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Posts Tagged ‘Split’

(An explanatory note: I’ve been trying to break up these Avengers reviews with the usual looks at films and suchlike, but my current situation makes that challenging, to say the least. So, to stop this latest pilgrimage running on into next year, I’m just going to clear the backlog. So it will be virtually wall-to-wall Macnee and Thorson around here for a bit. – A)

One of the more obvious signs that The Avengers in its final year is a different kind of beast (after the shift in format, the changes in the cast and the look of the thing) is the variety of writers being employed: series five was mostly written by Philip Levene and Brian Clemens, but for series six Levene was promoted to ‘script consultant’ – which sounds to me like a job involving polishing for other people, explaining why their scripts have the Levene feel about them. This is certainly the case with Jeremy Burnham’s You’ll Catch Your Death (Burnham notched up a few acting appearances, too – his website claims this is a unique distinction, which unfortunately overlooks Philip Levene’s own small role in Who’s Who?).

Such was the chaotic nature of the production by this point – producers sacked and rehired, episodes scrapped, cannibalised and re-edited – that this episode, though the third Tara story to air in the UK (America was now getting the episodes ahead of Britain), was the tenth made, and part of the second production block featuring Linda Thorson (apparently the last eight or so Rigg episodes were bundled together with the first production block of seven Thorson shows and broadcast as a season in the USA, with the second block being a further season). This is doubtless why Linda Thorson’s hair changes so radically from one week to the next if you watch the programmes in the UK order-of-transmission.

It’s all a bit confusing and doesn’t really make much difference to one’s enjoyment of the episode, which is solid enough. A distinguished doctor (Hamilton Dyce, third appearance of three) is working in his consulting rooms, when a postman arrives by chauffeur-driven Rolls and delivers a single envelope. When he opens it, the doctor suffers paroxysms of sneezing until he drops dead.

It turns out that ear, nose and throat specialists from all over the world are likewise dying in mysterious circumstances, which sounds like a job for Steed and Tara (the situation is sufficiently grave for Mother to be receiving stern phone calls from the unseen Grandma). While Tara keeps watch over the most recent’s victim’s partners (not terribly successfully), Steed figures out that the stationery involved must be significant and traces it to the Anastasia Academy for Nurses, which has an association with a private initiative to eliminate the common cold for good.

Well, it all turns out to be part of a plot by a mad scientist (Fulton Mackay, second of three) to pre-emptively eradicate the men who could stop his plan to get rich by selling a new kind of germ-warfare weapon (this is either super-concentrated cold virus powder or something to do with allergies, the episode is not entirely clear on this). As I say, it’s a solid enough episode, probably the best Tara show so far – even Linda Thorson gets some good lines, and puts them across well – ‘Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of catching something worse!’ she cries, grappling with an evil matron. It’s also an episode where Steed, slightly unusually, kills the villain, and in what looks like a very cold-blooded fashion, using his virus powder on him. Others have commented on the prescience of deadly powder being sent by post, but while the Tara episodes were supposedly meant to be more serious, I doubt this should be taken as evidence of that. As I say, it’s fun.

More evidence of ructions behind the scenes comes along in the form of Split!, a Clemens episode (apparently with uncredited assistance from the great Dennis Spooner). The story goes that this was either an unused Emma Peel script, or – more intriguingly – unfinished episode, pressed into service for the sixth season (circumstantial evidence for the latter is the absence of Mother, and the appearance of Steed’s green Bentley – in most of the Tara episodes he drives rather ugly cream Rolls Royces).  This was part of the first Tara production block: one clue is the fact that (on my DVD at least) it uses the animated shooting gallery opening credits, rather than the one with the knights (all the Tara episodes had the knight credits for their UK transmission). I’m sorry, this is turning into nothing but behind-the-scenes trivia, isn’t it?

Within the Ministry of Top Secret Information, a man is hard at work on a report, when he receives a phone call – a wrong number, meant for someone called Boris (friends, I’m not going to do any tired jokes about that name; some things and people are just not a topic for feeble humour). He carries on, despite the fact his left hand is clenching into a claw and his handwriting is all over the place. When a colleague appears, the man guns him down, but then appears to be shocked to see the body on the floor. What’s going on?

Well, the suspicions of Steed and Tara soon settle on the chap who claims he found the body, not least because his handwriting has become highly eccentric, and also because he claims to have been in all sorts of places he never was – Berlin in October 1963, for instance. Steed knows he wasn’t there, because Steed was – disposing of a top enemy agent named Boris Kartovski (one of Clemens’ stock Russian-sounding names, shared by more than one Avengers character). (Steed must have popped over to Germany between the episodes of season 3, which was broadcasting in late 1963.) Strangely enough, the handwriting they had examined has now become a perfect match for that of Kartovski…

What follows plays out rather in the style of a horror movie. Another mad scientist in the employ of the Other Side (Bernard Archard, second of two) has found a way of implanting a copy of the mind of Kartovski (who is still alive, but comatose) in the subconscious of another person, to be activated by a trigger phone call – the subject can be temporarily ‘possessed’ by the Kartovski-persona, with no subsequent memory of their actions. It turns out that nearly everyone at the MoTSI has a little bit of Boris in them already (the most implausible thing about the episode is not the whole mind-transfer gimmick but the fact the bad guys’ MO relies on getting their targets to pull over on quiet country lanes and then jumping out on them with some chloroform).

Quite apart from the whole issue of what Steed was up to in 1963, long-term viewers may recall that the mind-infuser here is still arguably less impressive a piece of kit as the mind-swapper from Who’s Who? in the previous season – come to think of it, there’s a similar mind-transference gadget in a New Avengers episode, too. Perhaps this is why the episode has a sort of proto-New Avengers vibe to it: the story is far-fetched, but it’s told absolutely straight and probably benefits from that approach. Again, it’s a solid story, effectively put across; it almost looks like the series has found its groove again.

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You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The name of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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