M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN!
So friends, what do we make of one M. Night Shyamalan? Has there ever been a more polarizing mainstream filmmaker this side of Ed Wood or Uwe Boll? Seriously? Or at least, among so called "A-list" filmmakers? Because, let's face it, the narrative on M. Night's career seems to be one devolving from undeniable wunderkind early on in his career to irredeemable hack as of late. A man that never fully realized the grand potential flashed in his first genre feature...a man that has paved a wildly successful moviemaking career despite a decade plus of diminishing quality. Is this an opinion you subscribe to? What about THE VISIT? Did M. Night's newest movie mark a return to form? I thought so, if only in part, and certainly think that, as long as he remains under a miniscule budget and avoid the clunky FX-laden action pabulum, he can back on track for good.
Anyway, all of this, as well as discussion on M. Night flicks like THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, SIGNS, THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, DEVIL, THE LAST AIRBENDER, AFTER EARTH, future projects and more are on the table this week as we finally, at long last, Dissect the career of M. Night Shyamalan!
Opinions are sure to vary, just as they are on the photo above, but come one, no other single line from any of M. Night's movies resonates the way "I see dead people" has continued to do for well over 16 years now. Shite's iconic! I can't believe we're actually about to liken Shyamalan with Orson Welles, but really, has there ever been a filmmaker that started off with such a globally resounding bang, only to fall off quite substantially with each subsequent release to the point of becoming a castigated semi-laughing-stock in the industry? Look, THE SIXTH SENSE is no CITIZEN KANE, not even close as a B-movie counterpart, and there's really no justified parallel between Welles and Shyamalan (after all, THE SIXTH SENSE was actually M. Night's third feature), but it's hard not to think of M. Night's career at least partially failing to live up to the great promise made by his jaw-dropping showstopper of a first genre feature. Granted, it was an impossibly high-bar to set and continuously meet, but the overarching consensus seems to say that M. Night has spent the last 15 years trying to recapture the universally adored magic he found with his unpredictably twisty debut thriller.
Perhaps the best thing about THE SIXTH SENSE though is watching it a second time. Sure, the first go around is sure to be the most memorable for what an utter wind-knocking gut-shot the final reveal amounts to, but trust us, the richness is in the encore. It's then that all the subtle clues, covert allusions, visual hints, pertinent lines of dialogue and the like all come together to fit like a wonderful puzzle that completely tricked your ass the first time around. Of course, much of this has to do with the incredibly precocious performance of Haley Joel Osment as the not so subtly named Cole Sear (seer) to guide us through his tormented POV. Full disclosure, when seeing the flick for the first time when I was 16 or 17 or so, I turned to my sister halfway through and said, "what's up with Bruce Willis in this flick, dude looks dead." That turned out to be exactly the case, though I hadn't quite made the leap that his character was indeed a ghost...I just thought that as an actor, Willis seemed a bit lifeless in the flick. Go f*cking figure!
But hey, if THE SIXTH SENSE is the obvious topper in Shyamalan's CV, then we'd be remiss not to mention UNBREAKABLE has his most unheralded counterpart. Not quite a hidden gem (see below), but certainly not as celebrated as it ought to be either. A shame, as it's clearly M. Night's most mature, meditative movie to date. If you happened to miss it, the flick reunites the great screen team of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson (PULP FICTION, DIE HARD 3: WITH A VENGEANCE), and essentially posits the question of...what would you do if you suddenly learned you were Superman. But instead of a bombastic sensationalist comic book sensibility - loud, crass and full of explosions - M. Night essays such a lofty premise with a raw intimacy that is not only unexpected, but quite effective in telling this particular story. See, David Dunn (Willis) plays a character who comes away completely unscathed after a fatal train-crash left each of his fellow 131 passengers dead. Elijah Price (Jackson) comes along to confront Dunn with a rather fanciful theory of his own, one that seems to reveal more and more merit as the film unfolds. It's a complex and contemplative movie, studded by fine performances, and the one that, while still very good, bares almost no resemblance to the rest of M. Night's more populist pictures. It stands alone.
