MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Jane Goldman

(based on the novel MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs)

Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie & Samuel L. Jackson

To be perfectly blunt, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is Tim Burton’s X-MEN. I’m far from the first person to say that and I know that this film is based on a popular series of dark-fantasy books. However, the comparison is definitely valid. Taken on its own merits, there are positive qualities in PECULIAR CHILDREN. However, lots of factors contribute to the film being merely okay as opposed to anything special or a return to oddball form for Burton. This is yet another young-adult adaptation that feels like set-up for a franchise with more interesting installments down the line.

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an angsty teen who’s recently lost his dementia-ridden grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) to unnatural causes. Abe would constantly wow kindergarten-aged Jake with tales of invisible children, monsters, and shapeshifters, but Jake outgrew those silly stories. In coping with his grandfather’s untimely death, Jake discovers there may be some truth to the old man’s stories. Jake soon finds himself immersed in a “time loop” with weird headmistress Alma Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Dark forces soon threaten Jake, Peregrine and the strange youngsters, putting bravery to the test and throwing Jake into a supernatural conflict that he’s just beginning to understand.

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The good news is that MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN isn’t on the same low quality that many other generic adolescent-aimed adaptations have been. This isn’t nearly as lame as something like DIVERGENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BEASTLY, TWILIGHT, etc. The slick cinematography, special effects (lots of cool CGI and impressive stop-motion) and sheer amount of creativity make PEREGRINE serviceable enough for older viewers and entertaining for younger viewers who might not be familiar with the books. Burton has occasional moments of great weirdness that feel like they belong in his earlier films. The second half is fun to watch as we see the X-Men, I mean the Peculiar Children, facing off against Lovecraftian monsters.

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Now for the negative, PECULIAR CHILDREN takes an entire hour to set up the basics of its plot and establish the supernatural world that Jake finds himself in. There have been plenty of fantasy adventures that introduced new story elements as the plot moved forward, but PEREGRINE seems to be deliberately taking its time to establish the universe for future films. There are so many rules, exposition-filled conversations, and explanations that it takes nearly 60 minutes to sit through these patience-testing plot developments. What’s even more frustrating is that apparently this film deviates significantly from the source material (according to a friend who has read the books), so this is a problem that lies squarely on the movie’s shoulders.

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As far as characters go, almost everybody seems to be defined by their powers. To bring up the aforementioned X-MEN comparison, there are mutants in that series who are defined by their powers, but there are also plenty of deep backstories and distinct personalities. The same cannot be said of MISS PEREGRINE as these kids are their peculiarities (a.k.a. powers). These supernatural abilities (or as Charles Xavier would call them “gifts”) serve as jokes, defense tools and excuses to further along the plot (e.g. one kid projects his dreams). Asa Butterfield has proven himself to be a talented performer in the past (HUGO, ENDER’S GAME) and seems to be have been handed a bland protagonist here. Jake feels like a character that we’ve seen a million times before and portrayed better.

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Terence Stamp is decent as Jake’s “delusional” grandfather, while Chris O’Dowd is entirely wasted as Jake’s concerned father. He’s understandably worried about his son’s mental health and we never get a concluding scene with his character. Eva Green is hollow as Miss Peregrine, serving almost no purpose other than guarding the children and explaining stuff to Jake (and the viewer). Samuel L. Jackson plays his most over-the-top villain since 2008’s THE SPIRIT as the eyeball-eating mad scientist Barron. It seems like Tim Burton (as so many other directors have) just let Jackson do his own thing in front of the camera. Sometimes this strategy works and other times (like in this film) it falls completely flat.

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Though MISS PEREGRINE definitely has problems, it should be mentioned that I don’t think this is a bad film. It’s just one of the lesser Burton efforts and seems overly familiar in a cinematic landscape that’s already become watered down with young adult adaptations in recent years. PECULIAR CHILDREN is just okay by both Burton standards, adolescent adaptation quality, and pure entertainment. I had fun watching the second half and was utterly bored by the poorly paced first hour. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to sitting through any future PECULIAR installments in a potential trilogy. However, it would be nice if franchise starters could hold up on their own merits as opposed to feeling like a feature-length commercial for future sequels that might not even happen.

