Tag Archives: M Night Shyamalan

Split (2016)

I wasn’t as down on the Shamhammer as some others were after his string of well-publicized debacles, from Lady in the Water to The Last Assbender to After Earth. On the other hand, I wasn’t has high as some others have been about his so-called comeback movie from 2015, The Visit. So I guess my expectations were cancelled out for his latest effort, Split.

As the title suggests, the film is about a crazy dude with dissociative identity disorder (played by the brilliant James McAvoy), who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Morgan, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) to a strange and unknown location somewhere. Much of the movie is about figuring out just what this guy is doing and what he wants as he shifts between 23 different personalities, each with its own name and traits. Critical to the storyline is his therapist, played by veteran actress Betty Buckley.

The first thing I will say about Split is that it’s very well-made for a low-budget film (US$9 million), once again demonstrating Shyamalan’s skills as both a writer and director. His ability to create tension and a sense of claustrophobia is as good as it’s ever been, and what I enjoyed most about the movie was the feeling that I had no idea what would happen next. And most of the time, the plot was indeed very hard to predict. You always look for a “twist” in Shyamalan movies, and I must say I quite liked what he had in store for us this time, even though it is more of a “reveal” than a twist per se.

The strengths of Shyamalan’s script and direction are anchored by three excellent performances. Of course, James McAvoy is absolutely astounding, pulling off each of his personalities with enough differences — subtle or otherwise — to tell them apart easily. At times he’s creepy or funny or brutal or pathetic or dangerous — and the fun lies in never knowing what you’re going to get.

Anya Taylor-Joy has been on my watch list ever since The Witch, and again she’s mesmerizing as the outsider Casey. There is just something about her eyes and expressions that add an air of mystery and vulnerability to her character. She’s going to be a star for years to come. And Betty Buckley is really a standout too as the therapist who has certain beliefs about dissociative identity disorder that become pertinent to the story.

Unfortunately, there were also a few things about Split that I didn’t like. As solid as the script was, there were still snippets of dialogue that came across as too contrived, conjuring up memories of Shamhammer at his pretentious worst. The film was also far too long at 117 minutes and felt that way towards the end. A compact 90-100 minutes would have made the film a lot tighter and more effective. And lastly, I wasn’t a fan of how the essential torture of these girls was sexualized. If it was merely to add tension, I would be okay with it, but I felt a lot of it was gratuitous.

In all, thanks to an interesting premise, well-crafted suspense, strong performances and a climax that doesn’t ruin the entire film, Split is good enough to be regarded as one of the better thrillers of the year. I wouldn’t put it anywhere near Shyamalan’s earliest films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but Split could very well be his best effort since The Village from 2004.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a pretty cool scene at the very end of the film right after the credits start, so make sure you stay around for that. It’s a nice little surprise.

The Visit (2015)

the visit

M Night is back, baby! And I wish I could say I’m loving every minute of it!

Sure, his career may have gone down the shitter in recent years, but I’ll always be a Shyamalan apologist. I mean, come on, he made The Sixth Sense, one of the most memorable ghost movies ever — with one of the most iconic lines ever (“I see dead people”) — before turning 30! He made one of my all-time sneaky favourite films with Unbreakable, and while I didn’t enjoy Signs as much as some people, I really loved The Village, warts and all. Even his subsequent panned films, like The Happening and the infamous The Last Airbender, were in my opinion not as bad as their reputations suggest. Sadly, though, even I can’t vouch for After Earth and of course, Lady in the Water. Those two were pure garbage.

And so I was naturally looking forward to his new movie, The Visit, a return to the horror genre and a supposed “return to form” for Shyamalan, according to the early critic and audience buzz.

Adding to the fascination is the fact that I’m currently reading the book The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger, a surprisingly in-depth look into the well-publicised drama surrounding Shyamalan’s production of Lady in the Water. To be honest, I was looking forward to reading what an egotistical douche he is, but I’m actually finding it quite difficult to dislike him. I’ll be reviewing the book on my writing blog once I’m through with it.

