Tag: m. night shyamalan


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.


Glass (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Although not short on ambition or ideas, it is a great frustration that M. Night’s Shyamalan’s “Glass” isn’t a stronger film. Part of the reason is for a closer of a trilogy (started by “Unbreakable” in 2000 and preceded by “Split” in 2017), the work is expository for the most part. Aside from an exciting opening minutes in which David Dunn (Bruce Willis), equipped with superhuman strength and psychic ability, is shown what he’s been up to, along with his now adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), since we last saw them, the material begins to move at a snail’s pace once the story shifts inside a psychiatric hospital. Initially curious, it gets duller by the minute. There is plenty of dialogue and monologuing, but these do not reveal anything particularly new or exciting.

The screenplay wishes to explore a grounded comic book universe which is full of potential because our culture now, especially the movies, is inundated with the commercialism of superheroes, products on a conveyor belt that we eat up right from the twenty-second teaser trailers. There is a stark difference between superhero pictures of today and superhero films before “Unbreakable” was released, for better or worse. This would have been a far more interesting avenue to drill into: 1) To show why relatively humble superhero movies should still be made despite the fact that several multimillion-dollar juggernauts are released annually and 2) To introduce an exciting discussion about superheroes in general and why they continue to be a staple in popular culture.

Instead, we get only crumbs of the more compelling themes until the third act—which does not work. We get the impression that the writer-director wishes so badly to surprise the viewer that the ideas that do end up on the platter are severely undercooked at best, thoroughly forced and unconvincing at its worst. Cue the flashbacks and would-be brilliant throwaway shots that the audience should have noticed all along. (I caught them all.) Perhaps it might have been better if the surprise is that there is no surprise, just a strong, well-ironed storytelling.

It is not entertaining enough—a head-scratcher because Shyamalan knows how to execute and shoot an action scene. For instance, When Dunn and The Beast, the latter being one of the twenty-four personalities (James McAvoy), must face-off in an abandoned factory, there is a real sense of excitement: the location is moody and dark, blows to the body are shown and actually felt due to the elevated sound effects, and stakes are high because we get the impression that the two are well-matched. Even when the action is shot in broad daylight, the director remains willing to play with the camera, showing us different perspectives of the sequence just because he can. The confidence is apparent when it comes to images. On paper, far less.

The title of the picture refers to Mr. Glass or Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a genius mass murderer born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by brittle bones, but we do not get enough moments with the character in order to have an appreciation of him. The charade of catatonia lasts for too long and it is quite boring. And when he does begin to speak, move around, and carry out his plans, not one thing he does is particularly clever or compelling—at least not one I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself. When the antagonist is this thinly drawn, it is without question that the screenplay requires further revisions. The work feels rushed.


Split (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

One criticism against “Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, that holds no weight is its lack of realism or truth in depicting dissociative identity disorder. The film is not a documentary but a horror-thriller after all. And the point of the horror genre is to take our fears to the extreme, to stretch it even to the point of disbelief, and explore it. But herein lies my criticism of the movie. Although it is well-made and well-acted, the plot certainly taking a real-life psychological disorder into the realm of fiction, the material does not explore deeply enough to function as a high level psychological horror-thriller.

A major limitation is in its utilization of flashbacks. Although these are meant to educate us about Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the three high school students (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) abducted by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) after a birthday party, in terms of her personal history outside of the hostage situation, the jumps in time consistently sever the tension that builds.

Poorly used flashbacks is not an uncommon problem in horror and thriller pictures. But in order for this tool to work effectively, events during the present and the past must be equally fascinating. Here, the present is far more captivating and the past, while informative, is a bit tired and predictable. One extended flashback early on in the picture—or smack dab in the middle right before a pivotal moment so that we are suspended us in suspense—might have been a fresher, more potent alternative. I expected a more inspired choice from a master of tone and pacing like Shyamalan.