Grade: C+

THE WOLVERINE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mark Bomback & Scott Frank

(based on the WOLVERINE comics by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rita Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi & Brian Tee

Wolverine is one of the biggest badasses in comic book history and is arguably the most popular character from the X-MEN franchise. It’s no wonder that studios seemed eager to give him his own big summer blockbuster with 2009’s X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE…which turned out to be a terrible film and was trashed by fans. In an effort to properly bring Wolverine to the big screen, 2013’s THE WOLVERINE attempted to right the wrongs of ORIGINS and served as a proper sequel to X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. Though it’s not the best X-MEN film by a long shot, THE WOLVERINE is a lot of fun!

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After killing the love of his life (see the events of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND), Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a rugged, cave-dwelling mountain man. Through a few twists of fate, Logan runs into katana-wielding bodyguard Yukio (Rita Fukushima). She’s been looking for Logan because he has been summoned to Tokyo by dying friend Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). However, there are suspicious motives behind the unexpected invitation. Logan soon finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy that includes: ninjas, yakuza, a highly dysfunctional family, and poisonous mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). To make matters even worse, something is seriously wrong with Logan’s healing abilities and he finds himself struggling with painful limitations.

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The major improvements that THE WOLVERINE makes over its prequel predecessor are smart writing, an intense mystery, and high stakes. The first two qualities come from Logan being thrust into the plot of a thriller that requires him to do some digging into Yashida’s highly dysfunctional family. The script also captures the trauma that Logan suffers from as a result of the Dark Phoenix hijinks in THE LAST STAND. Though there may be a bit too many of these nightmare sequences, it was a nice way to see this film attempt to repair some of the damage done by the third X-MEN.

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THE WOLVERINE also sees Logan facing weakness and potential death due to his sudden mysterious mortality. Though the film lays obvious groundwork early on and those with a careful eye will be able to correctly predict what is happening, it doesn’t make Wolverine’s struggle any less intense. Logan’s lack of healing abilities make the intense action more gripping to watch. Every bullet or hit he takes has an impact this time around, so he simply can’t take his usual approach rushing into the violent fray. This was a smart move on the part of the filmmaker and writers. It certainly helps that the action sequences are awesome anyway, with set pieces featuring ninjas, knife-wielding yakuza on the roof of a bullet train, and a giant silver samurai.

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Hugh Jackman jumps right back into his iconic role as Wolverine and seems to be doing the character just as well as ever. New additions (a mainly Japanese cast of supporting characters) range across the board. Rita Fukushima is a badass, receiving her time to shine in action scenes and well-placed comic relief. Hiroyuki Sanada and Brian Tee play their characters with all the subtlety of moustache-twirling villains, but this makes their eventual showdowns even more satisfying.

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Haruhiko Yamanouchi is mainly regulated to flashbacks, but gives a solid enough performance in his brief screen time. Tao Okamoto is good in her role as a girl on the run with Logan, but the romance between them feels forced. Finally, Viper (played by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova) is lame villainess. She’s basically X-MEN’s hammy equivalent of Poison Ivy and one of her powers is the ability to shed skin (through not very convincing CGI). Also, Khodchenkova chews the scenery and goes into clichéd villainess territory with her performance. I cannot fully describe how terrible Viper is, but she’s the second-worst antagonist that I’ve seen in the X-MEN series (the first being the mouthless bastardization of Deadpool in X-MEN ORIGINS).

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THE WOLVERINE is a far better Wolverine solo story than 2009’s lame X-MEN ORIGINS. Much of the positive qualities stem from a better script, better action scenes, high stakes, and better performances. This is a conspiracy-thriller that happens to have a clawed mutant as the main character. That concept is pretty neat by itself and when you throw in the idea of Wolverine losing his healing abilities, you’ve got yourself something special. The film stumbles in obvious foreshadowing, excessive dream sequences and a lame villainess. However, THE WOLVERINE’s positive qualities far outshine its problems. This is the fifth-best X-MEN film and the best WOLVERINE movie thus far (unless LOGAN tops it in two weeks).

