is mostly the former, even if its ambitions sometimes exceed its grasp.

On the streets of Philadelphia, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) moonlights as the poncho-clad “Overseer,” endowed with superhuman strength and dedicated to vigilante justice. A battle with the “Horde” (James McAvoy)—the psychologically damaged serial killer Kevin Crumb, harboring 24 separate personalities vying for control—results in Dunn’s incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulsen). As it turns out, the hospital also happens to hold the enigmatic Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a brilliant mastermind responsible for dozens of deaths.

Dr. Staple has a very specific project in mind: curing Dunn, Crumb, and Glass of their delusions of superhero grandeur. She’s determined to convince Dunn and Crumb that they don’t actually possess superhuman strength, and that Glass isn’t preternaturally brilliant. In her view, these delusions all stem from early-life traumas, which have left Dunn, Crumb, and Glass permanently scarred. It’s all in their heads.

Like much of Shyamalan’s films, “Glass” is a remarkably slow-burning thriller. There’s very little violence or intense action throughout its two-hour runtime. In fact, most of the dialogue in the film’s first hour comes from Dr. Staple, whose soothing voice and reasoned explanations almost lead us to believe she’s onto something—that the whole trilogy really is a sordid amalgamation of delusions and traumas.

It soon becomes clear that her character is strikingly reminiscent of another: the Lady of the Green Kirtle, the antagonist in the fourth installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, “The Silver Chair.” In that book’s climactic scene, the Lady attempts to convince the novel’s heroes that all their values and all their efforts are purely illusory—that the only reality that exists is her cold, silent, underground kingdom.

“You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.”

In so doing, Dr. Staple reveals the film’s fascinating and unexpected thematic core: “Glass” is a defense of metanarrative over against its contemporary critics. That is, the film’s players are part of a single, larger story that cannot be reduced to chance or coincidence: there is an origin, a pattern and a terminus. This story stands apart from any one person; individuals may choose to acknowledge it or not. Dr. Staple’s overriding goal is to convince her charges that no such metanarratives exist—to persuade them that there are no “higher stories” other than those we tell ourselves. Dunn, Crumb, and Glass can certain formulate personal narratives of their actions and their place in the world, but these narratives must be understood as strictly therapeutic devices. In her account, “what is truth?” must become “what is your truth?”

“Glass” is a double-barreled demolition of this paradigm. In this film’s universe, comic books and superhero narratives take on a quasi-theological function, (seemingly serving as stand-ins for sacred texts). Written off by most of the world as pure fantasy, comics actually reflect primordial truths about superhuman beings and their interactions with the world. This is the “twist”—well, maybe not the twist, but a twist—at the center of “Glass”: there really is a transcendent narrative unfolding at all times, and a transcendent order that governs the world.

At bottom, “Glass” is the thematic opposite of “Deadpool” and “Watchmen”: where those films relied on a postmodern dismantling of classic superhero tropes, “Glass” is a post-postmodern reconstruction of the genre in an already-jaded age. It is, in short, anti-ironic. And that makes it a genuinely original and fascinating movie to watch.

From a cinematic standpoint, “Glass” is mostly effective—the claustrophobic setting of the psychiatric hospital makes a wonderful staging area—but periodically fumbles in the pacing department. The climax arrives rather too abruptly, and the final moments of the film feel a bit too cheery for this series. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey—the heroine of “Split”—doesn’t have much to do here other than utter some inspiring phrases about human compassion. After her bravura performance last time around, it’s a shame she’s so upstaged by Dunn and company.

But on the whole, these are minor gripes. “Glass” is the superhero movie I’ve wanted Hollywood to make for almost a decade—a dark, heavily theme-driven tale that eschews heavy CGI in favor of memorable storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, the old Shyamalan is back, and the multiplex is better for it.

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Posted by on January 21, 2019 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “Halloween”

As longtime readers will know, I don’t usually review horror movies on this site. In this case, I’m making an exception for two reasons: first, it’s not so gruesome that I feel like I can’t recommend it to anyone (just as in the original, nothing here is much worse than your average episode of “Supernatural”), and second, it’s the rare installment in the genre that has some real, objective merit.

