Archive for the M. Night Shyamalan Movies Category

AFTER EARTH (2013)

Posted in 2013, Alien Worlds, Coming of Age Movies, Daniel Keohane Reviews, M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Monsters, Science Fiction, The Future with tags , , , on June 25, 2013 by knifefighter

AFTER EARTH (2013)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane

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I have to admit I was pretty surprised to discover AFTER EARTH (2013) hadn’t yet been reviewed by our illustrious staff here at Cinema Knife Fight. They must have assumed that I’d eventually break my writing silence and review it, seeing as how I’m one of the remnant of M. Night Shyamalan fans. Yes, many of you might be surprised that AFTER EARTH is more than just a Will Smith (I AM LEGEND, 2007, INDEPENDANCE DAY , 1996) vehicle. The film is written and directed by one of my favorite directors, who created some of my favorite  horror/sci-fi films, including THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and SIGNS (2002), but after a series of underwhelming (to the general audience) films like DEVIL (2010) and THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010), the marketing department for  his newest film decided that his name not only doesn’t sell tickets, it might hurt, at least until he can build up a resume of new hits under his belt.

Although I enjoyed AFTER EARTH sometimes for reasons other than its predictable plot (the primary being I watched  it with my son Andrew who’s getting ready to head out to the Big City to find his way through the perils of corporate life), overall I was sadly underwhelmed by the movie. But it’s a great father/son bonding film. It’s sweet in some ways, as well.

But, as far as plot development and the overall script, I’m afraid the film is lacking on many levels.

I did say M Night Shyamalan is my favorite director, and he is. In fact I’d go as far as to say he’s one of the best. That being said, he is by far not the best screenwriters in the business. I will make one assumption based on the “Story by Will Smith” which scrolled across the screen at the end: perhaps Smith did more than come up with the overall story and actually wrote the bulk of the script, then had Shyamalan clean it up and make it look pretty. But if that’s the case Shyamalan should have told Smith the story was weak. Actually, the main issue was more that it was predictable. I knew (as did Andrew and most of the folks in the theater) what would happen in the climactic scene. Everything in the opening scenes existed only to point to this, and not nearly as subtly as THE SIXTH SENSE.

During a very hurried opening scene we learn that something bad happened to the earth ecologically, things went from bad to worse and the human race had to leave the planet to survive (in this way it opened much like this years OBLIVION, minus the invasion). Our technology had advanced enough (we assume) that we could settle on a remote system’s star using warp technology and now live on a decent planet with very little vegetation, red rocks, and cliffs. Very, well, Red Rocks-ish. Now, there was some other point about an alien race that did not like us, and decided to wipe us out by genetically engineering these man (and woman) eating monsters called Ursas which are blind (OK, so not the brightest aliens), but instead track humans through fear. The explanation for this worked OK, so let’s go with it. Over time, a number of human soldiers learned to master the art of fearlessness—feeling no fear, at all, and thus becoming invisible to the monsters. They began to teach others this technique while using this new blind spot to begin wiping the creatures out. They still exist, in limited numbers. It is never explained if more are being made or bred, or where the aliens are now…. again, the opening recap was pretty quick and hard to follow.

Oh, Will Smith’s character Cypher was one of the first to master this ability of feeling no fear after a near death experience. He’s a General now, a “war” hero and loved by many. He also seems to have carried his lack of fear into other personalities, like love and affection. Not that he doesn’t love his family, he just acts a bit stiff around, well everyone, including his son.

This is an interesting trademark of most Shyamalan films. His leading man is always played to near-stiff perfection. Bruce Willis’s character both in THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE (2000) never smiled and spoke quietly, in an almost monotone manner. Mel Gibson’s fallen priest in SIGNS, though obviously a little depressed, had deadpan expressions most of the way through (as did his brother played by Joaquin Phoenix… however that name’s spelled), and walked around with his arms limp at his side like they were  bound. I remember distinctly watching SIGNS (and loving it, by the way) and thinking that someday Shyamalan would have to cast William Hurt because the man is known for his deadpan, even-handed approach to leading-man-ishness (enter M’s next film, THE VILLAGE, 2004, starring Mister Hurt himself). So, seeing the usually animated Will Smith playing a quiet, introspective, emotionally-repressed father in AFTER EARTH came as no surprise.

