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Super Dark Times (2017)

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember growing up in the country and hanging out at a friend’s house in the middle of nowhere. When there were no parents around, he would play with some weapons in the house—act like we were soldiers/warriors or something like that. Other friends would often be there and get involved too. Nothing bad ever happened and we felt we were being careful. But when I saw Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” at this year’s annual Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival, it made me look back on those memories and consider myself (and my old friends) lucky that we didn’t get hurt doing some really stupid things.

“Super Dark Times” is a coming-of-age psychological drama about the aftermath of a deadly incident between a few high-school teens. It’s a film that reminded me a lot of “Mean Creek,” an independent film from 13 years ago about how actions & consequences can have a lasting impact on young people. Both films are effective in reminding their audiences how dangerous and scary teenage life can be.

Set in the mid-1990s, “Super Dark Times” centers on best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan); ordinary teens who engage in typical teen conversation, perform gross-out dares, and hang out with others who aren’t exactly their “buddies” but need other people to pass the time with. Two of them are a younger boy, Charlie (Sawyer Barth), and an obnoxious peer, Daryl (Max Talisman). The four find Josh’s older brother’s samurai sword and take it out to the woods to slice some milk cartons. But when Daryl’s harsh attitude leads to a confrontation, an accidental result of panic becomes fatal. Panicked even further, Zach, Josh, and Charlie feel they have no choice but to hide Daryl’s body and cover everything up.

Covering up the accident is easier said than done. While Charlie is relatively quiet about everything, Zach and Josh act differently from then on. Josh is having strange urges, mouthing off in class, and taking more risks such as stealing his brother’s weed and sharing it with peers. Zach gets much of the film’s attention as he attempts to make sure everything is OK, when it becomes clear that nothing about this is quite alright with him, as the guilt is starting to overtake him. Phillips does a very good job showing just how much this plight is affecting Zach, as he becomes more worried and paranoid, and even presenting a couple dream sequences for a more uncomfortable, nightmarish setting.

Things get even darker when it comes to how Josh is handling the aftereffects of what he’s done. And the less I say about that, the better…

The most heartbreaking scene in the film for me was when Zach’s secret crash, a classmate named Alison (Elizabeth Cappucino), is suddenly in Zach’s bedroom and makes a seductive advance towards him. This should be a happy moment, as Zach is realizing his feelings toward her are mutual and she’s IN HIS ROOM, but he can’t help but cry on her shoulder about the tragedy that unfolded. It’s a confusing time for him (a “super dark time,” if you will) and he feels nothing can be normal for him anymore. And he can’t tell anyone about what he’s feeling—not Alison, not his unsuspecting mother (Amy Hargreaves), not Charlie (who’d rather not talk about the incident), not even Josh (who copes with it his own way, alienating Zach). It’s a powerful moment.

“Super Dark Times” is more effective when it explores the theme of “loss of innocence” than when it delves deep into horror in the final act, as Josh’s mental state goes from questionable to dangerous. This is an unfortunate move on the part of writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, but thankfully, by that point, the central characterizations are strong enough (and the actors are solid too) that it doesn’t really damage the film. It’s a gripping film with a “super dark” viewpoint.

Nirvanna the Band the Show (Viceland Series)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m particularly fond of filmmaker Matt Johnson’s work. “The Dirties” is a film that has really grown on me with time (and repeated viewings), and I thoroughly enjoyed his film last year, “Operation Avalanche.” Johnson’s trademark style is “faux-documentary” done in guerilla fashion. (He goes in, he shoots a scene, he gets out, no matter who’s an actor or not—is it real or staged? He lets you decide.) This style of filmmaking suits him well with his new web series “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” made for Viceland.

“The Dirties” and “Operation Avalanche” are essentially dramatic feature films laced with comedic flavoring. But “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is straight-up comedic. In fact, I may just stop calling this “faux-documentary” and start calling it “mockumentary,” since that’s basically what this is. Nothing is to be taken seriously in the slightest, movie references that took up most of the dialogue for “The Dirties” are replaced with head-on lampoons of popular movies, and it’s easier to make the comparison to something like “Borat” with this series than it is to compare Johnson’s feature films to even a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

