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Glass, Shoplifters and Mad Fraternities in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Glass, Shoplifters and Mad Fraternities in TheatersPhoto still from "Shoplifters," via IMDb.
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M. Night Shyamalan brings his comic book trilogy to a close in every conceivable theater in Columbus. Meanwhile, over at the Wex the likely Oscar contender for best foreign language film rolls, while Gateway showcases the adverse effects (what?!!) of hazing.

Glass

by George Wolf

M. Night Shyamalan has been grappling with expectations for nearly 20 years. They were high when he was blowing our minds with twist endings, but the craving for another Sixth Sense experience led its follow up, Unbreakable, to be wrongly labeled as a step down.

After years of diminished returns led to zero expectations for a Shyamalan project, Unbreakable began to get its due in retrospect, a hand the writer/director played perfectly with the riveting Split three years ago. That film stood tall on its own, but when the drop-the-mic final scene revealed it as an Unbreakable sequel all along, expectations for the next round went skyward pretty damn fast.

Or was that just me?

I know it wasn’t, and while Glass caps the trilogy with a dive into comic book lore that is completely fascinating to watch unfold, it lands with a strangely unsatisfying thud.

Split left us with The Beast — the most dangerous of Kevin Crumb’s (James McAvoy) “horde” of personalities — on the loose in Philly. Glass begins with David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has spent the years since Unbreakable running a security firm with this son (Spencer Treat Clark in a nice return) and walking the streets as a mysterious vigilante hero dubbed “The Overseer,” tracking him down.

Their standoff leads to an early burst of crowd-pleasing action, and a trip to the psych ward for both Crumb and Dunn — the very same hospital where Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has been serving his life sentence.

Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) arrives to define the film’s central conflict, telling them all that superpowers are only for comic books, and everything remarkable about their lives can be deconstructed and explained, much like a magic trick.

Shyamalan’s feel for pace and sequencing is fine here, as is his changing color saturation when superhero themes gain strength. The film’s first two acts build a compelling arc on the fragility of human potential set against the ambitious premise of comic books as real life.

As Crumb and his 23 identities, McAvoy is completely mesmerizing once again, able to move freely between contrasting personalities with such incredible precision the understated performances around him seem only right.

Willis’s default setting of steely glares serves him well as the reluctant savior; Jackson gives his scheming mastermind the right mix of brilliance and condescension; and Paulson wraps Dr. Staple in a fitting air of mystery from her first introduction.

It is only Anya Taylor-Joy, returning as Casey “the girl The Beast let go,” whose talent seems ill-placed. While Casey is seemingly there as a reminder of Crumb’s humanity, the frequent tight closeups on Taylor-Joy’s comic book ready eyes become a heavy handed blur to the message.

But with Split putting Shyamalan firmly back in his groove, expectations for an unforgettable end to the trilogy create a uniquely painted corner. Potent storytelling gives way to declarations that ring of self-serving defenses of the filmmaker’s own work, while more obvious foreshadowing overtakes the nifty, hide-in-plain-sight subtlety.

Would Glass have worked better if we hadn’t been standing around staring all this time? Probably. but Shyamalan got us here with skill, and he gets us out with a film that’s easy to respect, but hard to cheer for.

Grade: B-

Shoplifters

by George Wolf

“Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”

A softly nuanced testament to home being where the heart is (and the Palme d’or winner at Cannes), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters finds its considerable magic by letting small moments reveal big emotions.

On their way back from pilfering a few items at the local grocery, a Japanese father and son find a young girl named Yuri outside alone, shivering in the Tokyo chill.

They take Yuri home for the night, with a plan to help her return to her parents the next day. But Yuri endears herself to the extended family of small time crooks she’s introduced to, and as Yuri’s behavior points to a possibly abusive home life, it is decided that she should stay.

Writer/director Koreeda returns to the nature vs. nurture themes he has probed throughout his career, most notably in Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). What defines a family most: bloodlines or genuine love?

Yuri joins a house crowded with characters who may or may not be blood relatives. Slowly, we learn about their lives outside the home, and the part each plays in the network of cons and thefts that allow everyone to keep eating.

The cast is universally charming, and when Koreeda is content to ride the casually observational pace he introduces, Shoplifters works humanistic wonders with its sweet vignettes of love and mercy.

Doubts about the family business slowly creep into the house, though, and with them an unusually heavy weight is added to Koreeda’s hand. Interactions begin to carry pregnant dramatic pauses that only highlight the surprising obviousness of the dialog that follows.

The catch-22, of course, is that it is the subtle effectiveness of the film’s first two acts that makes the hurried nature of the final act seem more desperate than it actually is. Disturbed only momentarily, the spell cast by the memorable family in Shoplifters is still sturdy, and one not that easily broken.

Grade: A-

Pledge

by Hope Madden

How does one create a Patrick Bateman?

On its surface, Pledge may appear to be little more than a competently made fraternity horror in the tradition of Skulls. It is a cautionary tale about hazing taken to its sadistic (if likely logical) extreme.

But director Daniel Robbins’s latest horror show, from a tight script by co-star Zack Weiner, digs into issues bigger than tribe mentality. Pledge is not just about how far you’d go to belong. It asks about compliance, cowardice, and the cost and definition of success.

Weiner plays Alex. Alex is a college freshman and a nerd. He’s joined by buddies Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and Justin (Zachery Byrd), the three forming a trio of losers looking for acceptance. As the day of fraternity pledge party embarrassments wears on, a pretty girl shows up from nowhere and invites the buddies to a different kind of party.

Who can say “too good to be true”? Well, anybody who’s ever seen a movie, but Pledge has some surprises hiding behind those kegs.

The film’s first obvious strength is the cast. Each of the primary trio of actor delivers a believable outcast, and their chemistry feels fresh and honest enough that you never doubt their actions.

In fact, all the performances are quite solid — the good guys occasionally unlikeable, the bad guys sometimes teetering on sympathetic — and the writing is sharp.

Once Robbins has you rooting for his sad sack heroes, the film works well enough as a straightforward exercise in bloodlust and torture. And nasty ass soup.

But where Weiner’s savvy script and Robbins’s sly direction really excel is in digging into this predictable plot (see Hostel, American Werewolf in Paris and any number of other “hot chick invites doofus guys to a party at their own peril” subgenre) to find an ugly picture of American privilege.

Pledge is no masterpiece. It is, however, a tightly packaged, insightful and mean little flick.

Grade: B-

Also screening in Columbus:

Canal Street (PG13)

Dragon Ball Super: Brody (PG)

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