Another important shortcoming is in the presentation of personalities—not what we see on screen because McAvoy does a solid delivery with each identity but with respect to the writing. While understandable that we do not get to meet all twenty-three personalities due to time constraints, getting to know two or three on a deeper level might have made the experience eye-opening, highlighting the humanity underneath the disorder, fictional or otherwise. Having done so could have turned a clever ending into a powerful shot to the gut, further supporting the idea that this move is, beyond the superficial horror-thriller elements, a character-driven piece.

The writer-director is at his best when he plays with the camera, employing awkward angles and extreme closeups in order to highlight a sense of dread and impending doom. Shyamalan’s Hitchcock-ian spirit is one I’ve admired and will continue to admire for a long time because even though a scene or a shot doesn’t quite work, one cannot help but feel regaled, or alerted, by his sense of style and confidence when that camera moves with magnetic purpose.

“Split” offers passable entertainment but not a riveting experience. Although there are creative choices, such as a more complex than expected characterization of its final girl and McAvoy’s ability to balance terrifying, bizarre, and humorous personalities, the flow is broken far too often. When it comes to movies of this kind, gulping it down should be like smooth liquor.

The Visit

The Visit (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

There is mold in the basement so Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are prohibited from going down there. The energetic siblings are visiting Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in rural Pennsylvania for five days which is special because it is the first time they will meet and get to know one another. A strained relationship between Mom (Kathryn Hahn) and grandparents had led to them to have no communication for fifteen years—for reasons unknown. Becca and Tyler hope to find out, not knowing what is in store for them in that farm house.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “The Visit” offers low-level terror, mid-level creativity, and a high-level of willingness to impress—which results in, for the most part, a mixed bag. Throughout the picture, humor courses in its veins which I found to be unusual because it is not meant to be a horror-comedy. Most of the time, in successful, straight-faced horror-thrillers, comedy is utilized to relieve tension. Here, it is used in two ways: as a means for us to get to know the siblings when they are together and as a distraction from the secret to be revealed in the final twenty minutes.

“What is really going on here?” is a question that discerning viewers will ask themselves more than thrice. We are given bones of information suggesting real possibilities. Pop Pop is very secretive about the shed. Nana sleepwalks at night in the nude. Pop Pop is caught “only cleaning” a shotgun when a spit-second before he realizes someone is watching, the muzzle of it is in his mouth. Nana stares at walls laughing uncontrollably. She claims she must laugh in order to keep something away. Is this a haunted house film? Is the place atop an Indian burial site? Have Nana and Pop Pop checked-in to the loony bin due to isolation after all these years? Are they simply suffering from dementia?

Strange events pile on top of one another as Tyler and Becca’s visit trickle away. After a big scare—real or false alarm—bold, red text is shown on screen displaying the day of the week—implying how many days left the two must endure in the house of horrors. I was reminded of bold European horror-thrillers like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”—which is perhaps the point because there is a playful but macabre tone underneath it all. Meanwhile, Nana insists on feeding the children cookies and other snacks when she wishes to steer a conversation away from certain topics. Is something in the food? Is Nana trying to fatten up her guests? (I thought about Kevin Connor’s “Motel Hell.”) Where are the neighbors? The possibilities are too delicious not to think about.

The film’s weak point is the hand-held, documentary style. Earlier, I mentioned that the film is willing to impress. This is a negative example of that trait. The found footage style is played out, tired, and rarely surprising these days. I got the impression that the writer-director hopes to reel in audiences—specifically younger audiences—this way. I found it insulting because I think Shyamalan is so creative and talented—despite a few disastrous projects and more than a few naysayers—that he is so much better than to succumb to this particular way of storytelling. He should have known this, too.

The smart decision to have taken is to mix hand-held camera techniques—maybe when Becca and Tyler question their subjects and when the two are clowning around, trying to get in each other’s nerves—and camera keeping still. The latter allows us the opportunity to be able to stare—and appreciate—the more terrifying images head-on instead of us having to struggle to make out what is so scary in the first place. The art of the camera staying still in horror movies has almost become a lost art—and it is a shame because the point of horror movies, in my opinion, is for the audience to be able to face fears rather than to be distracted from the experience.