The basic premise of the 8-episode 22-minute-per-episode “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is about Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol (who both created the series and play “themselves”; another staple of Johnson’s work) as two Toronto musicians who desperately want to perform a gig at the Rivoli. That’s the groundwork for the entire series, which leads to all kinds of hijinks as Matt tries everything he can think of to get this one gig. This includes—sneaking an ad in a local newspaper, building their own Christmas parade float, sneaking a film into the Sundance Film Festival, and even taking a sick child from a hospital in order to befriend him and, in return, get him to wish to the Make-a-Wish Foundation to have Matt and Jay perform at the Rivoli. And if you think that’s strange, just wait until the final episode…

It’s all outrageous, completely ridiculous, and just flat-out funny all the way through from the first episode to the eighth. It’s a lot of fun to watch for many reasons, but one of the main ones, for me at least, was I kept wondering how Johnson was going to pull off each comedic set piece, only to be pleasantly surprised that he actually can. He pulled them off in ways I didn’t expect. And the best part—Johnson pulls them off with absolute effort, putting his all into everything he’s got.

As with Johnson’s previous works, he uses the documentary-style approach to improvise with a plot detail in mind. With lapel mikes and sometimes-hidden cameramen, he and Jay out to the streets of Toronto to act out the situations that need to be in the episode and mix them with natural reactions of unsuspecting bystanders who can’t believe what these two nuts are saying or doing. Some of these “bystanders” are actors in on it, but even if you know that, it’s still very funny to watch their reactions to all this.

Much of the comedy in the essentially-dramatic “The Dirties” came from Johnson’s character and how much of a movie buff he is, constantly making reference after reference to whatever movie he can think of (which led to the film’s best sight gag—the choice of fonts for the end credits, which I won’t give away here). For “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” Johnson takes that up a notch not by merely referencing the movies but paying pure homage to them. In the first episode, there are numerous allusions to “Jurassic Park” (including a very funny revelation as to why Samuel L. Jackson’s character is so calm—something I hadn’t even thought of before!). In another episode, which is Christmas-related, “Home Alone” is the subject of satire. In another episode, sitcoms are spoofed, with a drastic situation and a race to make things right again (and the opening credits are even done in the style of ‘80s sitcom “Growing Pains”—I almost died laughing at that part). In another episode, Matt is temporarily blind in an episode that began with opening credits that are remarkably similar to Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, and…well, you can probably guess what happens later. And so on.

Oh, and how is Matt blinded in this episode? He watches the “Star Wars” movies for the first time and is so captivated by them that he sits too close to the TV screen. That is hilariously unfortunate…as is what happens when he and Jay go to the premiere showing of “The Force Awakens.”

My favorite episode is the fifth, which takes place in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, where “Operation Avalanche” premiered. In this one, Matt makes a short film set in a high school and is quickly thrown out (why do I get the feeling this is how “The Dirties” was really made?), but he gets enough footage to sneak a film into Sundance and gain attention for it. (Oh, and the short film is called “Operation Avalanche.”) Johnson and co. used their Sundance opportunity to make an episode out of whatever they could, and I highly respect them for it.

It took some time for me to get used to Jay McCarrol (who composes music for Johnson’s works) as his comedic foil, because I’m so used to seeing Owen Williams in that role in the features. But he held his own well here, and it’s nice to see him on piano and scoring the scenes in the Nirvanna the Band studio as Matt is mentioning idea after idea—you can tell he has passion in his craft just as Johnson has passion in his as well.

I really enjoyed “Nirvanna the Band the Show” and it only furthered my admiration for Matt Johnson as a filmmaker. He’s not afraid to take chances or try new things with his style, and it turns out he’s very good at it. Once again, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Power Rangers (2017)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Recruit a team of teenagers with attitude!” You want teenagers with attitude? You’ll get them in this new version of “Power Rangers.”

I liked “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” as a kid. I had some of the Rangers’ action figures, I wore out the VHS tape of the 1995 feature-length spinoff from watching it so many times, and I even watched some of the spinoff TV series as well (“Wild Force,” “Ninja Storm,” “Galaxy”). But then something happened.

I grew up…but the Power Rangers didn’t grow up with me.

But it still stays with a lot of people who obviously didn’t outgrow it like I did (including Internet reviewer Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug, who has his own “History of the Power Rangers” web series). A good chunk of those people didn’t particularly care for the new direction the 2017 reboot of the franchise (simply titled “Power Rangers”) took upon hitting the big screen. This new direction was adding complexities, grit, and even “PG-13” to the fun and to the characters, whereas everything in the previous series and movies was consistently lighthearted and silly and “PG” (or “Practically G”).

And as strange as it may seem, even though I outgrew the Power Rangers franchise…I actually liked this movie.

