Sunday, June 2, 2013

CINEFESSIONAL: I AM (STILL) A HARDCORE M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN FAN

Please, Father, hear my confession...




Whenever I have something to get off my film geek chest, particularly an unfashionable opinion, I come here to whisper it through the lattice. Whomever will hear will hear. I am fully aware that words I say in these segments will dampen my (albeit minuscule)  reputation in the film community, but honesty is a policy I revere and mirror. Most importantly, my deep, dark cinematic secrets will surely help one better understand the movie buff I am, if not threatening my very status as one. 


(Curator's Note: The above still comes from In Bruges, the modern masterpiece with a most memorable scene revolving around a confessional. I also stumbled upon this unique list over on The Film School Rejects when looking for that frame, "The Top 10 Confession Scenes in Modern Film.")

Today's confession:

Father, I am (still) a hardcore M. Night Shyamalan fan.


In Opening



Later this morning Nancy and I will be heading to the AMC multiplex in Century City to behold the latest film by M. Night Shyamalan, "After Earth." Billboards for this event are everywhere. On some intersections they've even bought out two spots to separately show the father poster (Will Smith) and the son poster (Jaden Smith). I particularly like how in the above example the former is higher than the latter. Notice it's the Smiths selling this picture, not M. Night Shyamalan. Even the trailers are free of "An M. Night Shyamalan Film" or "A Bedtime Story by M. Night Shyamalan." (Remember the trailer for "Lady in the Water"? Possibly one of the best utilizations of the auteur theory in marketing ever tacked on to the back of an excellent trailer of its own right.) Which reminds me, on Thursday, the day the critics were able to break their silence on "After Earth," a co-worker showed me this article, "After Auteur: How M. Night Shyamalan Became Just Another Director." 

I will reserve updated judgement until after I see "After Earth," but with his previous film being the widely-panned and largely-commercial "The Last Airbender" it is hard to argue with that fact. I cannot and we should not forget M. Night was one of the premiere American filmmakers of the first half of this last decade. After catching the world's attention with "The Sixth Sense" he had as strong and varied a string as any director you could name: "Unbreakable," "Signs," and "The Village." The latter was the most divisive and ever since then he has dwindled from the spotlight, become a hiss and a byword, become not so much a joke as an insult, and has in most people's eyes fallen from grace. 

Over the past several years I've become a self-proclaimed "Shyamalan Apologist." Yes, even using that term signifies that there's something to be sorry for. I acknowledge myriad flaws of his more recent films, but I perceive it has become increasingly popular to hate on Shyamalan. Take the exact same versions of "The Last Airbender" or "The Happening" and slap on another name or, better yet, a no-name and I honestly think it would have garnered significantly less venom from critics and/or audience avoidance. It's not easy to defend the man these days. I've found plenty of occasions to do so in one-on-one conversations, but when his name comes up in a group I usually fall silent. Especially when I hear things like, "'The Last Airbender' was so terrible! I turned it off after ten minutes!'" I heard that in a social gathering of cinephiles earlier this week. Let this suffice for my introduction. I will be writing on each of M. Night's films from "The Sixth Sense" to "After Earth;" thus, making it a point to examine this misunderstood and under-appreciated filmmaker overall. In the very least he is a fascinating artist and storyteller. It's telling that he's able to induce so much passion (be it positive or negative). In many ways that's more important than those who create only to garner uninspired or un-opinionated reactions. In the very least you must give Shyamalan that.

Now, off to see "After Earth"!

...

So, I'm back from "After Earth" and even more ready to write the rest of this post. I'll be writing/posting a review of that film tomorrow so seek that out for more specifically on "After Earth." What I'm going to do here is share my thoughts and personal realtionship with each Shyamalan film starting from "The Sixth Sense." I am well aware that he has two previous '90s features to his name: his debut "Praying with Anger" and "Wide Awake." These are the ones that hardly anybody has heard of or seen these days. I actually just found out that "Wide Awake" is streaming on Netflix and Hulu! I may have to give that one a go. "Praying with Anger" on the otherhand will be a harder movie to track down. It's not available on disc or digital format. If the forums of IMDb are to be believed M. Night bought the rights to the movie after "The Sixth Sense" to ensure nobody would ever see it... It's like what Hitchcock did with the book "Psycho," albeit for very different reasons.

