Movie Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split”

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It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for M. Night Shyamalan to return to form, back when he was delighting us with movies like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” His new film “Split” is as good as we’ve seen him. He’s eschewed some of the big-budget special effects of some of his more recent films, and instead, focused on writing a taut, suspenseful horror-thriller.

If you don’t already know the basic storyline from the movie trailer, it’s basically this: a deranged man (played by James McAvoy) suffering from multiple personality disorder abducts three teenage girls, and subjects them to various torments as he struggles with his 23 different personalities.

The problem, of course, is that there’s one more personality that has not yet fully surfaced, and when it does, it will seek to dominate all 23 of his other personalities. It’s safe to say that this 24th personality is going to be the most dangerous one, certainly more so than some of the other personalities – an LGBT fashion designer, a deranged church lady, a 9-year-old child and a clean freak.

In many ways, “Split” marks a split from other films – like “Psycho” or “Dressed to Kill” – that used the existence of a hidden personality as a major plot twist. Indeed, from the very outset, we’re told that “Kevin” has 23 different personalities vying for control. On a regular basis, he visits his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley), who has a chance to explain to both Kevin and the audience what the heck is going on here.

Unlike other people suffering from multiple personality disorder, Kevin actually has a rare and dangerous form of it known as dissociative identity disorder, which means that he assumes the specific physical attributes for each personality.

That leads to a star tour de force role for James McAvoy, who is absolutely brilliant in being able to use his body language, his facial expressions and even his accents and dialects to show viewers which personality he’s currently experiencing. (Oh, and don’t forget the tiger-like teeth!) The unique aspect of his disorder is that only one can “come out to play” at a time. Thus, we see McAvoy transforming himself almost effortlessly into a mix of different “alters,” all of them are, presumably, almost an entirely different person with different physical and mental attributes.

Since this is a Shyamalan film, you know there are going to be plot twists and subtle turns in the narrative. And it’s here that the director is a master of mood, pacing and perspective, showing us just enough to hint at what might come next, but keeping enough out of view to keep us grasping for more. We’re like the three teenage girls, held behind a dungeon-like door, and only able to see bits and pieces of all the craziness happening around them at any time.

In many ways, though, Shyamalan may be trying too hard to keep us on the edge of our seats. At times, what happens is just preposterous, and there’s no way to put it any other way. And some of the characterizations from McAvoy are so overwrought and over-the-top that we wonder if Shyamalan is toying with us, letting us know that he knows exactly what we must be thinking about his films.

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While it’s hard to argue with the prodigious artistic output of M. Night Shyamalan – “The Sixth Sense, “Unbreakable,” “Signs, “The Happening,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Lake” – it’s also clear that he’s never going to achieve his enormous promise of a decade ago. Remember when Newsweek anointed him as “the next Spielberg”?

Unfortunately, there’s a lot in “Split” that’s derivative of many of the top horror franchises today. “Saw” comes to mind, because that film also features the story of someone who wakes up in an unrecognized chamber of horrors, confronting a villain of unimagined evil. But, to Shyamalan’s credit, his film is literally a PG-13 take on the “R” horror film genre. The film is not especially bloody, gruesome or horrible, even if it is sinister and more than a little creepy. You will be creeped out, but not grossed out. And, certainly, the abuse of children theme is something that maybe we’d rather not see on camera, even if it’s something certain to add a layer of creepiness to the film.

While a lot of credit for the box office success of the film has to go to the name brand recognition of M. Night Shyamalan and the main star, James McAvoy, credit also has to go Betty Buckley, who’s a key part of making sense of the plot, as well as the three girls – Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula – who are abducted by McAvoy’s character.

Of these, Anya Taylor-Joy is deserving of especial notice. Other critics have described her as a “brooding outsider”, and that’s a good description of her. She’s really the key to the three girls making sense of their situation and escaping. As it turns out, though, she’s more than a little bit damaged herself. She’s carrying a lot of emotional baggage, in the form of some childhood traumas that she would rather not relive.

Ultimately, “Split” is a worthy take on the psycho-slasher movie, if only because the “psycho” element is so clearly announced up front (and the title of the film should tell you as much, as well). It is, as Variety has suggested, “an unhinged new mind bender.” We know the plot twists are coming, but we are still largely powerless to predict them (although more than a few “Split” fans have said that it’s possible to piece together a number of clues that prepared them for the film’s final “blow your mind” plot twist.)

Hollywood’s horror-thriller has been in need of a reboot, after the whole “Saw” genre gave it a boost for so long. And so this is what we could be looking forward to – films that focus more on star power and PG-13-level terror.

We won’t be seeing a “Split, Part 2” yet but the film clearly aims to be taken seriously. It was released under the Universal Blumhouse label, which is the same label that gave us “Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge.” The film “Split” may have split personalities of its own at times, but it’s certainly a compelling two-hour romp through the mind of a lunatic.

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The 5 Most Anticipated Films of 2017

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It’s shaping up to be a tremendous year for new movies in 2017. Buzz is already starting to build for many new movies – including a few that will be hitting cinema screens as early as March. Based on what fans are saying on the Internet’s top movie sites, these are the 5 most anticipated films of 2017 (listed in the order they will be released).

