Posts Tagged ‘M. Night Shyamalan’

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Don’t look now, but M. Night Shyamalan has two (admittedly modest) hits in a row — so maybe the “career death” capped off by After Earth was the best thing that ever happened to the man Time magazine once referred to (waaaaaaaay prematurely) as “The Next Spielberg.”

Of course, that was in no way a label Shyamalan himself ever asked for, especially considering that his “gotcha twist”-heavy career seems to be at least circumstantially indicative of a guy who was trying to ensconce himself more as “The Next Hitchcock” than anything else, and the stylistic debt he owes — and has, perhaps, always owed — to The Master Of Suspense has never been on more clear and present display than it is in his latest, 2017’s Split.

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First, I suppose, the good : James McAvoy gives a performance — or perhaps that should be a series of performances — for the ages as troubled/troubling kidnapper Kevin Wendell, a man who suffered devastating abuse as a child that resulted in his developing an acute case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID) that plagues him to this day. Enter Barry, Orwell, Jade, Patricia, Dennis, Crumb — and one more who will be making his way to the forefront before all is said and done. McAvoy flat-out kills it in all these various roles, and his mental, emotional, and in some cases even physical transformations are a thing to behold. You’ve never seen an actor do what he does here, and chances are you’ll never see it again. This film is worth the price of admission just to watch McAvoy do what he does here.

In a way, you even end up feeling sorry for his co-stars : Betty Buckley, who in another more sane and just world should have had a Meryl Streep-like career, is particularly superb as Kevin’s sympathetic-but-conflicted therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, and Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a quietly devastating tour-de-force of her own as “final girl” kidnap victim Casey Cooke, who coincidentally also harbors some tragic and deeply-held secrets that have made her into something — other than what she may have otherwise been. For their part, Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson also do the very best they possibly can with limited screen time as fellow victims Marcia and Claire, respectively, both of whom are dispensed with in plot terms rather quickly in order to narrow the film’s almost claustrophobically-tight character focus. So, yeah, there’s some great acting on display here from many, but make no mistake — this is McAvoy’s show all the way.

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Ten million bucks is small change for Shyamalan compared to previous efforts, of course, but following on the heels of the equally-budget-conscious The Visit, it’s becoming clear that more modest productions are better suited to the auteur‘s vision and talents. Locations here are few in number but very effectively utilized, and what visual effects are on offer don’t make their presence known until the final act, and really deliver a deliciously savage gut-punch that, granted, requires an even heavier level of suspension of disbelief than most films if you really want to feel it, but chances are that between McAvoy’s performance(s) and Shyamalan’s scripting and direction, you’ll be more than ready to buy in.

As far as Shyamalan’s ever-present twists and turns go, there are some real doozys here, but the last and biggest of the bunch seems to be generating the most controversy — I’ll refrain from revealing too much for fear of being ostracized by the ever-present “spoiler police,” suffice to say that I can see why detractors claim that this Marvel- style mid-credits “zinger” that effectively ties the present film in with a previous entry in the director’s ouevre is being derided as being of the cheap n’ easy variety, but that the hell; for my money,  it was an admittedly no-risk bet that paid off, however modestly. It doesn’t add anything vital to the proceedings, to be sure, but it doesn’t detract, either, and for long-term Shyamalan fans it’s probably offers a nice little thrill. I guess that I could take it or leave it either way, personally, but in a pinch, I’ll take it.

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What I can’t take, though, is Split‘s rather disturbing, quasi-fascistic, and poorly-thought-through thesis that Shyamalan drops on us in the form of a “philosophy bomb” that stains an otherwise quite-effective thriller — pain and suffering, you see, aren’t just good, solid “character builders” in his view, but may even show the way forward for human evolution. You read that right : the terrible and debilitating abuse suffered by Kevin and, as it turns out, Casey, isn’t a bad thing — it’s turned them into veritable fucking superhumans. Obviously, this idea can be extrapolated to chilling extremes without much effort : beat your kids, and they’ll grow up to be Superman? Please.

So, yeah — Split was cruising along rather nicely until that horseshit “idea” reared its decidedly ugly head. The end result? A truly “split” decision — this flick is equal parts remarkable and morally and intellectually indefensible.