“The Visit” earns a mild recommendation because there is more than a handful of creativity here. Futhermore, DeJonge and Oxenbould are entertaining as siblings. They each get their moment to shine; the former in the dramatic field and the latter in the comedic and uh… musical field. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing performers who are capable of range and natural charisma rather than just would-be child actors who just have to look cute or afraid. The movie is best seen outside of one’s bedroom after 9:30 p.m.

The Happening

The Happening (2008)
★ / ★★★★

There are many things wrong in “The Happening,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but the casting of the leads, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, is perhaps the most salient misstep. The story being a hybrid of science fiction and mystery, it is a basic requirement that the performers be able to emote the deepest and most sincere emotions. Wahlberg and Deschanel are far from the most versatile actors. For instance, Wahlberg has this annoying habit of sounding disingenuous when trying to make others interested in what his character is talking about. Take note of the classroom scene during the first fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Deschanel’s facial expression does not change. She always looks wide-eyed and innocent even when the occasion does not call for it.

A strange event begins in Central Park, New York City. It appears to be just another morning at the park: Health-conscious people are jogging, pets are being taken for a walk, men and women in professional attires are headed to work, others are sitting on benches chatting with friends. There is a gust of wind. Everything stops. A select few start walking backwards. Then they start to hurt themselves. At a nearby construction site, workers jump off buildings. The news claim it must be some sort of a terrorist attack.

The central character is Elliot (Wahlberg), a science teacher whose wife, Alma (Deschanel), is currently wrestling with her conscience. She had went on a date with another man. This could have been a potent human conflict amidst a most bizarre phenomenon if the screenplay had been more probing into its subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead, an attempt at comedy is utilized time and again for the sake of “entertainment”—in quotations because the so-called jokes and funny bits do not work at all. These scenes come across as though they were from a completely different picture.

The material asks the viewers to use their imagination. This is a good thing. The problem is that the film does not provide anything of value that inevitably engages us. There are shots of the wind caressing leaves of trees, tall grass, and bushes. This is almost always accompanied by a mysterious or creepy score. But what is the point when there is no payoff? By the end, the explanation is that there is no explanation because we do not yet understand nature completely. This is lazy and insulting.

There is no third act. The first act, which takes place in NYC, sets up the story. The second act involves a migration, running away from the reported terrorist attacks. And then it just ends with a subtitle claiming that three months had passed. This is most curious because Shyamalan is highly attuned to having three well-defined arcs. This is why “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Signs” feel like complete, well-told stories. By the end of these aforementioned movies, we want to know more about what would happen to the characters even though there is nothing more to say.

One walks away from “The Happening” feeling cheated because the mystery offers to intrigue or depth, the characters are one-dimensional, and it fails to offer anything new or exciting to the various sub-genres it embodies. Its level of creativity is bone dry.

Skinwalker Ranch

Skinwalker Ranch (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another example on how not to execute a found footage film.

A mysterious organization called Modern Defense Enterprises sends a team to Skinwalker Ranch, a place that has recently been mired in controversy due to the disappearance of a rancher’s son. Although the boy’s literal vanishing is documented on camera, which involves a droning sound and a blinding flash of light, a few people still believe that it has somehow been altered to hide what might have really happened.

“Skinwalker Ranch,” written by Adam Ohler and directed by Devin McGinn, does not seem to know what it wishes to accomplish. It looks and feels embarrassingly messy and so it is—for the most part—a trial to sit through. We want to figure out what is happening but it does not appear to have the discipline to A) stick to one path and explore it for all its worth or B) traverse multiple paths and provide the necessary, sensical linkages so that its mythology makes sense as a whole. As a result, what we have here is a cheap hybrid knock-off of M. Night Shyamalan’s excellent “Signs” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity.”