Oh dear, take your pick. For every connected homerun swing, there's been some awfully epic M. Night strikeouts, has there not? Good gravy! The substandard roster of Shyamalan fare likely starts post-SIGNS with THE VILLAGE and THE LADY IN THE WATER, but for my wasted money, I'd say the two that really stick out as the man's pictorial perigees are THE LAST AIRBENDER and AFTER EARTH. Now, since former really doesn't cotton to the AITH agenda, we'll instead take more time to lambaste what the hell was going on with Big Willy Smith and his androgynous son Jaden in the woefully atrocious sci-fi debacle that is...AFTER EARTH!
I mean, good God, what a dismal time at the movies, right? And as much as we'd like to place sole blame on M. Night, let's take a look at some of the facts. First off, Will Smith is the one credited with conceiving the story. Strike one. Strike two? Hiring videogame scribe Gary Whitta to co-write the script, a task that, when Shyamalan's at his best, is done alone. Then of course, the third strike has to be the gross nepotistic miscasting of Jaden Smith as the movie's primary conduit. Not at all a wise move. Strike three! Perhaps most upsetting about AFTER EARTH though...even more than the asinine story, boring action scenes and embarrassingly bad CGI...is the utter profligacy. There's no goddamn way a movie that inept should come with an estimated $130 million price tag. No way in a flame-roasted hell! Not only did the film all but end Jaden Smith's acting career before it ignited (at least that's one positive of the film), it also made M. Night recalibrate the economy of his own moviemaking. After taking a critical and financial drubbing with AFTER EARTH, Shyamalan scaled back over $120 million for his next movie THE VISIT ($5 million). The critical and financial return? Far better for business on all accounts!
Even the slightest glance can spot a number of M. Night signatures among his movies. Philadelphia as a setting, for example, is a clear consistency throughout his work. THE SIXTH SENSE, SIGNS, UNBREAKABLE, THE VILLAGE and DEVIL all take place in or around Philly. Beyond that, we know that much like Alfred Hitchcock, the director tends to make cheeky cameos in most to all of his flicks. Recurring imagery regarding spirals, broken mirrors and/or the use of water as impending doom can all be traced throughout his work, particularly in superior works THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS. Car crashes, basements scenes, reflective images of characters in shiny surfaces...all too technical and aesthetic tricks taken from M. Night's bag.
Really though, the number one thing M. Night is surely known for is the use of a twist or surprise ending. It started with THE SIXTH SENSE, and a carries right on through to his latest flick, THE VISIT. Thing is, it's almost as if Shyamalan became aware of being known as the twisty-ending guy...and as a result, began pandering to such, almost feeling the need to include it in every movie some kind of major pivot or unexpected reveal. And as a result, the twists have waned in their effectiveness, at times felt forced, becoming more of a gimmicky crutch than a truly thrilling plot device. Just to take THE VISIT as the most recent example, I personally thought that the twist in that film is not only quite easy to spot...but actually added nothing to the story. I'm actually of the opinion that the movie would work just as well, if not better, had there been no twist at all. As I stated in my review, I felt the twist felt more like an addition by Shyamalan to sate the expectations of his fans, rather than functioning as a legitimately earned "oh shit" moment. But whether we argue the merits of the twist or not, in specific or in general, the shock-ending is most certainly, for better or worse, the primary calling card of an M. Night movie.
We've found a pair of pressurized diamonds wedged in the back of M. Night's nightstand, one he's only peripherally involved with, and another that isn't a very good movie at all...but so damn entertaining in its misfired ineptitude that we can't help but want to string it up and adorn it for all to see. Ladies, gents...allow us to convince you all of the invaluable merits of yes, DEVIL and THE HAPPENING!