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Let’s be honest : for at least a good decade or more, the only reason to follow M. Night Shyamalan’s once-promising career (remember when Time called him “The Next Spielberg”?) has been to see just exactly how much further it can plummet. Every time he directs a new film, he seems to dig himself in a little deeper : you think The Village is going to be as bad as it gets and then he serves up Lady In The Water. Followed by The Happening. Followed by The Last Airbender. Followed by After Earth. Are you detecting a pattern yet?

Of course you are. And so is everyone else. This guy’s movies just keep getting worse, and not just by small steps, but by leaps and goddamn bounds. Clearly, he seems to be following some sign that says “this way to rock bottom,” and that sign keeps moving further and further down the pit as he chases it. Maybe a change of strategy is in order.

Enter 2015’s The Visit — a film that I admit I skipped when it hit theaters but recently watched via our cable company’s “on-demand” streaming service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal now) — which represents exactly that. No more big stars and big budgets. No more big concepts and big effects. Just a simple, bare-bones, “found footage” horror flick —produced by Jason Blum’s factory for same, BlumHouse productions — that is about as far-removed from “wannabe-blockbuster” territory as you can get. And, whaddya know, all in all it’s pretty good stuff.

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The story is pretty simple : amateur filmmaker Becca (played by Olivia DeJonge) and her would-be rapper younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going away for a week to meet their estranged grandparents, who they just call Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), for the first time while their freshly-divorced/abandoned mother (Kathryn Hahn) heads off on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The family sort of tore itself apart when the grandparents made it clear they didn’t approve of the older man their daughter was marrying, but when he turned out to be every bit the piece of shit they had warned her that he was, rather than saying “I told you so,” all they wanted to do was finally get to spend some time with their now-teenage grandkids, and so our youthful ostensible “stars” are off to a farmhouse in BF Pennsylwania while mom takes in the Caribbean.

Things seem absolutely swell at first, but pretty soon gramps’ and grams’  weird “house rules” come into play : Don’t go in the basement. Don’t leave your room after 9:30. Don’t mind grandma’s scratching on the walls and puking in the hallway.  Climb inside the oven when we ask you to clean it. That sort of thing. And as the week goes on, events only get stranger and stranger.

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Credit where it’s due : all four leads in this film do a super job, and that’s absolutely essential for a character-driven story like this. Shyamalan has always been big on the morality lectures and they’re as unsubtle here as ever, but even when the story starts to lag in the middle thanks to his proselytizing our principal actors are able to see us through the lull and carry us into the film’s frenetic final act. Dunagan and McRobbie are staggeringly kind and creepy in equal measure, and their performances seem even more impressive once Shyamalan hits us with his customary — and, in this case, surprisingly reality-based given his track record/pedigree — “big revelation” about them, and the kids, who easily could (and probably by all rights should, especially Tyler) come off as annoying little shits are actually quite likable and, dare I say it, even charming.  You’re going to like everybody in The Visit — even the people who confuse and scare you. That’s pretty damn remarkable right there.

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And what the hell — I’ve enjoyed hating Shyamalan over the years almost as much as I’ve enjoyed hating Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, but maybe it’s time to let that go. I already mentioned that his moralizing is as heavy-handed as ever here, and yeah, that’s still fucking annoying, but he’s concocted a really involving and unassuming film here that wins you over pretty quickly and rewards your trust with an extremely satisfying payoff.

The Visit, then, perhaps shows us the M. Night Shymalan that could have been and could hopefully still be : a guy who’s more suited to being the next Rod Serling than he is the next Steven Spielberg and who’s more at home telling tales of the inexplicable, uncanny and unthinkable that happen in our own homes and towns rather than on other worlds or in other dimensions or whatever the hell. If the relative critical and commercial success of this film gets him back on Hollywood’s “A list” and Warner Brothers or 2oth Century Fox or whoever shows up at his doorstep with millions of dollars and an offer to direct the next Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise blockbuster, I hope he’ll have the good sense to say “thanks, but no thanks.” We know what he’s good at, and it isn’t that sort of thing — it’s this sort of thing.

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Four years may not seem a tremendous amount of time to you or I — unless you’re stuck in line at the DMV or something for that long — but it can be an eternity in Hollywood.

Think about it : if M. Night Shyamalan came to Universal Studios with a pitch to essentially franchise his name for a horror anthology series today, he’d get laughed out of the room. And while he had a pretty steady string of celluloid critical and commercial disasters under his belt already in 2010, when The Night Chronicles made its debut (and, to date, only) appearance with Devil, he was still considered to be at least something of a bankable commodity prior to the Ishtar-like debacle that was After Earth.

