Split (2016)

Split (2016) movie poster

director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/05/2017 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Of course M. Night Shyamalan’s career will have a surprise twist ending to it, or maybe a lot of surprises, twisting, and it keeps on failing to end?

Shyamalan’s latest “comeback” is Split, a dissociative identity disorder thriller starring James McAvoy as a guy housing 23 personalities and abducting teenage girls. There’s no twist in this plot, you’ve seen it all in the trailers. Anya Taylor-Joy, whose remarkable countenance shined in The Witch (2015) is on display here, but in a much less effective role as the abductee Casey, whose withdrawn mien hides a dark past.

Shyamalan adds a sprinkling of paranormal to the multiple personalities trope, which doesn’t necessarily enliven or expand it (it was pretty tired already by the end of the 1960’s and modern psychiatry doesn’t quite agree with its portrayals.) But whatever.

I’m going to throw out a Spoiler Alert warning here because the “twist” at the end isn’t such a twist but rather a suggestion of “more to come”! As a thriller, Split is never too exciting, but as it builds to its end, this paranormal part, the story is capped with a last minute glimpse of Bruce Willis supposedly from his Unbreakable role. And that is the teaser because Shyamalan seems to be hinting at a Split/Unbreakable sequel, maybe turning his own filmography into its own cinematic universe.

I wish him luck because he really does need a new bag of tricks.

The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015) movie poster

director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/06/2016

Faux found footage is the last refuge of a director in career crisis.  Case in point, The Visit and M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan has been on a downslide ever since the world discovered him and The Sixth Sense (1999), and what a slide it’s been.  Though I’ve followed his career and watched his movies with increasing amounts of schadenfreude, even I jumped ship for After Earth (2013).

I’ve long disdained faux found footage, largely because it’s over-employed, typically without real creative interest, mainly for cheap camera-work and cheaper shocks.

And yet, The Visit is still probably Shyamalan’s best film in years.  It’s not great, maybe only good, but that’s a big leap up from The Last Airbender (2010).

Really, it could be considered distinctly ageist.  It’s horror of the elderly, terror of dementia.

The casting is a big part of the film’s success.  Olivia DeJonge is a stand-out as Becca, older sister of Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) who go to visit their estranged and never before met grandparents on at their rural house.  The grandparents, Deanna Dunagan playss Nana and Peter McRobbie is Pop Pop, veer back and forth between kindly old folks and increasingly disoriented and frightening weirdos, thanks to dementia and other ills of old age.

It’s got a Shyamalan twist of course, one you’ll probably see some miles away, but the film works in part because it’s not utterly clear from the very beginning exactly what the nature of the danger is.

Has Shyamalan made a comeback?  I watched a couple minutes of the “making of” featurette, which focused entirely on him and his “creative process”.  He may have made a minor success but believe me, the ego has not landed.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999) movie poster

director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 05/05/2013

The splash of 1999 (or one of them, at least) was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.  With craft and flair, the film was like a modern Twilight Zone episode, with the compelling story of a child psychiatrist, attempting to help a very troubled young boy, who sees dead people.  And of course, the surprise ending!  Which was a surprise if no one gave it away.  Right?  Both “I see dead people.” and the twist itself have moved on into cultural shorthand reference, while M. Night Shyamalan has become cultural shorthand for a one-hit wonder.

When The Sixth Sense came out, I, like many others at the time, were really impressed.  Bruce Willis was very good as the Philadelphia psychiatrist, whose failure comes back to haunt him. Toni Collette, as the single mother of the psychic boy, also was quite good.  And the other big talent besides Shyamalan that the film introduced us to was the boy himself, Haley Joel Osment, whose wise, vulnerable, amazing child not only delivered one of those great Hollywood movie lines, but totally compelled the audience of his character.

It’s actually Osment that brought me back to The Sixth Sense  for the first time since 1999.  In watching him in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the kids were totally blown away by him.  In fact, when he shows up in The Sixth Sense finally, Felix commented, “Hey, it’s my favorite kid!”  Both he and Clara were really, really impressed with his performance, and when I thought of what else I could show them that he had performed in, The Sixth Sense was sadly the only other film I thought probably worthwhile.

Osment appeared in other films, but not a whole lot.  He dropped out of the Hollywood limelight for some time so it seems, and is just now, at age 25, looking to get back in.  Whatever comes of his work henceforth it will not ever take away from his performances in The Sixth Sense and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  I would argue that he’s even better in A.I., but they are both wonderful, amazing performances.  Child performers are such unique expressions, often some mixture of their own pure nature and a director’s ability to draw performance out of them.  But Osment clearly had something truly amazing within his own abilities as a child.  He is most remarkable.