#1: “Beauty and the Beast”

This film is going to be full-on Disney goodness, with Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast. Unlike the Disney animated classic, this will be a live-action cinematic drama. So get ready for some gorgeous castle scenes and some really cool special effects for the Beast and his castle.

Even kids will know the basic storyline – Belle is taken prisoner by the Beast in an enchanted castle, but learns to look beyond his external hideousness. This is a romantic dark fantasy filled with all kinds of enchanted special effects – like teacups and clocks that sing and dance. Similar to the 2015 live-action remake of “Cinderella,” this might be the type of movie that even adults will want to see again and again.

Release date: March 17

#2: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2”

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If you worried that “Guardians of the Galaxy” would be a one-hit wonder, no worries now. Marvel Entertainment is releasing “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2” at the very start of this summer, and it looks like a real winner. The film, directed by James Gunn, stars Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill/Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax) and Kurt Russell (as Peter Quill’s father, Ego). And there are two great actors who will voice the roles of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel).

We already know this is going to be an action blockbuster with all kinds of glorious special effects – what remains to be seen are all the unique plot twists that are going to happen. For example, one of the plotline will involve the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. And, based on the trailers already available on YouTube, there might be a romantic angle involving Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana (yes, please!).

Release date: May 5

#3: “Wonder Woman”

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You can never have too many blockbuster superhero movies, especially ones featuring strong, charismatic heroines like Wonder Woman. 2016 may have been an off-year for DC Comics (e.g. “Batman Vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad”), but 2017 is going to be absolutely wonderful. “Wonder Woman” introduces us to the super stylish and super sexy Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), an Amazon princess who discovers her true powers as Woman Woman.

Based on trailers that are out for “Wonder Woman” (due to hit screens on June 2), we known that Diana has been living on an Amazonian remote paradise before a U.S. air force pilot mistakenly crashes there. What unfolds then is a story set during World War I, in which Wonder Woman must use her superhero abilities to stop the war. This is going to be a delirious mash-up of superhero powers set amidst wartime. Oh, and did we mention that Wonder Woman just looks dreamy divine in her outfit?

Release date: June 2

#4: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

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Mark down July 7 on your calendars. That’s when “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is going to hit the cinematic big screen. It has the potential to be the biggest superhero blockbuster of the year, and that’s really saying something, given the competition from “Wonder Woman” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Unlike other Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire, this one stars a young Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland), as he begins to learn more about his super powers and his unique destiny.

So it’s really a coming-of-age story as much as a superhero story, and that’s what makes this such an intriguing film. Especially when you add in the supposed love interest of young Spider-Man — the beautiful Michelle, played by Zendaya. And there are plenty of supporting characters who also bring their Hollywood A-game to this movie: Marisa Tomei (as Aunt May) and Spider-Man’s new mentor Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.). Tony Stark, of course, is Iron Man, so you can see all kinds of delicious Marvel Entertainment tie-ins here. The only question, really, is how Spider-Man going to take on the villain Vulture (played by Michael Keaton).

Release date: July 7

#5: “Star Wars: Episode VIII”

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It’s hard to keep track of which “Star Wars” movies are prequels or sequels, and which part belongs to which “Star Wars” trilogy, but here’s all that you have to know: the new “Star Wars” is going to drop in December 2017 and it’s going to be huge. We’ve already seen how big “Rogue One” was during the holiday 2016 season, and there’s no reason not to expect that the “Star Wars” movie won’t be just as big. In fact, the buzz online is that the other major Hollywood films scheduled for release in December 2017 are now scrambling to move around their distribution times, so that they won’t have to compete head-to-head with “Star Wars: Episode VIII.”

This is definitely a “trust me” pick. Because, well, we don’t know that much about the movie. It was originally scheduled for release in May 2017, but was pushed back to December. All that we know is that it will feature Rey (played by Daisey Ridley) and Finn (played by John Boyega) from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Episode VII). (And there might be a romantic sub-plot!)

There haven’t even been any official studio trailers released for the new film – although there are plenty of fan tribute trailers already all over YouTube. We’ll surely have more intergalactic adventures, and learn more about the force and the Jedi code. We might even seen Mark Hamill as an old Luke Skywalker (and Carrie Fisher as well!). Right now, even the uncertainty about the exact casting and plot line hasn’t stopped the buzz from building around the film franchise — “Star Wars: Episode VIII” is now the #1 most anticipated film on Fandango while “Rogue One” is the #1 pre-ordered film on Apple iTunes as well as the #1 film at theaters.

Release date: December 15, 2017

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So, those are the top 5 most anticipated films of the year, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of other great films scheduled for release throughout 2017. One film trailer that’s going viral right now is the one promoting the follow-up (“50 Shades Darker”) to the “50 Shades of Grey” film that captivated movie audiences in 2015.

And we’re also going to be treated to new installments in the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Fast and the Furious” and “Transformers” franchises, so that’s good news for movie fans everywhere. And as we get through the summer, we’ll get a better idea of all the films that the major studios are placing their Oscar bets on, so there’s really a lot to look forward to in 2017.