Grade: B+

AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Material, Language and brief Violent Images

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Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Written by: John Romano

(based on the novel AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert & Molly Parker

Despite having a killer trailer, lots of pre-premiere hype and being based on an acclaimed novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL hasn’t been nominated for anything and wasn’t well-received by most critics. This might be because the film differs so much from its source material, but I’d argue that this depressing story cuts a little too close to home for many folks. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a heartbreaking tale that seems frighteningly relevant in our modern divisive times. We’ve seen people willingly abandon friends and family members for differing opinions, all while riots erupt in the streets and hateful rhetoric is spewed on both sides of the political spectrum. After one of the most toxic elections ever and in a currently crazy year, AMERICAN PASTORAL is powerful stuff.

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Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an aging author, attends his 40th high school reunion. Though he hopes to catch up on old times, Nathan is stoked to meet former friend Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor). However, Nathan is informed that Swede recently died and is then filled in on details of the man’s life. Swede was a guy who had everything ahead of him. He was a local football star and married his beauty queen sweetheart Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), they had a child named Merry, and then Swede’s life went to hell in a handbasket. When teenage Merry (Dakota Fanning) develops a penchant for radical protests and becomes the 60’s equivalent of an SJW, Swede finds his family ripping apart at the seams. This only worsens when a post office is bombed and a missing Merry becomes the prime suspect. As his relationships and life crumble around him, Swede desperately searches to find his vanished child.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and quite impressive for a first-time feature. The visuals are slick and McGregor captures the sense of this story’s shifting time period. I was whisked away to the 60’s and saw how little has really changed on the political spectrum over the years. That’s one big point that AMERICAN PASTORAL (the film version, anyway) seems to be making, along with many other possible interpretations of the heavy material. Ideas of materialism, perfection, and ideologies over people all have a place in this tragic drama. McGregor handles the material wonderfully on the big screen, though it should be noted that I have not read Roth’s novel and have no way of comparing it to the book.

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Pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera, McGregor steps into the role of Swede. This all-American guy is a devoted husband and a loving father, though the latter seems to outshine the former in his daily life. McGregor seems to be playing a darker version of his BIG FISH character…but we see this man’s life fall apart and some blame comes back directly onto his shoulders. Jennifer Connelly (who’s mostly hit-or-miss) does an excellent job as a grieving mother and emotionally damaged wife. The scenes of her breaking down feel realistic and tug at viewer’s heartstrings. She just wants her family to be together again, though she also struggles with her daughter from the get-go.

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Dakota Fanning is infuriatingly great as the stuttering SJW daughter Merry. Though she is off-screen for about half of the running time (possibly more), Fanning makes a strong impression on those around her and will likely have viewers frustrated in watching her interactions. Like many real-life SJWs, Merry’s conversations always have to come back to politics/social justice in one way or another. Another notable stand-out is Valorie Curry as a mysterious woman with ties to Merry. Curry’s performance actually had me angrily yelling at my TV screen at one point. She’s that good. Molly Parker is underused as a strange psychiatrist and seems like she should have been a more prominent character. Meanwhile, David Strathairn is phoning it in during his bookend moments, but his final voiceover monologue hits one universal point of the story home.

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PASTORAL encounters a few problems in its pacing and the latter half of the script. This movie is a combination of a tragic-drama and a missing person crime-thriller. It tries to do both of these things and succeeds at the former, while stumbling in the latter. One long conversation scene explains away mysteries and honestly, I feel that a “show me, don’t tell me” style would have worked far better for this story. What works on a page doesn’t always work on the screen. One scene that should have been deeply moving and powerful, instead seems rushed and like an anticlimactic revelation. Other than this disappointing scene and the opening/closing bookends, which serve a purpose and still seem jarring nonetheless, the script pretty much knocks it out of the park.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is a depressing, infuriating, and powerful film that tackles issues of family, relationships, toxic politics, and ideologies that harm more than they help. This movie doesn’t ever fully take sides on a political spectrum and I think that’s an admirable quality. Instead, it seems to hold up a cinematic mirror to the modern divisive state of America and says, “Nothing ever really changed.” AMERICAN PASTORAL is not necessarily a film that will be liked and it was never intended to be that. This emotional tragedy punched me right in the gut and I applaud it for taking on harsh truths. If AMERICAN PASTORAL sounds up your alley, then you’ll probably love this dark drama.

