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A Split decision for Shyamalan’s latest

A Split decision for Shyamalan’s latest

Split

**

Even though it overstays its welcome, Split is easily M. Night Shyamalan’s best films in a long while – certainly better than The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013) and The Visit (2015) … and need we go back to The Village (2001) or Lady in the Water (2004)?

Indeed, had the writer/producer/director condensed his basic central idea (a good one) and not over-indulged himself, particularly in terms of a repetitious script that reiterates said central idea ad nauseum, Split might have been his best film ever.

The set-up is simple but effective: Three teen-aged girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are kidnapped and imprisoned by Kevin (James McAvoy), a schizophrenic with multiple personalities (23 and counting). One of Shyamalan’s patented twists is the ultimate revelation of precisely where Kevin is holding them captive.

The three girls exhibit varying degrees of panic and pluck, with only Casey (Taylor-Joy) making any serious attempt to communicate with any of Kevin’s various personalities, which emerge suddenly and without warning. There’s Patricia and Dennis, Barry and Hedwig, Orwell and, most ominously, “The Beast.”

McAvoy has a field day in his role(s), changing voice and demeanor, running the gamut from fearful to ferocious to frightening – and back again. The actor, earning something of a reputation in the genre (after the X-Men prequels and 2015’s Victor Frankenstein), is a whirling dervish and a wicked delight. It’s his tour-de-force performance that stands out, and imbues Split with considerable energy.

Betty Buckley enjoys her biggest screen role in some time as Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher, whose compassion far outweighs her common sense. It is the good (if incautious) doctor’s opinion that Kevin’s condition represents a leap in human evolution.

That’s all well and good, but Shyamalan (who does his usual cameo scene) has her reiterate this assessment so frequently that it slows the film’s momentum and dampens its suspense – although he does provide a fun kicker at the fade-out.

Scorsese stumbles with Silence

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Like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Gangs of New York (2002), filmmaker Martin Scorsese has long pursued a dream of bringing Shusaku Endo’s novel 1966 Silence to the big screen, and it’s easy to see why given its themes of faith, redemption, and endurance.

Yet this somber and ponderously slow-moving epic marks a major disappointment from one of the great American filmmakers. It occasionally recalls Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1987) or Joseph Conrad’s original novella Hearts of Darkness, but Silence remains moribund throughout, and all the sincerity that Scorsese can muster can’t bring it to life.

Set in 1640, the story focuses on Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), two young Jesuit priests who set off for Japan to locate their mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced his faith. These are troubled times in Japan, where Christianity is outlawed and punishable by death.

The two priests are something of a clerical equivalent of “good cop/bad cop” – Sebastiao is hopeful, Francisco is cynical. Garfield and Driver are appropriately earnest in their roles, with Garfield’s narration designed, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to pick up the slack.

With his beard and bearing, Garfield is clearly meant to represent Christ, which Scorsese underscores (none too subtly) by having Sebastiao see a hallucination of Jesus’ face in his reflection in a pond. Later still, he will hear Jesus’ voice – a device that simply does not work.

When Sebastiao and Francisco part company, ostensibly to avoid persecution, Sebastiao is nevertheless captured and forced to watch Christian converts tortured, drowned and beheaded in scenes that go on forever.

The film does offer an interesting historical insight into Japanese culture at that time, but its long-winded debates about faith and leaden pacing drain the story of its emotion until there’s none left. Driver’s reappearance in the narrative, which should be a sequence of immense power, seems almost an afterthought, and when Neeson is reintroduced he looks much younger than he did at the beginning. (The role also bears a strange, surely unintentional similarity to Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins).

At least the film looks terrific, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who earned the film’s only Oscar nomination) and costume/production designer Dante Ferretti recapturing a time and a place long gone. But in the end, Silence is more wearying than enlightening. Even great directors miss the target sometimes.

Politics and pursuit in Larrain’s Neruda                                           

***

Not unlike his recent film Jackie, Pablo Narrain’s Neruda combines historical fact with speculation. Neruda, however, is more exaggerated in style and tone and narrative ironies. The sense of satire and whimsy are much more pronounced here, and it succeeds on its own terms.

The principal character, as the title implies, is the Nobel Prize-winning poet and Communist politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), whose condemnation of Chilean president Videla (Alfredo Castro) has made him a fugitive in his own country, spurring dissent and protest among his followers and fellow Communists, the likes of whom include Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutierrez Caba).

Gnecco creates a memorable portrait of the artist, who views the oppression and corruption in Chile with a weary, wry resignation, even as he tries to remain one step ahead of the authorities – in particular the dogged, fedora-clad inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal). Despite being a wanted man and a symbol of oppressed freedom, Gnecco’s Naruda spends as much time frequenting whorehouses as putting his passions to paper.

Bernal provides caustic, cynical narration right out of film noir as the stalwart, incorruptible flatfoot, who seems blithely unaware that he is a pawn in the machinations of a corrupt system. This is amusingly symbolized in scenes where he confronts those in power, who invariably tower over him. In the end, he too will be betrayed and discarded – and, indeed, his very existence will come into question.

(In Spanish with English subtitles)

Neruda opens Friday

   Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2017, Mark Burger

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