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Glass (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Although not short on ambition or ideas, it is a great frustration that M. Night’s Shyamalan’s “Glass” isn’t a stronger film. Part of the reason is for a closer of a trilogy (started by “Unbreakable” in 2000 and preceded by “Split” in 2017), the work is expository for the most part. Aside from an exciting opening minutes in which David Dunn (Bruce Willis), equipped with superhuman strength and psychic ability, is shown what he’s been up to, along with his now adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), since we last saw them, the material begins to move at a snail’s pace once the story shifts inside a psychiatric hospital. Initially curious, it gets duller by the minute. There is plenty of dialogue and monologuing, but these do not reveal anything particularly new or exciting.

The screenplay wishes to explore a grounded comic book universe which is full of potential because our culture now, especially the movies, is inundated with the commercialism of superheroes, products on a conveyor belt that we eat up right from the twenty-second teaser trailers. There is a stark difference between superhero pictures of today and superhero films before “Unbreakable” was released, for better or worse. This would have been a far more interesting avenue to drill into: 1) To show why relatively humble superhero movies should still be made despite the fact that several multimillion-dollar juggernauts are released annually and 2) To introduce an exciting discussion about superheroes in general and why they continue to be a staple in popular culture.

Instead, we get only crumbs of the more compelling themes until the third act—which does not work. We get the impression that the writer-director wishes so badly to surprise the viewer that the ideas that do end up on the platter are severely undercooked at best, thoroughly forced and unconvincing at its worst. Cue the flashbacks and would-be brilliant throwaway shots that the audience should have noticed all along. (I caught them all.) Perhaps it might have been better if the surprise is that there is no surprise, just a strong, well-ironed storytelling.

It is not entertaining enough—a head-scratcher because Shyamalan knows how to execute and shoot an action scene. For instance, When Dunn and The Beast, the latter being one of the twenty-four personalities (James McAvoy), must face-off in an abandoned factory, there is a real sense of excitement: the location is moody and dark, blows to the body are shown and actually felt due to the elevated sound effects, and stakes are high because we get the impression that the two are well-matched. Even when the action is shot in broad daylight, the director remains willing to play with the camera, showing us different perspectives of the sequence just because he can. The confidence is apparent when it comes to images. On paper, far less.

The title of the picture refers to Mr. Glass or Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a genius mass murderer born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by brittle bones, but we do not get enough moments with the character in order to have an appreciation of him. The charade of catatonia lasts for too long and it is quite boring. And when he does begin to speak, move around, and carry out his plans, not one thing he does is particularly clever or compelling—at least not one I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself. When the antagonist is this thinly drawn, it is without question that the screenplay requires further revisions. The work feels rushed.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The real-life grisly murders began in Texarkana on February 1946 and although there were speculations, it was believed that the real killer was never caught. Jami (Addison Timlin) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) decide to leave the annual drive-in showing of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and find a secluded spot where they can be alone. During a kiss, Jami notices someone watching them from a couple of feet away—a man wearing a sack over his head, very reminiscent of The Phantom, the killer inspired by the picture they did not see through the end. One of them will not make it through the night.

“The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is gory, beautifully shot and sometimes thrilling, but it is let down by a mediocre screenplay. It is a meta-horror film but it seems reluctant to brace that self-awareness. So, when it becomes obvious to us that the killer is following the patterns of the murders that took place in the 1976 picture, it becomes increasingly frustrating that the heroine and her friend, Nick (Travis Hope), do not focus on the events that happen in the movie. It is only practical that they do so—that is, if they really wanted to survive.

There is a small town feel to this story that the filmmakers manage to capture. So when the young characters talk about their lives, I was very interested in what they had to say. For example, Jami admits to a counselor that she is the kind of girl who doesn’t get asked out on dates. Simply looking at her, this is difficult to believe because she’s beautiful. However, getting to know her a bit further, she is a bit shy, soft-spoken at times, probably a person who would rather read books on a Friday night than attend parties. Nick, too, has a story. They are, in a way, bound by a childhood that is not exactly a walk in the park. We enjoy these two being together.

The killings offer variability. Some happen instantaneously while others are drawn-out to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. Both are gruesome in their own way. It is always bloody and messy. Having seen over two hundred hours of “Criminal Minds,” I was curious about the methods employed and the nature of how the murders were executed.

I took notice of the kinds of victims and the places they are killed. I thought the monster must be a familiar face. I wondered why the killings began again after over thirty years. So there must be some sort of recent stressor. If you like this sort of thing, this movie is for you. But despite the clues in my brain—clues that I thought fit perfectly with my hypothesis—I still failed to guess the identity of the killer correctly.

I was disappointed. Not because I did not get it right but because the final answer does not make much sense. The writing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa could have use a bit more intelligence, psychology, subtlety, pragmatism—rather than someone having to explain why he did what he did. One is reminded of ‘90s slasher flicks—the good, the bad, and very bad that they best be forgotten.

“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is interesting to an extent, mainly its look and feel as well as the setup of the story, and that is why I give it a mild recommendation. But it does not command a satisfying payoff. The ‘90s meta-horror flicks are memorable not only because they embrace the sub-genre but they are also willing to embody the extremes both on the level of violence as well as new twists from what we come to expect.

The Last Exorcism Part II

The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Nell (Ashley Bell) is sent to live in a home for girls after she is found with only fragments of memories involving what had happened to her while living in the woods. There is one thing she knows for certain: her entire family had perished in a fire. At first, her integration goes well. She gets along with her roommate, Gwen (Julia Garner), and has made friends with all of the girls in the house. Also, there is a nice boy around her age, Chris (Spencer Treat Clark), who seems to show genuine interest. But the demon that possessed Nell in the woods is not finished with her. Its plans have evolved and it is desperate to get her back.