Let’s give credit where it’s due to Smith and his son Jaden, who plays Cypher’s son Kitai. I think they both did a tremendous job with the roles they were assigned. Jaden played a whiny, needy teenaged boy, and did it well. I’ve seen him in the remake of the KARATE KID (2010) and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) when he was younger and I know the kid can act. The problem with his character is they really pushed the “fearful child” angle (and his father feels no fear now, giving us the father/son angst angle, replacing sports or overachieving). Will Smith plays his quiet, brooding father well, keeping his cool but loving his son dearly. Cypher battles a slowly growing sudden fear —of his own death, but mostly his sons—as the movie progresses, mostly through cracks in his expressions and delayed stares. I know people have said his acting was wooden and stilted, but I disagree. For the part he and Shyamalan gave him, he did very good.

Unfortunately, the movie itself is neither original nor interesting enough to take such talent and make it truly shine. Smith’s Cypher takes his son with him on a routine transfer of a captured Ursa (one of the monsters) to some moon station where his men can practice not being afraid (and thus being invisible). An asteroid shower causes damage to the hull and after jumping into a worm hole to escape the asteroid, they end up outside of Earth (somehow, some preset location, the closest habitable planet?) but are too damaged to turn back. The ship breaks up on entry into the atmosphere. The crew is all killed, except for Smith & Smith. And the captured monster, which escapes and is seen no more (until, as you all have guessed, the climactic scene of the film).

Smith, Sr. is injured, resulting in Smith, Jr. needing to travel alone through some beautiful, lush terrain to reach the tail section of the ship to retrieve a homing beacon. The Earth they are marooned on is no longer destroyed, in fact it doesn’t look like anything is wrong with it. There were earlier comments before crashing that everything on the planet has adapted itself to be fatal to humans, a way for a dying Earth to rid itself of its biggest threat. My son Andrew had a good point, maybe AFTER EARTH was a sequel to THE HAPPENING (2008) where nature decides to kill humans by making them kill themselves. Maybe. However, there really wasn’t any of this fatal-to-humans stuff, except for some slugs which secrete a poison, and extremely cold temperatures at night. The rest are natural predators like baboons (in a pack or solo they can be dangerous, and Smith, Jr. threatens them), and lions.

Smith, Sr. is able to follow Jr. and act as his guide via a comm-link along this adventure, much like a Dad can be a mentor and guide for his son off to college or moving to the Big City via Skype or cell phone. As they move along there is the requisite bonding that takes place. Not as much as I expected, at least they made the Dad change only a little—they’re on the planet for a couple days max as it is. Complications happen, but I never felt too worried for the characters because everything was happening too by-the-numbers for my taste, the threats simply not threatening enough. One “danger” Smith, Jr. faced even ends up being a mode of rescue later. This particular detail I expected early on, but how it was done I thought was kind of cool, as kitschy as some people might possibly think it is executed.

So in the end, I’m saddened that my favorite director guy M Night Shyamalan made a movie I was less than impressed with (alongside DEVIL and the second half of THE LADY IN THE WATER, 2006). But there were some positive experiences in the movie—Smith Sr.’s acting, as understated as it was, and good visuals (alongside some iffy CGI moments, such as when Smith, Jr.’s flashbacks to how his sister died at the hands/claw of an Ursa in their home). Overall I think the director should stick to what he does so well, direct, and leave the writing to people who do that well (and as much as I really enjoy almost everything Will Smith is in, I think he should be kept away from the typewriter, too, if this is the result). Or at least, someone tell him what’s wrong before it goes any further than the screenplay. I’d hate to think someone of Shyamalan’s caliber doesn’t listen to honest criticism. Maybe Smith doesn’t. If it’s been done too many times before, if it’s predictable, someone should have spotted this and corrected it, not just rushed it to the distributor because of the star power, or marketing’s need to get it in print by Father’s Day.

It is a good movie to see with your boys, though, for a belated Father’s Day present..