David Gordon Green’s new flick picks up precisely 40 years after masked killer Michael Myers’ first rampage through the town of Haddonfield. (All prior sequels, reboots, and forays into increasingly convoluted internal mythology are disregarded: instead, “Halloween” 2018 is a direct sequel to the original 1978 film.) Myers (Nick Castle) has spent the last four decades under psychiatric observation in a heavily guarded hospital facility. Not once, in all those years, has he uttered a single word.

Not far off, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)—now a grandmother—has never been able to shake the specter of her last confrontation with Myers. She’s become a survivalist, training her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) to defend herself since childhood and outfitting her home with a secret basement and plenty of guns. But these efforts have come at a terrible cost: the breakup of her marriage and estrangement from her daughter, who has a teenage daughter of her own (Andi Matichak).

Inevitably, Myers escapes from custody, grabs a knife, and starts killing again. This time around, though, Grandma’s packing heat.

It’s a great setup—and true to that strong vision, this is a very high-quality production across the board. Following one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie like this (and opening credits scored by John Carpenter), we’re catapulted straight into a narrative that feels both familiar and novel. Yes, lots of the same ideas from the original are still there (including a particularly gratuitous homage during the climax), but they hold up quite well: in particular, “Halloween” doesn’t overrely on startling moments to build and release tension. (At this point, I’m increasingly convinced that only James Wan can do jump scares properly.) Instead, we get some cinematographic innovation—most notably, an extended tracking shot as Myers’ onslaught begins.

Maybe the most interesting dimension of “Halloween,” though, is its curious political subtext. Given that it was billed as a horror film for the #MeToo era, it’s surprising to find that “Halloween” shares very little in common with the dominant feminist discourse. (Intersectionality? Get outta here. In this movie it’s white folks all the way down.) If this version of “Halloween” indeed has a feminist ethos (and it does), it’s one that draws heavily on the sharp-elbowed second-wave feminism of Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer, stressing women’s independence and autonomy without necessarily entailing a commitment to left politics. Quite the opposite: the film takes remarkable joy in demolishing various modern progressive pieties.

For instance, one of the film’s central questions is whether Karen, a (probably liberal) suburban mom, must wield firearms to protect herself and her daughter. The movie’s answer is crystal clear—indeed, the NRA itself couldn’t have made a better argument for gun access than this movie. Likewise, Laurie’s early pronouncement that the world isn’t full of sunshine and light, but profound danger, is vindicated in a very bloody way as Myers storms across Haddonfield. “Rehabilitative” approaches to criminal justice similarly come in for skewering: clearly, forty years of treatment have done nothing to help reform Myers’ proclivities toward carnage. The answer to this problem, “Halloween” declares, is self-defense.

It’s worth mentioning here that the film roots its justification for retaliatory violence in the nature of its antagonist. While Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake explored Myers’ backstory at great length—essentially, blaming a bad childhood for his bad character—the 2018 reboot takes precisely the opposite tack. Here, Myers is the same emotionless, wordless force of destruction he was in the original film.

Why is this so frightening? Consider this: in traditional Christian thought, sins have sometimes been understood as disordered means of pursuing some legitimate good. For instance, even though his conduct is wrong, the boy who sneaks into a movie theater without paying is seeking something objectively valuable—perhaps an aesthetic experience of beauty and creativity. So too, someone who kills out of anger at what has been done to him is still pursuing some “good,” albeit a very muddled one—a scale-balancing rooted in an idea of justice, however twisted.

Myers’ violence is upsetting because it reflects no disordered orientation toward some good. One is reminded of an old adage: the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. And indeed, the killings Myers commits indifferently are purposeless, pointless, acts of absolute life-denying negation. We’re told early on that despite his confinement in a treatment center, Myers isn’t really mentally ill: he’s an agent of “pure evil,” fully aware of what’s going on around him and fully in control. Here, “evil” feels like a misnomer, insofar as it suggests some possibility of redemption.

When confronted with that sort of horror, what can one do but fight back? And fight back Laurie and her family members do.

As should be obvious, “Halloween” is not a movie for everyone; this is a film for people with strong stomachs. But for those with an appreciation for this sort of thing, the movie is a remarkable achievement, one that melds technical proficiency with some genuinely interesting ideas. Heading in, I didn’t expect to reach this conclusion, but “Halloween” is a very strong contender for the year’s best film of its genre.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2018 in Thrillers

 
 
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