Review-a-thon! The Films of M. Night Shyamalan
Mike Holtz, WeWatchedAMovie
In a new segment by WeWatchedAMovie called Review-a-thon! We pick apart and review many of the films by a Director or Actor of an upcoming film that week! This week in anticipation of Science Fiction thriller After Earth starring Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith we review the career of controversial Director M. Night Shyamalan.
Wide Awake (1998)
Starring: Joseph Cross (Lincoln), Timothy Reifsnyder (Hearts of Atlantis), Rosie O’Donnel (A League of their own), Robert Loggia (Scarface) and Dennis Leary (Judgment Night)
This is the only M. Night film streaming on Netflix and lets just say from the cover it doesn’t look like a M. Night film. In Wide Awake a little boy named Joshua (Cross) loses his grandfather who he was extremely close to and has a hard time accepting it. He goes on a mission to speak to god and find out if his grandfather is okay and in heaven. Pretty deep subject material considering the cover of the DVD. You get the sense that the studio wanted Night to make a quirky family comedy centered around Rosie O’Donnel who must have been testing well with audiences at the time. Check out the picture to the left… it explains it all. Except Rosie O’Donnell is maybe in 10 minutes of the movie, hardly enough to be on the cover with the words “Rosie O’Donnell is Hilarious!”. Please.
This is somewhat a family/kids movie but it deals with heavy issues like death, mortality and the afterlife. There is a few moments of comedy and a few lines in the script that pull of heartbreak quite well. Like a few of Nights other films the kid actors are the focal point of the story here and the acting talent is extremely sporadic going from surprisingly good for some of the kids and heart achingly bad for others. Dennis Leary’s hilarious talents are wasted as he plays a pretty much completely normal father and Robert Loggia is loveable as the grandfather.
You can sense Night in the writing as the deep dialogue is original and noteworthy while other lines miss the mark completely. This works both ways for the comedy and the emotional drama. Whether it be twist endings or dialogue in a family drama Night always seems to swing for the fences and love it or hate it you have to admire it. Sometimes Wide Awake is slightly comedic and charming but for the most part it lays the emotion on way too thick and ends up feeling forced. This may be the studio attempting to push Night into making their generic version of a heart warming film but between the cheesy music and obvious attempts at emotional response Wide Awake never really lands the way it wants. As things get more and more repetitive you can sense the filmmakers wanting to land a gut shot in the final scenes but instead end up landing on their faces with a completely tacky, far fetched ending. 5/10
Starring: Bruce Willis (Die Hard) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) and Robin Wright (Moneyball)
Unbreakable gives itself the luxury no other Superhero movie before or after it ever could. It’s an entire movie that is literally only an origin story. This makes a lot of people mad and intrigues a lot of others, like myself. It’s fun to really pick apart and analyze what makes a regular guy a superhero, especially in a world where there are no other superheroes to speak of. In Unbreakable David (Willis) is in a train that derails and obliterates everyone on board except for himself, who is left without a scratch. Elijah (Jackson) who has a rare disorder where his bones break like glass upon the slightest impact. This leads him to become obsessed with comic book heroes and search for one in the real world when he finds David who mysteriously seems to have never been sick or been hurt in his life. He becomes obsessed with making David out to be a hero and David slowly begins to believe him as stranger things begin to happen.
Willis and Jackson are excellent playing off one another and their roles and characters are perfectly carved out for comic book lore. Maybe Night does spend a bit too much time focusing on Davids broken relationship with his wife Audrey but it does add some character depth in the end and isn’t all bad. If you love super hero movies and are interested in the thought of us having a real life superhero among us today and what that would be like than I would recommend watching this immediately. It really is an M. Night Shyamalan superhero flick. Making it not a standard comic book flick at all as you should not expect epic battles or super powers facing off against one another but rather a hero and a villain facing off against themselves as they come in to their own and realize their own powers. The ending of this rubbed many the wrong way as it basically ends on a cliffhanger but I found it to be a legitimate twist and found it making me want to watch Unbreakable again immediately. Sure there are some plot holes and a lack of legitimate action but the drama and acting are top notch and its a well made, excellently Directed flick by Night that probably won’t ever get its due. If Christopher Nolan is legendary for making Batman realistic than Night should be lauded as well for Unbreakable. 8.0/10
Starring: Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon), Joaquin Pheonix (Walk the Line), Rory Culkin (Mean Creek) , Abigail Breslin (Zombieland) and M. Night Shyamalan
Signs is one of those movies I’ll always remember watching for the first time. Being a sucker for Alien movies to begin with; when the found footage camcorder shows us the alien for the first time at that birthday party with those kids I almost fell out of my seat. This was out of fear and excitement at the site of what I would have imagined an alien to look like in real life. When Night is at his best this is what he offers us….a movie moment that either shocks or surprises his audience to the point they won’t ever forget it. I doubt many people forget the first time the twist was revealed to them watching The Sixth Sense. This was that moment for me and helps make this my personal favorite of all Nights films. Not for that moment alone though.
