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Nicolas Cage can put another notch in his gonzo cinema belt with writer-director Maria Pulera’s supernatural thriller Between Worlds. While not quite up to the outrageousness level of so many Cage vehicles in recent years, the pic features enough WTF moments to satisfy the prolific actor’s many fans who can’t wait to see what he’s up to next.
In the film, Cage plays Joe, a trucker who looks like his self-description: “I smell like three days on the road.” Joe’s manginess is understandable since he’s still mourning the death of his wife and daughter. The story begins with Joe coming upon a woman being strangled in a gas station bathroom by a man he promptly beats up.
The woman, Julie (Franka Potente), is upset rather than grateful for Joe’s intervention. It seems she had arranged the violent encounter because ever since she nearly drowned as a young girl, she’s had the power to leave her body during near-death experiences. She’s particularly desperate to use that ability right now in order to save her daughter Billie (Penelope Mitchell), who’s in a hospital and hovering between life and death after a motorcycle accident.
Thanks to Julie’s ability to cross over to the other side, Billie winds up making a full recovery. Joe moves in with mother and daughter, frequently engaging in torrid sexual couplings with the former. More disturbingly, sexpot Billie begins coming on to Joe and soon succeeds in seducing him. But it’s not as perverse as it seems, because, as Billie explains, her body has been possessed by the spirit of Joe’s dead wife. Cue more frenzied copulation, with Cage engaging in more onscreen sex than he has since his Wild at Heart days.
Speaking of that film, this effort strains for a distinct David Lynchian vibe with its combination of strangeness and black comedy. As he did in the recent Mandy, Cage makes an appearance in some very unflattering underwear. But the biggest meta joke occurs during one of the sex scenes, when Joe accompanies his frenzied pelvic thrusting with a recitation from a book: the cover reads Memories, by Nicolas Cage. The tome is apparently a conceit of the film, but seeing it makes you want to start a crowdfunding campaign encouraging Cage to write it for real.
Veering heavily into sexual territory, Between Worlds is more gothic melodrama than horror film. It certainly feels like a waste not only of Cage’s talent (although the actor has a climactic, literally fiery scene that will forever change the way you think about the pop song “Leader of the Pack”), but also of Potente, whose potential has been sadly underrealized in American films. Nonetheless, both acquit themselves admirably here, if only for their ability to keep a straight face during the film’s more outlandish moments. Viewers, on the other hand, may find themselves frequently succumbing to the giggles.
Hapless college dorks get a shot with the in-crowd in Daniel Robbins’ Pledge — or so they think. They’ve actually taken the bait in a trap whose dishonesty would be evident to any half-sentient freshman, even if it would be impossible to guess whether this is mere Dogfight or Dinner For Schmucks-style humiliation or something more sinister. It’s the latter. And while some thriller addicts may embrace the resulting misanthropic action, others may find their minds wandering — to the many real-life cases of fraternity hazing, gang-rape and run-of-the-mill antisocial behavior that inspire deeper feelings of dread than this unconvincing outing.
We open on three generic guys making the rounds of rush-week parties, hoping to convince Greek alpha males they should be allowed to stay and drink. David (Zack Weiner, who wrote the film), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and Justin (Zachery Byrd) aren’t charismatic in their outsiderness, and we might silently rejoice as the latter two seem to chip away at David’s resolve: Maybe they’ll go back to the dorm and realize their non-Gamma Epsilon Whatever classmates are much better company. Sadly, before they give up, they’re identified as the easy marks they are: An out-of-their-league girl invites them to a party at a secluded mansion. (To be clear, all women are out of their league, leaving these dudes slack-jawed and inarticulate.)
That girl, Erica Boozer’s Rachel, is herself just a pawn of the haughty bros we’re about to meet: She and many other attractive women are window dressing at a party meant to show these three that, should they join “The Krypteia,” their lives will be one long blur of “premium vodka” shots sipped from sorority-girl cleavage. Along with a pair of less dweeby freshmen, the boys enthusiastically show up the next day to have their mettle tested for membership.
The three Krypteia members who greet them have a slightly more interesting dynamic — with Cameron Cowperthwaite’s Ricky occasionally playing good cop when pint-sized tyrant Max (Aaron Dalla Villa) is too harsh with them — but still, their hazing of the recruits feels cobbled together from decades-old college comedies and watered-down torture porn. After starting with a bang — branding each kid with the club’s logo — the older students assure them the next 48 hours of physical, mental and emotional tests will serve a noble goal. “We’re looking for your breaking points, gentlemen. (Pounds his fist.) Because great men don’t have one.”
