THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’état to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

10 Worst Movies of 2020

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And now for the 10 Worst Movies of 2020.

Just like with by Top 10 Best Movies List, this year’s list comes with a giant asterisk, thanks to COVID-19 closing movie theaters across the country. While I have continued to review movies throughout the year, they have been on streaming and OnDemand services, and so without national theater chains to provide the same movies for all of us, a lot of movies I saw this year, you may not have, and vice versa.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s get to the list:

10. EMMA

This one doesn’t really belong on a Worst Movies List, but as I rank all the movies I see throughout the year, it did happen to fall 10th from the worst. This elegant version of Jane Austen’s novel is simply a colossal bore, pure and simple. Looked great, but the script and characterizations put me to sleep. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as Emma, and she’s much better in the current and superior Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020). The film also wastes the usually reliable Bill Nighy. One of the few movies this year I saw on the big screen. Still didn’t help.

9. COFFEE & KAREEM

Forgettable Netflix buddy comedy starring Ed Helms. So forgettable not even worth mentioning!

8. THE RHYTHM SECTION

I love Blake Lively, but this was a really stupid action movie that not even Lively could save. She plays a woman who learns that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident, and so she…with no prior experience… decides to learn how to become an international assassin to make the terrorists responsible for her family’s death pay. Yup. That’s believable. Her trainer, played by Jude Law, is so good at what he does that she becomes the female equivalent of Jason Bourne and wipes the floor with these terrorists all rather easily. The film tries for an ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) vibe, but the plot is too dumb for it to pull it off.

7. WONDER WOMAN 1984

Where to start with this one? There are so many ways that this sequel is awful. For starters, it’s everything the original WONDER WOMAN is not. I didn’t even enjoy Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman. But the biggest culprit is the script, and a plot built around a relic that… wait for it…. grants wishes! That’s right, Aladdin, you wish it, and it can happen! Heck, that’s how this story brings back a deceased character from the first movie, played by Chris Pine. No basis in reality. Instantly one of the worst DC superhero movies of all time.

6. SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL

Another Netflix clunker. This time it’s Mark Wahlberg playing Boston private detective Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels, only the film changes everything about the characters, and tries to turn this into a comedy. So, not only will Spenser purists be disappointed, but so will those of us who like a good comedy, since it’s not funny at all. You know things are bad when not even Alan Arkin can make you laugh!

5. THE TURNING

Forgettable horror movie starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, loosely based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. Turn this one off.

Betty Gilpin as Crystal in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.

4. THE HUNT

A lot of folks liked this one, a dark action thriller about a group of liberals who are hunting human prey, folks they view as right wing low lifes. Stars Betty Gilpin as the one victim who won’t quit, and yes, she is very good and the best part of this movie. But for me, the rest of this film was a misfire from start to finish.

3. LIKE A BOSS

Another unfunny comedy, this one starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as friends sparring with villainess Salma Hayek over a beauty company. Very few laughs here, making it a chore to sit through.

2. WASP NETWORK

Netflix film about Cuban spies in the United States completely wastes the talents of Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Wagner Moura, and Ana de Armas. Features the most uneven script of the year, with characters appearing and then disappearing for long chunks of time. Fails to build any kind of momentum. Probably the dullest movie I watched all year.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN
  1. THE BABYSITER: KILLER QUEEN

My pick for the worst movie of 2020 is THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN, a testament as to why you shouldn’t make a sequel just for the same of making one. A sequel to the clever and lively horror/comedy THE BABYSTTER, this flick isn’t funny, isn’t scary, and isn’t enjoyable in the least. Terrible script. By far, the movie I enjoyed the least this year.

And there you have it, my list of the 10 Worst Movies I saw in 2020.

Okay, on to 2021!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

rogue-one-poster

4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

star_trek_beyond_poster

2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

SPLIT (2017) – Entertaining Thriller Not Frightening Enough

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split-poster

SPLIT (2017), the new thriller by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, about a man with multiple personalities who abducts and imprisons three teenage girls, is an attempt to expand on the PSYCHO format.  Rather than a psychopath ruled by two personalities, let’s give audiences one who’s ruled by 24 of them.  Does it all work?  Up to a point.

Yup, I’m— split— on SPLIT. (heh heh.)

This one gets down to business right away.  The film opens with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) about to be driven home from a party by Claire’s dad, but they don’t get that far.  That’s because a man (James McAvoy) overpowers the dad and enters the car where he proceeds to knock out the girls with some sort of gas.

When the girls awake, they find themselves in what appears to be an underground bunker. They are being held prisoner by a man who refers to himself as Dennis.  Later, they hear a woman’s voice outside the door, and the girls call to her for help.  When the woman enters, the girls are shocked to see that it is Dennis dressed in woman’s clothing, although he’s no longer Dennis but Patricia.

The girls quickly realize that they are dealing with someone with multiple personalities.