I kept the twist a secret from the kids (though it sort of confused them), first asking if Willis was dead when he got shot and then “What? He is dead?!” when the “reveal” comes.  I realized that another film from the same period that I was thinking of showing them operated on the same twist aspect (The Others (2001)) and I wanted them to see it as organically as possible, to see how it played out.

The film has its scary moments, though really, they are just a few, and occasionally just quick jolts.  They found it frightening.

I found it pretty good.  Shyamalan’s style is straight out of film school.  Which is both critique and compliment.  He’s very effective in his shots and sequences, he frames moments for punch, and works his story well.  He also tries to layer in aspects of meaning in color palattes, shot styles, and other stuff that might inspire and engross hardcore fans.

At the time it came out, I liked how he used his native Philadelphia as his location, as he would go on to do in many films afterward.  The personalization of that seemed nice and still some of the images, such as the car accident toward the end on the tree-lined street, have stuck with me over the years since I’d seen the film.

Shyamalan has become a bit of a punching bag for me since I began this blog.  His films have gotten progressively worse (though I have managed to see them all, haven’t I?)  I’ve always recalled The Sixth Sense  most positively and, now I can say I still do.  While it’s not a masterpiece of cinema, it is a very good, very effective piece of horror/supernatural filmmaking, far more tonal and atmospheric in its frights than in pure shock or gore.  And he did get that amazing performance from the young Osment.

It is a fine film.  Shyamalan’s best.  The kids both liked it quite a bit, too.

Devil

Devil (2010) movie poster

(2010) director John Erick Dowdle
viewed: 01/29/11

If you’re M. Night Shyamalan, you must not tune out the critics.  Undaunted by increasingly bad reviews of his own films, Shyamalan has spread his film production footprint into what is termed “The Night Chronicles,” a new series of films that he produces that are made from his “ideas” (he’s credited as having conceived the story), then written and directed by collaborators.  One assumes that he’s just got more stories than time and he wants to spread the love around.

Devil is the first of the “Night Chronicles” and features the kind of plot that Rod Serling might have made good use of on The Twilight Zone.   Five strangers are stuck on an elevator in a skyscraper in Philadelphia.  And one of them is the Devil in human form.

But Shyamalan is no Serling, there’s little wit in the ironies, and strangely a quite Puritanical religiosity to the story.  We are told, in a very leading and tedious voiceover narration, that the Devil is known to come to Earth in human form to torture some sinners that he’s about to take to Hell before he kills them.  This is chalked up to a traditional folklore.

But the people are varying types of sinners, liars, cheats, blackmailers, manslaughterers, and the film treats their crimes as unforgivable (largely).  As the horrified, helpless building people and police officers look on (via closed circuit television), the people start dying one by one as the lights flash off and they turn on one another, thinking that each other is the killer.  Only an insanely superstitious security worker (who turns out to be the narrator) susses out that this is the Devil at work and seems to understand all this chaos and strange shennanigans.  It’s funny that he’s the voice of reason becuase (while he’s right within the story), he sounds like a super-kook who should perhaps be locked up.

The characters are fleshed out in deft though facile fashion.  They are “types” with quick and easy  back-stories to explain who they are and why they are there.  And really, for as much flak as I am throwing at the story, the film is actually entertaining enough.  It’s not poorly made.  It is strangely judgmental and smug in its voice.  And the “final twist” is pretty easy to see coming from a pretty early point.

The irony, perhaps, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, is that “Hell is other people,” especially the thought of being trapped on an elevator with them for who knows how long.  Who needs the Devil, really?

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010) movie poster

(2010) director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 01/18/11

Eviscerated as it was by critics, one might wonder why anyone would bother seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.  Well, my curiosity, she is a morbid thing.  I’ve watched all of Shyamalan’s films with an increasing anticipation of their burgeoning badness, and having come this far, I can’t seem to help myself, I just keep being curious enough to see them.

What many critics stated, that while Shyamalan had made a number of bad films, this time he had made an utterly awful film.  An abomination.  An atrocity.  And this made it even more intriguing.

San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle listed The Last Airbender as the “worst film of 2010” in an article that he wrote about the dregs of moviegoing for last year.  In that article, he stated how he despises having to suffer through bad movies and doesn’t begin to understand why anyone would bother wasting their time watching a movie that is considered unparalleled garbage.  I disagree with a lot of LaSalle’s opinions about movies, but the question will always be asked, “Why bother seeing this movie if it’s supposed to be so worthless?”