It does have some major flaws, however. A majority of the dialogue isn’t particularly good, some of the jokes fall flat (especially one involving a cow early in the proceedings), there’s an inconsistency of tone (which I’ll get to later), and the climactic battle involves a McGuffin to be found at a Krispy Kreme. Just as “Happy Gilmore” had a lot of Subway and “Talladega Nights” had a lot of Applebee’s, the final act of “Power Rangers” practically belongs to Krispy Kreme. There’s even a scene in which the film grinds to a halt as the central antagonist enjoys a delicious donut.

But thankfully, the good elements of “Power Rangers” outweigh the bad. The story is surprisingly terrific; for a Power Rangers movie, having an impressive story is quite an accomplishment. It has its typical superhero origin story, with five teenagers discovering a buried, abandoned spaceship and some mystical stones that give them amazing abilities, but it also uses themes of friendship, leadership, and teamwork in ways that work surprisingly well. I was surprised by how much I was getting into a Power Rangers story!

Another reason for getting so invested in this Power Rangers story is a big one: all five of our young heroes are terrific! I don’t mean to merely say that the actors are appealing (which they certainly are). I mean this film about a team of superheroes manages to set each character up and develop them properly. They’re all different youngsters with different problems and one thing in common: each other. One kid, named Jason (played by Dacre Montgomery), is a former football jock which makes him qualified to be the leader of this group, but he also has to learn responsibility which is tough for any young man. Another, Kimberly (Naomi Scott), used to be a mean-girl type on campus, and her reason for losing her old friends is more complicated and surprisingly brutal, which teaches her to move forward. Another, Billy (RJ Cyler, from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), is an autistic victim of bullying whose brains help save the day. Another, Zack (Ludi Lin), is a loner who cares for his ill mother. And last but not least is Trini (Becky G), who feels uncomfortable in her own skin due to her struggles with her sexual orientation.

Yes, people. The Power Rangers are actually “teenagers with attitude” in this updated version, not like the squeaky-clean, perfect, bland teens in the series. Imagine that!

Moving past some inane lines of dialogue these young actors have to read from a script, these kids feel like real kids with real problems, which is a most pleasant surprise, especially for a Power Rangers movie. And they work great together, slowly warming up to one another after being strangers, training for combat, having to work together as a team, and finding that common element that will ultimately bind them as such. There’s a scene midway through the film in which they sit around a campfire and discuss their problems, and it’s the best scene in the film because it feels warm and genuine and even kind of deep. I would see a sequel to ‘Power Rangers” simply to see these characters again.

But wait, you might wonder, this doesn’t sound like a Power Rangers movie. Don’t worry, because there are still Power Rangers elements here. We have characters like the Rangers’ advisor Zordon (Bryan Cranston, slumming it as a face in a wall but never quite shows it), Zordon’s annoying robotic assistant Alpha (voiced by Bill Hader), and the Rangers’ ultimate archrival, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former Ranger who seeks to obtain a hidden stone (buried underneath a Krispy Kreme) and creates a giant golden monster to forcibly take it for her. And there are still the Zords, the Rangers’ heavily armored vehicles that can form as one if need be. And there’s still a big fight in the city between the Mega-Zord and a gigantic mutant beast. And yes, there’s still that awesome theme song from the original show that plays when the Rangers are finally headed for battle. But another problem with “Power Rangers” is kind of an odd one: it works best when it isn’t trying to be “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” It has kind of an inconsistent tone, especially when it comes to Rita, who is more silly than threatening. Banks is having a ton of fun with the role, but her scenes and the Rangers’ scenes have a distracting contrast. Alpha isn’t as annoying as he is in the show, but his comic-relief moments still come off as forced. But the scenes with Zordon work well (hey, every origin story needs a wise instructor). And even if the action is pushed aside to make room for a big bombastic final act, I didn’t mind…except that it might be a little late by that point. The film is two hours long, and most of the running time is devoted to character development that intense action seems a little out-of-place.

But then again, it is a “Power Rangers” movie, so…I dunno. Look, I liked the movie for reasons I didn’t expect to. That’s about all I can say about “Power Rangers” anymore. It’s fun, it’s well-acted, it’s even compelling at times. The action is there, the Power Rangers callbacks are there, and even some of the silliness is there; you just have to get through some solid character development…and resist the urge to get some donuts after viewing the film.

Sleight (2017)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Sleight,” directed and co-written by J.D. Dillard, is a film that tells the familiar dangers of urban society that we’ve seen in other films and even on the news, but in doing so, it inserts a fascinating element of trickery: the troubled young man caught up in trouble with gangs and drugs is masterful at illusion.