Yeah, okay, even by then it had been over a decade since The Sixth Sense took the movie-going public by storm — to the point where Time  magazine proclaimed, on its cover no less, Shyamalan to be “the next Spielberg” — but shit, that afterglow lasted a good long while.

These days, the bloom is definitely off the rose, and methinks the second installment of The Night Chronicles is probably never gonna happen.

Which is sort of a drag (but only sort of) because, for a modestly-budgeted PG-13 horror, Devil (which I’d been studiously avoiding for a long time but finally watched on a lark last night when I noticed it was streaming on Netflix) really isn’t all that bad.

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You’ll notice I didn’t say it was great or anything — because it’s most certainly not — but it was better than I’d been expecting for a flick that rests upon a belief in Satan/Beelzebub/Lucifer/whatever in order to be considered even remotely scary, and the idea of one great cosmic “good guy” and one great cosmic “bad guy” is something I put absolutely zero stock in. Shit, Hollywood would laugh at a script idea as lame as that, and yet one of the world’s major religions is founded on that very notion. But I guess I’ve gone “off the reservation” a bit (hey, it’s my blog, I get to do that once in awhile, don’t I?) with all this open mocking of Christianity (much as it richly deserves it), so let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we?

Maybe the reason Devil doesn’t actively suck all that much is because Shyamalan’s influence on it is minimal at best, only being credited with its “story” rather than its actual screenplay, and hogging a “producer” credit that probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, while the film itself is directed by my fellow Minnesota native (and, it should be pointed out, Catholic school graduate) John Erick Dowdle, who’s best known for his “found footage” efforts done in collaboration with his brother, Drew, like The Poughkeepsie TapesQuarantine, and the recently-released As Above, So Below. No Drew this time, and no shaky, hand-held cam antics, either. Maybe you can’t have one without the other, I dunno.

In any case, Devil plays is pretty straight, telling the tale of five strangers (played by Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, and Geoffrey Arend) trapped in a stalled-out elevator halfway up a downtown Philadelphia skyscraper who all have mysterious pasts, tenuous-at-best presents, and highly uncertain futures, and as their nerves start fraying, it’s up to troubled police detective Bowden (Chris Messina) to keep them all from killing each other from the safety of the building’s security HQ. He’s not doing a very good job of it, truth be told, given that they one-by-one start dropping like flies, but never fear, offensively stereotypical superstitious rent-a-cop Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) might have the answer as to what’s really going on : he doesn’t need no fancy book-learnin’, just his humble, good-hearted, Mexican, Catholic upbringing to know that one of the passengers is — you guessed it — the devil.

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I keep on bad-mouthing the inane religious underpinnings of this film, which are admittedly an easy target, but honestly, until we get blasted with a heavy dose of of the Roman catechism at the end, this is a fairly involving, at times even gripping, little movie. The character revelations come fast and furious without ever feeling terribly forced, the claustrophobic setting really works, the performances are, by and large, pretty solid,  and plenty of different, and entirely plausible, “whodunnit?” possibilities are laid out to keep us on our toes at all times. I even found myself not wanting at least one of the characters to die, and that’s a better batting average that plenty of other contemporary horrors are able to muster up. All in all, I was digging it — right up to the final act.

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I won’t dwell on that too much (okay, too much more), except to say that if you don’t buy into Catholic teachings on the existence of Satan and how he fucks with people just essentially out of boredom, it will leave you feeling pretty flat. And even if you do buy into Catholic teachings on the power of forgiveness,  the way it comes into play in the story, with a totally out-of-left-field (damn, what’s with the baseball analogies tonight?) crash-landing, will seem sudden and forced because — well, it just is.

Still, all that aside, I enjoyed the first 70 or so of Devil‘s brisk,  scant 80 minutes a lot more than I figured I would going in, and I’d give this one a qualified recommendation. It at least takes the time to build a reasonably solid foundation before hammering us over the head with  its dull message of religious conservatism, and  I kinda doubt that, for instance, the new Left Behind flick (or the old one, for that matter) bothers with doing that much, as it more than likely just starts pummeling its warped ideology into your head right from the outset.

Not that I’ve seen it — or intend to. But, yeah, I did finally watch Devil, after swearing it off ever since it came out, and I’m not nearly as pissed off any myself for doing so as I assumed I would be.