“The Last Exorcism Part II,” based on the screenplay by Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly, feels like a rehash of a rehash. While it does offer a few hair-raising scenes, there is a lack of control in many of its attempts to scare and so the majority of them end up silly or laughable. For instance, must Nell make sexual sounds while being possessed as she sleeps? Is she supposed to be liking it? I don’t know, but it made me feel awkward. A lot of people tend to make jokes about the title. The truth is, the joke is on those, like myself, who has taken the time to sit through the picture and hoped that it would get better. It did not.

The first third is tolerable. I enjoyed the way it is communicated that Nell has lived such a sheltered life. Bell does a good job in underlining the fragility of Nell. Like a child plucked out of the darkness, a lot of things, like rock music, are new to her. Though she cannot remember the graphic details of her past, I rooted for the character because I did not want to see her get hurt. She deserves a new beginning.

There are warm moments between the girls, particularly during Mardi Gras and while at work, but getting to know some of them might have elevated the picture. As a movie that relies on formulas, we know that it is only a matter of time until they figure out Nell’s bizarre history. The betrayal that she feels would have packed more wallop if we had known the girls as much as we know Nell. Instead, during that important scene, the girls end up looking like bullies when, in reality, it is likely that they have troubled pasts, too.

Its ailment is having no ambition: it lacks solid scares because of its reliance on tired techniques. For example, when the camera moves down a hallway, it slithers so slowly that it is obvious that it wants us to wonder what is right around the corner. When the supposed jolts do arrive, the loud music does all the work.

When all is silent, cue the CGI and–can you believe it–more loud music. This is especially problematic in the second half. Horror is at its most effective when simple. Instead, we watch black vein-like figures on the wall (why is that scary?) and various moving shapes underneath a woman’s stomach (it comes across as an act of desperation than being genuinely creepy). The lack of context in these would-be scare attempts is astonishing.

I went into “The Last Exorcism Part II,” directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, willing and ready to be scared. One is more susceptible to be played like a marionette or a piano when one is willing and ready. But the picture barely lifts a finger. Instead, the sheer laziness of the writers and director ends up being on screen for the world to see. If I were them, I would be really embarrassed.


Unbreakable (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was on a train from New York to Philadelphia that suddenly derailed. Everyone on the train passed away except for him; in fact, he walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. This strange phenomenon caught the eye of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man born with osteogenesis imperfecta–since his body lacked an essential protein, his bones were very low in density and therefore easy broken. Elijah had a passion for comic books and he was convinced that David was a superhero in the making. Was Elijah a madman who became embittered from his experiences as a child or was he a friend that could help David realize his true potential? M. Night Shyamalan did a fantastic job blurring the line between science fiction and realism by establishing a heavy but malleable solemn mood. I thought it was great in building the tension as we were given information that could lead to the conclusion that David might be special. The film could simply have been about a man coming to terms with his “gift” (if he did indeed has one) but it took the more introspective path and it became a story about a family trying to stay together. David and his wife (Robin Wright) were on the verge of divorce due to reasons undisclosed and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) became fixated with the idea that his dad was special in order to deal with the fear of his father being plucked away from his life. Shyamalan’s talent in telling a compelling story was always at the forefront. Even though I did not know the truth about David’s identity, I cared about him because I was as confused as he was. “Unbreakable” was highly successful in building an inordinary experience from ordinary elements. I loved the way the director gave us information that was open to interpretation but not so abstract that it became frustrating or even insular. I also enjoyed the awkward camera angles because it challenged our perspectives visually and intellectually. And in a way, the film was also about perspectives: do we believe that David is a superhero or just a man trying to get by? It was strangely moving and I thought it ended at just about the perfect moment. Most people have lost faith in Shyamalan’s talent in creating stories that are involving, honest, and creative but at the same time defying our greatest expectations. I’m not one of them because when I rewatch his films like “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” (or even “The Village” to some degree) I cannot help but notice the level of detail he puts into his work. What I think he needs is to step back, look at what made the aforementioned pictures work and tell a story he would love instead of what he thinks the public would love.

The Last House on the Left

The Last House on the Left (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

I’m not going to say that this was predictable because I saw the 1972 version directed by the legendary Wes Craven. Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome and Aaron Paul star as the three criminals running from the law who eventually come upon Sara Paxton and Martha MaxIsaac. After a series of numbing humiliations and assaults, with the help of Dillahunt’s son (Spencer Treat Clark), Paxton’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) find out what happened to their daughter and they crave bloody vengeance. I must say that this was more thrilling the 1972 version. It was smart enough to tweak some of the details from the original to keep those who’ve seen the classic guessing. I also liked the fact that Dennis Iliadis, the director, provided some sort of backstory of Paxton’s character so the audiences will be able to sympathize with her more during the more gruesome scenes she has to go through. It has a different feel than most slasher movies coming out in 2009 because the camera tends to linger on the characters’ faces in silence to fully get the picture on how a particular character is feeling after or while going through a trial. However, what I didn’t like about it was that it’s a bit lighter than the original. Some of the implications are gone because this modern version feels like it wants to garner a wider audience. In other words, it’s more commercial in its storytelling, use of music and violence. When the credits started rolling, I asked myself whether I liked the film. The answer would be a “Yes.” But I also asked myself whether this modern interpretation of the original was necessary in the overall scope of horror cinema. The answer would be a resounding “No.” Yes, the classic may be dated but an upgrade is far from necessary. For a horror picture, this “House” has the thrills, blood and suspense but watching that gruesome rape scene again made me sick to my stomach. (But then again maybe that’s the point: To place shame on the audiences due to their willingness to pay ten bucks to see something brutal.)