We learn more about Dennis—whose real name is Kevin— and his other personalities as he visits his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Meanwhile, the girls try to find a way to escape, and they see as their best chance to take advantage of Hedwig, the 9 year-old personality inside Kevin’s body.  But they need to escape quickly, because Hedwig constantly speaks of “the Beast” who he says is on his way and will do terrible things to the girls.

M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), UNBREAKABLE (2000), and SIGNS (2002), but then went on a prolonged slump which lasted more than a decade, bounced back last year with the very good thriller THE VISIT (2015).  SPLIT, while not bad, is a step back from THE VISIT.

While I liked the story in SPLIT, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.  And rather than growing more tense as it went along it became tedious.

Part of the problem is the film’s trailer gave away way too much about this movie’s plot.  There were a lot of things that happened in this movie— Patricia’s first appearance, for instance— that I would have felt different about had I not known about them already.  This is also a case where the trailer is actually better than the movie.

But the lack of suspense isn’t just the fault of the trailer.  Shyamalan deserves some of the blame.  While the premise is certainly interesting, and McAvoy’s performance as all those multiple personalities is exceptional, not a lot happens in this movie.  I didn’t feel the suspense at all, and neither did the audience.  I saw it in a pretty packed theater, and I don’t think there was one gasp or scream to be heard.

The other thing about SPLIT that impeded the suspense is Dennis and friends keep talking about “the Beast” who is coming to harm the girls, and really, there isn’t a whole lot of build-up to this beast.  This should have been terribly frightening, but it’s not.  Worse, not only isn’t there build-up, but once the Beast does show up he’s about as scary as some of McAvoy’s X-MEN mutant friends.

That being said, the acting here is very good.  Hands down my favorite part of SPLIT is James McAvoy’s performance.  He is amazing here, although once again unfortunately we see nearly every personality he plays given away in the film’s trailer, which hurts more than helps.

I also enjoyed Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, although she gave a stronger performance in last year’s  THE WITCH (2016).  Of course, her role in THE WITCH was a more challenging one, but she’s still very good here in SPLIT.

And while I did like Taylor-Joy as Casey, I wanted to know more about the character.  I think the film would have been stronger had more time been spent on Casey.  We learn about her past in the flashbacks to when she was a little girl, but I wanted to know more about her in the here and now.  She’s a very interesting character, and she and Kevin both share a troubled childhood, a bond which could have been played up more.

Haley Lu Richardson is very good as Claire as well, although she gave an even better performance in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016).  I actually thought that Claire made the most sense of the three girls.  When they talked about what they needed to do to survive, it was Claire who talked about fighting back and hitting Kevin hard to escape, while Casey said that didn’t make sense and that they needed to hang back and think their way out of this.  I thought Claire had the right idea, although in this story it’s Casey who has more success.

Betty Buckley is also very good as Dr. Karen Fletcher.

Shyamalan’s screenplay was okay.  I liked the premise, but ts execution not so much. It had plenty of opportunities to become a suspenseful movie, but it didn’t.  The film also seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  It just sort of meanders along telling its story.

Actually, the most frightening part of the story are the flashbacks showing Casey’s past, and the most disturbing scene is the revelation at the end of the movie about Casey’s present life.  I found that far more disturbing than any of the traditional horror stuff involving  Kevin and his multiple personalities.

My favorite part of the screenplay is summed up in a line which the Beast utters to Casey near the end, when he sees the scars on her body and says something to the effect that it’s the broken who are blessed, which brings tears to her eyes.  It’s a theme that runs through the movie, often voiced by Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher that what we see as weaknesses or disabilities in people like Kevin, may actually be strengths and things that make them superior.

I liked this part of the screenplay.  I liked McAvoy’s performance.  But I never felt frightened by the main premise of this movie:  the three girls being held prisoner by a madman.  Those scenes I just didn’t find that intense, and so in spite of the things I liked about this one, it didn’t possess enough of an edge for me to really love it.

There is a surprise cameo at the end by a major star, but seriously, this “twist” did little for me.

Long story short, I liked SPLIT, but I thought I would like it more.  Not once during this movie did I feel like I was on the edge of my seat, and this is in spite of a fairly interesting story and an amazing performance by James McAvoy.

SPLIT is a decent movie, but it’s simply not edgy enough to succeed as a hard-hitting thriller.

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MORGAN (2016) Emphasizes Action Over Science Fiction

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Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Mara in MORGAN (2016).

MORGAN (2016), the latest movie about an artificially intelligent humanoid, relies more on action than science fiction.  As such, there’s more BOURNE than EX MACHINA in this sci fi adventure tale.

MORGAN begins with scientist Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) speaking to an artificially intelligent humanoid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy).  Morgan suddenly flips out and in a jarring opening scene viciously stabs Dr. Grieff in the eye.