The acting in Signs is perfect, hilarious and could not ever be duplicated by any other cast because of the one of a kind personalities that Pheonix and Gibson bring to the screen. They play brothers Graham (Gibson) and Merrill (Pheonix) who live together in a small community in Pennsylvania on farm where they raise Graham’s two kids after his wife passes away. The two kids Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Breslin) put together some of the best and most eccentric children characters ever. When aliens show up and start leaving signs in their crops the family reacts in different ways. Some of the reactions hilarious while others are heartbreaking. Graham who used to be a preacher until he lost his faith after his wife was killed by a drunk driver has his lack of faith put to the test and his kids have a hard time dealing with him. Signs is more than an alien movie….its a great character story as well and when Night gets it right….and his overtly dramatic script is acted this flawlessly he can make one hell of a fun, deep, funny and dark science fiction film. This film also features my favorite acting performance by Night. 9/10
Lady in the Water (2006)
Starring: Paul Giammatti (Cinderella Man), Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village)
Not a lot to say about this one because it has nothing that make Nights movies memorable. It was almost like a detox of all the bad stuff he sometimes does in films. Completely miserable to try and follow or understand, stupidly far fetched and completely over serious and not interesting. Paul Giammatti is wasted and so are the talents of the Director. I mean it was like a kids take without a hint of enchantment or fun. Giammatti manages to deliver a hell of a performance as the stuttering Apartment Manager and Bryce Dallas Howard was okay, Night played a typical Night role and everyone else in the film was utterly atrocious. I cannot imagine someone making a less interesting story than the one Night tried to piece together here. Low point of his career and I don’t know if you have noticed yet but I am a Night apologist for the most part. Not this time. If it weren’t for Giammatti this films blu-ray wouldn’t be fit for use as a coaster under a cold beverage. 2/10
The Happening (2008)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (The Departed), Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man) and John Leguizamo (Spun)
I have no good defense for this movie except this…. it’s a B movie! Think about it. Over the top performance bordering on laughable, ridiculous death scenes and a plot tied together with a piece of burnt yarn. I mean c’mon don’t tell me it wasn’t hilarious when the big reveal turned out that the plants were killing us or when Mark Wahlberg mentioned that we should try and out run the wind. Depending on how you watch The Happening it is either infuriatingly stupid or its a fun, dumb movie to watch and laugh at. For me it’s fun but for most people it seems to anger them beyond belief. John Leguizamo’s amazingly underrated performance is wasted here and that is upsetting but how often do you get to see a popcorn B movie made with the money and effects of a big studio release? Mark Wahlberg’s worst or best role performance ever I still can’t tell. The question is did Night know he was making a laughably over the top fun movie? Or did he think he was making a film that he wanted people to take seriously? You better answer right Shyamalan because at one point a tiger rips a dudes arm right off via youtube video and it looks like a Funny or Die sketch. Hell with it… I still have fun watching this movie so I’m gonna choose to assume he meant to make it that way. 6.0/10
After Earth (2013)
Starring: Will Smith (Independence Day), Jaden Smith (Karate Kid)
Other films by M. Night:
Praying With Anger (M. Nights first film is a hard one to find)
The Sixth Sense- This film put Night on the map and added huge expectations as well. One of the most epic twist endings of all time Night crafted an excellent ghost story about a little boy who famously sees dead people and Bruce Willis and the child psychologist with the job of helping him. Original, admirably acted, written, directed and shocking to boot….this film is a classic. 8.5/10
The Village- M. Night takes a great cast and what seems like a great story and lands a twist at the end that does all the wrong things for the viewer. It was original sure, but it makes the rest of the film we worked through a waste. This flick is really where audiences started getting angry with Night and understandably so to an extent. It was a choppy film to say the least. 4/10
The Last Airbender- I think we know now that Night should make his own original material rather than make films using others ideas and stories. This popular title was torn apart by critics and fans and rightfully so as it was a total bore that apparently wasted a lot of money as well. 4/10
Final thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan: For the most part M. Nights career has been all about swinging for the fences and whether he hits a home run or falls on his face he takes cinematic chances and usually makes things interesting if nothing else. You have to admire a Director with a signature style such as his and those asking for his departure from the movie business should be careful what they wish for…..this guy could have multiple classics left in him. Sure, you run the risk of spending ticket money to merely walk back out of a theater angry at not getting what you expected but isn’t that more intriguing than walking in knowing exactly what to expect? He gave us that with After Earth and it didn’t turn out so well. It scares me to think we may very well run this guy out of the business and I can’t help but think we would be missing out on an original storyteller by doing so. He has made more passable films than many other Directors whom we don’t criticize. Thats because those Directors never did anything to make us sit up and take notice. Atleast most of what Night has done has been memorable…. for better and worse.