Chronologically, THE HAPPENING came about first, so let's start there. And by start I mean let's collectively throw our arms in the air and sigh..."WHAT THE F*CK?!?" Seriously, the true AITH faithful knows what unabashed fans we are of THE HAPPENING and how we love to get together and make fun of the flick as a so-goddamn-awful-it's-too-good-to-be-missed-marvel. It's really that simple. Better yet, our sentiment regarding the film has never been better mirrored than by the image above of stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. The interminably etched scowl of confusion...the abject uncertainty, the near-tears sadness, the sheer horror. Too damn good! Of course, no one on Earth actually knows what THE HAPPENING is all about. All we know is that the wind might be causing mass suicide throughout the land. The wind! What else can we say? THE HAPPENING is a mystifyingly bad but ever entertaining curio that showcases the best and worst of M. Night's cinematic stylings in one single feature. It's mere existence is just as confounding as its story!
DEVIL, on the other hand, is a story Shyamalan is responsible for that actually avoids his own personal filmmaking peccadilloes. Having conceived of the story before handing it over to Brian Nelson to script and John Erick Dowdle to direct, while still maintaining producorial oversight, DEVIL seems to take the best of an M. Night narrative without the technical trickery. That is, the story still greatly hinges on a late-story reveal, or twist (though I guessed who the "devil" was in the first half hour), but doesn't adhere to the tonal silliness and over the top action sequences most of Shyamalan's flicks tend to boast. It's Shyamalan boiled down to its essences...a mysterious, trapped-room whodunit that remains entertaining throughout. Props must also be given to director Dowdle for casting a diverse net of good actors like Chris Messina, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Jacob Vargas and Jenny O'Hara. Without such capable actors, the mystery, intrigue and correlating suspense would cease to be. DEVIL is the best movie M. Night has made without actually directing!
As per usual, M. Night currently wards many industry hats. As you may know, he shepherded the popular FOX series Wayward Pines last year, doing so to moderate enough success to warrant a second season. So, if you happen to be a fan, look out for that to drop sometime this spring.
Launching this fall however is something I know we're all a tad more than pumped for. Two weeks ago it was announced that M. Night will oversee a newfangled version of the beloved horror anthology show Tales From The Crypt, moving the property from HBO to TNT. Think it'll hold up? Here is what TNT brass, as well as Shyamalan, had to say about the prospect:
"This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M. Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror...This two-hour horror block demonstrates not only TNT's commitment to working with today's top talents, but also our strategy to stand out in today's marketplace by challenging the conventional rules of programming and scheduling."
"I couldn’t be more excited to be teaming up with Kevin Reilly, Sarah Aubrey and the entire TNT team in this unique endeavor...To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into."
Lastly, in terms of the cinematic, M. Night is also currently in post-production on a new thriller called SPLIT. Plot details have been deliberately shrouded. We do know that Joaquin Phoenix was originally slated to reunite with Shyamalan for the flick (SIGNS, THE VILLAGE), but due to a contract dispute, was replaced by James McAvoy. We also know that the film reunites M. Night with THE VISIT producer Jason Blum, and that Shyamalan is on record having said the film shoot was the most challenging of his career. Costarring Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Kim Director, Brad William Henke and Sterling K. Brown - SPLIT, which we can only assume has something to do with multiple personality disorder, is slated to open on January 20, 2017. Will you be there?
It's been quite the 25-year ride for one M. Night Shyamalan, has it not? The Indian born filmmaker started off with a pair of largely unseen comedies in PLAYING WITH ANGER and WIDE AWAKE before finding global success with his breakout smash THE SIXTH SENSE. Then, after trending upward with two subsequent efforts - UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS - the parabolic path of descent began to take hold about a dozen years ago, starting with THE VILLAGE in 2004. With struggles to reestablish steady critical footing in flicks like LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER and AFTER EARTH, we're happy to see Shyamalan's career sway toward a bit of an upswing with his latest, THE VISIT. Now only if he can come full circle and hit the high notes of his earliest genre joints when he revives TALES FROM THE CRYPT on the small screen in 2016! You think he can return to top form? Permanently? Or has M. Night already has his day?