He’s a street magician, performing card tricks, floating quarters, and making swift motions. And he’s excellent at it. But being the sole provider for his younger sister requires more than spare change on the street for performing magic tricks. So, he’s a street performer by day and a drug dealer by night, making runs for a local crimerunner.

You expect things to go wrong for this 18-year-old kid, and they do. Soon, he, his sister, and his girlfriend are in danger, and he figures the best way to escape them is to face them. Predictable, yes, but the way “Sleight” goes about bringing this story to life is intriguing, particularly it comes to how the kid is able to perform these tricks and what he must do to get out of this mess.

An engaging lead helps a lot too. Jacob Latimore stars as the kid, named Bo, and his performance is nothing short of brilliant. He forces you to feel his plight (see what I did there?) and understand what he does and why he has to do it to survive. Even when things are at their most deadly, in a particularly tense scene in the middle, you see him balance the fear he feels with trying to keep a game face in front of people who will otherwise kill him. The supporting characters are good too, with Bo’s sister Tina played by Storm Reid and Bo’s girlfriend played by Seychelle Gabriel. Latimore and Reid play off each other perfectly, and you buy them as brother-and-sister. Gabriel plays an appealing love interest, who doesn’t know Bo’s nightly duties and is able to listen and understand when he finally comes clean.

Then there’s Dule Hill, a character actor who has done great work as mild-mannered schmoes in TV shows like “Psych” and “The West Wing.” Here, he plays the gang leader Angelo, and he’s quite effective at playing a straight-up A-hole, perhaps channeling Giancarlo Esposito’s despicable character in the similarly-themed 1994 film, “Fresh.”

Everything builds to an inevitable climax in which Bo must use his hidden abilities against Angelo and his gang in order to get control of his life back and protect the people he loves, after everything has gone almost completely to hell. By then, I forget about how expected the outcome will be and remember that the most important thing is how Bo is going to pull it off. By that point, I am engrossed in the character and all I care about is him making it out of this messy situation.

I’m recommending “Sleight” for what isn’t easy to do, which is to take something familiar and keep it engaging and intriguing. But after seeing it, do yourself a favor and forget about the “open-ended” ending. It’s highly unneccesary, especially when taking into consideration that “Sleight” already told a full story with hardly any loose ends to be tied in a sequel. “Sleight” told the whole story. There is a fitting epilogue that gives closure, and then everything almost feels botched by just one last scene that ends the film on an ambiguous note when it didn’t need to.

I know Jacob Latimore will be forgotten by the Academy when it comes down to announcing next year’s nominees for Best Actor, but he won’t be forgotten by me, because I think his is one of the best performances of the year. “Sleight” may be forgotten by most people because it’s a small film being released so early in the year (from what I can tell, the Academy has an attention span of 3-4 months maximum), but I can’t forget good work by talented people. And that is the greatest trick of them all.

Ridge Runners (2017)

7 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Recently, I saw filmmaker Hunter West’s debut feature “Ridge Runners” again (my third time seeing it at a film festival). At the Q&A following the screening, West mentioned how difficult it was to get the finished film out there, due to its content. The issue that takes center-stage in this tense dramatic thriller is a little girl as a victim of child sex trafficking.

“Ridge Runners” is a very disturbing film, and that’s not just because of the subject matter. In fact, none of the deeds associated with the central crime are portrayed on-screen (thank God). What is chilling and unsettling about the film is what is suggested throughout the film and what our protagonists (who are a duo of police detectives investigating the disappearance of a little girl) are trying to find out about. And there are some characters whose true colors are revealed late in the film—they truly made my skin crawl in the ways they explain what’s happening and why.

So, there you go—the film is well-made and very ominous, and the horrifying stuff is only implied. And yet it was a tough sell…think about that for a moment.

The message of “Ridge Runners,” directed by West and written by Austin Lott, is “Human Trafficking happens everywhere,” as stated by the film’s website (http://www.ridgerunnersfilm.com/) and a truly unsettling prologue (followed by a caption that states one in five human trafficking victims is a child). Our protagonists, police detectives Rachel Willow (played by Jennica Schwartzman) and Rob Shepherd (Austin Haley), discover this horrible truth upon investigating the mysterious disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. The more they uncover, the more horrifying the truth becomes. West reportedly was inspired to make this film because he heard of actual sex trafficking happening in his small town (and the film also takes place in a small town), and so he and Lott set out to make a film as a warning that this type of thing isn’t just an international problem or even a city problem—it can happen anywhere.

