Archive for April 2019

Glass

April 14, 2019

glass When last we saw the almost-invulnerable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), he was sitting in a diner at the end of 2006’s Split, in a surprise appearance that linked the movie with David’s own movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. Both those films were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who returns to wrap up the trilogy with Glass. Shyamalan doesn’t really stick the landing, but I’m not sure he was supposed to, or was trying to. Taken in sum, the three movies are a morose meditation on comic-book tropes, and somewhat a critique of them; after all, the villains are both disabled in some way, and that’s part of the critique, that those whose minds or bodies are not “normal” are destined to turn to evil. (It’s a very Victorian notion, and the history of comics is lousy with it.)

David’s power of insight (he can tell what you’re guilty of by bumping into you) leads him to track down the serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the mercurial antagonist of Split, who contends with dissociative identity disorder and currently has four cheerleaders stashed away in his rusty abandoned-factory hideout. When we meet Kevin here, he’s letting nine-year-old Hedwig take the wheel, but when David arrives, Hedwig tags in the Beast, who roars and bellows and has unearthly strength. Regardless, David almost defeats him, until some cops led by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) capture them both and lock them away in a featureless asylum — along with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka “Mr. Glass,” who resides in a wheelchair because his osteogenesis imperfecta renders his bones brittle. Dr. Staple’s goal is to get the three men to admit their views of themselves as exceptional — superhuman — are delusions.

Currently Elijah the mastermind is zoning out in his chair, seemingly doped up to his eyeballs, but you don’t hire Samuel L. Jackson and then not let him hold forth (although the cheeky Shyamalan denies Elijah speech for over an hour of screen time). There are times when Glass appears to fall victim to the same superhero clichés it’s tweaking — there are plans, master plans, counter-plans. Everyone in the movie seems to be plotting, except for sweet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a survivor of an earlier Kevin/Beast incident in Split, who feels a connection to Kevin, the only reachable and reasonable personality of “the Horde.” There’s also David’s now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s loving mother (Charlayne Woodard), who must be, what, ninety years old by now? We see that Kevin was abused as a child by his mother, whereas Elijah wasn’t, but they both turned out bad; Shyamalan seems to be saying that in some cases, it’s pain that makes the difference between a villain and a hero.

We’re told in the movie that this is real life, and Shyamalan as usual grounds everything in the gray, glum streets and hallways of Philadelphia. But he also all but promises us a climactic face-off between David and the Beast atop a new skyscraper in the city, while Elijah plans to … but why spoil it? The twist addict in Shyamalan’s own screenwriting Horde breaks free and indulges himself, tying things together with a geeky abandon that’s part sneer at and part appreciation of comic-book plotting. In brief, what we get just raises more questions, especially as regards Dr. Staple, whose name may refer to the things that hold together comic books. Shyamalan finishes on a note of half-hearted optimism that, again, is either critical or symptomatic of comic-book endings, which never really end.

Shyamalan as writer has been erratic almost from the beginning; even the now-lauded Unbreakable struck me at the time as anticlimactic, though now, like Glass, it reads more as metacommentary. It’s as a director, a filmmaker with a natural command of mood and dread, that Shyamalan excels. Glass, which cost a pittance by today’s Hollywood metric ($20 million), spends a lot more time in quiet talking-heads passages than in superhuman beatdowns. Shyamalan still, two decades later, trusts the audience to sit still and be told a story. But they wouldn’t sit still if his control over tone and pace weren’t so appealingly rock-solid — there’s something about a self-assured director that makes an audience feel secure that they’re in competent hands. That’s what happens here. Glass is the conclusion of a lumpy and weird trilogy, the cumulative effect of which inspires respect. This series is unconventional and therefore not satisfying in a conventional sense. Its strengths, and goals, lie elsewhere.

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Diane

April 8, 2019

diane Some independent movies wear their miserablism as a badge of perverse pride. “We will make you look at despair, poverty, sickness, the fragility of existence,” they promise us, “for your own good. Eat your spinach and recognize our noble intentions.” These movies think being a depression delivery system is enough to qualify as art. Then there are films like First Reformed and now Diane that forge life’s intractable aspects into something greater, but quieter, than the sum of its parts. Diane devotes itself to the inner life, guilt and disappointments of Diane (Mary Kay Place), a 70-year-old woman drifting through bleak, snowy rural Massachusetts, trudging through altruistic activities in order to make up for … something. A bit of selfishness in her past, which may or may not be relevant to the pains and problems she faces now.

The literal-minded may look askance at Diane — why punish this basically good woman for a lapse decades ago? But Diane doesn’t punish Diane; Diane herself does. Mary Kay Place, a reliable and often inspired character actor for some 40 years, fills out a role written for her by director Kent Jones (in his fictional debut, after some documentaries). Place makes Diane gentle and thoughtful but with a strong prickly streak — Diane is no angel. Neither is she a devil, nor is her troublesome addict son Brian (Jake Lacy), who morphs from foul-mouthed and resentful to annoyingly pious once he gets Jesus. There are no villains here, just humans ground down a bit by the world. Even Brian’s journey isn’t as simple as it sounds. Nobody’s is.

Diane is not strictly a work of entertainment, but its level of craft and insight makes it enjoyable; the way it lingers on the subtle, the quiet, the unspoken human moment, and trusts us to be patient and adult, is refreshing. Diane sits at the hospital bedside of her dying cousin (Deirdre O’Connell), or sits across from an old friend (Andrea Martin) at a buffet. She has a support system of sorts, even if she may not feel she deserves one. As far as she’s concerned, her job is to serve and to submerge her own emotions (which bubble up unbidden anyway). Diane was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and in a way it’s as much about faith and its discontents as any of his own serious works about religion (Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence). Diane nails herself to a cross every day for that one time she decided to feed her hungry ghost in a big way at the expense of those who trusted her. Kent Jones feeds this to us bit by bit, in naturalistic exchanges and undramatic (or undramatically presented) incidents. Here and there we find beauty, such as the warm smile of an older fellow Diane regularly feeds at the local food pantry. Played by Charles Weldon, a journeyman actor who died last December at age 78, this fellow drops in to offer Diane some perspective on her sorrow.

One other valuable thing Diane does is to center on a woman entering her eighth decade, and to fill the frame with friends and family mostly around her age or older (such as 91-year-old Estelle Parsons, who seemingly hasn’t lost a step). These women may be closer to death than to birth but they still have some arrows left in their quivers. These characters were young and stupid once, and they regret it (or they don’t). As loneliness starts closing in on Diane, she vents about it in her journal, in short lines that structurally resemble some teenager’s emo poetry, and that’s when the full concept snapped into focus for me. David Cronenberg is worth quoting at length here: “There’s no such thing as an old person. There’s a person who has been broken on the rack of pain and infirmity, but there’s really no old person. When someone dies at eighty, it’s the death of a young person. I see that.” Diane sees it, too.