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GLASS

Producer: Jason Blum, M. Night Shyamalan, Ashwin Rajan and Marc Bienstock
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anna Taylor-Jones, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Adam David Thompson and Luke Kirby
Studio: Universal Pictures

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After a long dry spell, M. Night Shyamalan, once acclaimed as the next Spielberg (or even Hitchcock) on the basis of his early success, took a couple of steps forward—at least in terms of popular acceptance—with “The Visit” and “Split.” He now goes backwards—in more ways than one—with “Glass.” The picture is the finale to a trilogy he’s been envisioning ever since “Unbreakable” in 2000: he was finally able to resume the project with “Split” seventeen years later, and its unexpectedly big boxoffice has allowed him to proceed to the third installment. But this lugubrious, pretentious movie will prove, to put it mildly, a crushing disappointment to Shyamalan’s admirers as well as everyone else.

“Unbreakable” was, of course, a divisive film. It did reasonably well financially, largely on the basis of expectations deriving from “The Sixth Sense,” but, without revealing overmuch about the plot, which might still be a mystery to some, many viewers found the seriousness with which it treated the mythos of superhero-dom rather ludicrous, and the treatment of it ponderous. For most of its running-time, “Split” seemed altogether unrelated to it. It was about Kevin Wendell Crumb, a serial killer with split personalities, played to the hilt by James McAvoy in a thoroughly hammy but technically impressive performance, and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) one of the girls terrorized by him and the one who escaped his grasp.

Only at the very end of “Split” was David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the gloomy protagonist of “Unbreakable,” briefly reintroduced to set up “Glass,” which also returns Dunn’s antagonist from the first film, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), known by the titular nickname because of his affliction—bones so weak that they are easily shattered. After the revelations that closed “Unbreakable,” Elijah has been incarcerated at a Philadelphia mental hospital for nineteen years, apparently a helpless vegetable.

At the start of “Glass,” David, a grim vigilante in a rain slicker aided by his computer-savvy son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), captures Kevin and saves his most recent victims, four nameless cheerleaders. But he’s taken into custody along with Kevin, and both are installed in the same hospital as Glass, under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who specializes in treating people whose mental disturbance consists of their belief that they possess superhuman powers. Gradually it seems possible that Glass, who suffers from the same delusion, has plans regarding the two of them, as well as himself, that he intends to execute despite his infirmity.

Glass usurps the title because he’s the catalyst of the plot, but actually he’s a secondary character in terms of screen time, as also is Willis’ Dunn. The dominant figure here is McAvoy’s Kevin, whose quick switches from one personality to another the actor and Shyamalan again exploit to the fullest.

Kevin’s centrality might simply be explained by the fact that most of the young viewers who made “Split” a smash—and might not even know “Unbreakable”—basically want a sequel to that movie, and so that’s what Shyamalan provides. In the process, though, he’s given a different emphasis to the character. The first time around, though there was some humor in his constant changes, Kevin was fundamentally a scary person. Here the humorous element has been multiplied; in a way the same thing happens to him that occurred with Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger, who morphed into more a bloodthirsty joke machine as the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series rolled on. McAvoy again plays the part with enormous energy, but his over-the-top turn more and more comes to seem like twenty or so overripe performances given by a single actor simultaneously—Dr. Jekyll and nineteen varieties of Mr. and Mrs. Hyde.

As for Willis and Jackson, they both play on a single note—the former typically glum, the latter, once freed of Glass’s lethargy, wild-eyed. Paulson’s psychologist comes across as semi-embalmed, the actress so rigidly subdued that she barely seems human; but that turns out to be a deliberate part of Shyamalan’s game plan in the end. Taylor-Joy, Clark, Charlayne Woodard as Glass’s mother and Adam David Thompson and Luke Kirby as hospital orderlies are similarly flummoxed by Shyamalan’s finicky, plodding direction, which feels more than ever like a combination of bad Kubrick and bad Cronenberg. Under his hand the technical crew do drab work as well. Production designer Chris Trujillo and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis give the director the gray, gloomy look he obviously wants, and editors Luke Ciarrocchi and Blu Murray the somber, funereal pace Shyamalan favors, but his sense of staging and composition—particularly in the finale final confrontation sequence—is so inept that their efforts are hamstrung.

Since this is clearly a pure Shyamalan film rather than a mere work-for-hire, the question naturally arises: does it offer his signature twist ending? The answer is yes. In fact, he gives us a double dose. The problem is that the supposed surprise is based on a premise—a fear of those who are “special”—that might have seemed fresh in 2000, but now is positively musty, having since been employed in virtually every superhero franchise in the comic pages and on screens big and small over the years; even though it’s tweaked here, it still comes across as stale. Nor is gussying it up with a nod to the power of social media (taking on the role newspapers would once have played in such a scenario—see, for instance, “Three Days of the Condor”) particularly inspired.

“Glass” may be the fulfillment of Shyamalan’s long-gestating dream, but it’s a dreary downer for the audience—a portentous, self-indulgent dirge that limps its way to a feeble conclusion.