But it’s one thing to make a public service announcement about it; it’s another to make it work well. How’s the film itself? It’s essentially a TV-crime-show episode doubled in length and with arguably more detail in description (though not even that much). But it’s very effectively done, and the credit for that goes to West’s directing, Lott’s writing, and the acting, which also includes chillingly good performances by Charlee Graham as the girl’s mother coping with her daughter’s disappearance and Jason Thompson as her employer at a racetrack called The Ridge, among other fine supporting players. A good portion of the film is dialogue and performance, and while some parts are veering close to overuse of exposition (particularly early in the proceedings, when the girl’s mother is questioned by the detectives), it still works overall.

Some would say the film goes for the easy way out in the final act, but the outcome satisfied me, and I’m certain it satisfied many other festival audience members as well. I won’t go into it here, lest I give away potential spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“Ridge Runners” is an intriguing, effective and chilling tale about how evil can exist anywhere. And it wasn’t done in a preachy or overdone manner; instead, it was handled in a relaxed manner, more dignified than you’d expect with this material. The film is currently playing in festivals at this time, but it is now set for distribution. You can catch more news about that as it surfaces on the film’s website and also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RidgeRunnersFilm/ It’s definitely worth checking out.

Get Out (2017)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the horror film “Get Out,” a white woman, Rose (Allison Williams) takes her black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to the countryside to introduce him to her family. They’re all accommodating, seemingly well-meaning white people who try to make Chris feel welcome, but something feels wrong. Things start off as awkward when Rose’s liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and jock brother (Caleb Landry Jones) deliver one cringe-inducing (albeit benign) race-related comment after another. But when Chris meets the only other black people in town, he notices odd behaviors about them, which causes discomfort that only raises when the family’s friends gather at the house for a picnic…and that’s all I’ll say about “Get Out.” If you haven’t seen the trailer, just see this movie—the less you know about the story, the better.

That’s as much of the story as I’ll describe here, so I’ll just continue with the review. “Get Out” is the debut feature of writer-director Jordan Peele, best-known for comedic acting & writing, especially for the sketch comedy series “Key & Peele.” I’d say it’s an interesting departure for Peele to make a film like this, but then again, a good chunk of the first 45+ minutes of “Get Out” reminded me of a prolonged “Key & Peele” sketch, in which race relations (or lack thereof) is a factor and there is humor to be found in the sheer awkwardness/discomfort of one moment after the other. And the humor is also there to offset the more uncomfortable moments that leave audiences believing there is something wrong here but not knowing what it is, what will happen, when it will happen, and so on—to get to its ultimate final act, the audience has to endure one awkward moment after another as they try to determine what’s really happening here. The best way to relieve tension in these scenes is with laughter.

“Get Out” is a great mix of comedy and horror. It’s not downright satiric nor does it become overly serious; it’s just the right amount of both that entertains and also makes nearly every stomach in the theater churn. Peele is a bright-enough filmmaker that he’s actually able to approach the material with as much discretion as possible to make it work. He also doesn’t go too deeply into the subject of race relations and the pomposities and resentment that can sometimes come into play. He does have something to say about it all, but overall, it’s used to craft a unique story that I think Peele does a brilliant job putting together.

He gets great aid from his actors as well. Daniel Kaluuya is easily relatable as a man feeling out of place without knowing precisely why. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as both funny and chilling, whenever they need to be each (or both). And I can’t neglect to mention the comedic highlight of the movie, and that is Lil Rey Howery as Rod, Chris’ best friend who is able to conduct his own detective work when Chris calls him via cellphone with clues. He provides the film’s biggest laughs himself.

What does all the oddness and awkwardness amount to? I won’t give it away here, but what I will say is much is revealed with effective twists, and while the final act may be paced a little too slow, I have to credit it for making me even more tense as I was A) waiting for answers and B) desperately wanting Chris to make it out the messed-up situation once those answers were revealed (and C) making me want to see the movie again, now that I have the answers). As is the case with the best slow-burn thrillers, I can’t wait to see “Get Out” again, knowing what I know now. And in addition, I also can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.

