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Friday, January 18, 2019

Glass

GLASS

** SPOILERS **

M. Night Shyamalan's compelling, confounding, and idiosyncratic Glass is like looking at an elegant chandelier. We marvel at its construction, the way it captures light and color, the reflection of ourselves we see in its crystal, the audacity of its design, and then the chandelier falls on top of our heads. Elegant.

Glass is, of course, the sequel to Unbreakable and Split 19 years in the making. A lot has changed since Night, then a wunderkind at the peak of his powers, dazzled us with his comic book-inspired origin story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), an ordinary man who discovers he's superhuman. Unbreakable was released in 2000, at a time when superhero movies had just experienced the start of an unprecedented boom that began with Bryan Singer's X-Men, which had arrived just months before. Two decades later, in an age where there have been dozens of superhero movies that cost hundreds of millions and have grossed billions of dollars, Night returns to the genre with Glass, a superhero movie that has no budget to be a superhero movie but goes for it anyway. One of Night's most obvious tricks is the way he repeatedly telegraphs a climactic showdown at Osaka Tower, the newly-built tallest building in Philadelphia, but the hero and villains never make it there - it's not in the budget! 

In Glass, the older and greyer David Dunn has become a local legend, a superhero vigilante called the Overseer (also called the Tip-Toe Man and the Green Guard). David is on the hunt for Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), also known as the Horde, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and manifested 23 distinct personalities that serve the 24th, the superhuman, animalistic Beast. Now a widower after his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) died of leukemia five years prior, David runs a home security firm with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) but he has no clients, which conveniently lets him walk the streets of Philadelphia looking for the Horde. Joseph is David's Man in the Chair and he still adoringly worships his super dad. Meanwhile, the Horde is up to his old tricks, kidnapping teenage girls to feed to the Beast. David and Joseph's strategy is to walk around Philadelphia hoping David runs into the Horde and sure enough, he does! That was easy! After a super-tussle filmed with a bizarre crosscutting of first-person POV and wide angle shots of two men shoving each other into walls and through a window, David and the Horde are captured by the police and remanded to the care of psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson).

The rest of Glass takes place almost entirely in the gloomy, foreboding Raven Hill Memorial Hospital (is Hannibal Lecter in the basement?), which is now outfitted with multiple cameras and elaborate traps to hold three captives who, according to Dr. Staple, suffer from the delusion of grandeur that they are superheroes. Staple (that is to say Night) telegraphs a climactic twist when she says "they" gave her three days to convince David, Kevin, and the third inmate, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the mastermind who helped create David and has been imprisoned ever since, that it's all in their heads. David's cell is built to spray him with gallons of water if he gets out of line; water is his weakness, but whereas before in Unbreakable, it was inferred that David was susceptible to drowning because of the density of his unbreakable bones and skin, now, apparently even a cold shower renders David powerless. Meanwhile, Kevin's cell is built with strobe lights that force him to instantly switch among his 24 personalities. Each time Kevin goes for the door, the lights force him back, and none of his 24 personalities ever think to just close his eyes. Meanwhile, Elijah keeps appearing out of his cell despite the hospital keeping him heavily sedated.

The kindly but mysterious Dr. Staple tries to convince David, Elijah, and Kevin that the only thing special about them is how crazy they are and she starts to get through to the Overseer and the Horde. As they begin to doubt themselves, each inmate has their particular True Believer visit them at the hospital: David has Joseph, Elijah has his mother Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), and Kevin has Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl he abducted in Split but the Beast let go because, as children who suffered abuse at the hands of a parent, they are kindred spirits. To better understand Kevin, Casey gives herself a comic book 101 crash course while Dr. Staple rails against comic books and the fanboys at Comic-Con in a bizarre rant that comes out of left field, but it sets up an overall statement about the genre that Night seems to be building to.