Why does the majority of every mysterious happening occur at night? First, the periphery of the ranch is dark. One would think that the fancy organization would provide its investigators high-tech cameras to overcome a simple element like darkness. Second, it does not help that the inside of the house has consistently poor lightning. It is not a good sign when the clearest thing we can see on screen is the time stamp. Third, the picture has the tendency to use glitches just when something intense is occurring; instead of being scared or curious, I was angry and frustrated because I could not see anything.

If glitches and statics are not bad enough, there is incessant shaking of the handheld camera. Still, however, that is not the worst part: while running away from a supposedly scary thing, the camera is occasionally pointed at the ground. I wondered if the director ever bothered to review a scene he had just shot and, if so, how many times. How closely did he look at the images? Was he really convinced that what he had just shot could scare someone over the age of five or did he just want to go home early that day?

Some may argue that found footages movies are supposed to create an illusion that what the audience is watching is real. While I do not disagree, many filmmakers translate this conceit as an absolute and forgetting the most important point (and elementary, in my opinion): they are still making a movie that is designed to entertain. Therefore, at the very least, the images are not supposed to be incomprehensible—something I could have recorded myself while blindfolded.

I have not even gone into the film’s premise which is a shame because I thought it had potential. I was curious to know if what was really happening involved extraterrestrials or a different kind of beast. But because of the incompetent techniques from behind the camera coupled with a screenplay that lacks practicality and energy, the curious story is drowned. Needless to say, steer far away—very far away—from “Skinwalker Ranch.” Despite the commotion the characters undergo, its core is empty and the periphery is nothing special.

After Earth

After Earth (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Having sensed that he and his son are drifting apart, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a renowned general who is often away on intergalactic missions, invites Kitai (Jaden Smith) to come with him to work so that they can spend more time together. What should have been a relatively safe trip goes horribly awry when their ship encounters a field of asteroids. Their ship heavily damaged, they have no choice but to crash land on Earth, once the home of mankind but is now a haven for creatures that have evolved to kill humans.

A part of me feels bad for M. Night Shyamalan because it seems as though each time his name is associated with a movie, the majority expect or wish for the project to fail. With work like “Lady in the Water” and, to some degree, “The Happening” (I liked parts of it), casual moviegoers have reason to think this way. But “After Earth” is not as bad as the aforementioned pictures; it is mediocre, certainly, but some sections of the film are entertaining.

The script might have benefited from a bit of polishing. While understandable that the heart of the story touches upon a strained relationship between father and son, and to some degree we know exactly where it is going, it need not have been so corny. Some lines sound too forced that at times we are reminded that we are watching a movie rather than being a part of an adventure.

For example, as Raige and Kitai get into a disagreement about the criteria of aborting a mission, out of the blue one of them begins to talk about something else entirely–a recollection of an event that is supposed to be sad or tragic. Instead, I found myself detached and noticing the strings of the puppet show. This approach would have worked only if the screenplay had a tight grip on the human drama of the story. It fails to move us because the moment is not earned.

The film is visually arresting at times. I marveled at the appearance of the abandoned Earth. Admittedly, it is not at all a challenge to discern which parts are CGI (most of them are) but I am somewhat forgiving when it comes to the visuals as long as they are not too showy as to overpower the material. I liked that the dangers on Earth involve animals that many of us are likely to be familiar with but are given slight alteration in size or function.

A standout sequence involves Kitai having to skydive and as a giant eagle-looking creature pursuits him. Shyamalan makes good decisions when it comes to balancing wide shots and close-ups in order to highlight the urgency of the action. The director is not without talent and I wish that more people were more open to giving credit when it is deserved–even if they think that the movie does not work as a whole.

Based on the story by Will Smith and screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, “After Earth” is one that I consider to be a “background movie,” appropriate to play in the background during a party or gathering. The slower, less exciting parts give people a chance to catch up and trade gossip. When the action reaches a peak, however, people’s attention is captured until the thrills die down again.