Certainly, some bad movies can be fun.  Some bad movies really do make you feel sapped of life, a waste of one’s time.  Sometimes, like a car crash, you just have to look.  How can you really know unless you’ve seen it yourself?  How can you use it as a point of reference, as it might be useful, if you aren’t speaking from experience?

But really, like I said, it’s a morbid curiosity for me.

And you know, the funny thing?  As bad as The Last Airbender is, and it is indeed bad, it’s not nearly as atrocious as it’s been made out to be.  Now, if I’d paid $12 or so to see it in the theater with 3-D glasses in which its uninspiring effects looked all the more disappointing, I’m sure I’d have held more of a grudge against it.  But frankly, I can name at least five other movies from last year that I would consider even worse, ones I despised more greatly and even regretted having seen even more (Jonah Hex (2010), I’m Still Here (2010), Gulliver’s Travels (2010), Get Him to the Greek (2010), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), but let’s not name names).

The thing is that The Last Airbender is such a complex and convoluted, yet not very sophisticated, narrative, a fantasy with an ornate yet hollow backstory, that I don’t think that there could have been a good movie made of the material.  Now Shyamalan did write the script, so he’s certainly responsible for this lame action film however you slice it, it’s not even his worst movie.  For my money, his worst film is Lady in the Water (2006) because it’s such a personal, obnoxious and pretentious, condescending…  I’m not here to defend The Last Airbender, just to give it some context.

Adapted from a Nickelodeon television animated show that was developed by Americans but produced to look like anime, it’s not sacred material.  The story of a fantasy world where there are nations of water, earth, air, and fire, who are held in balance by an “avatar” who went missing 100 years before, it’s not terribly compelling.  Certain members of each tribe can “bend” their element (make it move and shape it like a telekinetic power), but the “avatar” can command all four.  It turns out that he was a kid, trapped in ice for 100 years.  In his absence, the fire nation has taken over the world, throwing things “out of balance”.

Interestingly, he’s a lot like a super-powered Dalai Lama, reborn time and again, recognized by monks and raised from childhood as this powerful holy dude.  If there is some meta reading of this narrative about Tibet’s plight in the world, I’m not sure where to take it.  The Last Airbender was criticized for its casting of non-Asians in roles that were clearly and significantly Asian in the original series.  Why the fire nation is the one group that looks Indian, I don’t begin to know what kind of strange readings are available from that angle.

Anyways, it’s a bad movie.  Too much convoluted story, dull performances, non-engaging characters, and a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, certainly.  What happens to Shyamalan’s career after this?  I find myself asking this after each film of his comes out.  They keep letting him make movies.  He’s even producing others that have his “stamp” on them.  Well, I’m sure he’s not done yet.  But it’s a pretty safe bet that this is the last Last Airbender.

The Happening

The Happening (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 11/01/08

At this point, watching an M. Night Shyamalan is more an excercise in morbid curiosity than actual hope of seeing a good film.  It is possible that Shyamalan hit his nadir in his previous work, Lady in the Water (2006), in which his ego-stroking narrative placed him at the God-like apex.  With his career in serious doubts, he tries to strip it back.  A genre thriller.  Simple and straight-forward.

Oh yeah, and this time…it’s potentially gory.  This is his first R-rated film.

And there was actually a marketing campaign around such a silly thing.

This time there’s no surprise ending, per se.  The mystery of what’s “happening”, that people all over the Eastern Seaboard are suddenly committing mass suicide, is related to the environment.  It’s an eco-film.  The pseudo science behind it is a little hard to fathom, but no less silly than his easily defeated aliens in Signs (2002).

The best sequences are early on.  A couple of shots in particular.  When one workman falls from a high rise construction project, a crowd amasses, calling 911, feeling sympathy for their friend.  Then Boom! another.  Then Boom! another. Then Boom! Boom! Boom!  And the culminating shot, looking upward, as bodies just step off into nothingness and fall.  It’s an eerie image.

Also, there is a shot in stalled traffic, with the camera low, below the waist of the charcters who had just been introduced, suddenly start shooting themselves one-by-one with the policeman’s handgun.  One drops dead, drops the gun, the next strides into frame to pick it up and do the same.  Again, an effectively conceived scene, photographed with narrative impact.

