Tag Archives: James McAvoy

I Hate Your Face


by George Wolf

We’re living in unprecedented times – that’s no news flash. But the daily process of navigating the minefield of consequences from this pandemic can beat down our psyche until acceptance is required for survival.

While it may be decades until we can fully fathom the extremes we’re going through right now, filmmakers have been showing impressive instincts for adapting to on-set constraints, and reflecting on our currently shared experience.

Enjoying Together may depend upon how much you welcome the reminder.

Filmed in under two weeks with a cast of just three in a single location, the film finds humor and poignancy while mining both the intimate and more universal aspects of a nationwide lockdown.

The nation is Great Britain, where we meet He (James McAvoy) and She (Sharon Horgan) at the beginning of the quarantine, when onscreen text begins keeping track of the days and the casualties.

He’s a bootstrap conservative just fine with buying privilege, while she’s a power to the people “communist.” They were splitting up even before lockdown, so now that they’re forced to stay together, he hates her face, she wants to feed him poison mushrooms, and they both speak directly to the camera while trying to keep the worst of their vitriol away from son Artie (Samuel Logan).

Directors Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) and Justin Martin (debut feature) use the broken fourth wall and the multiple extended takes to draw us in and make us part of the conversation.

Writer Dennis Kelly provides McAvoy and Horgan with funny, biting barbs and heartfelt monologues, and the two actors consistently find authentic levels of humor and emotion – even in the moments when it starts to feel we’re being talked to instead of with. He and She are demanding, intense roles, and both McAvoy and Horgan respond with fiery, nuanced turns that alone make the film worthwhile.

In between the mounting death toll and the promise of a vaccine, Together glimpses how our lives have been changed in small, inconvenient ways and larger, heartbreaking ones. And as an impressionable child waits in the next room while his parents get closer to their true feelings, American audiences may especially notice the missing chapter on pandemic death cults.

But in our darkest days, art has always been there to help us question, laugh, cry and heal. So while using a welcome night out to spend time back in lockdown may seem as entertaining as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, this film just wants you to know there’s hope if we just stay…

You know.

Even the Losers

It Chapter 2

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Two years ago, director Andy Muschietti and writer Gary Dauberman accomplished quite a magic act. They made the film It, not only improving upon Part 1 of the beloved 1990 TV miniseries, but cleaning up some of Stephen King’s most audacious, thrilling and sloppy work.

Their second outing together closes the book on Pennywise, the scariest of all scary clowns. But this sequel faces inherent obstacles that loom even larger because the second half of King’s novel and the ’90 adaptation are both worse than weak. They’re massive let downs, and it’s pretty tough to make a great film with poor source material.

How bad is the King ending? So bad that it’s actually a running gag in It Chapter Two, a tale that sees a bunch of losers returning to their hometown 27 years after they last battled town bullies, abusive fathers, low self-esteem and that psychotic, shape-shifting clown.

The outstanding young cast from chapter one returns for flashback sequences and sometimes awkward de-aging effects. Their adult counterparts are, to a one, impressive. Jessica Chastain is reliably solid, as is James McAvoy. Isaiah Mustafa (hey, it’s the Old Spice guy!) and James Ransone (Tangerine – see it!) make fine additions to the cast, but it’s Bill Hader who owns this movie. He’s funny, heartbreaking and more than actor enough to lead this ensemble.

But Muschietti runs into serious problems early and often. He’s at a disadvantage in the thrills department in that children in peril generate a far more palpable sense of terror than what you can get by threatening adults. We’re just not nearly as invested in the survival of the grown up Losers Club.

The filmmaker flashes some style with his scene transitions, but betrays a serious lack of inspiration when it comes to both CGI and practical effects. If the scare doesn’t come directly from Bill Skarsgård’s committed performance as Pennywise, it doesn’t come at all.

And even then, set piece after set piece seems constructed with only one aim: a clearly telegraphed jump scare. The slog of a second act is where the film is at its most undisciplined -and where the nearly three hour running time feels more than unnecessary.

When the Losers strike out alone to face their long repressed demons, the narrative loses its grip on any sustained, cohesive tension.

Then, like a conquering hero, act three arrives with guns blazing, blood spurting and the emotional weight to give this bloated clown show a proper send off.

It’s here – when things get most intensely horrific – that the psychological wounds Muschietti had been poking are the most raw and resonant. Nostalgic melodrama finally gives way to graceful metaphor, and we remember why we cared so much about these characters the first time.