So, reluctantly, I give my buddy M Night Shyamalan’s newest film one of two possible ratings:

As a standalone science fiction film with a large budget, major movie stars and directed by MNS: 2 out of 5 Father Figures.

As a movie—to rent—and watch with your kids, make it 2.5

That’s about it. Nice to be back here in these fine pages, and special congrats to our fearless leader, L.L. Soares, for taking home the Superior Achievement in a First Novel Stoker for his very original debut, LIFE RAGE. Nice job, my friend. You earned it.

© Copyright 2013 by Daniel G. Keohane

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Friday Night Knife Fights – December 2010 – Part 2

Posted in 2010, Friday Night Knife Fights, M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Wes Craven Movies with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2010 by knifefighter

FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS: DECEMBER 2010
PART 2
With Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, and Colleen Wanglund

This month’s debate:
WES CRAVEN VS. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: WHO’S THE WORSE DIRECTOR?

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Welcome back to FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS.

Last Friday, LL, Colleen Wanglund, and I were discussing WES CRAVEN vs. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, and we were attempting to answer the question, which of these two directors is in the worst slump?  Tonight we conclude the debate.

Of the two, which one do you want to see get back fastest to making good horror movies again?  And if you were this person’s agent, what advice would you give him to help resurrect his career?

COLLEEN WANGLUND: I’d really like to see Wes Craven right the wrongs he’s done, because, again, he’s made some really great movies and still has the potential to get back to making good movies.

The advice I’d give him is to stop taking scripts for crap like CURSED (2005) and MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) and to STOP WITH THE SEQUELS ALREADY!!  Maybe if Wes went independent he’d do a better job.

LL SOARES: I think I consider them both lost causes at this point. If I was Craven’s agent, the first thing I’d tell him is to stop working with people like Kevin Williamson. Williams might have given Craven some hits, but he’s also been responsible for some of his worst films. Secondly, to get back to his roots and try to recapture the edge of his early work. Seeing how many of his early films have been remade lately, there’s definitely a market for more edgy horror.

As for Shyamalan, I’d tell him to hire a decent writer and stick to just directing. His scripts have been getting increasingly awful over time. And annoyingly preachy. No one likes to be preached to (the movie DEVIL (2010), which he only wrote the script for, was guilty of this as well). Since writing seems to be Shyamalan’s Achilles’ heel, it seems rather silly that he’s started a project called THE NIGHT CHRONICLES where other directors direct scripts he’s written. Hopefully the poor reception DEVIL received will kill the project before it continues.

MA:  I want to see Shyamalan get back to making good horror movies again, since I liked his work better in the first place.  If he could make other movies with the precision and care he seemed to show when he made THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), he’d be enjoying a helluva career right now.  Just because THE SIXTH SENSE had a knockout twist ending, he seemed to believe that was why the film was good, and suddenly all his movies had to have twist endings.  The problem is, THE SIXTH SENSE’s twist ending belonged in that movie.  It was an integral part of the story.  It wasn’t tacked on as an afterthought in the mistaken belief that “my movies need twist endings.”

If he were making quality horror movies, the horror genre would be stronger for it.

If I were his agent, what advice would I give him?

There would be three things.  First, like I just said, I’d advise him to ditch the twist endings.  That’s not why THE SIXTH SENSE was such a good movie.  It was such a good movie because he did such a good job with the entire package.

I agree with LL that Shyamalan shouldn’t write his own movies, that he’s a much better director than a writer.  So, that would be my second piece of advice.  Let someone else write the screenplay.

And my third piece of advice would be to get off his high horse and get out of the limelight for a while.  He should stop advertising his movies with his name in front of the title, as in “M Night Shyamalan’s DEVIL” or whatever.  It’s too presumptuous.  It’s so bad movie audiences are laughing at his name.

Instead, he should just direct his movies to the best of his ability— and don’t hype that it’s HIS movie—and then, if it does well, people will give him credit.  Right now, the last thing he needs is movie audiences knowing in advance that he’s behind the camera.  This information might actually keep people away from the theater.  Ultimately, if the movie is good, people are going to like it regardless of who made it, so if he makes a good movie, it’s not like people aren’t going to like it because he made it.

