(Video On-Demand, July 2017) Can filmmakers have a second wind? It’s too early to tell for M. Night Shyamalan, but after the triple-barreled nadir of The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (each of which should have been career-destroying for anyone else), he appears to be on the rebound. I don’t think much of The Visit, but it was a step up, and with Split he’s back to making good movies again. Running wild with the controversial concept of multiple personality disorder (even acknowledging the controversy), Split posits an antagonist with 23 personalities, kidnapping three girls even as a terrifying 24th personality threatens to emerge. James McAvoy has the good fortune of playing the lead character, slipping in and out of various roles and even faking some self-impersonations as the personalities try to pass off for each other. It’s a great performance from an actor who seems to get better and better every year. Anya Taylor-Joy is also very good as the smartest of the three kidnapped girls. Shyamalan himself seems back in form both as a writer and as a director—while neither are as good as in the films that made him famous, Split is an engaging thriller that edges closer and closer to supernatural horror as it goes on. The transition isn’t frustrating, and the ending clearly indicates that we’ve been set up for a follow-up or two. Split isn’t quite a perfect film (it spins its wheels quite a bit at first, goes a bit too dark at times and runs a bit too long) but it’s quite an improvement for Shyamalan, who may be taken off my blacklist after all.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) It’s not a good sign when a movie loses all credibility in its first five minutes. In The Visit, we’re asked to believe that a mother would simply ship off her teenage kids to her long-estranged parents for a week, while she gallivants to a cruise holiday. Result: Disbelief snapped, never to return. After that, the annoying mockumentary gimmick seems inconsequential. The good news, I suppose, are that the film is a bit better than writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s last few atrocities—but not by much, and most of the “better” should be read as “doesn’t repeatedly try to alienate its audience”. There are still plenty of reasons to dislike the film: the tone is all over the place and not in a “here’s comic relief” kind of way. The various events that happen during the film are the kind of stuff that occurs in movies rather than any attempt at real-life, clashing with the hand-held aesthetics of the film. The Visit, perhaps worst of all, is dull stuff, built upon a weak foundation and never achieved in the way it is presented on-screen. If I dig a bit into the film, I can see how the on-screen aesthetics of amateur filmmakers are meant to act as Shyamalan’s commentary on filmmaking, but I just don’t have the patience for that: As far as I’m concerned, Shyamalan is still in the doghouse … and he can stay there for a while.
(On DVD, January 2011) I missed this film in theatres due to a combination of unfortunate timing and so-so reviews, but the film is significantly better than I expected. A blend between high-concept thriller and supernatural horror (ie; Five people are trapped in an elevator… but one of them is Satan), Devil is a snappy 81-minutes B-movie that’s effective and up-front about its own intentions. Devil keeps up its energy by hopping back and forth between the trapped elevator, frantic investigators and a grim catholic legend. It moves fast enough not to let things go stale, and takes care to establish its supernatural elements early so that we don’t get misled into thinking that this is a pure thriller. While the catholic mythology is significant and at times slightly overbearing, it doesn’t take a theology degree to appreciate the film, especially given how much of the framework is made-up for the film. The ending isn’t as strong as it could be and the moral lesson of the film smacks of other pat M. Night Shyamalan resolutions, but John Erick Dowdle’s efficient direction confirms that his work on Quarantine wasn’t a fluke and the cinematography keeps things interesting even as five characters are stuck in a box. For a film with a significant body-count and a pick-off-the-characters structure, Devil remains intriguingly restrained in the presentation of its deaths: We will often see the events leading to the death and their aftermath, but not the actual gruesome moment; I wish more horror movies were as coy. While this may not be anything more than a chills-and-thrills thriller, it’s a well-made, reasonably entertaining low-budget film. That’s already more than we have been able to say about most Shyamalan projects in a long while.