Grade: A-

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content and Images, Sexual Content including an Assault, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Written by: Justin Haythe

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Ashok Mandanna & Harry Groener

A CURE FOR WELLNESS was one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. The trailers promised a gruesome, macabre trip into a super freaky insane asylum. That alone was enough to sell me on seeing this film, but talented director Gore Verbinski and two solid actors seemed to further sweeten the deal. Unfortunately, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a mixed-bag of a horror-thriller. This film has its moments, but frequently undermines them with an epic-length running time and a scrambled script that simply doesn’t work.

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Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young business executive who’s been sent on an errand by higher-ups at his company. He must retrieve mentally unstable CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from a mysterious “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps or face dire legal consequences. The desperate Lockhart’s errand becomes a nightmare when it becomes clear that the strange spa is hiding dark secrets. After a car accident, Lockhart is committed as an unwilling patient into the wellness spa and begins to discover that he may not make it out alive. Hallucinations, nightmares, radical therapy techniques, creepy staff, strange secrets and lots of eels come out to play.

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Much like the plot’s setting, A CURE FOR WELLNESS appears to be a well-crafted horror-thriller purely from superficial qualities. The cinematography is magnificent and the soundtrack is appropriately spooky. A threatening atmosphere keeps a stranglehold on the viewer for the first 45 minutes and things soon give way into boredom. One of CURE’s biggest problems is its bloated running time. There have been fantastic epic-length horror movies in the past (THE SHINING is nearly three-hours-long and stands as one of the best horror films ever made), but CURE FOR WELLNESS is far from fantastic or even good. The film’s length eats away at its promising premise and has lots of dull spots where nothing much happens.

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That’s not to say that WELLNESS is free of disturbing set pieces because there are a handful of horrifying moments. A grisly scene of dental torture is downright cringe-inducing and an isolation tank treatment gone wrong is the film’s most intense sequence. There are enough eerie shots to compose numerous kick-ass trailers and scary TV spots that will sell people on seeing this film. However, these good bits are contained within a messy plot that jarringly switches tones during its final third (becoming a would-be fairy tale for no apparent reason) and revealing clues early on that seem way too obvious.

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A CURE FOR WELLNESS cannot decide whether it wants to be a scary-as-hell horror movie, a psychological head-trip or a supernatural drama. This uneven mix boils down to a bladder-testing story that constantly feels muddled and makes the viewer pray for something (anything) to happen. Unfortunately, when something happens in the second half it seems screwed up for all the wrong reasons. The film’s CGI is mostly well-done with two big exceptions. The eels (there are lots of them) look real in many situations, but a cartoonish deer pops up in the first third and there’s a terrible looking effect that is revealed in the silly climax. This is made all the more disappointing because Gore Verbinski was clearly utilizing a careful eye behind the camera in constructing cool visuals and (what he believed) to be a creepy horror flick.

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Dane DeHaan is good in moments as business-oriented Lockhart, but mostly seems like a bland protagonist. His so-so acting might be attributed to the film’s unbearably dull length and confused direction from Verbinski. Jason Isaacs (mostly known for playing Malfoy’s dad) is super creepy as the wellness center’s head doctor, but goes extremely over-the-top in the final act. Mia Goth makes a strong impression as a “special case” patient and I honestly cannot wait to see what she does in the upcoming SUSPIRIA remake. The staff members and other patients are appropriately creepy, but DeHaan’s character’s boardroom bosses are laughably over-the-top.

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I was sick for a terrifying asylum-based horror flick and A CURE FOR WELLNESS far from cured what ailed me. There are positive qualities in this movie. The first 45 minutes are well-done, the cinematography looks phenomenal, Mia Goth is a stand-out, and the film has a few great moments. However, these are mostly overshadowed by a ridiculously bloated running time, a script that doesn’t know what it wants to be, overly predictable clues laid out for the viewers in advance, and a ludicrous final act that leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. If you truly feel that you must see this film, then I’d advise you to wait for a rental or (better yet) an airing on TV. Otherwise, you’ll likely feel sick from spending valuable money and time on a disappointing horror flick that wasted great potential.

