James McAvoy gives a remarkable multi-personality performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s tightest horror/thriller movie in years.

In “Split,” James McAvoy embodies seven different personalities within one character, he develops new mannerisms and accents for each one of them, and he even flails wildly in a possessed, near perverse dance to a Madonna song. He’s acting a lot.

But in one scene of talking to his therapist, M. Night Shyamalan drills in tight on McAvoy’s calm face and the miniscule, wavering expression in his gaze. You look into his eyes and you see fear and a whole different person trying to get out.

In “Split,” Shyamalan’s horror premise of a man who suffers from experiencing multiple personalities, 23 in all, may be a gimmick, but McAvoy’s performance isn’t. There are a few costume changes, and he makes a big swing between accents, but McAvoy never has to spaz out, and Shyamalan never has to cut for McAvoy to suggest the fascinating, dangerous tug of war going on inside his head.

In fact the mad nature of McAvoy’s character’s disorder subsumes Shyamalan’s typical need to tantalize us with a big twist. Shyamalan has gone nuts with style and psychological parables, but “Split” brings the director back to fundamental genre roots of the horror/thriller. Continue reading “Split”

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men are a treasure trove of possibilities. Any superpower you wish you had, one of them has it, thus their immense popularity and enduring capability of this franchise. “X-Men: First Class” is the fifth installment, and fans of the films are very familiar with the names, histories and mutations of every one of them to the point that even Charles Darwin would lose track. So I would expect no less from Marvel than to exploit every miniscule detail as a way of reminding us how respectful they are of their fans and their millions of dollars in revenue.

“X-Men: First Class” is a carefully constructed film that takes no chances in contradicting the franchise that has carried it to this point. If there is a character, mutation, plot point, building, vehicle or costume that was not completely explained in the original three films or the Wolverine prequel, it is here. It is Marvel’s way of ensuring there will be at least a sixth installment, and God knows how many more.

The difference is that director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) is given mild liberties to not take these details strictly seriously. For instance, it has long been a question of why in Bryan Singer’s two films we see little of the classic costume designs the way Stan Lee drew them in the original comic book series. Surely Vaughn is forced to answer the reason behind Lee’s kitschy ‘60s style, but he’s allowed to do so by making his film a psychedelic period piece. Set pieces, dialogue and women’s clothing choices are rightfully emblematic of a comic series that began as campy fun, and split screen montages are goofy departures from a film otherwise focused on the dourness in the Holocaust and Cuban Missile Crisis. Continue reading “X-Men: First Class”

The Last King of Scotland

When a leader commands as much conviction in his voice as Forest Whitaker does as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” you don’t ask why the man thinks or acts the way he does; you just go along with the ride.

Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Peter Morgan are more than happy to take us on this historical journey through 1970s Uganda, when Ugandan President and army general Idi Amin ruled the country with an iron fist. We see the events unfold through the eyes of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a stifled young man from Scotland looking to escape into the world and do some good.

It does seem to be a trend in historical biopics like these to view the most interesting character, in this case, Amin, from the outside and not as the protagonist. And although we get a richly complex character in Amin, the main story is about a boy who was once sheltered at home and was then ironically sheltered in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Continue reading “The Last King of Scotland”

The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” poses questions of American values in a time of uncertainty for our country. It conveniently even applies to the recent death of Osama bin Laden, pondering if an unprecedented villain is entitled to his human rights. But could the reiteration of those values appear any more trite than they are here?

Through some extensive and deep research by his screenwriter James Solomon, Redford re-enacts the time following President Lincoln’s assassination through the eyes of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a captain for the Union Army in the Civil War and now a lawyer working for the Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). His job is to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a keeper of a boarding house charged with sheltering, aiding and conspiring in the murder of President Lincoln with John Wilkes Booth.

Aiken is nearly certain of her guilt, as is the rest of the country looking for answers and revenge, but Johnson convinces him that the Constitution entitles her to the same fair trial as anyone else, and the trial made up of a jury of Northern war officers and a biased Attorney General is not it.

This becomes more than clear as it does in almost all courtroom dramas. A judge is always bitter and unfair, the prosecutor is always ruthless and smarmy, the surprise witnesses are always unpredictable bombshells and the pitiful client will always sit silently and stoically until the climactic moment when an outburst in the courtroom threatens to place them in contempt.

I grew tired of “The Conspirator’s” drawn out portrayal of yet another courtroom drama with hints of conflicting American values not so subtly poking their heads into the proceedings. Continue reading “The Conspirator”