(In theaters, August 2010) I haven’t seen the original anime series, so I can only judge the film on its own merits rather than as an adaptation. By this yardstick, The Last Airbender is a mess of breathless mythmaking, indifferent characters, repetitive CGI, terrible dialogue, fuzzy motivations and sometimes-spectacular visuals. It’s practically impossible to care about a film that spends so little time fleshing out its lead characters that a romance is established by voice-over narration. (And that’s saying nothing about the blank hole of charisma that is the film’s titular protagonist.) The story jumps frantically from one scene to another with minimal transition, never giving life to any lasting interest in what’s happening beyond the special effects. Even by the climax of the film, it’s still explaining what we need to know in order to understand what’s going on. It’s inept film-making with a stunning budget, but even in describing how much The Last Airbender doesn’t work, it’s hard not to notice that a few things do: The world-building is intriguing enough to make me me interested in the original series, whereas for all of his increasing faults as a writer, M. Night Shyamalan still has a few skills left as a visually ambitious director. Some of the lengthier battle shots, in particular, are almost wonderful. But little of this matters once the Typical Fantasy Big Battle is over: By the time The Last Airbender sets up a sequel, all that’s left to viewers is a dull shrug of the shoulders. As far as hopeless first-instalment-in-planned-fantasy-trilogies go, this is barely above Eragon and quite a bit worse than even The Last Compass. I saw the film in 3D by accident (no, really: who knew the local dollar theater had more than one 3D screen?) and not only does it add absolutely nothing to the experience, but it may even be taking away some of it.
(In theaters, June 2008) Sometimes, one has to step back and admit error. But after Lady In The Water and the mess that is The Happening, there is not shame in saying that M. Night Shyamalan has blown whatever credibility he had accumulated so far as a writer/director. As a writer, everything has been downhill since Unbreakable. As a director, it’s been a steady decline since The Village. With The Happening, Shyamalan takes his self-importance and applies it to a silly conceit, burdening a B-Movie with A-level pretentiousness. The result is hilarious, but not in a good way: There’s only so much you can do with ominous shots of wind blowing through trees: “Oh no! The trees are going to kill someone else!” Trite, dumb, predictable and empty, The Happening‘s plot isn’t nearly as flawed as its individual scenes: Characters never react like human beings (Watch Mark Whalberg do science!) and never take rational decisions –even granted that this is the point. Even my growing crush for Zooey Deschanel and her mesmerizing big blue eyes aren’t enough to hypnotize me into liking this film. The Happening is like an endurance contest between a power-mad director convinced of his brilliance and an audience looking for a good time. Instead, we get an unconvincing premise, awful staging (Those suicides? Funny rather than creepy) and insipid dialog voiced by incompetently-directed actors capable of far better. Intensely predictable (I defy you not to think “uh, oh, someone’s going to get shot!” before its happens) this is one of those movies that let you wonder how it ever got made without adult supervision. In almost any other hands, it might have been interesting (the idea of humans forced to separate in smaller and smaller groups, if followed rigorously, could have been narrative dynamite). But this is M. Night Shyalaman we’re talking about, someone who’s still coasting on long-gone fumes and wasted opportunities.
(In theaters, August 2006) I have written elsewhere that with every passing film, M. Night Shyamalan’s directing skills grow better even as his scripts are getting worse. Lady In The Water may present a pause, but it’s certainly no improvement of either aspect. Billed as a modern fairy tale, it may be more appropriate to call it a modern mess: All sorts of mythical allusions, but hardly any substance under the surface. While the direction is still effective (though missing the cleverness that so bolstered The Village and Signs despite everything else), the script goes nowhere and can’t be bothered to deliver an epilogue to wrap everything up. It opens with dispensable narration and thrives on minutiae, blithely passing by moments that should be important. It recycles the old “traumatized protagonist must do something good to redeem himself” shtick that Shyamalan has seemingly adopted as his leitmotiv. There isn’t much suspense, and whatever sympathy we have for the characters seems deliberately forced by Shyamalan’s heavy-handed touch. It’s not a complete failure: the multicultural cast is great (w00t for Sarita Choudhury), the images are often nice and it’s hard to fault any of the actors –including po-faced Shyamalan himself. A number of the film’s ideas have potential, and the character of the Film Critic is a lot of (wasted) fun. But in the end, it comes down to Shyamalan and his own self-indulgence. When it works, it works but when it doesn’t… –hey, look at the pretty pictures!