Grade: C

SPLIT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and some Language

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula & Brad William Henke

If nothing else, M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting filmmaker. He rose to fame with THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS. After those three hits, M. Night fell into a downward spiral with THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, and THE LAST AIRBENDER. In 2015, Shyamalan made an unexpected comeback with quirky found footage flick THE VISIT and was then green-lit for a mysterious horror-thriller called SPLIT. That film has finally reached theaters and it’s pleasantly surprising to say that Shyamalan is back with one of his best efforts to date. SPLIT is a twisted Hitchcockian thriller with lots of suspense, smart writing and one of the most amazing acting feats in quite some time.

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On the way home from a birthday party, teenage friends Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are suddenly abducted. Waking in a small cell-like room, the three captives discover that their kidnapper is the mentally unhinged Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has severe dissociative identity disorder to a degree where 23 personalities inhabit his body. It appears that the three girls have been captured for a very special (foreboding) purpose and the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to suspect that her patient might be doing something drastic…and a fearsome 24th personality begins to emerge.

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SPLIT feels like Shyamalan’s most mature, grown-up thriller to date. He treats the film’s PSYCHO-esque subject matter with attention to detail, genuine emotion/sympathy and never goes into any potentially exploitative areas. Walking into this movie, I was expecting to see 24 different personalities that the girls would have to contend with and each one would be crazy in some way. However, this film is much more restrained and clever than that. The script carefully unfolds in a way that, at first, seems disjointed and then digs its hooks into the viewer. Exposition isn’t thrown out in dialogue-heavy scenes, but is hinted at in sparse conversations and little details that become bigger over time.

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SPLIT is easily the darkest Shyamalan movie to date and keeps ramping up its intensity with each passing minute. The final third had me on the edge of my seat and the suspense is further elevated by masterfully atmospheric cinematography. The film’s visuals are gorgeous and the set design of Kevin’s lair is appropriately creepy. Flashbacks are used to flesh out the main character (of the three teenage captives) and these come to a head in a deeply disturbing, heartbreaking conclusion that I wasn’t expecting. Like I said, SPLIT is a smart, disturbing movie. The more I think about this film, the more I like it.

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As far as acting is concerned, Anya Joy-Taylor is proving herself to be a talented young regular in modern horror. I haven’t seen MORGAN yet, but her performance was solid in THE WITCH and she’s even better in this film as teenage loner Casey. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula perform well as the two other teenage captives and the script attempts to not portray them simply as victims. Coming off an embarrassingly bad performance in THE HAPPENING, Betty Buckley shines in her second Shyamalan outing as a sympathetic psychiatrist with radical theories about dissociative identity disorder.

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The big show-stealer is James McAvoy as Kevin, Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and a slew of other personalities that inhabit Kevin’s body. McAvoy is something to behold as he switches his mannerisms, character and voice at the drop of a dime. McAvoy’s multiple characters are threatening, entrancing and comical. You simply have to see his performance to believe it. There are scenes where multiple personalities appear at the same time and you can tell the exact moment when a new personality inhabits Kevin’s body. This “special effect” is purely made from McAvoy’s acting abilities is unnerving and amazing to look at. This is the best performance (or performances) of James McAvoy’s impressive career thus far.

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SPLIT isn’t free of minor flaws though. One flashback to Kevin’s childhood feels slightly out-of-place, a few lines of dialogue feel stilted, and the final minutes may arguably be too far-fetched. However, this film surprised the hell out of me. It’s easily Shyamalan’s second-best outing, next to THE SIXTH SENSE, and shows a remarkable growth for him as director/writer. If you want a thriller that’s gorgeous to look at, toys with the viewer’s expectations like a cat with a mouse, and has one of most memorable psychos in recent memory, then definitely check out SPLIT!

Grade: A