Anyway, back to the movie. The Visit is about a pair of siblings (played by young Aussies Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who go visit grandparents they’ve never met before because their divorced mother had a falling out with them many years ago. The elderly grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem nice enough at first, but soon strange and creepy things start to happen.

First of all, I think the biggest mistake Shyamalan made was in framing The Visit as a found-footage film. He could have made this movie as a conventional horror movie and I think it would have worked great, but instead he uses a contrivance — the sister wants to film a documentary about the visit — to make sure everything is caught on camera.

As with all found-footage films, credibility becomes a problem when things get a little crazy. Characters stubbornly hold on to their cameras and continue filming even when they should be pissing themselves or running for their lives, or the camera needs to be conveniently placed or dropped in perfect spots to “accidentally” capture the action. I hate this tactic and I’ve always hated it. No one’s been fooled by a found-footage film since The Blair Witch Project, and the stupidity must stop. Now!

That said, Shyamalan is too good of a director for The Visit to be a bad film. He’s always been masterful at creating atmosphere, and this time it’s no different. Shyamalan dials the creepiness up early on and keeps cranking it up higher and higher as the film progresses. Most of the scare tricks are not new, but to Shyamalan’s credit they can be quite effective thanks to skillful execution. They are also frequent enough, which immediately distinguishes the film from other found-footage horrors where the first three-quarters are all time fillers, red herrings and false alarms.

Since this is an M Night Shyamalan film, the question that everyone will ask is whether it has a big twist. I’m not going to answer that, of course, but I do think that aspect of his movies are over-emphasized. Just about every movie these days — and especially horror movies — has some sort of twist thrown in. What separates Shyamalan from the pack is not that his twists are “better”, it’s just that he is so much better at sleight of hand and creating diversions than most other directors.

So as a found-footage horror, The Visit is excellent, certainly notches above any of the Paranormal Activity movies and recent efforts like The Pyramid, Demonic, The Gallows, Devil’s Due and As Above, So Below. Sadly, though, I can’t bring myself to call The Visit a great film in the absence of such a caveat.

Apart from the fatal found-footage error, one of the issues I had was with the two kids. They’re just not very likable protagonists. The sister is bearable, but the brother is plain annoying. I found all his rapping more cringeworthy than funny. As a result it’s not easy to root for them. I also didn’t think the “character development” sequence in the middle of the film really worked either. Shyamalan doesn’t seem to be able to pin their characters down — they’re too mature one minute and too immature and naive the next.

Tonally, the film has a few glitches too. There is a surprising amount of humour, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. When it works, it helps relieve tension, but when it doesn’t it’s just awkward and harms the atmosphere Shyamalan has been trying to build up.

I also didn’t think the climax was executed as well as it could have been, with one decision in particular being a real head~scratcher as it sapped the scene of the tension it needed. The found-footage format was an obvious exacerbator.

Ultimately, The Visit ended up being a bit of a disappointment, though I’m glad Shyamalan toned down his ambitions with this stripped-down little horror flick. I guess when your reputation is in the dumps, anything half-decent movie can be considered a return to form. For me, while the film had its moments, there were too many poor decisions along the way — starting with the found-footage BS — to elevate it into the upper echelons of the Shyamalan catalogue. If you are a fan of found-footage films like Paranormal Activity, then there’s a good chance you’ll love The Visit. But since I’m not, I think it’s just a slightly-above-average film overall.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

after earth

I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Devil (2010)

Unlike most people, I still look forward to M Night Shyamalan movies — even if he just produced it and came up with the idea for the story.

Yes, Devil is neither written nor directed by Shyamalan, but it is still very much his project.  It is the first film of the Night Chronicles trilogy, which deals with supernatural themes in modern society.  Without giving too much away, it’s about a bunch of strangers who get stuck in a skyscraper elevator, and one of them may or may not be the devil.

