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Posts Tagged ‘M Night Shyamalan’

You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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I don’t know, you wait years for a big-budget skiffy extravaganza concerning the fate of an abandoned and devastated planet Earth, and then two come along in the space of three months: closely in the wake of Oblivion, here comes After Earth, another film from M Night Shyamalan. Yes, despite his arguably not having made a decent film in well over ten years, people keep giving him multimillion dollar budgets to play with.

Shyamalan’s track record of critical calamity seems likely to continue, with professional film-watchers hailing After Earth as ‘dreary’ and ‘terrible’; even Buzz Aldrin didn’t like it very much. Which means that, excitingly, it’s time for a rare instalment of Is It Really As Bad As All That? which deals with a film which is still in cinemas.

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And, well, I don’t want to cut to the chase too early, readers, but it very nearly is. I bobbed along to the sweetshop to pick up my ticket, found myself a bit distracted when I reached the front of the queue, and ended up asking for a ticket to see afterbirth rather than After Earth. They worked out what I was on about, obviously, but I have to say this may have been some sort of precognitive Freudian slip – spending 100 minutes chowing down on Jaden Smith’s placenta would probably have been a more memorable and nourishing experience than watching After Earth.

Oh, boy. As is practically standard for a big-budget studio SF movie, this one kicks off with a scene-setting prologue with accompanying voice-over, and as I watched it my nasal passages were flooded with that special Bad Movie reek more strongly and quickly than I can ever recall happening before. There is a special combination of contrivance, cliche, and full-on exposition in the story of how the human race abandons the planet Earth, gets into a ruck with aliens on its adopted home planet, learns to fight various gribbly horrors, etc etc, that gets the movie off to a flying stop.

From here we meet various members of the Raige family, particularly teenaged boy Kitai (Jaden Smith) and his father Cypher (Will Smith) – why would you call someone a name like ‘Cypher’ in this sort of film, anyway? Surely it’s just asking for trouble? Hey ho. Smith Senior is humanity’s top soldier, mainly because he’s so very stern and grumpy all the time (stern and grumpy people are invisible to the alien monsters. No, don’t bother to think too hard about it). Smith Junior is academically gifted, but his quest to follow in his father’s footsteps is hampered by the fact that out in the field he is always dissolving into a meeping, glibbering idiot. There is awkward family history between Smiths Senior and Junior, their relationship is strained, not least by what an authoritarian parent he is… you’ve seen all this difficult-father-and-son-relationship before, I promise you, and done with more deftness and genuine emotion than it is here.

Anyway, at the instigation of the lady of the family (Sophie Okonedo), Smith Senior takes Junior off on a space trip with him. The ship involved looks like a rather rickety contraption made of wicker and vellum and I was not at all surprised when it crashed en route (also there had been a flashforward to this). The ship goes down on the uninhabited planet Earth killing everyone on board but the Smiths, and a terrible ordeal begins (the characters don’t have a very nice time of it either).

Unfortunately, the back end of the ship falls off on the way in, which is a problem because that’s where the distress signals are kept. Also – what are the chances? – the egg of a gribbly monster was also in the back end, and it may just have survived the crash and hatched. Sadly, Smith Senior has been a bit dinged up by the crash and so it falls to Smith Junior to toddle off across the wilderness to find the back end of the ship. One ill-timed meep or glibber could spell doom for the both of them, but luckily he has a radio so his father can pass on directions and important lessons in personal development along the way, rather like a cross between a life coach and a satnav. Meanwhile Smith Senior sits around in the wreckage, occasionally having personal flashbacks, recording unhelpful messages for his wife, performing gory DIY surgery on himself, and slowly sliding into a coma. Frankly, by the end of the film I was starting to feel the same way.

Well, look: the storytelling is competently handled and the central message of the film is completely innocuous, but by any rational standard After Earth is, at best, a phenomenally boring film. I think Will Smith is a charismatic and engaging screen presence, and I thought Jaden Smith was perfectly fine in The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Karate Kid, and I can only wonder at what special technique it is that Shyamalan has employed to extract such grindingly dull performances from the pair of them. I suppose it is partly down to the script, and here at least Smith Senior must take some of the blame, seeing as he gets a story credit: where is the sense in doing a story about characters whose behaviour revolves around the fact they must never show any emotion? How are you supposed to care or get properly involved?

This is before we even get to the background to the story or the details of the plot, both of which are perfunctory in the extreme. Don’t go looking for surprises, or unexpected reversals, or clever invention. Given this is a Shyamalan movie, I was almost expecting a quirky final twist: but there isn’t one. There are only the things you predicted were going to happen fifteen minutes into the film.

