Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What I Watched in February

SPLIT (2016)  marks the third  M. Night Shyamalan project in a row that I've liked. Considering the fact that I had written him off completely after four or five miserable misfires this is something of a cinematic miracle. This film is a tight, taut creeper that wastes no time getting to the point and then meting out details in a way that keeps thing interesting. It helps that James McAvoy is fantastic in the lead role pulling off multiple characters inhabiting the same body with what seems great ease. Veteran actress Betty Buckley is also great as the psychiatrist trying to help the various personalities come to an understanding and coexist. This is a sharp little thriller and I now look forward to what Shyamalan will do next.

While I'll be the first to admit that the RESIDENT EVIL series has had it's fair share of ups and downs, I remain a fan. None of the sequels have held together as well as the first movie but I've enjoyed the crack-pot madness the films have embraced and I've been willing to go along for the ride. Sadly, this latest (and supposedly last) entry is one of the weaker ones. After flirting with incomprehensible millisecond-cut editing in earlier films hack director Paul W.S. Anderson finally embraces the suck and makes all the action scenes in this one a mish-mash of overly tight shots placed together seemingly at random. I would not be surprised to learn that these scenes were originally edited much more intelligibly  but Anderson wanted something 'edgier'. This disastrous choice destroys the first hour or so of the film because you can't give a crap about what is happening when you can't see it. Someone needs to tell the idiot director that if you are going to define your characters through action we have to be able to understand what the hell action is taking place to care. Moron.

Strangely, once the story reaches it's endgame I was interested again. The wrap-up they have invented for the Alice character(s) is pretty good and felt like a natural way to explain many different plot elements from the series. Now, if someone could go back in and fix the first hour or so we'd have a fun little movie.

I, like most people who saw it, loved the first John Wick film. It took the clichéd idea of the retired hit man drawn back into the game to new heights of visceral action. It was exciting, intriguing and emotional beyond what I could have expected. The sequel picks up right after the first one and dives into the unfortunate fallout from picking those guns back up. The action scenes are what you come to see in these films and they more than deliver with inventive fights and dazzling gunplay that is as beautiful as watching Gene Kelly dance - if Kelly wielded weapons like a vengeance seeking demon!

The best thing for me was the broadening (hello, Rome) and deepening (interesting relationships) of the dangerous world inhabited by these high level assassins. The codes they live by and work by are well thought out and rigid but clearly in place for everyone's benefit. The rules of this world are fascinating and the breaking of them is what is going to make the next film even more absorbing. Bring on the third entry - I'm ready!

Quite simply, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is the best Dario Argento film in thirty years. The fact that he didn't make it is a sad thing, but the film exists and that means that the audience wins!

Seriously, this is very much the kind of film I wish Argento was still able to craft. The film takes place in modern day but feels like it could be set any time in the past forty years. Lockhart, an ambitious young executive (played well by Dane Dehaan) for a large financial services firm in New York City, is sent to retrieve the company's CEO Mr. Pembroke from an peaceful but mysterious "wellness center" at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. This reason for this assignment is to get the CEO back to the US to sign off on a huge corporate merger. The company's board are concerned after receive a troubling letter from a seemingly demented Pembroke and emphasize to Lockhart the importance of his job. Upon arriving at the wellness center Lockhart is met with some resistance by the staff, particularly Dr. Heinreich Volmer (the always excellent Jason Isaacs), in his attempts to speak with Pembroke. He eventually succeeds in getting through to him, but a car crash forces him to recover as a patient in the center with a broken leg. From there things get progressively stranger.

The wellness center is as gorgeous a piece of old world stone and brick architecture as you are likely to see on film. Once the movie gets to this location the feeling of modernity falls away and a calm, gothic atmosphere envelopes the tale. Everything onscreen gives the impression of having stepped back into a time long passed - there are no computers, phones are mounted on walls, clothing is generic or crisply white and everyone is serenely going about their business. Both patients and staff seem to calmly pass each day comfortable in the routine of rest, relaxation and regular medical treatments. Ah, but what are those treatments?

Very much in the vein of SUSPIRIA or INFERNO the film does wallow a bit in it's own beauty and, to a degree, shares those movie's plot problems. Not all the story dots line up perfectly with at least one thing still puzzling me days after the fact. Even with the film purposely and cleverly confusing things at points with possible hallucinations it makes itself clear at the end except for one nagging element that I can't wait to discuss once more people have caught up with the film. The only other problem I had was the feeling that the movie is a little too long. But this is such a lovely, creepy tale that, in a way, I'm kind of happy for the extra time to soak in the sensations.


SPLIT (2016) - 8
RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2017) - 4 (weak ending with spastic editing)
THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE (1965) - 7 (well done thriller)
THE TOMB (1986) - 3 (terrible Fred Olen Ray horror mess)
CIMARRON (1931) - 8 (excellent western epic)
EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (1972) - 7 (interesting Euro-Trash mystery hokum)
HAPPY HELL NIGHT (1990) - 2 (awful slasher)
ALONE IN THE DARK (1982) - 6 (interesting cast - OK film)
I, THE JURY (1981) - 5 (rewatch)
MOON ZERO TWO (1969) - 4 (sad Hammer SF)
WEEKEND OF TERROR (1970) - 6 (solid TV movie with good cast)
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) - 9 (rewatch)
DARKMAN II: THE RETURN OF DURANT (1995) - 6 (rewatch)

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