Eventually, Elijah plays his hand: he wants the bad guys, Mr. Glass and the Beast, to team up and blow up Osaka Tower. Naturally, David has to free himself and stop them and it culminates with an epic super brawl at Osaka Tower a weirdly staged super tussle in the hospital parking lot. David fights the Beast but there's plenty of time for asides with all of the major players as the Big Reveal is dropped, which shocking to anyone who didn't figure it out already: Kevin's dad was in the same train crash that David was in back in 2000, ergo Mr. Glass created Kevin Crumb's super-villain at the same time he created David Dunn the superhero. And then, just as that sinks in, all three super people are dead in horrible fashion! A SWAT Team drowns David in a puddle, shoot Kevin in the stomach, and Mr. Glass dies from his wounds when the Beast mauls him. 

As all three die in the arms of their True Believers, Night drops his Real Trademark Climactic Twist: the "they" Dr. Staple referred to earlier is a secret society that has existed for 10,000 years who have suppressed and eliminated superhumans as they've emerged into the world. This unnamed cabal has black cloverleaf tattoos on their wrists and likes to dine at a particularly fancy restaurant. Then, Dr. Staple learns Elijah's Twist: he was never planning on blowing up Osaka Tower (it's just not in the budget); the Mastermind wanted Ravin Hill's hundreds of cameras to record the fight between David and the Beast so the True Believers could remotely upload the footage to everyone's TV and phones. The point was for people to see for themselves that superhuman people exist.

So what's Night going for here? Seems to me he has a couple of Big Ideas. One, Elijah, who believed in comic book superheroes being real his whole life and was dismissed as crazy for two decades, wanted the world to see what he knows is real. Whether or not the world believes the footage isn't the point, it's about Mr. Glass' line that "we allow ourselves to be superheroes" - i.e. it's the other people in the world who believe that they are special but deny it who Elijah is trying to reach, so that they see there are others in the world like them and that it might spark their own emergence. "It was always an origin story," Elijah declares with his dying breath. If Unbreakable was David's origin story, Glass is the origin story of a bigger universe of superheroes. (A universe that we may never see any more of.)

The second Big Idea Night seems to be going for is a statement about shared superhero movie universes themselves. Glass is so weirdly shot and staged where the cinematography robs both David and Kevin of the moody atmosphere that was so effective and important to the tones of Unbreakable and Split. While using colors to differentiate the characters and their moods, with the muted pink room symbolizing Kevin and David's doubts about themselves, Night seems to be saying that taking these heroes and villains out of their universes that were expressly designed for them and putting them together is in itself drab and robs them of their atmosphere, which was part of their effectiveness. For instance, look no further than how the shadowy universe of Batman had to be cartooned up so the Dark Knight could fit in Justice League, which diluted Batman and turned him into a mere action figure playing with other action figures. The sheer weirdness of Glass is like Night saying a shared superhero universe doesn't always benefit the superheroes themselves, hence the fearsome Beast becomes about as scary as the Hulk is when he's hanging out with the Avengers. (It also hurts when you don't have a competitive budget.)

So, Glass is weird, and awkward, and frustrating, but also compelling, brave, and fascinating. McAvoy goes for broke, jumping back and forth between a couple of dozen personalities at the drop of a hat while still making each one feel distinct. Once he's allowed to stop Faking It Buster Bluth-style and lets loose, Jackson relishes playing Mr. Glass again. The odd one out is poor Bruce Willis, who has little to do except wait around to fight and die, in that order. David just fades into the background and has the thankless job of being the stoic good guy. Compared to his flashy villains, Night was interested in David Dunn the least and ultimately, Glass is an ignoble ending for our Unbreakable superhero. Paulson is terrific as Staple, keeping her cards close to the vest the whole film, and there isn't nearly enough of the magnetic Taylor-Joy, who steals every scene she's in, especially with McAvoy. A film whose plot points are fueled by coincidence and contrivance, Glass is very much like the heretofore mentioned chandelier that eventually falls on your head, but what a way to go.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Escape Room

ESCAPE ROOM

** SPOILERS **

Maybe a dozen years ago, I did an Escape Room with my friends on my birthday. It was Egyptian pyramid-themed and it took us about an hour to beat the game. That experience worked out a lot better for us than Escape Room does for the unwitting victims in director Adam Robitel's tight and well-made film, where six strangers are picked to go into an Escape Room and have their lives taped to find out what happens when Escape Rooms stop acting polite and start getting real. 

