Monday, January 21, 2019

WE EXIST: a review of "Glass"

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
**** (four stars)

Hear me out, dear readers, for I have not lost my senses.

In some ways, I have to admit to feeling somewhat resentful with feeling that I need to apologize for my feelings towards the latest film from Writer/Director M Night Shyamalan, a figure whose celebratory status as a filmmaker ascended spectacularly, plummeted profoundly and has begun a gradual ascension once more...although one that is housed with a certain skepticism at best and vehement disdain at worst.

In fact, regarding the tenor of at least one review I happened to see regarding "Glass," Shyamalan's finale to the surprise trilogy that began with his finest film to date "Unbreakable" (2000) and continued with the claustrophobic freak flag that was "Split" (2017), the writer of the piece ended up composing what I feel to be a film criticism cardinal sin: reviewing the person or public persona and the perceptions of either instead of what is on the screen.

As for me, the filmography of M. Night Shyamalan has been one that I am admittedly affectionate towards. In some ways, the cinematic wine he serves just happens to be the very kind that I happen to enjoy, as he has long established a style, a tonality, a full idiosyncratic style and vision unlike anyone else. For that alone, I feel he is to be celebrated, or at least appreciated, for devising a point of view with his films, whether you like them or not.

Without question, "The Sixth Sense" (1999) still holds up after (good gracious!) 20 years. I believe that we can all agree on that assessment as it has long felt that people, including his detractors, will only allow him this one legitimate success. For me, I have found value with his misfires like "Lady In The Water" (2006) and even the much maligned "The Happening" (2008), as they each did represent his artistic approach honestly but yes indeed...don't get me wrong and don't get me started on the disastrous "The Last Airbender" (2010).

I will concede that M. Night Shyamalan indeed may have lost his focus creatively for some time but beginning with the sneaky, creepy, small-scaled " The Visit" (2015), he has been slowly rebuilding his brand as well as his confidence and with "Glass," for my sense and sensibilities, he has crafted not only his best film in years, but a terrific concluding chapter to a most unorthodox trilogy.

Set a full 19 years after "Unbreakable" and three weeks after the grisly events of "Split," M. Night Shyamalan's "Glass" opens with Security Guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), now working with his adult son Joseph (again played by Spencer Treat Clark) as the secret vigilante known in the media as The Overseer, as he is in hot pursuit of "The Horde," the full collective of 24 personalities inside of the dissociative identity disorder afflicted Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy).

After a showdown with Kevin's most ferocious personality known only as "The Beast," both he and David are soon apprehended by the authorities and placed into a mental institution where they are each supervised by the facility's head psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is out to prove that both individuals are suffering from delusions of grandeur and actually do not possess superpowers like comic book heroes and villains.

And what of the fragile boned yet feverishly agile minded comic book aficionado Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also incarcerated in the institution by Dr. Staple? Well, despite his seemingly lobotomized appearance, one can never count this particularly insidious mastermind down for the count, now can we?

As with all of M. Night Shyamalan's features, it is best to not divulge anything more than this basic plot description so as not to produce spoilers. While I am certain that many of you out there will not believe me and some of you may feel that I have gone out of my head, I'm telling you and I am sticking firmly by my assessment, as I sat and watched "Glass," I can honestly tell you that I was enormously entertained, engaged and even at times enthralled as Shyamalan again used his series, what is now being referred to as the "Eastrail #177 Trilogy," to inject vibrant new life into a film genre that desperately needs a fresher, and decidedly more unique perspective.  

It has indeed been a long and strange journey from "Unbreakable" and "Split" to "Glass" regarding the cinematic landscape that surrounds all three films and in a way, "Glass" faces more than a bit of an uphill battle and not just from Shyamalan's hungry critics. Back in 2000, the superhero genre in film was essentially non-existent, or better yet, it was nothing approaching the box office behemoths those sorts of films receive today.

In true Shyamalan fashion, "Unbreakable" made my jaw hit the ground so powerfully in that film's final moments when he pulled back the curtain to reveal that what we had been watching, in addition to a moody, meandering, existential thriller was indeed a comic book superhero origin story, an odd conceit at that time. Yet now with "Glass," you are unable to throw a pebble and not hit 20 superhero themed movies and television programs, therefore any sense of novelty has been erased, threatening to make Shyamalan's film just another one in the more than overstuffed pack.

I have spent considerable time and energy over the years bemoaning the sheer amount of superhero themed material that has been, and is continuing to be, released in our theaters currently and I will spare you the rants once again. But I do bring it up for a specific reason in comparison with what I experienced with "Glass."  What truly set M. Night Shyamalan's film miles apart from so many other in this specific genre is a singular point of view, which would then make for a wholly unique film experience, regardless if there were zero comic book themed film playing in our multiplexes or if there were 100.