Moving on to our next question, right now, which one of the two is doing more damage to the horror industry?

LS:  Craven is doing another SCREAM movie soon. So I’d say him.

MA:  You really give SCREAM (1996) too much credit.  Come on, it didn’t ruin horror.  That being said, the world doesn’t need another SCREAM movie.

LS:  The first SCREAM movie thought it was so damn clever by pointing out all the clichés of the genre (which everyone who’s a fan of horror ALREADY KNEW).  SCREAM made horror a joke. Ironically, one of the movies that let people take horror seriously again was Shyamalan’s SIXTH SENSE.

MA:  I don’t understand why you say that, why you think SCREAM made horror a joke.  It was a horror movie with a sense of humor.  What’s the difference between SCREAM and ZOMBIELAND (2009)?  Did ZOMBIELAND make horror a joke?

LS:  You don’t understand my comment. ZOMBIELAND was a horror film with a sense of humor, and it worked. There’s nothing wrong with humor in a horror movie. SCREAM pretty much ridiculed the horror genre – the laugh was on us. The way to make better horror films is not to make the genre a laughing stock – but rather to stop making crap and make good movies. Which is why THE SIXTH SENSE was one of the films that lifted horror out of the funk that it settled into post-SCREAM.

The SCREAM movies also started a trend where almost every horror movie for a few years had to star kids (who looked like models) and no adults, which was abysmal. Shymalan never hurt the genre as a whole. He just made a lot of stinky movies.

CW:  The most damage?  It’s hard to say.  Shyamalan is still wet behind the ears and should maybe actually WATCH some horror movies to get a better understanding of the genre.  He seems to have at least made an attempt to make suspenseful films, but they fall apart with some really bad endings.

Wes Craven has been around longer and did at one time know what he was doing.  You know, maybe Craven is doing more damage because he’s helping Hollywood to churn out the lousy cookie-cutter crap they call horror movies.

MA:  I don’t think either one is damaging the horror industry.  I don’t give either one of these guys that much power.  The industry is full of talented people working in it right now.

That being said, I think Shyamalan’s movies get more press, but he’s starting to become a joke these days, so if he keeps this up, eventually people are just going to quit watching his films.  It’s not like people go to the movies these days to see one of his movies expecting it’s going to be a classic.  People know now that the guy’s not producing quality stuff.

I don’t think Wes Craven is even in the mix anymore.  Among today’s moviegoers, I don’t hear his name mentioned at all.

LS: Oh yeah? If the new SCREAM sequel is a big hit, that will change.

MA: These guys are both in slumps, but I don’t think they’re hurting the industry.

Alright folks, it’s decision time.  Time to pick a winner.  WES CRAVEN vs. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN –which of these two directors wins today’s booby prize for worst director?

CW:  I give the booby prize to Wes Craven because he really has fallen farther from grace in the last two decades.  I think he’s gotten lazy and very sloppy.

MA:  I’d have to go with Shyamalan.  It’s almost as if his troubles are in his head, as if he’s lost his way.  He reminds me of a baseball player who’s a lifetime .300 hitter but is stuck in an awful hitting slump and can’t bat .200 to save his life.  His mechanics are all there, but he can’t buy a hit.  He just has to stick with it and work through it.

I think with time, Shyamalan will come around and make good quality movies again.

I think Craven is just old.  No, seriously, based upon his recent movies, I’d have to guess that he doesn’t even care anymore.  His films look like they were made by someone just going through the motions.

LS:  I’d say it’s a tie. They both are pretty awful at this point in their careers. And I dread seeing either of their movies. I wish they’d both go away.

MA:  A tie?  Interesting.

That gives us one vote for each, plus a tie, which puts us at 1 ½ for Craven and 1 ½ for Shyamalan.  Fittingly enough, tonight’s bout ends in a draw.  Both these guys are in a funk, and it seems these days neither one can make a good movie to save his life.

Therefore, tonight we award two booby prizes to both these directors.

On that note, go out and see a movie directed by someone else!

Well, folks, that all we have time for tonight.

LS:  Thanks, Colleen, for joining us.