Escape Room kicks off a little like The Breakfast Club: a half-dozen random people accept personalized invitations to show up at a Chicago skyscraper on Thanksgiving Day. They are shy physics student Zoey (Netflix's Lost in Space's Taylor Russell), supermarket stock boy Ben (Logan Miller), ex-soldier Amanda (Daredevil's Deborah Ann Woll), affable trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), video game nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), and cocksure stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis). The six appear to have nothing in common - something Jason is keen to point out with smart ass comments to establish his alpha-male status - except the desire to win the promised $10,000 prize (Jason doesn't care about the money; he's attending as a courtesy to his billionaire client). Danny claims to be a veteran of multiple escape rooms and he's eager to provide the necessary exposition to the other players and the audience - no surprise then that he's the first to die when the game turns very real.

The skyscraper owned by Minos Escape Rooms, world-renowned for the finest escape room experiences, turns out to be a labyrinth: the waiting room is actually the first room of the game that transforms into a giant convection oven. The rest of the rooms are as follows: a winter hunting lodge, a frozen lake, an upside-down pool hall (the most visually striking and clever room), a hospital triage center, an Alice in Wonderland-like room of optical illusions, and a well-appointed study where the walls close in to crush you like the trash compactor on the Death Star. Each room feels eerily familiar to each contestant as they gradually realize Minos mined their past to make the death traps distinctly personal. Essentially, they're unwittingly in a Hunger Games scenario where only one is meant to survive and the victims are being watched, not just by Minos, but by Minos' unseen clientele of billionaire backers who finance this twisted form of private entertainment.

The secret of why these particular six people were invited in the first place is revealed: they are all sole survivors of tragic accidents. This, and more, is explained to Ben, the unlikely winner, by the Gamesmaster (Yorick van Wageningen). If the Gamesmaster looks and sounds creepily familiar, it's because he's the same guy who raped and tortured Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Yet despite what a scumbag the Gamesmaster clearly is, he finds out he works for even bigger scumbags. The Minos corporation immediately places him in the game to murder Ben Corleone-style but Zoey suddenly reappears; she's perfectly alive and toting a gun. Zoey realized that the omnipresent cameras were Minos' greatest advantage and by applying the Quantum Zeno effect (physics is useful, kids!) - which basically means atoms being watched can't change - Zoey smashed their cameras and faked her own death. Essentially, Zoey cheated the game and she's as clever as James T. Kirk beating the Kobayashi Maru. Together, Ben and Zoey murder the Gamesmaster and win the game - but no money (womp womp). 

Later, when Zoey brings the police, they find the building is nothing but an empty shell with a graffitti anagram left for Zoey: NO WAY OUT, an anagram for WOOTAN YU, the name they thought belonged the Gamesmaster. Zoey takes this as a personal challenge to take on Minos and she even figures out their corporate logo secretly contains coordinates to their New York City headquarters (now, why would Minos hide their address in their logo??). Six months later, after learning Minos staged 'accidents' to explain the deaths of Mike, Danny, Jason, and Amanda, Zoey and Ben vow to go to NYC and bring down the mysterious Minos corporation - but little do they know they're back in a new game where Minos has their flight information and already plots to turn their airplane into a new Escape Room for them (womp womp).

Escape Room is efficiently staged, sufficiently clever, and showcases fully-gung-ho performances from the cast. The film pulls off a neat trick where, like the characters, we meet a group of people we're not sure we're even gonna like, but thanks to solid writing, the committed performances of the cast, and the extreme nature of their ordeal, we end up rooting for them for them to survive the game. Minos Escape Rooms, however, is as absurd as the Delos Corporation is in Westworld. Apparently Minos is a (possibly ancient) global conglomerate that stages elaborate and expensive death traps to kill people and employs a team of workers whose job is to clean up the evidence and get rid of the corpses as well as research the lives of the next batch of people to kill - this is some business model! No doubt if Zoey and Ben even make it to New York City, they'll find the Minos building is also a giant Escape Room. Why, all the world's an Escape Room, and the men and women are merely players (who never get the money - womp womp).

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