And as an actual piece of SF, this is borderline insulting. We are shown Earth as a devastated wasteland at the start of the film, but it has made a near-miraculous recovery by the time the action starts. Then we are told ‘everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans’ – how? Why? (Not that this actually appears to be true.) Even more oddly, there apparently isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere of Earth for Smith Junior to survive there with regular recourse to oxygen-loaded space Jammie Dodgers, despite the fact his species is originally native to the planet (and it is much more heavily forested than the new home world). This just looks like a cheap plot device. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. (The post-human Earth is not even that interesting or imaginative a place.)

As this is a studio movie made by professional film-makers with a respectable budget, the special effects are competently done and the look of the film is generally unexceptionable. But in virtually every other department After Earth clanks and squeaks and thuds its way through its running time, almost entirely thrill-free, joyless, pointless, actively irritating and deeply hackneyed (bits of it sort of resemble Outlander, but it’s not even that good). If there is a worse star-led major studio genre movie this year, I will be astonished.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 19th 2002:

[Following reviews of Reign of Fire and The Importance of Being Earnest.] 

And finally, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, aka ‘I See Dead Corn’. Now I’m a bit of a fan of this director, and long-time readers may recall his last film Unbreakable did rather well in the 2001 Lassie awards. This time round he’s dispensed with both Bruce Willis and the twist endings he’s famous for – well, sort of…

This is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, as monumentally smug as ever), a priest-turned-farmer who lives with his jock brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix from Gladiator) and his two children – one obsessive-compulsive, the other precocious, and both annoying – in a quiet farmhouse. Graham has packed in being a priest as his wife has been run over by local vet (Shymalan himself – yup, he’s going all Tarantino on us). But something’s afoot out in the corn, as crop circles start appearing, strange inhuman figures start creeping around the farm at night, and Graham’s dog becomes grumpy and incontinent.

Yes, that’s right, it’s aliens! Quite why they should want to cause any of these phenomena – particularly the one with the dog – is not explained. The crop circles are apparently convenient rendezvous points for their vast armada of starships, which suggests they can manage steering all the way from Tau Ceti or wherever only to get completely lost and require landmarks as soon as they reach Earth. It also means they can only launch invasions during the summer or early Autumn months when the crops are nearly grown, thus depriving them of the plum holiday period and perhaps explaining their generally cranky disposition. Graham and the family soon get very nervous indeed, especially when the TV reports that the invasion proper has begun…

As you can probably tell, I found a lot of Signs rather difficult to take seriously: but for all the logicalities and lack of explanation in the story, it’s still in many ways a highly impressive piece of film-making. It works on a number of levels, most obviously that of an alien-invasion suspense thriller, and it’s here that Shyamalan excels both as writer and director, as you might expect. Large chunks of the film are very creepy indeed, as Graham wanders around in the corn by torchlight with strange alien chitterings emanating from the crops all around him, and unearthly silhouettes crash unexpectedly into the frame. (The braying strings of James Newton Howard’s score aids Shymalan a lot.) However, towards the end the film adopts a (relatively) straightforward action-adventure style, with which the director seems a lot less comfortable: his enormous talent lies in his ability to lull the audience into an almost lucid dream-like state, not hit them over the head with CGI nasties.

This is certainly a different take on the venerable ‘alien invasion’ theme, and it’s interesting to see the story told from the perspective of ordinary people thousands of miles from the action, rather than that of the US President or a scientific genius. But Shyamalan acknowledges his predecessors, by explicitly name-checking the daddy of them all, War of the Worlds, and also by – whether consciously or not – pinching part of the climax from the (rubbish) movie version of another classic British SF novel.

Signs had the potential to be a truly nerve-shredding horror movie, but it’s prevented from being this by a couple of slightly odd creative decisions on Shyamalan’s part. The unsettling atmosphere he creates in the key sequences of the film is almost without fail diluted by moments of strange, deadpan comedy occurring throughout, as Graham and Merrill (both of whom come across as fairly dim bulbs) struggle to comprehend events around them and are generally hacked off by their smart-aleck younger relations and peculiar neighbours. It’s almost like some strange agrarian amalgam of Frasier and The Simpsons, and for a film that already has a credibility gap this is a serious mistake.

And then there’s the ending. Shyamalan eschews the plot twists he’s become famous for in favour of a deeply didactic and folksy conclusion, preaching that ‘hey, bad things happen for a reason, just have faith and keep on trucking’. It’s glib and cloying, and it isn’t even subtext: this is out there to be seen in the meat of the movie (Gibson’s total inability to portray self-doubt doesn’t help: Phoenix’s performance is better in nearly every way). It’s here that Signs‘ status as a post-September 11th movie becomes clear: in the movie, as in life, America is under a terrible, inexplicable attack, but it’s ultimately for the best and if everyone keeps believing it’ll all turn out okay in the end. Signs sets out to comfort its audience when it would have been much better off simply trying to scare them. Even so, it’s still accomplished, engaging stuff, and only really a disappointment when compared to M. Night Shymalan’s two previous films.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 26th August 2004: 

Hello again, everyone, and it’s time for one of our occasional non-review reviews, which may be annoying to read, but – let me assure you – are a lot more annoying to have to write. The person responsible on this occasion is, of course, M Night Shyamalan, who’s built up quite a nice little reputation for himself as a purveyor of quality suspense films. It could probably be argued that Shyamalan does nothing more than crank out pretentious genre movies, and that his fame is mainly due to his penchant for sticking a flippin’ great plot twist into each one of them.

