Friday, May 31, 2013

Now I've Seen Everything: M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth opens this week. Here's a look at his directing far.

"Mission Statements"

Manoj Nelliyatu Shyamalan was born August 6th, 1970 in Mahé, Pondicherry, India, as his mother moved back there to be with family during her pregnancy.  The family was living in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, where the director was raised, attending a private Catholic school, Waldron Mercy Elementary for Boys ("for the discipline"), and in his spare time shooting 8mm movies, not unlike his idol, Steven Spielberg.  While attending film school at NYU, he made his first film, Praying with Anger, financed by family and friends, and written, produced, directed and starring himself.  It was his third film, The Sixth Sense, that propelled him into the A-list category, becoming the surprise hit of the Summer (mostly by audience word of mouth) and garnering six Academy award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.  Heady stuff for a beginning director's third film, and especially for a genre picture, usually ignored by the Oscars.  

The Sixth Sense was, as was the ability in the movie,  both blessing and curse.  Night was suddenly a hot commodity, but his skill-sets ran towards "bubble" films, limited in scope, and deeply personal.  He could never be accused of going for the "blockbuster" audience, and until The Last Airbender, he didn't try.  If one thing unites his body of work, it is that all of his heroes are tasked with a mission, with which they struggle, and from which they learn important life-lessons.  He has also suffered from expectations of what "his" films should be, but has shown signs that he's willing to break those ideas in order to expand his craft.

His fun little haunted house of a web-site (which sometimes has the feel of a confessional) is here.

Praying with Anger (1992) Shyamalan wrote, produced, directed and starred in his first film, which puts him in the same multi-hyphenate-league as Orson Welles.  His ambitions, however, were far less those on Welles.  The story is about a young man of Indian heritage (Shyamalan cast himself) raised in the States, who travels to his homeland and must come to grips with the country and its culture.  He comes away, not with a feeling of home-coming, but of belonging nowhere, being different in both countries, and apart.  It may be largely auto-biographical as the director made his own pilgrimage there earlier, then went back to make this film, but one shouldn't read too much into the particulars of the story and more on the feelings generated by such an experience.  It's rough, but not bad for a student film while still in college.  It would be six years before he got his big break.

Wide Awake (1998) "Catholic school is a lot like prison" says young Joshua A. Beal (Joseph Cross) of the Waldron Mercy Academy for Boys.  He's on a mission.  Not FOR God.  But to find him.  Not even an search can locate him. "Can we skip the confession stuff?" he asks a priest (Dan Hedaya) "Can we just talk?"  The crisis of faith—that causes a ritualistic morning catatonia to delay going to school—comes from the death of his grandfather (Robert Loggia).  "A lot of people do what you're doing" says Sister Josephine (Rosie O'Donnell) "but they usually finish grammar school first."  This one is decidedly auto-biographical, too, one expects (Night went to the very school where it was filmed), but what reads as a cloying synopsis is, instead, refreshingly light and fanciful for most of its length (excepting a too on-the-nose finale that feels a bit desperate for closure...and rather interestingly could serve as a pilot-light for his next film), with an odd "Peanuts"-like quality where kids talk like adults...and the adults (like Denis Leary and Dana Delaney) are largely non-participatory and confused.  Don't let the poster fool you—O'Donnell isn't in it that much, and until the very end, it's quite fun.

The Sixth Sense (1999) Box office sensation that came out of nowhere and lifted the Summer 1999 box-office doldrums of the under-performing The Phantom Menace and Eyes Wide Shut.  No one was expecting this film would be the hit it became, but it effectively revived Bruce Willis' stalled career, made stars of Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment (another great child performance the director inspires), and made Shyamalan the latest story-telling wunderkint.  Not that he really did anything different from a standard "Twilight Zone" episode.  It's just that he managed to keep it afloat for two solid hours through sheer directorial sleight-of-hand, then had the brass to go back at the end and show you how he did it.  Willis plays a psychologist, whose latest concern is a young boy who sees "dead people...everywhere."  His efforts to help the beset child is a bit of a diversion (perhaps too much) from his seemingly-crumbling marriage, where things are a little...distant.  For him, the kid is an obsession, and for the kid, what starts out as fear, we soon learn is a serve as a conduit between the living and the dead to tie up loose ends.  The case provides an epiphany for Willis' shrink that you don't see coming and the palpable creepiness that Shyamalan infuses the story with, makes it a superior, even optimistic, horror film, something quite unique and commendably different.

Unbreakable (2000) Given the notice given to the success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan was given a bit freer reign and more budget on his next film, which is his "take" on the superhero origin story, but without the capes and spandex.  Willis' character David Dunn survives a horrific train-crash that kills everyone but him, and it slowly dawns on him that there might be a reason—he's indestructible and super-humanly strong, and the revelation takes him on a path of self-discovery about his own potential for doing good, as opposed to just getting by.  As with most of Shyamalan's movies, Dunn finds himself caught between finding his predestined purpose in life, and the uncomfortable burden it imposes.  Every superhero needs an antagonist (it's partially the point of the movie) and Samuel L. Jackson plays his exact opposite, a brittle comic-art dealer, who'll break a bone if you look at him funny.  Slow-moving and deliberate with a sense of inevitable foreboding, Unbreakable is a more down-to-Earth spinon the pop-myth-making of comics.  In fact, myth-making is a lot of what the movie is concerned with.  It didn't do too well at the box-office, but I found it a breath of fresh air in a movie environment that was becoming crowded with super-hero stories that were becoming a bit too similar.