But the film itself can’t hold up the intensity.  Shyamalan is no shock-guru.  He doesn’t pour on the emotional shocks nor the visual, nor the horrific, not even the shocking.  After a while, the killing and suicides are monotonous.  Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are typically bland Shyamalan good guys, meant to be read as your average Joes, people you know, sympathize with.  But it’s not interesting.  It’s not tense.

What is kind of interesting in Shyamalan’s work is his populating the stories with your pan-global nationalities as average Americans.  Also his setting his films in and around his native Philadelphia.  Oddly, the thing that struck me this time is his relationship between the city and the countryside.  In Signs and then again in The Village (2004), and again here, in the mass exodus away from the endangered cities, his portrayal of country life is one of hardcore throwback, a small-town, rural America verging on the delusional.

I am guessing that there is something going on between his city world and his rural universe, Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania is an odd place, backwards, unlike his suburban and urban soft Americana.  But maybe he’s right.  Maybe we should be afraid of nature.

Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 12/25/06

I’d read a lot of amusing critiques of this film over the summer when it was playing in theaters.  I was recalling 2002 when he released Signs and Time Magazine declared him to be the “new Spielberg”.  Something about being so anointed made sense.  This is clearly what he was aiming for, a very well-produced mainstream series of films with some fantasy aspect through them all (of course Spielberg plays the field a lot more, works with a lot more range than that).  Of course, Shyamalan writes all his own work which may well become his undoing.

This film has a bit of an interesting back-story, as Shyamalan had this film at Disney and apparently took it elsewhere when some “creative conflicts” arose.  This can easily be read, and perhaps I have more explicitly read, that Disney thought this film wasn’t quite right and Shyamalan took his creative control and finished his vision elsewhere, undaunted.  Now this is an issue for many a filmmaker over the years.  The studio disagrees with their vision, makes changes, often ruins the work.  And in most of these stories, it was the filmmaker who was right, the artist against the corporate machine.  In this case, one has to wonder whether or not Disney was right.

Shyamalan certainly sees himself as a creative genius.  Between the book that was written about this film’s creation, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and his American Express commercial that he starred in, showing him in a restaurant surrounded by his imaginitive fancies all literally appearing around him (the creative mind of the writer exposed), it seems clear that Shyamalan is developing a bit of an ego and perhaps a Jesus complex.

Actually, that is all part of what attracted me to see the film.  I like bad movies as well as good ones, and this film is basically a treatise on his genius and has explicit stabs at his critics.  Not to go into the convoluted narrative, which grew from a bedtime story that Shyamalan told to his daughters, but basically, a water nymph comes to find the man who is going to save the world with his writing (she is named “Story” by the way unless anyone misses the point of the fairy tale) and who should it turn out to be?  None other than the director/writer/actor Shyamalan himself.  He is going to write a book that will inspire great positive change in the world, but he will die before his time as a result of writing it.

If Mel Gibson was a little more fantastical in his interests, he might have been very jealous to see someone else cop the self-as-Jesus thing.

It’s a piece of megalomania.  And when the one unlikeable character in the film, a soulless film and book critic (are there any other kind?), begins to outwardly read the narrative, saying explicitly that “this is like a bad movie”  and that “this is what is happening”, it’s a moment of breaking the diegesis and self-referencing up the yin-yang, and of course, he gets his comeuppance by being the only one in the whole film to be killed.

Lady in the Water is almost awful.  The story is hilariously ridiculous and scenes when the neighbors all band together to talk the gobbledygook of the fairy tale, taking themselves serious as a heart attack, it’s pretty goddam funny.  It’s an amazing piece in that sense, such a ego-tripping, self-reflexive commentary on the magic of creativity of the artist while being completely goofy and ridiculous.  It’s insane.

But where can he go after this?  Much speculation is on that he will not get to work from one of his own scripts, and this could be a good thing for him at this point.  Who knows?  A man who has made a career off of one decent film, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, he might just keep going.

Signs

Signs (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/21/03

When this film was released theatrically, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story touting M. Night Shyamalan as the “new Spielberg” or something. From what I read, this would clearly be his ambition, to make box office-friendly genre films very slickly and imbue them with auteur-like meanings and character. His first feature film that I saw, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, clearly made it seem as though he had the right stuff for making a run at his goal. But both Unbreakable (2000) and now Signs show his formulae and bag of tricks as increasingly worn and transparent.

Signs wasn’t marketed well, in my mind. The crop circles thing is not inherently spooky to me, but rather something that has been pretty much clearly evidenced as hoaxes and are almost downright silly. Really, Signs is an alien invasion film, focused on the effect such a thing has on a single, isolated family in a small town. From that angle, it’s a pretty good pitch, though in execution it lands wide of the mark.