The problem with this as a trademark, as I may have said before, is that a twist is only really going to surprise people who aren’t expecting and trying to anticipate what it might be. (Knowing The Sixth Sense has a big twist ending makes it quite easy to guess what it’s going to be, ten minutes into the movie.) You can’t really make a career out of doing twist endings – well, not in the cinema, anyway. But Shyamalan seems to be trying anyway, as his new film amply demonstrates.

This is of course The Village, the tale of a rural community living in fear. The people live simple lives, but their lives are overshadowed by the knowledge of the presence in the woods surrounding their town of… creatures. Reputedly savage and terrifying, they have always stayed in the woods while the villagers stay in their own territory. But, following the untimely death of a village child, Lucius (Joaquim Phoenix), a young man of the community, wants to venture through the woods to one of the nearby towns so he can fetch medicines to avert any future tragedies of this kind. The village elders (amongst them William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson) refuse his request, and a brief foray by Lucius into the woods is followed by a terrifying incursion into the village from outside. With the village in turmoil, Lucius woos – or is wooed by – Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, a leading lady rather in the tradition of Rosanna Arquette or Callista Flockhart), the blind daughter of the chief elder. But village idiot Noah (Adrien Brody, hamming it up a bit) takes against their betrothal and soon it seems Ivy will have to brave the woods – and whatever lies within – in order to help the man she loves…

Now looking back at that last paragraph, I can’t help thinking it constitutes a bit of a spoiler no matter how I word it – but this is a film it’s difficult to discuss in any detail without spoiling the story in some way. This is sort of a reflection on Shymalan’s style of storytelling, which relies on a very solid grasp of the importance of atmosphere, strong performances, and a good deal of sleight-of-hand and misdirection on the part of the script and direction. And it seems Shyamalan is aware that audiences will be coming into this movie looking for a twist, and adapted his style accordingly: you go into the movie expecting the big twist to come from one direction, but when it actually materialises it’s of a different tenor entirely.

Opinions seem to be violently split as to whether the big surprise is any good or not. Now I can see both points of view on this. It is, one the one hand, both massively implausible and somewhat predictable (I’d considered it as a possibility, but dismissed it as being too much of an anticlimax, and so was a bit surprised when it actually happened). But on the other hand it’s refreshingly different, and it’s clear that Shyamalan doesn’t intend his tale to be taken solely at face value. In fact, it gives the story a subtly allegorical quality that sits well with its general air of thoughtfulness (though it’s an element the film’s publicity has shied away from, probably quite wisely given the furore that’s surrounded another film apparently expressing vaguely similar sentiments this summer).

However, the fact that your opinion of The Village seems to depend wholly on your opinion of the twist indicates that this is a film with problems not shared by Shyamalan’s earlier pictures: I thought Unbreakable‘s twist was rather contrived, but I still thought it was a classy, well-made, atmospheric film, with a strong story. With The Village I seriously get the impression that the director thought up a set of cool plot twists and then wrote the story around them – in other words, the twists are the story…

And while what precedes them is well-mounted and photographed, it’s not that great. The top-quality cast give solid performances (well, Brody is a bit embarrassing). Hurt and Weaver (clearly not wanting to let her old sparring partner have the only hit of the summer) are particularly good. However, both the performances and the rest of the film are suffused with a subtle but still oppressive sense of their own importance. It’s clearly not enough for The Village to be appreciated as a piece of classy summer fun: this is obviously intended to be Significant Art. This pretentiousness is probably another reason why a lot of people have taken against it, because to be honest it’s a lot less deep and profound than it obviously wants to be.

It isn’t even particularly scary, apart from a few moments: Shyamalan wheels his monsters on quite early (admittedly in the background and out of focus), and it’s a smart ‘what the hell is that supposed to be?!?‘ moment. For a lot of the rest of the time, though, there’s little palpable sense of menace or mystery about proceedings, just lots of loving depictions of village life (which admittedly has numerous quirks of its own). Towards the end it even seems like the film is taking its cues from The Blair Witch Project, a very dubious course of action even for a director of Shyamalan’s skill.

I’ve heard The Village described as a really long big-budget episode of The Twilight Zone, and that seems to me to hit the nail bang on the head. It’s basically an extended joke with a punchline that isn’t quite up to scratch. Shyamalan’s ability as a storyteller is undeniably impressive but he needs to give serious thought to a change of tactics in his next project, as the twist-schtick is fast running out of steam. The best twist he could utilise in his next film would be for there not to be a twist at all.

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