CW:  It was a pleasure, guys.

MA:  This has been the last FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS for 2010. Good night everybody!

—END—

Friday Night Knife Fights: WES CRAVEN vs. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN

Posted in 2010, 70s Horror, Aliens, Friday Night Knife Fights, Horror, M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Wes Craven Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2010 by knifefighter

FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS
With Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, and Colleen Wanglund

WES CRAVEN VS. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN – Part 1

****

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Welcome to this month’s FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS. Tonight, LL and I are joined by the Geisha of Gore herself, Colleen Wanglund. Welcome, Colleen.

COLLEEN WANGLUND: Happy to be here.

MA:  And how are you doing tonight, LL?

L.L. SOARES: I’ve been better. I mean, we’re going to be talking about Wes Craven and M. Night Shyamalan tonight. How good can I be?

MA:  That’s right, tonight on FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS it’s WES CRAVEN vs. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN. We’ll be answering the question, which of these two directors is in the worst slump right now?  Let’s get started. First of all, do you agree that these two directors are in a slump?

CW:  Absolutely!

Both of these directors are in a huge slump. Wes Craven actually used to make really good movies….back in the 70s and 80s. And M. Night Shyamalan was touted as a potential movie-making genius with so much promise.

MA:  How quickly fates change!

LS:  Both directors have had periods in their careers where they were doing some terrific work. Neither has done anything of value for at least the last ten years. So yeah, they are definitely in a slump. They’re both awful examples of horror directors.

MA:  I agree. I don’t see how anyone can argue otherwise, unless of course you’re a die-hard fan of Shyamalan and think all his movies have been great. I’m sure Dan Keohane would argue this if he were here.

LS:  You hear that Dan?  You’d better be here next time!

MA:  Nothing like pressuring the guy!

LS:  He can handle it. I thought he’d jump at the chance to defend his hero, M. Night. I’m surprised he didn’t show up for this one.

MA:  Maybe he was afraid he’d be outnumbered.

CW:  Which he would have been.

MA:  Okay, so, who has fallen further from grace?  In other words, which one was making movies at a higher level when he lost his way and got his head stuck in a toilet?

LS:    I guess I’d have to go with Wes Craven, because his early films were fantastic. I think LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) were like these iconic, influential classics. Even people who don’t like them have to admit how they left indelible marks on the genre.

MA:  I don’t like those movies, and I don’t have to admit that they were influential. I think they’re minor movies. They didn’t do anything to shape the horror industry, except maybe give people the false perception that horror movies are mindless violent trash, which is not a good thing. I don’t want people thinking horror movies are mindless violent trash.

LS:  As usual, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You claim to be a horror guy, but you’re such a wimp you can’t appreciate anything with any kind of real edge to it.

MA:  THE EXORCIST (1973), HALLOWEEN (1978), ALIEN (1979)–these movies don’t have an edge?  They do, plus guess what?  They actually were made well!

CW:  Sorry, but I have to agree with LL here. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES are horror classics. I also loved SWAMP THING (1982), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984).

LS: SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is actually really good. It might be the last good movie Craven has made.

CW: I think Craven started to lose his way with the ELM STREET sequels. If there’s one thing I hate more than a remake, it’s a sequel. Although there was also the absolutely awful THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991).

LS: Oh God, you’re right. THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is horrendous!

But, as for Craven’s career, you could tell as soon as he started getting big he really wanted to have a commercial/mainstream career, and he abandoned his more edgy sensibilities early on.

MA:  I didn’t like any of these movies, except for the first A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The last movie that Craven made that I liked was SCREAM (1996).

LS:  Yet another example of your lack of taste. SCREAM was crap.

MA:  I have to cut you off here, because we have to move on to Shyamalan.

LS:  Fine.  I’ll come back to SCREAM later, because I’ve got more to say about this smug little piece of —.

MA:  I’m sure you do.  Anyway, moving on to Shyamalan, the last movie that he made that I liked was SIGNS (2002), so in my book Craven’s been in the longer slump.