The Sixth Sense (1999)



I was but a 10-year-old when I saw this film in theaters. My Dad and I would occasionally do double-features on Saturdays. We went to the Jordan Commons Megaplex on State Street. We first saw Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" (only in Utah theaters...) and followed it up with "The Sixth Sense." Prior to our viewing of it my oldest sister had seen the film on a date and came home utterly petrified. She ended up spending the night in my parents' room. I'd seen the ads and heard the buzz (as much as I could as kid and in that pre-internet-centered film age), I was excited as could be. Up to that point in my life this was the scariest thing I'd ever seen. Easily. I still remember closing my eyes during a certain scene and my Dad leaning over to accuse, "Are you closing your eyes?" "No!" I retorted with open eyes. I wasn't about to let him think I was a puss. Oh, but I was.

This was a film that merited and rewarded subsequent viewings. Knowing the "twist" really gave audiences an entirely different perspective on the events. Knowing this is a sixth sense of its own. When a neighbor told us how prominent yet specific red was in the film and that its use always signified death I had yet another reason to examine the film. This was a DVD my family was sure to acquire. My second sister once brought me into her room to watch one of the scenes sans audio (Cole's midnight bathroom trip) and we learned together how effective and vital the sound design and soundtrack are to a horror film's potential scariness.



"The Sixth Sense" was an absolute zeitgeist: the most talked about film that year, a golden goose at the box office, a critical darling and an insane crowd-thriller. "I see dead people" has become as iconic a line as "You're gonna need a bigger boat!" The comparison to a Steven Spielberg film is especially apt because "The Sixth Sense" was the summer blockbuster to put Shyamalan on the map just as "Jaws" did for Mr. Spielberg back in '75. It was after this success that M. Night Shyamalan became a household name, an honor few directors have achieved over the years. He would later be heralded as "the next Spielberg."

Of the eight Shyamalan films I've seen I feel this to be his tightest work to date. In film school we analyzed the living room scene between Cole and Dr. Crowe. Tak Fujimoto's patient camera is as much to praise as the incredible performances from Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis. As a subscriber to the auteur theory several characteristics first distinguished themselves herein, only to be supported by Shyamalan's later films: that careful addition of red, the Philadelphia region, use of long takes, director cameos (a la Hitchcock), and, of course, a twist ending.  This also kicked off his now 14-year-long relationship with James Newton Howard who would score each of Shyamalan's subsequent films.

I can't say enough good things about "The Sixth Sense," from the shocking opening to the absolutely deserved endings for the two main characters. It's become a permanent pop culture resident (from T-shirts to movie spoofs, and a particularly genius use in "50 First Dates), even garnering a deserved spot upon the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films of All-Time. For me, the best part of "The Sixth Sense" is that it introduced the world to  M. Night Shyamalan.

Unbreakable (2000)



Just a year after "The Sixth Sense" M. Night released "Unbreakable." Bruce Willis returned to work with the director as the star of what was a mysterious, unexpected and unprecedented superhero film. It's unlike any other we've seen before or since; it's not based on any comic or cartoon, though certainly feels their influence. The super-villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, actually runs a comic book store. Despite it's subject matter this is far from an action movie and does what I would argue Shyamalan does best, puts two or three people in a room and lets them talk.

Shyamalan is well-known as a writer and director. Many known auteurs have this calling, but in reality its far from the norm. As a father (and perhaps a boy that never grew up himself) M. Night thinks up excellent dialogue for children and adults alike. Speaking of which, you might as well add children to that Shyamalan checklist.

This film didn't do half as good as "The Sixth Sense" did in its day, commercially or critically, but it has gathered a cult following over the years. I myself didn't catch up with the film until 3 years ago. My roommate at the time told me it was terrible (as he told me about "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" too). I watched both and love both. I still want to get a list from him of movies he hates. At this rate/record it's bound to be a list of terrific films. Oh, and for what it's worth this film also made Quentin Tarantino's list of favorite movies since he's been making movies, a video wherein he calls the director Shyamalongadingdong, something I also sometimes now refer to him as. When I make an inevitable list of greatest superhero films I can't think of one that would top this one.

Signs (2002)



"Signs" was another big hit for the filmmaker. For years I felt that he made this movie for me, or at least that I saw it in the best way possible. Let me explain. It was exactly three years after "The Sixth Sense" terrified and inspired me that I went with a friend to a commercial shoot at a theater. We were to be extras. In lieu of pay the theater owners let us go see a movie on the house. Most of the participants, my friend included, went into "The Master of Disguise" which opened on the same day. There was only one possible option for me. I settled into one of the back rows of the large and practically empty theater. I remember there being a small group of three seated near the front. They felt miles away. And then the movie began... Remember how I said "The Sixth Sense" was the scariest film I had ever seen up to that point? "Signs" obliterated that personal record. Scary is unbelievably subjective, perhaps even more so than funny. In many ways the two are polar opposites, the one leaving you paranoid and panicked, the other leaving you elated and amused. Funny films are best seen with others, laughter is contagious and comedy is social. I'd argue that horror films are best seen alone. In the dark. In an empty theater. When you're thirteen.