Okay, if you say so. But these particular men start looking for the door in no time, at which point the Krypteia guys mostly drop the act and start trying to kill them. Weiner adds a couple of twists to the violence, but the broadness of the direction and dialogue ensures that, by this point, we’re not terribly invested in anybody’s fate. At a time when all kinds of boys’ clubs are being dissected in every available form of media, the hand-me-down visions in Pledge aren’t nearly as edgy as they intend to be.
In Glass, the writer-director aims to complete an opus much more ambitious than his breakthrough ghost story The Sixth Sense — still his only film that nearly everyone agrees works. As a trilogy-closer, it’s a mixed bag, tying earlier narrative strands together pleasingly while working too hard (and failing) to convince viewers Shyamalan has something uniquely brainy to offer in the overpopulated arena of comics-inspired stories. Though satisfying enough to work at the multiplex, it doesn’t erase memories of the ways that even movies before the abjectly awful After Earth and The Last Airbender made us wary of the words “a film by M. Night Shyamalan.”
For a story named after the character Samuel L. Jackson originated in Unbreakable — the brittle-boned Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass — Glass is around its midpoint before it allows the character to speak or act. (Jackson doesn’t even get top billing in the credits.) Things begin on the trajectory set in Split: Bruce Willis’ super-strong David Dunn, having learned of James McAvoy’s The Beast, is methodically hunting for clues to his whereabouts. Dunn has been an under-the-radar vigilante for years, assisted by son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his Unbreakable role), and is starting to be referred to online as The Overseer. But police seem almost as interested in catching the vigilante as they are in finding the serial-killing Beast.
(The Beast, you’ll recall, is one of many personalities sharing the body of McAvoy’s character. Known collectively as The Horde, some of these personalities support The Beast’s murders and some are appalled by them. McAvoy’s abrupt shifts from one persona to the next remain a draw here, even if the routine isn’t as fresh.)
In setting up the confrontation between the two superhumans, Shyamalan doubles down on Split’s exploitation-flick vibe: Last time, The Horde abducted three teenage girls and found reasons to strip them to their underwear; this time there are four girls, and they’re cheerleaders in uniform. Thankfully, this episode ends before anybody gets stripped or abused onscreen.
And when it does, both the hero and villain are captured by the cops. They’re taken to the psychiatric hospital where Price has been imprisoned (and heavily sedated) since the end of Unbreakable, and all three are to be studied by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a shrink specializing in patients who believe they’re superheroes. Staple has devised clever gear to temporarily rob her prisoners of their superpowers. Or is that just a mind game? The doctor’s agenda is to convince the three men that their feats all have rational explanations; there’s no such thing as superhumans; and so on. Though she makes some headway with Dunn, at least, any viewer who buys her arguments hasn’t seen a Shyamalan film in a very long time.
We’re walking up close to the spoiler zone here. This review is free of them, but anyone hoping to experience the story as its maker intends should be very careful. You can’t even refresh your memory of Unbreakable on Wikipedia: Just the title of a page devoted to this trilogy tells you something you shouldn’t know yet.
The knowledge that Glass has surprises in store gives a strange flavor to appearances by some supporting characters. While Mr. Glass slyly plots the master-villain stuff he obviously has up his sleeve — we’ve known since 2000 that this scholar of comic books won’t be happy until good and evil have a very public battle — Dr. Staple is getting input from Joseph, from Elijah’s aged mother (Charlayne Woodard) and from Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy), the only survivor of The Beast’s first atrocity. Are some of these characters going to turn out to have powers or agendas of their own? Scenes appear to have been directed with an eye toward ambiguity, but looking back after the credits roll, one wonders how much of the haziness is intentional.
Surely, Shyamalan’s dialogue has plenty of clumsy moments. Especially in lines assigned to Dr. Staple and Mr. Glass, we can hear the filmmaker himself, spelling out his thoughts about what comic-book mythology means and how the realists of the world explain away things they can’t understand. This is pretty obvious stuff and, at its worst, makes us snicker at Elijah, whose wrongheaded ideas are rooted in personal tragedy: As with other characters’ histories of personal suffering, the film is so intent on making sure we get it that it often prevents us from being moved.
Like Unbreakable and Split, Glass wants its extraordinary feats to be as grounded as possible in the real world. The tension between wish-fulfillment heroics and realism was tantalizing in Unbreakable. Here, it’s more confused. Those of us who have steered clear of gossip sites or promotional interviews may find ourselves, after the big showdown Mr. Glass has engineered, not certain what we have seen. Is Glass the least satisfying chapter of an often enjoyable, conceptually intriguing trilogy? Or is it an attempt to launch a broader Shyamalaniverse, in which ordinary men and women throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs will discover their own inspiring abilities