Does Chapter Two improve the finales of the novel and TV version? Most definitely.

But can it successfully realize all the promise from the first chapter?

Sadly, that’s a clown question, bro.

Hey Lady, Dark Lady

Dark Phoenix

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Hey, remember back in ’06 when director Brett Ratner and writer Simon Kinberg crashed the X-Men franchise into oblivion by telling the story of how the perpetually boring Jean Grey was really the most powerful of all mutants, plus maybe she was bad, and not even the love of two good mutants and the misguided belief of Dr. Charles Xavier could save her?

You don’t?! Because it was so bad it tanked the promising series until director Matthew Vaughn revived it five years later with Ashley Miller’s clever time warp, X-Men: First Class. Then there was another good one, then a terrible one—basically, we’re back on that downside of this cycle.

So why not put some polish on that old turd about Jean Grey, and this time give it the overly ominous title Dark Phoenix?

Some elements are the same: Jean’s powers are beyond anyone’s control and there’s a dark power that’s overtaking her. But this go-round, writer Kinberg also makes his feature debut behind the camera, spinning a yarn with more aliens, more girl power and less Wolverine.

The writing is just as bad, though.

How bad? Exposition and inner monologues continually jockey for position, with lines bad enough to choke even the bona fide talent of Jessica Chastain, who joins the fray as alien leader Vuk.

Sophie Turner returns as Jean – the role she took on in 2016’s abysmal X-Men: Apocalypse – with little more charisma than she wielded three years ago. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence all also return because, one assumes, contracts are contracts.

There’s really no excuse for a film with this cast to fail, but Kinberg’s story weaves and bobs with no real anchor, all the veterans repeat the same old conflict/guilt/resolution spirals and the newbies simply lack the charisma to draw attention away from the weakly choreographed set pieces.

Okay, some of the mutant vs. alien throwdown on a moving train has zip, but it’s too little, too late.

By then the attempts to make us care about a character that’s always been lacking in investment – for us and these X superfriends – have pulled up lame.

To paraphrase social historian Regina George: Stop trying to make Jean Grey happen, she isn’t going to happen.

Standup Comic


by George Wolf

M. Night Shyamalan has been grappling with expectations for nearly twenty 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.

Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blonde in Me

Atomic Blonde

by Hope Madden

Charlize Theron is a convincing badass. (You saw Fury Road, right?) She cuts an imposing figure and gives (and takes) a beating with panache.

Director David Leitch understands action, having cut his teeth as a stunt double before moving on to choreographing and coordinating action for the last decade. With the help of a wicked soundtrack and about a million costume changes, he also makes 1989 seem cool – which is a real feat.

Together, Theron and Leitch take on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, under the far more rockin’ title Atomic Blonde.

It’s Berlin in ’89. The wall’s about to come down, the Cold War’s coming to an end, but there’s this pesky double agent issue to contend with, and a list of coverts that has fallen into the wrong hands. MI6 sends in one lethal operative, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), to check in with their embedded agent Percival (James McAvoy) and work things out.

What to expect: intrigue, Bowie songs, boots – so many boots! – and a great deal of Charlize Theron beating up on people. Mayhem of the coolest sort.

From the opening car crash through half a dozen other expertly choreographed set pieces to the action pièce de résistance, Theron and Leitch make magic happen. Each sequence outshines the one before, leading up to a lengthy, multi-villain escapade shot as if in one extremely lengthy take. (It isn’t, but the look is convincing and the execution thrilling.)

Theron delivers. Reliable as ever, McAvoy is once again that guy you don’t know whether to love or hate – probably because he always looks like he’s smiling and crying simultaneously. He makes for a wild and dicey counterpoint to Theron’s sleek, ultra cool presence.

Precise and percussive, the action propels this film. Leitch’s cadence outside these sequences sometimes stalls, and not every casting choice works out.

Sofia Boutella, saddled with an underdeveloped character who makes idiotic choices, suffers badly in the role. Other supporting characters, though – including the always welcome Toby Jones and John Goodman – take better advantage of their limited time onscreen.

The storyline itself is equal parts convoluted and obvious, with far too many conveniences to hold up as a real spy thriller. But unplug, soak up that Berlin vibe and appreciate the action and you’ll do fine.


The Beast in Me


by George Wolf

Yes, Split is the latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and no, you’ll never see it coming.