(In theaters, August 2004) The most striking trend about M. Night Shyamalan’s films since The Sixth Sense is how, movie after movie, director Shyamalan has improved even as writer Shyamalan has lost touch. In terms of how to direct a suspense film, The Village is almost as exemplary as Signs in how to position a camera to show, but more importantly not to show some things. His use of colour is skillful, providing a visual segue into the theme of social manipulation that lies at the heart of the film. Director Shyamalan also retains his touch when comes the time to coax great performances out of his actors. This time, it’s Bryce Dallas Howard who manages to outshine everyone else as a spunky blind tomboy. Visually, the film is magnificent, and the tortured rhythm of the historical dialogue gets to be hypnotic after a while (it wouldn’t be pleasant to speak like that all the time, but wouldn’t you wish that everyone else did, sometimes?) A lot of good stuff, really. But then there’s the script, with the expected Big Shyamalan Twist. My advice: Spoil yourself rotten before seeing the film. Ask your friends to tell you the surprise. Read the script. This way, you won’t be driven to a film-burning rage by the way the last few minutes unfold –and retroactively screw up all the film up to that point. Don’t worry: spoilers will enhance your experience, removing the suspense of the twist while leaving you free to admire all that’s good and successful about The Village. Otherwise, you may be left with just Shyamalan to blame.
(In theaters, August 2002) On one hand, I really do hate the “science-fiction” elements of Signs. Bargain-basement aliens with inconsistent powers, shoddy “what the kid reads from the book is always right” rationalization and oh-so-profound spiritual conclusion don’t sit well for me and if that was the only thing worth talking about in this movie, I’d be the first one to recommend burning down all copies of the negative. But that not what Signs is about, which leads me to what I did like about the film: the sense of looking at a huge story through a very small hole, the fantastic cinematography (that overhead driving-into-town shot; whoah!), the awesome (mis)direction, the suspense, the symbolism? Replace “aliens” with “demons” and maybe you’ll start to appreciate the film as a parable more than any actual attempt at hard-core SF. Mel Gibson is entirely believable as the lead, with most of the other actors (including the kids) also doing a good job. M. Night Shyamalan is a commercially overrated director, but if he’d be doing niche genre movies, everyone would be claiming him as their best thing ever. In the meantime, he’s proving adept at telling clichéd genre stories through very unusual methods, using masterful camera techniques and coaxing impressive performances out of his actors. There’s a lot to hate and a lot to love in Signs, but even more to be impressed about. Swing away!
(In theaters, December 2000) Think comic books. Think comic book movies. Chances are that you’re thinking about superheroes. Zap! Pow! Bang! Special effects! Cackling villains! Intrepid superheroes saving the world! Who would have thought about, essentially, making an intimate realistic superhero origin story? M. Night Shyamalan could have make any film he wanted after the success of The Sixth Sense and he chose that project, a gift to comic book fans all over the world. The result is a nifty film that will sharply divide audiences if not outright infuriate them in the last fifteen seconds. Just keep in mind that it’s a superhero fantasy film that will most likely spawn a trilogy, and everything will be fine. The only serious flaw of the film is the languid pacing, which saps the energy that a snappier film would have had. As it is now, the film is far too slow to warrant more than a good rating despite its original intentions.
(In theaters, August 1999) While not as great as its fans have made it to be, this very well-done film allows us to envision a far better parallel universe where almost all Hollywood films attaint this level of all-around competence. The Sixth Sense offers a great little script, a sagacious non-usage of special effects, an original storyline, some great acting (notably by the young Haley Joel Osment) and non-obtrusive direction. Now, if only other films could aspire to this…