Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Split

Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.

Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5