LS: You must be sniffing glue again. SIGNS was horrible. It’s illogical, badly written, and not scary. It’s a movie about aliens so stupid they invade Earth – a planet that’s like 80% water – and guess what their only weakness is? Yep. Water! I think these must be the stupidest aliens in film history. Since we’re mostly water, too, what the hell were they planning to do with us once they took over? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

MA: Yes, but it works!  It is scary, and I totally bought into the emotional plight of Mel Gibson’s character.  That being said, you’re dead on about the aliens.

Still, I enjoyed SIGNS and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) better than anything Craven has ever made. I guess I’m not much of a Craven fan.

So, in my estimation, Shyamalan has fallen further from grace since THE SIXTH SENSE is a classic of the genre, and SIGNS, while flawed, captivated me much more than anything in Craven’s canon of work.

LS:  I thought Shyamalan’s best films were THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE (2000). I really liked both of them. However, I don’t think either one was as important as Craven’s early films. So I say Craven has fallen further.

CW:  It’s tough to answer this one. Shyamalan made one great movie in THE SIXTH SENSE and seemed to fall off from there. It was as if he believed the hype, that he probably couldn’t make a bad movie (but keep in mind his idol is Stephen Spielberg who is another iffy one for me).

So, I don’t know which one has fallen further. They both have fallen pretty far.

LS: I think that Craven has made better films than Shymalan. But Craven’s worst films are also worse than Shymalan’s worst.

MA:  Hold that thought, because that’s my next question.  Which of the two has made the worst movies of late?  Whose recent movies have you disliked more?

CW:  Of late?

In my opinion, Shyamalan hasn’t made a good movie since THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). And Craven hasn’t made a good movie since THE EIGHTIES!  I thought he was starting to mend his ways with SCREAM (1996) but then he just HAD to go and do sequels again.

MA:  So, you liked SCREAM?

CW:  Yeah, I liked the first one.

MA:  At least I’m not the only one here who liked that movie.

LS: I think you’re both high!

CW:  I have to say I probably dislike Wes Craven’s movies more because he’s been making movies longer and really should know better.

LS:  I think they’ve both been pretty awful. They both had career highs and they both have wallowed in the sewer for awhile now.

MA:  Wes Craven’s MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) and CURSED (2005) were horrible. In fact, a friend of mine actually walked out of MY SOUL TO TAKE.

LS: I wish that friend was me. I had to sit through the whole thing and review it. Talk about torture porn! It was TORTURE sitting through that movie!

MA: Shyamalan’s recent movies haven’t been any better. Consider DEVIL (2010)— I know he only wrote this one, but I still count it as one of his movies—, THE HAPPENING (2008) , and the worst of the worst:  THE VILLAGE (2004).

LS: THE VILLAGE is a work of genius compared to THE HAPPENING and SIGNS. At least it started out really good.

MA: It may have started out well, but where it went afterwards was abysmal.

THE VILLAGE actually annoyed the hell out of me. I was really into it and really enjoying it, and then Shyamalan goes and ruins it with an idiotic revelation half way through the film which absolutely killed any and all suspense the movie had taken so much care to build up. So, I was already outraged long before the film’s ridiculous unnecessary twist ending.

LS: Frankly, the fact that THE VILLAGE annoyed you so much makes me like it more than I originally did. If it irritated you that much, it can’t be all bad.

MA: I think you secretly wrote the screenplay.

Whose recent movies have I disliked more?  Hands down, Shyamalan’s.

—-END PART 1—

(TO BE CONCLUDED NEXT FRIDAY)

DEVIL

Posted in 2010, Cinema Knife Fights, Devil Movies, M. Night Shyamalan Movies with tags , , , , , , on September 20, 2010 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: DEVIL (2010)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares


(THE SCENE: the ground floor of a skyscraper in a large city. MICHAEL ARRUDA makes his way to an elevator, and he gets on with an anxious looking OLD LADY. They are joined by a richly dressed, beautiful YOUNG WOMAN, and a SECURITY GUARD. As doors close, a voice calls out. It is L.L. SOARES.)

LS: Hold the elevator!

MA (presses the “door close” button): Sorry!