The company which financed the creation of Morgan sends a young consultant named Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate the incident to decide whether or not Morgan should be terminated.  Lee gets to know all the scientists involved, and it’s clear from the outset that these scientists are emotionally tied to Morgan and extremely protective of her.  They do not want to see anything happen to her.

When psychologist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) arrives to perform his evaluation of Morgan, he purposely pushes her buttons to a get a reaction from her.  When she overreacts and escapes, all hell breaks loose and it’s up to Lee to stop her.

For a film about artificial intelligence, MORGAN is a pretty straightforward and simple flick.  It’s not really much of a science fiction movie at all.  The recent EX MACHINA (2015) was a much more thought-provoking take on the subject.  That being said, MORGAN is still a very entertaining movie. It’s an action thriller rather than a contemplative science fiction film, but this doesn’t take away from the fun.

Kate Mara is excellent in the lead role as Lee Weathers.  It’s one of the best roles I’ve seen Mara play.  She’s nearly perfect for this part.  She’s smart, sexy, and sleek, and she’s a formidable force who does not back down to the scientists around her or to Morgan.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Morgan, and she’s okay, but strangely  she didn’t have a lot to do. It’s not really Taylor-Joy’s fault but the way the character is written.  Most of the time she just stares ahead and looks artificial or ominous.  We don’t get inside her head enough to know what it’s like to be artificially created.  We never really feel what it’s like to be Morgan, and this is one of the weakest parts of the movie.

MORGAN is actually more about Kate Mara’s character.  Early on the film focuses on her investigation, and later on it follows her pursuit of the escaped Morgan, when the film turns into an action thriller.

The confrontation between Lee and Morgan near the end of the film is one of the more riveting female fight sequences I’ve seen in a while.  It was really intense.  I loved the way it was edited.  A great job here by director Luke Scott, in what might be the best scene in the movie.

Anya Taylor-Joy also played Thomasin in THE WITCH (2015), and she was better in that movie.  Of course, she also had more to do, and it was a better written part.

The rest of the cast is very good.

Rose Leslie from TV’s DOWNTON ABBEY and GAME OF THRONES plays Dr. Amy Menser, a behaviorist, who probably is closest to Morgan.  Toby Jones, the son of Hammer Films’ character actor Freddie Jones, plays Dr. Simon Ziegler, a man who is clearly proud of Morgan and does not want the company interfering with his prized project, which he continually tells people took years and years of hard work to perfect.

Boyd Holbrook plays the likable and easy going chef Skip.  Holbrook was memorable in the Liam Neeson thriller A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014), and he was also in GONE GIRL (2014).  Chris Sullivan, who appeared in the first episode of STRANGER THINGS as Benny, the man who lost his life befriending young Eleven, plays Dr. Darren Finch, and Michelle Yeoh, who also just co-starred with Jason Statham in MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION (2016) plays the lead scientist of the group, Dr. Lui Cheng.

Paul Giamatti shows up for one scene as Dr. Alan Shapiro, the guy brought in to perform Morgan’s psychological evaluation.  It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, one I would have liked even more had I not seen most of it in the movie’s trailers.  Giamatti is always fun to watch, and he makes the most of this one sequence, which is pretty much all him.  Again, Morgan herself has little depth other than to show anger when pushed.

And even Brian Cox shows up for a brief second as the head of the company responsible for Morgan.

Director Luke Scott does a nice job with this one.  The fight scene between Lee and Morgan is a keeper, and the other action sequences are also done well.

The biggest knock on this one is the screenplay by Seth W.Owen. I really expected this one to be a thought-provoking science fiction tale, but it’s not.  We never get inside Morgan’s head.  The concept of what it’s like to be an artificially intelligent being is hardly explored.  It’s covered very briefly when the scientists speak of Morgan’s rights, and Lee flatly denounces, “She has no rights.”  That’s it.  No debate, no wonder.

Later, in what is supposed to be a defining moment, Morgan declares “I feel alive.”  She says this, but she never acts it.  She only acts like an assassin out of a Bourne movie.

And that’s because MORGAN isn’t really a science fiction movie at all.  It’s a Bourne-style thriller featuring a humanoid in the lead rather than Jason Bourne.  But as such, it works.  While I was disappointed the film didn’t have more ambition in terms of its artificial intelligence story,  I definitely enjoyed the thriller aspects to this one, and the Lee -in pursuit of-Morgan story I found compelling and very watchable.  In fact, I would argue that the best part of MORGAN isn’t Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, but Kate Mara as Lee.  Mara is the driving force behind this movie.

There is a twist in this movie, one that I sniffed out from the get-go due to some obvious hints that perhaps shouldn’t have been placed there so prominently.  I for one wasn’t surprised in the least by the revelation at the end.

All in all, for what it was, I liked MORGAN and found it a fun way to spend 90 minutes at the movies.

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