Split (2017)

20 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never lost faith in M. Night Shyamalan. He gets a bad rap because his failures failed tremendously, especially taking his earlier successes into account. But that’s really not fair because other famous directors have gone through career slumps and came back from them; yet for some reason, it’s “cool” to make fun of Shyamalan. I knew some day, he would find himself back on the right track. With his previous film, “The Visit,” he seemed to find his footing, and even though it wasn’t “great,” it was still a welcome return for Shyamalan after such disappointing messes as “The Happening,” “After Earth,” and especially “The Last Airbender.” It was like he let the studio system corrupt him after he’d done many good things for it (particularly “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”), and he made a smaller movie in an attempt to find the magic of filmmaking again.

Shyamalan’s follow-up to “The Visit” is another “small movie” called “Split,” and while I don’t think it’s quite up there with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” or “Signs,” it still shows us why we held Shyamalan in high regard in the first place. This is an imaginative, tense, even funny psychological-thriller that shows the talent of M. Night Shyamalan on display.

“Split” begins as three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Haley Lu Richardson as Claire, and Jessica Sula as Marcia) are abducted by an odd man (James McAvoy). While kept in an underground bunker of sorts, they find that he’s a man of many personalities. It turns out he has dissociative identity disorder, with 23 different personalities (a few of which we get to meet, like mischievous 9-year-old Hedwig, feminine Ms. Patricia, and obsessive-compulsive Dennis). But there seems to be a 24th personality awakening soon—one the others refer to as “the Beast,” who will “feed” on the three girls. Meanwhile, as the man has frequent sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the self-proclaimed “crazy old lady from ‘The Happening’”), Dr. Fletcher has to figure out what exactly “the Beast” is before it’s too late.

(And that’s as far as I’ll go in describing the story. Don’t worry—this review is spoiler-free.)

Shyamalan still has tricks up his sleeve when it comes to the plot. There are many neat twists and turns in his storytelling; the more that was discovered about what’s really happening here, the more tense everything became. By the time this film reached its final act, I was on-edge, with goosebumps that wouldn’t go away until the film ended…and even then, I had trouble shaking it off. Good job, Shyamalan.

Almost a majority of “Split” is kept in this undisclosed location somewhere underground (flashbacks of last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”), and with Shyamalan’s direction as well as the superb cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, it’s easy to feel the confinement and the anxiety of each situation that comes.

Shyamalan also isn’t afraid to make us laugh at times, particularly when it comes to the weirdness of the disorder and how the girls react to it in both confusion and fear. Some of the comedic bits belong to the personality of Hedwig, the 9-year-old troublemaker within McAvoy…as well as some of the most frightening bits.

James McAvoy takes center-stage, and he turns in a brilliant performance as a man of many identities. McAvoy has a complicated task to pull off, differentiating each personality from the other (and the other…and the other…), and he amazingly succeeds. This is an actor’s dream come true, and McAvoy goes all out for this role. One particular moment for which I have to commend McAvoy is a close-up shot in which he instantly transitions from one role to another—how he did that, I would love to know.

Of the three girls, only Anya Taylor-Joy (who was also very good in “The Witch”) makes an impression. She plays Casey, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time after being invited to a birthday party of one of the two other girls out of pity (and she was riding home with the others when they were captured). As the film starts, we see her as an uninteresting, stereotypical outsider-girl. But as the film continues, we get glimpses into her past to make us understand more of who she is, which makes us glad for moments when she starts to grow as she tries to find ways out of each predicament in this claustrophobic hellhole. Even when we’re questioning why she doesn’t do certain things at times, we get to understand it better, the more we find out about her.

However, the other two girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) aren’t given the same treatment. I didn’t particularly care for them, as they were only there to cry, cower, and say obvious things like “we have to get out of here” and “I’m scared”. Granted, we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them, but they don’t do much to make us care much for them either.

I would love to talk about the final moment. But again, this review is spoiler-free and there aren’t any hints or clues or anything given by me. All I will say about it is it will delight people and annoy others—I have to say, it took me a while to think about how I felt about it, but I couldn’t help but admire it. I even bought it more after thinking about it. That’s all I’ll say about it…but, by God, I’d love to talk about it! (Sorry, lost myself for a moment there.)

M. Night Shyamalan is having fun with his movies again, and it definitely shows with “The Visit” and “Split,” two inventive thrillers. Since “Split” is, by definition, probably more intriguing than “The Visit” (and that was a damn fun movie), then it’s safe to say that Shyamalan is back in the game. “Split” has its problems (including a slow first act), but as it progresses, it becomes a neat thriller that reminds us of what Shyamalan can do when he puts his heart and soul into it. Let’s hope he keeps up the good work in the future.