For what we are seeing within the genre itself is a relative sameness that has now become as predictable as the sun rising each morning. By now, we understand how these films work, what they do, how they operate and what differentiates them is a matter of quality, so to speak. Not everything is able to be what Christopher Nolan accomplished with his "Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012), but, make no mistake, we are all receiving a brand that is dictated by certain qualities and aesthetics that are inherent to the genre, thus ensuring their continued financial success.

Yet, from a filmmaking standpoint, these sorts of films do indeed carry a certain directorial anonymity. Even the Marvel Comics films, as good as they are, are essentially anonymous works. Really, aside from Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" (2018), can you really speak of the artistic differences between say Kenneth Branagh's "Thor" (2011), Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015) and  Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" (2016) and Jon Watts' "Spider-Man:  Homecoming" (2017)? No shade intended for any of those movies but I am expressing this thought to establish that the Marvel films have established a brand that dictates a particular lack of individualized artistic personality.

With "Glass" on the other hand, we are firmly placed into M. Night Shyamalan's cinematic universe and no one else's and he is representing no one other than himself, therefore automatically setting him and his film completely apart from all other films in the genre while also celebrating and often deconstructing and re-building the genre simultaneously. Working brilliantly alongside Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Composer West Dylan Thordson and his entire set design crew, Shyamalan has ensured that his film looks and honestly, sounds unlike any other film within the genre as he utilizes his trademark slow burn, dialogue heavy style to grand effect, keeping us all intensely focused and increasing unhinged due to the mounting, menacing developments within the story and characters.

Just regard how Shyamalan frames his action, never once falling into the ADD editing styles and CGI bombast that are now pre-requisites of the genre. He explicitly knows precisely what to reveal and when, just what should be left within the frame and what should be left out. Seemingly simple movement make for grand effects throughout "Glass" and I so appreciated the visual skill on display. To that end, I loved how color was used throughout the film as certain colors represented certain characters in a truly lush comic book fashion.

But all of those aesthetic touches would mean nothing without a story and I felt that Shyamalan was working in peak form with "Glass," allowing the film to serve as its own entity while also wrapping up a film trilogy is high style. As the titular Mr. Glass, Samuel L. Jackson is obviously having a delicious time portraying his evil genius, making him a figure to be feared as well as one to empathize with as his horrific actions speak to his existential crisis of discovering and living up to what he believes to be his life's purpose. Sometimes, there is nothing more joyous than seeing and hearing Samuel L. Jackson tear into a luxurious monologue and Shyamalan has not let him down by supplying him with several that flow as musically as ever. 

Sarah Paulson struck a commanding yet deeply eerie presence as Dr. Staple, a figure who takes hold of the films lengthy mid-section as she attempts to convince all three figures that they are not who or what they each believe themselves to be. So focused Paulson is, again mastering Shyamalan's massive dialogue to the point where she was nearly convincing me that I had not seen what I know I had seen over the previous two films.

But James McAvoy, as with "Split," is a veritable hurricane to regard. Obviously thrilled with being completely let off of the chain as he tackles a whopping 24 personalities, McAvoy remains so beautifully in control of his acting powers, never losing focus and exploring his wonderful physicality throughout, making his body appear to magically shrink and even grow in size to complement the characters of the never aging 9 year old boy, the prim and proper older woman or the full horrifyingly ravenous force of the Beast.

Even Shyamalan seems to be gleefully rubbing his hands with his good fortune in casting James McAvoy as he has designed a couple of mesmerizing sequences that display McAvoy altering personalities in real time from one to the next, sometimes in a rapid succession. And every single time, McAvoy's transformations are complete, ensuring that we, in the audience, are seeing and fully understanding which persona poor Kevin has been possessed by. James McAvoy is absolutely...ahem...marvelous.

And finally, I loved how self-aware "Glass" happened to be, serving up a comic book story all the while knowing that it is a comic book story. For some, it may read as yet another example of M. Night Shyamalan's perceived rampant ego but for me, it was just good old fashioned storytelling at work. Storytelling that enveloped me and made me hungry to know what was coming next and how all three films connected explicitly, a quality I felt Shyamalan served to strong effect.

I know. I know. I am certain that many of you will remain unconvinced regardless of my words and may not even try to see this film. Or you may go anyway and hate it upon principle. I do understand that. Believe me, I think that Michael Bay, for instance is the death of cinema itself. But that being said, I am willing to give him a chance and give praise should I feel that anything he devised spoke to me positively.

So, I just ask the same of you regarding M. Night Shyamalan's "Glass,"  a riveting dark dream of a comic book tale presented in full, unapologetic, unrepentantly personalized style and substance.

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