(The doors shut, but there is a “ding!” and they re-open. LS joins the others on the elevator. He thanks the security guard for opening the doors for him, and then turns to MA)

LS: What’s the idea trying to keep me off the elevator?

MA: Well, obviously, I didn’t know it was you. (Looks at the security camera and smirks.)

LS: Obviously.

(MA notices old lady staring at him menacingly.)

MA (to old lady): Didn’t we see you in LEGION?

YOUNG WOMAN: Hey! Did someone just pinch my butt?

MALES IN ELEVATOR (in unison): No! Of course not! (All have crossed fingers behind their backs).

LS: Hey! Someone just pinched my butt! (Turns to YOUNG WOMAN). And it better have been you!

(Lights suddenly go out and elevator stops. Everyone screams.)

OLD LADY: What’s happening?

LS: I’ll tell you what’s happening, it’s the devil! He’s right here in this elevator with us!

MA (flips open his cell phone): Yes, can you get me either Max von Sydow, or that new fella from THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) movie, Cotton somebody?

(Lights come back on.)

MA: I suggest everyone relax and keep quiet. L.L. and I are professionals. Let us do our jobs.

YOUNG WOMAN: You’re going to get us out of here?

MA: No, ma’am, we’re going to review a movie.

OLD LADY: I can’t take it! I can’t take it! I’ve got to get out!

LS (to OLD LADY): Shaddup you old bat!!! (OLD LADY silences). Let’s get this review started.

MA: Today we’re reviewing DEVIL, the new thriller by John Erick Dowdle, who also directed the decent thriller QUARANTINE (2008). DEVIL is based on a story by a guy we love to hate here at Cinema Knife Fight, M. Night Shyamalan.

It’s the story of five people who get stuck together on an elevator and find themselves trapped inside with a presence that is hell-bent on killing them one at a time, and as the movie makes known right away, this presence is none other than the devil himself, taking the form of one of these five people. The five people include a security guard, Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), an old lady (Jenny O’Hara), a beautiful young lady, Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) an annoying salesman, Vince (Geoffrey Arend), and a mysterious guy in a hoodie named Tony (Logan Marshall-Green).

But the main character of this movie is a person who’s not stuck in the elevator at all, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who is called in to investigate the situation once people start dying. Bowden has been dealing with his own personal demons, as several years before his wife and young son were killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver. He gets to deliver probably the best line in the movie— which isn’t hard considering there aren’t many good lines in this movie!— when he says he doesn’t believe in the devil because people are bad enough on their own.

LS: That’s a great line? You sure have lowered your standards.

MA: I didn’t say it’s a great line. I said it’s one of the best lines in the movie, only because it’s the one time the film approaches something poignant.

Anyway, Bowden pulls in double-duty here, leading both the police investigation into just who exactly these people stuck on the elevator are, looking for clues as to who among them might be a murderer, while also leading the rescue efforts of both the building’s security team and the fire department to get the people out of the elevator, which happens to be stuck in an express shaft just above the 20th floor.

LS: Actually, it’s triple-duty. If you remember, the movie starts with a suicide (someone has jumped to their death) and he’s originally there to investigate that. I guess the suicide sets everything in motion, if you believe the omnipresent narrator.

MA: They have cameras in the elevator, so Bowden and his team can see what’s happening to the five trapped people. But they do not have audio, so they can’t hear.

LS: Yeah, there’s something screwy going on with the elevator. The passengers can hear the security people, but the security guys can’t hear them – they can only see them.

Hey, one thing I want to ask right off the bat is about Sarah. When she first gets on the elevator, she’s stylishly dressed. She looks like a classy lady. Then about five minutes after the elevator gets stuck, she’s stripped down to her slip. Okay, so it’s hot in there and the air conditioning has failed, but you’d think it would take her awhile before she starts taking off any clothes. It just seemed out of character and it bugged me.

YOUNG WOMAN: I’m right here in the elevator with you guys, you know. You could just ask me.

LS: Can’t you see we’re doing a movie review here, Miss? Shut your pie-hole.