Signs (2002) The aliens are attacking and this time it's personal.  Shyamalan manged to keep the budget down by taking out anything more than the local perspective—the alien attacks happen in the background, broadcast on TV—and in fact, Shyamalan really didn't give a rip what the aliens looked like or what they were doing here.  No, his interest was how this threat from the Heavens would affect a man of faith who'd lost it through tragedy (elements explored in Wide Awake).  Mel Gibson plays a former minister, Graham Hess, a widower, with two oddly precocious kids (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), and a brother (Joaquin Phoenix), whose better days are behind him, and they run a family farm.  One morning, mysterious crop circles in their corn-fields without any explanation.  Eventually, they realize that Earth is being invaded by aliens and that those crop-circles are navigation markers for the attackers.  They barricade themselves in the farm-house, suspecting that the markers will attract the aliens to them, and prepare themselves for what looks like the end of the world.  That the story is small-scale, sparse, intimate, and even funny, works to the film's advantage, because, really, what hasn't been done in an alien invasion story before?  Eventually, everything gets tied up in a neat little bundle, but it's part of the Shyamalan schema of pre-destination and purpose realized, and the small cast...Gibson, Phoenix, Culkin, and Breslin is uniformly great.

The Village (2004) Clever story, with some very nice intricacies, a good cast (Donald Sutherland, Joaquin Phoenix again, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt and with a standout first starring performance by Bryce Dallas Howard), about the isolated community of Covington, Pennsylvania that has a secret pact with the violent creatures in the woods surrounding them—none of the villagers will venture beyond their borders, and none of the creatures will invade the village.  Howard plays a blind villager who undertakes a desperate mission to venture beyond the woods to get medical supplies for her wounded fiancee (Phoenix), but despite the fine finishes, the movie has one problem—its director is M. Night Shyamalan, who'd just directed three movies with "twist" endings.  So when this one came out, everybody expected it.  The story, about an ancient village, with very specific rules about not leaving the forest walls  lest you be eaten is a fine grim fairy tale, but unfortunately, the villager had made one trip to the well too many—and the audience was way ahead of the game.  Shyamalan had lost the audience's respect (seemingly because he kept trying to pull the same trick over and over again, although that "reveal" may have been the least of his concerns), but his next film, he changed tactics, starting to build enormous puzzles—letting the audience in on his pre-production process—and found a clever hook to hang his story on.

Lady in the Water (2006) After "going to the well" of the twist ending too many times, this odd little fantasy about a sea-nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard again) found in the drainage of a condominium swimming pool is refreshingly straight-forward and quirky, with a good cast—Paul Giamatti, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Mary Beth Hurt—but two of the characters, Balaban's cluelessly arrogant film critic and a visionary writer (played by Shyamalan himself) rankle, and makes one wonder if the writer-director might be getting a bit of a swelled head after the drubbing that The Village got from critics (and audiences stayed home).  Still, after the sameness of structure his previous four films exhibited, the slightly bent children's fantasy set in a world of blase adults needing to fulfill a complicated quest to do some good in the world seemed a breath of fresh air.  It's as twee as hell, which, if it had been animated, might have set better with audiences.  As it is, just the idea of Paul Giamatti in the traditional handsome prince role makes me happy.  Full review here.

The Happening (2008) There's something happening here.  What it is ain't exactly clear.  For one, people are committing suicide by jumping off buildings.  Nature seems to be turning itself inside out to drive people insane and kill themselves.  Mark Wahlberg takes his wife Zooey Deschanel to the country to try to escape whatever it is that's going on that's making people act crazy.  It could very well be this movie, because Shyamalan is a bit vague about what is "happening," but evidently it has something to do with the wind.  Nothing is explained, little is resolved, except on a personal level.  In fact, the movie is so obtuse, it might very well be the director's version of Hitchcock's The Birds, but the film has little of that film's sense of dread or helplessness in the face of the natural world turning against humanity.  One could search for deeper meanings, but it doesn't feel worth trying, given the film's meager accomplishments.  Wahlberg and Deschanel try, but ultimately they're at a loss to make the material rise above what is, essentially, a vaporous concept.   Another thing: there are some very clumsy shot set-ups and editorial decisions here that might be explained by circumstances on-set—I'm speaking of the early classroom scenes—but, some of the shots just don't communicate with each other, editorially. Given what he'd done before, with such a sure hand, one began wondering if Shyamalan was paying attention. Full review here.

The Last Airbender (2010) Full review here. Nickelodeon's popular cartoon "Avatar" got the live-action treatment from Shyamalan, (but without the name, as James Cameron got there first) and the result, while starting promisingly, soon bogs down into incomprehensible battles of the elements that are sloppily staged, and dodgily edited.  It might have been a case of making do with non-delivered special effects, but this, along with a couple of mis-matched shots in The Happening, lends suspicion that sometimes Shyamalan doesn't plan things out very well.  Certainly, given his previous films, with their tightly controlled sets, and limited world-views, this one, given its scope, sets and reliance on elaborate special effects may have been a bit beyond the director's strengths, which have a lot to do with atmosphere, pacing and directing actors, none of which appeared to be relevent to this film.  With his new film starring Will Smith and his son, heavily reliant on effects work, it will be interesting to see how he has progressed.

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