Sounds like a gimmicky film, and it kind of is, but Devil is better than I expected considering the low budget and the narrow premise.  There is an inevitability about the progression of the plot, but I was nevertheless kept guessing until the end — and knowing Shyamalan, there is always a clever “twist” or “revelation” of some sort to look forward to.

That said, potential viewers of Devil need to keep their expectations in check, for this is really not much more than an average film backed by an intriguing idea.  My biggest problem with the film is that none of the characters felt very convincing.  The situation, the reactions and the dialogue don’t feel very authentic, and as a result the film never becomes as scary as it should be.

Nevertheless, at a tight 80-minutes, Devil is a crafty little thriller that can be enjoyable if in the right mood.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: The Last Airbender (2D) (2010)

The Last Airbender is not as bad as people make it out to be.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.

That said, I did have lower than low expectations for the film (given it recorded an abysmal 6% at Rotten Tomatoes), and perhaps more importantly, I have never seen the popular cartoon series on which the film is based.  Keeping that in mind, I think writer and director M Night Shyamalan did a pretty decent job (and let’s face it, he had an extremely difficult job) in creating a ‘kids film’ that is, for the most part, entertaining and enjoyable.

The Last Airbender dropped the word ‘Avatar’ from its title because of that highest grossing film of all time.  It’s set in a fantasy land where people are born with the natural ability to ‘bend’ one of the four elements — earth, fire, wind and water.  Kind of like Captain Planet (he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero).  However, there is only one person in the world that has the ability to bend all four elements, and that’s the Avatar.

Naturally, for a bunch of reasons, the tribes of the various elements are at war, largely thanks to the ambitious Fire Nation people.  Conveniently, the Avatar reappears, seeking to restore balance to the world with the aid of his friends from the Water tribes and a big flying animal that reminds me of The Neverending Story.

So yes, the idea and the story is actually pretty cool.  There’s an obvious Asian influence with all that martial arts and those taichi-like moves they do to ‘bend’ stuff.  The battle scenes are grand and reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings (or perhaps, more accurately, Narnia).  The special effects were genuinely excellent.  In terms of aesthetics, The Last Airbender is solid.

But of course, the film fails in a few other key departments.  It squeezes a ridiculous amount of stuff into 103 minutes, and as a result, the story jumps all over the place and is rarely coherent.  You just have to go for the ride and accept all the things that suddenly pop out of nowhere for the sake of progressing the story.

And the acting…poor Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire does all that he can to bring out the character of Zuko, and he’s by far the best of the youngsters despite some awkward lines.  Katara, played Nicola Peltz, received high praise from Shyamalan but didn’t feel like anything particularly special.  Her brother Sokka, played by Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone, was, well, a bit on the stiff side, though to be fair he wasn’t given a whole lot to work with.  However, it is the strange kid with the constantly flaring nostrils, Noah Ringer, who plays the Avatar, that fails to deliver any semblance of real emotion whatsoever.  It’s his first acting role, so he deserves a break, but if he’s going to be in the sequels he’ll need to work on his performance.

Look, The Last Airbender was never going to be a great movie.  M Night Shyamalan has been absolutely caned over his last few movie-making attempts (in my opinion not all deserved) and he was always going to be on the back foot defending himself from critics.  The complex story required so much explaining that it was always going to be an uphill battle to begin with.  Taking all of that into account, I think things could have been a lot worse.  For all its flaws, it still has an interesting concept, great fight scenes and terrific special effects.  I certainly think it’s significant better than Dragonball: Evolution.

The film is actually only the first of three parts, and from what I understand, Shyamalan has already done a rough script of the second film.  If they make it, I’ll watch it.

3 stars out of 5

PS: So glad I watched the 2D version and not the 3D crap (which I hear added nothing).  We had a choice of a 2D and 3D session and went with 2D, even though that meant we had to sit in the fourth row.  And get this — we went on cheapo Tuesday which has $10.50 tickets (that’s supposed to be cheap?), but for 3D films there’s conveniently no discount.  And guess how much each ticket would have cost if we watched the 3D version?  $24.50!  That’s just insane, and another reason to hate 3D.