In Signs, Shyamalan becomes more heavyhanded with his subtext, positing the protagonist as an ex-minister who has forsaken his faith after his wife’s death. Faith and redemption are his themes, which, I would guess any child could see. In this sense, maybe he is truly evolving to a more Spielbergian style, employing blatant dewy-eyed emotion, though I would be willing to guess that he hasn’t such a cynical attitude about his idol.

There are some seriously stupid plot holes that really yank all credibility away from this film. This will sound insipid, but here goes (don’t read for spoiler stuff). For the aliens, who invade the skies over the entire Earth and have seemingly come to take over, water is like acid. Simple plain ordinary water. For a planet that is like two-thirds underwater and one in which rain frequently falls on those parts not already underwater, this seems like a pretty dangerous endeavor. But more strikingly, these aliens, who have managed to fly in from who-know-where and trample corn stalks, cannot open a locked door even though they can break in a window.

I kept thinking of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), in which the aliens were defeated by the yodeling of Slim Whitman. This is just the sort of 1950’s camp scenarios that Burton’s film was lampooning. The solution to the alien problem is much more simple than anyone would have thought!

At times, Shyamalan frames shots well and occasionally pulls off certain scenes quite cleverly and aesthetically. But in this film, I could almost imagine his storyboards as I was watching the film, see him thinking this out rather than experiencing this. This could be called “When Formulae Go Bad”.

My step-mother thought that this was one of the worst films that she had ever seen and frequently laughed out loud at dramatic moments. I wouldn’t go as far as placing it in any pantheon of badness, but I could easily see the humor in the emoted performances of Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. I could almost see this film become a camp-classic.

Another reading that this film should inherently receive, being released almost a year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, is one that asks the question of what the aliens represent. This film has a truly all-American setting, with even a baseball player and baseball bat as key hero and weapon, respectively. Aliens have often been an almost literal representation, in a sense, that they represent “others” who are “alien” to the primary way of life represented.

The state of alert and boarding of windows in the film clearly echoed with the contemporary “real” fear and preparations recommended by the Homeland Security Chief, Tom Ridge, last week. In the case of Signs, one might posit that the duct tape does work, since the aliens (with their poison gas, no less) couldn’t break into the family’s stronghold. How political of a commentary is this film? I would hazard a guess, with its anticipated happy ending and rather simple resolution, that if it is making a political statement, it is one that suggests that everything will be okay. But, to quote the bard, George Michael, “We gotta have faith.” Preferably non-denominational?

Unbreakable

Unbreakable (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 08/01/02

Finally got around to seeing this film, long since it was a film of note. But with M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Signs, opening this coming weekend, it seemed as good a time as any to finally catch it on DVD.

I think a lot of people found this film disappointing after 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which is understandable, since it really isn’t quite as good. Its tone is consistantly low-key, so much so, that the anticipated surprise ending for me was the moment that the credits rolled. I thought, “That’s it?”

The press likes to tout Shyamalan as the new Spielberg. In fact, I think Newsweek of Time has a tie-in cover story on him that says as much. It’s an apt comparison. Shyamalan seeks to reinvigorate some traditional genres of films, and he clearly sees himself in line with classic Hollywood styles.

At times, he employs really formal, interesting camera work, stuff that feels heavily planned and story-boarded. The camera movement and focus echoes of as much of Hitchcock as of early Spielberg. Shyamalan’s films evoke this while still trying to feel contemporary.

For me, his adherence to shooting on location in Philadelphia and the outlying region is quite admirable. It adds a particular personal edge to the films, situating them in a beautifully-photographed actual space, with its inherent character. With his native’s eye for his hometown, I think it truly adds something to his films. It is pervasive here, too.

An article that I was just reading about him suggested that his first two films were about protagonists that had to “find out who they really were” in order to make a change in their lives. It also focused on some spirituality that he aspires for, and Unbreakable is clearly interested in “faith”. Maybe I haven’t had enough time to fully process this film,…I don’t have anything further to add to these notions. As with any work of art, there are meanings that are “intended” and meanings that are “inferred”, and with those “intended” meanings out there on the table, I am not sure what I inferred in my reading of the film. I think, if anything, I would look at the intent eye of his camera, they way that it depicts scenes, carefully showing what it wants, to provide a wordless narrative. I think that some of these types of moments are Shyamalan’s best, as they tell the story in a very visual manner, yet inflecting the narrative via the camera’s control of the subjects.