You know what I mean. And Shyamalan knows you know what I mean. So, while you’re trying to guess what surprise twist he’s got in store for you, a nifty psychological thriller plays out, elevated by a transfixing performance from James McAvoy.

After years of misfires, Shyamalan got his groove back by scaling back two years ago with The Visit, an enjoyable bit of lightly scary fun that amounted to one giant misdirection. With Split, the director himself is the main misdirection, as his reputation pushes you to chase something that may not be there at all.

McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.

Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.

The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face closeups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.

Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.

Maybe the best case for this new Shyamalan surprise is the fact that even without the kicker, Split would hold up as a competent, emotionally disquieting thriller. But when you add that final reveal?

I see happy people.




Bad Doctor

Victor Frankenstein

by Hope Madden

As Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor begins to spin his Gothic yarn in voiceover, he tells us that everyone knows about the monster, but too few people know about Victor Frankenstein.

Here is the first problem with this movie.

In fact, only James Whale and Boris Karloff did Frankenstein’s monster proper. Everyone else – everyone else – has been preoccupied with the mad scientist whose compulsion to create life went wildly out of control.

Still, Paul McGuigan’s film invites us, not just to the headspace of the mad doctor, but to the bond between scientist and assistant, because VF is, at its heart, a buddy picture. In fact, we learn a lot more about Igor than we do the title character.

Radcliffe’s performance is tender and sincere as the malformed and bullied young man, rescued by the anatomically obsessed surgeon. As Victor, James McAvoy waffles between a believably wounded and vulnerable genius, and some hammy overacting.

Neither McAvoy nor Radcliffe are the issue, though. Max Landis’s screenplay meanders hither and yon without the slightest focus, from circus to laboratory to ball to medical college to isolated castle without a clear narrative path or sense of purpose. Worse still, the utterly baffling leaps in logic. (Igor is crippled circus clown who’s never known anything but cruelty; he is also the circus doctor. I’m sorry – what?)

McGuigan’s pacing only exacerbates the situation. The film feels twice as long as it is, and the very-late-entrance of the monster only makes the balance of the running time feel that much more tedious. Though he pastes together eye-catching images now and again – the twirl of a red skirt, an oversized medical sketch on the floor, enormous advertisement heads atop a building – on the whole he can’t capitalize on either a visual aesthetic or any sense of movement.

Victor Frankenstein is as stagnant and bloated as his corpses.

Regardless of all that, the question is, who needs another doctor with a God complex? Whale was right. It’s the monster who’s interesting.


Help Me, I’ve Been Hyp-no-tized!

By George Wolf


The head-trippy space so eloquently invaded by Christopher Nolan in films such as Memento and Inception seems to have caught the fancy of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).  In Trance, Boyle gleefully plays with perception and reality as he unveils a mostly effective noir tale of the hunt for a stolen art masterpiece.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an employee of an exclusive London auction house who opens the film by explaining his game plan for safeguarding art masterpieces during any heist attempts.  While Simon is narrating, we see a heist being organized, leading up to the moment when ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his thugs steal a prized work.

Simon owes Franck an old debt, but attempts to pay it off with the location of a lost painting are stalled by Simon’s claim of amnesia.  And so, the group understandably turns to…hypnosis.

Stay with me, because this is when things get freaky. Once Simon begins visiting hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), all lines begin to blur.

What is real, and what is a hypnotic suggestion? Who is plotting with whom, and is all that nudity and sex merely subconscious desire?

Boyle, in films such as Slumdog, 127 Hours, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Shallow Grave, has shown that his choices regarding pacing and visual style are often masterful.  With Trance, Boyle seems energized by his new genre playground – so much so that the questionable leaps taken by the script are swept aside with little regard.

The core story was first hatched by current “Dr. Who” writer Joe Ahearne in a TV movie from 2001. Frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge has expanded the screenplay to keep your head swimming with possibilities, as heroes turn into villains, past becomes present, and then back again.

The solid cast is anchored by Dawson, who reaches beyond anything we’ve seen from her so far with a layered, emotional performance in a role that makes frequent demands. She answers them all, and becomes the film’s center of gravity when too many elements threaten to spin out of control.

Trance is engaging and entertaining, but I’m guessing Boyle was after a bit more. Instead of leaving with a feeling of wonder as you spend days trying to get your head around it, you’re more likely to view Trance as clever, forgettable fun.