WELCOME TO MARWEN

Producer: Jack Rapke, Cherylanne Martin, Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson
Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, Falk Hentschel, Matt O'Leary, Stefanie von Pfetten, Siobhan Williams, Conrad Coates and Eric Keenleyside
Studio: Universal Pictures

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Jeff Malmerg’s homespun, ragged 2010 documentary “Marwencol” told the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man left brain-damaged by a vicious assault whose strange crafts project—fashioning a mini-town with figurines representing his friends that he posed in lurid wartime narratives from which he took evocative photographs—not only helped in his mental rehabilitation but earned him artistic recognition. It was very well received. Similar approbation is unlikely to accrue to Robert Zemeckis’ special-effects laden adaptation of Hogancamp’s story, which is designed to be uplifting but comes across instead as seriously misguided.

One does have to give Zemeckis and his co-writer Caroline Thompson some credit for not airbrushing Hogancamp’s past. He admits that he was before the attack not only an accomplished illustrator but a heavy drunker—he says that the assault beat the desire to drink out of him—and that he drunkenly told his attackers of his habit of wearing high heels, feeding their bigotry in the process. None of that, of course, could possibly justify their horrendous act—which late in the film is depicted in a spookily hallucinatory montage—but at least the facts surrounding the deed are not ignored.

The result was that Hogancamp, as portrayed by Steve Carell, became a traumatized figure, but here also a saintly, Forrest Gumpish one. All memory of his life before the attack lost, and living alone in a ramshackle house filled with dolls he imagines coming to life (as well as a closet filled with high-heeled shoes), Hogancamp is visited occasionally by Anna (Gwendoline Christie), a pushy caregiver who delivers his medication, but apparently is not regularly seeing a therapist (in the documentary, that was the result of his financial straits after his Medicare support ran out, though it’s not explained here). What he does have are friends, including bar owner Larry (Eric Keenleyside), who’s given him a job; Larry’s waitress (Eiza González); and Roberta (Merritt Wever), the supportive owner of the hobby shop where he buys the accoutrements for Marwen, the tiny village he’s constructed in his yard.

The town is supposedly a Belgian hamlet during World War II, in which the figurine of Hoagie (voiced by Carell), an American pilot downed by the Germans, lives along with a passel of gorgeous, kick-ass women—Anna (Christie), Roberta (Wever), Caralala (González), Mark’s rehab instructor (Janelle Monáe), aka G.I. Jane, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), a sultry actress who’s Mark’s favorite porn star. To these will be added Nicol (Leslie Mann), modeled after the sweet redhead who’s moved in across the street from Hogancamp—and whom he immediately becomes infatuated with, going so far as to propose to her.

Unfortunately, Nicol is still being harassed by her one-time boyfriend Kurt (Neil Jackson), an aggressive jerk who will become the model for a German officer leading a bunch of Nazis—including Ludwig Topf (Falk Hentschel)—who target (and torture) Hoagie (until he’s rescued by the women) in the scenarios he devises and photographs. All of this happens under the direction of Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a malevolent sorceress who has powers over the death-and-renewed-life of the figurines, as well as time-travel (in a device that looks like the DeLorean from Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” an easy in-joke that sours as soon as it’s shown).

Zemeckis, a long-time fan of special-effects and stop-motion visuals, uses those techniques extravagantly here; from the opening scene of Hoagie being shot down and threatened by the Nazis, much of the film is devoted to the Marwen story sequences, in which Carell and much of the cast appear as animated plastic figures. How the actual Hogancamp visualized his stories was, of course, left to the viewer’s imagination in “Marwencol,” but here it’s all spelled out with heavy-handed specificity. There are, frankly, way too many of these animated scenes; they grow increasingly repetitious, even though there are occasional moments of mordant humor that you have to appreciate among the pulpish action-oriented ones.

The purely live-action footage, unfortunately, isn’t an appreciable improvement. Carell works desperately to make Mark a sadly sympathetic character, and he succeeds to a point; but there’s a forlorn doggedness to his performance, an almost pleading quality, that’s ultimately rather exhausting. So are Mann’s saccharine perkiness and the smarmy nastiness of Jackson. Some of the supporting figures are more natural, like Wever’s likable clerk, and their occasional interventions actually provide a refreshing change to the more studied goings-on.

Of course, the special effects are expertly done, but in a style that’s most notable for its strangeness than anything else. The figurines are meant to have a somewhat creepy look, of course, but that doesn’t make them any easier to watch at such inordinate length. Still, you have to admire the fastidious production design of Stefan Dechant and the luminous cinematography of C. Kim Miles.

To close things on a positive note, Thompson and Zemeckis contrive a finale that brings together a slew of plot threads on a single day—Mark’s overcoming his terror at the thought of facing his attackers, the real-life Nazis, and, at the urging of the prosecutor (Conrad Coates), steeling himself to present a victim’s statement at their sentencing hearing; the exhibition of his photographs at a trendy New York gallery; and the halting beginnings of a romance with Roberta. (The Nicol-Kurt part of the story, on the other hand, is pretty much left hanging.) It’s only the most egregious instance of how Zemeckis has taken a poignantly unsettling true-life story of a man’s struggle against PTSD and turned it into a cloying fable of overcoming all obstacles, overstuffed with the special effects he so obviously adores.