M. Night Shyamalan has no idea what "Signs" did to me that night. I was so scared that I could not even close my eyes if I tried. The scene wherein Joaquin Phoenix's character is watching the news  footage from that Brazilian birthday party and we get our first glimpse of the aliens, in broad daylight no less... I'm certain that if you shined a flashlight in my mouth at that moment you'd see my heart coming out of my throat. 

Mel Gibson and Phoenix were a fantastic pairing as brothers living in rural Pennsylvania. Shyamalan's dialogue continues to shine when it's poured through such talent. The day/night dichotomy, the plight of an angry priest, the ever impending doom of our planent as experienced in the microcosm of a terrifying cornfield - "Signs" has the building blocks of a genre classic. The climax was a bit anticlimactic in actually showing the alien full-on in a sunlight-seeped living room. Any reliance on a CGI humanoid is risky and it's one of the films few flaws.

The Village (2004)



This is Shyamalan's masterpiece, though I certainly didn't know it when I first saw it. In fact, after seeing this in theaters (about five years after "The Sixth Sense" by this time) I remember turning to my mother and cousins and hyperbolically proclaiming that it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen. If ever there's an age to not trust your own opinions, especially about art (and this film more than any of Shyamalan's others qualifies itself as art), it's in your teens. I probably would've also told you around that age that "Mission: Impossible II" was a great film, though you can see here that I've come to my senses. Then again, maybe you're reading this and thinking that I'm still insane. I remember learning that Roger Ebert loathed this movie. It may be the only instance where I've given my highest score to a film that he gave  a single star. I would've said "Amen" to his review back in 2004, but upon revisiting it, especially with a particularly personal viewing I had two years ago, I have turned around completely on it.



The stunning photography by Roger Deakins (one of our greatest living cinematographers) and exquisitely pained score by James Newton Howard show and speak for themselves. Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson and Cherry Jones each give some of their best work within this parable of civilized society. The ideas behind the curtain and the symbolism found throughout Ivy's (Howard) quest elevated this far above a mere summer movie. Perhaps this movie should have been released in the autumn. It was a maturation of Shyamalan's eye for beauty and ear for truth. The conversation between Ivy and Lucius (Phoenix) on the porch, a long take in and of itself, may be my favorite in all of Shyamalan's films.

By this point in Shyamalan's career we could see another thread persevering through his canon: the theme of learning to understand your fear and taking the steps to replace it with faith. Perhaps more than any other contemporary studio-backed American filmmaker Shyamalan has brought such spiritual luggage along for his career. It's bold and often unpopular, but I've always appreciated the teachings.

Lady in the Water (2006)



After the divisive results of "The Village" here was the film to officially signal the widespread jumping off from S.S. M. Night. I've already spoken of the brilliant marketing behind this outing. I was far from any theater that summer and unable to play the part of a patron. I caught up with it sometime later only to find his most unusual offering yet. This is also probably the one I most need to revisit, but I remember being engaged by Cleveland Heep's (the great Paul Giamatti) discovery, sidetracked by the eclectic denizens of the apartment complex he lives/works at, and utterly baffled by where it all goes.

In attempting to fathom the seemingly universal hatred of M. Night, especially from "the critics," I tend to cite the film critic of a tenant played by Bob Balaban in this film. He's killed off in "Lady in the Water," but only after a brilliant meta monologue. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but ever since Shyamalan stuck it to this character they've been sticking it to him. I won't deny that his last four films are (mostly) nowhere near the previous four, but even then the calumny they've been dealt feels so far from justified.

The Happening (2008)



Enter "The Happening," and just as I bring up the term "justify"... This film bewilders us all to this day.  Even I, a Shyamalan apologist, cannot go to bat for this film. My main problem is that I don't understand the why behind "The Happening." Someone as wise and discerning as M. Night has hitherto fore proven to be releasing this is beyond me. I have to think he's somehow aware (hopefully even purposeful) in churning out a B-movie, which is what this most certainly is, at best.

The subject matter cannot be remotely taken seriously and certainly not through the performances of Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Wahlberg is in his wide-eyed earnest and oblivious mode, which miraculously worked in "Boogie Nights, but anywhere else feels parodical. There's some impressive shooting by Tak Fujimoto, but that's about where my compliments end. The germ of the idea (sans the explanations provided in-film) is worth exploring, but seeing mass suicide is hardly entertaining and so I don't know what else we can do with this schlocky happening. This was also advertised as Shyamalan's first R-rated film. They should have upped the ridiculousness (perhaps in hopes of reaching cult status) instead of trying for restricted.


The Last Airbender (2010)



Shyalaman continued to perplex us when he was slated to direct the live-action adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender." The initial teaser was promising but before the movie even hit screens it received a storm of bad press due to its casting controversy, namely white folk playing Asian characters. As with "The Happening" this film suffered from its cast; even if Dev Patel played a pretty good Prince Zuko, Noah Ringer was wrong for the lead role (regardless of his skin color). Nonetheless, "The Last Airbender" was an interesting version (trying to cram an entire season into a single feature) and a sometimes visually spectacular failure. The poorly post-converted 3D did not do this film any favors, which is how many hopeful spectators saw it in those post-"Avatar" months. One thing I truly appreciated about this film was its use of uninterrupted shots for the action sequences. In this "Bourne" generation we've been assaulted with quick shots and even quicker cuts. At times it's indiscernible and completely reeling (whether that's the intention or not). There is not enough credit given to Andrew Lesnie, who also shot "The Lord of the Rings" series of films. I actually look forward to watching this one again.

After Earth (2013)



Which brings me to "After Earth," the latest film by M. Night Shyamalan. He has trekked into science-fiction territory (again, another unexpected turn) and delivered another allegory about fear. The good great news is that I can see M. Night digging back to his roots, both thematically and technically. I will be writing much more about "After Earth" in my upcoming review, but I was as pleasantly surprised afterwards as I was upon initial announcement. The critical mass has spoken its disapproval again, but even if they feel he's now just a "director for hire" I honestly see that seasoned auteur getting his foothold again and making his comeback.

In Closing



There's quite a bit a more I'd like to address in the future, particularly about marketing for M. Night's films. The fine accomplishment, and controversy, that is "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan" particularly deserves recognition. Also, Shyamalan was a producer and held the story credit for "Devil," an overlooked and enticing film from 2010 - another voice to this conversation about spirituality in his work.

Here's my ranking of the eight films I've seen and discussed:


8. The Happening
7. The Last Airbender
6. Lady in the Water
5. After Earth
4. Signs
3. The Sixth Sense
2. Unbreakable
1. The Village.

Notice how the first four chronologically are also the top four in ranking. It's clear that Shyamalan has been out of synch post-"The Village," but he is constantly trying new things and I cannot fault him or anyone for doing that.



If/when I see "Wide Awake" and "Praying with Anger" I can factor them into this list and do a complete auteur write-up for M. Night Shyamalan, who is, as I hope to have demonstrated here today, one of my favorite storytellers. I don't know about the rest of the world, but I'm hopeful in waiting for his next bedtime story.

Until next time, Father. Stay classy.

Click here to read more Cinefessionals.

Updated 11/15/13

3 comments:

Greg Williams said...

I am happy to hear your confession and realize your true identity as a Shyamalan apologist! I share many of the sentiments you express here, especially concerning "The Village" which continues to stay with me. I think I will go see After Earth now, and perhaps seek to be a little less critical. "Lady in the Water" is one of the few films I have ever turned off half way through - I couldn't take it. But if there is anything I know about great artists, they don't great a masterpiece every single time, and yet they can still produce fabulous things.

Bryson and Tara said...

So...in the spirit of confessing that you're a Shyamalan apologist...you also decided to confess what a coward I was, that I couldn't even sleep in my own room after watching "The Sixth Sense". Thanks a lot! This was an interesting post though, and I'm sure I'll see "After Earth" sometime in the near future. I don't remember "Unbreakable" at all, even though I saw it in the theatre... I may have to revisit that one. I agree with you that "The Village" is VERY good.

Josh Matern said...

I've always considered "Unbreakable" one of the best "superhero" films ever. I would love to have more superhero films of that style and I praise Shyamalan for pioneering it.

To me, Shyamalan gets a bad rap from a lot of people, and I think he is often underrated. That's not to say all of his films were great, but he has delivered and I think will deliver great movies.

By the way, who was that roommate you mentioned? Did he happen to be mine too?