MA: The suspense supposedly builds as people continue to die, the rescue efforts encounter one hindrance after another, and the police investigation finds more potential killers in the elevator than an Agatha Christie novel, which doesn’t really matter, since the movie makes it quite clear throughout that the guy pulling the strings here is none other than Mr. Red Horns himself, the devil.

And for me, this is the worst part of the movie, because they killed any kind of suspense or mystery by telling us immediately it’s the devil. Heck, it’s the name of the movie, after all, DEVIL. And it’s not like you’re watching THE OMEN (1976) where you know it’s the devil’s son, and the strength of that story is fearing what he’s going to do next, who he’s going to kill and by what bizarre means. Here, in DEVIL, it’s not this way at all. This movie plays like a suspense thriller: five people trapped in an elevator with a mysterious deadly presence. What is it? What’s happening? The lights go out and people are screaming and it’s oh-so-scary and mysterious— only it isn’t, because we know it’s the devil.

LS: Yeah, this is thanks to the narrator. I usually hate it when a movie has a narrator, and DEVIL is no exception. Instead of telling us everything, why not just let the story unfold on its own. Let us discover things as we go along. We don’t need things spoon-fed to us.

MA:  And how about not naming the movie DEVIL?

LS:  The narrator here is one of the security guards, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), and he was chosen to be the voice of this film because he is the only “true believer.” Where other characters might be ambiguous about their beliefs, he wears his on his sleeve. He is the first one to figure out what’s going on because of a face he sees superimposed on the camera. He is also the first one to start praying. Ramirez has no doubt this is the work of the devil, and he tells us this before the movie even begins!

(RAMIREZ’s voice starts praying in Spanish over the intercom, as the lights go out)

OLD LADY: I can’t take it! I can’t take it, I tell you!

LS (to MA): Have we died and gone to hell??

MA: I’d make a TWILIGHT joke, but I’ve used up my quota.

(The lights come back on)

MA: As for DEVIL, they really screwed up this story. It’s one of those scripts where I kept thinking it needed to go through several more rounds of editing and rewriting to get it right. You’re almost hoping for a twist ending, which in this case would mean it’s not the devil, so you’re in effect rooting for this horror movie not to be about anything supernatural. You’re hoping that the police are right, that it’s just a human murderer with a human motive.

LS: Well, to be honest, there’s some suspense. While we know the devil is involved from the start, we do not know which of the passengers is the devil in disguise, and that’s the main mystery of the movie. As people die off one by one, the movie does a good job of making us guess who the bad guy (or girl) actually is. In that respect, DEVIL reminded me of an old TWILIGHT ZONE episode. But not one of the great classics – more like a mediocre episode where you’re involved enough watching it, but you forget it soon afterwards. And I don’t like paying $11 for an elongated TV episode, which is what this felt like.

SECURITY GUARD: Is that so? Well, I’ll make sure not to go see it, if we ever get out of this damn elevator!

MA: Brian Nelson wrote this very flawed screenplay, and it’s nowhere near as good as his writing for 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007) or HARD CANDY (2005). I hate to keep harping on Shyamalan, but he did get story credit here, and this story just doesn’t work.

LS: Well, it’s pretty obvious why that doesn’t work. M. Night Shyamalan started his career out great when he had an early hit with THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). In that movie, everything worked. To a slightly lesser degree, I also really liked his movie after that, UNBREAKABLE (2000). But after that, the quality control started to slide downhill. It became more and more apparent that M. Night was so wrapped up in being the “King of Twist Endings” that he lost sight of the fact that you need a decent story to go along with the ending.

OLD LADY: I loved THE SIXTH SENSE!

YOUNG WOMAN: I see dead people!

LS: As his career continued, I realized that he wasn’t a bad director. His movies are well-made. But that he’s actually an awful writer. The cleverness of THE SIXTH SENSE turned out to be a fluke. He didn’t have that many great stories in him. So his movies continue to be plagued with hokey storylines and mediocre writing. So WHY would you base a movie on one of his stories? Writing is this guy’s weak point – which DEVIL just proves further. He should stop writing and stick just to directing. And other people shouldn’t be adapting his lame stories.

MA: Yeah, DEVIL is just not believable at all. In terms of plot, DEVIL is probably the most contrived movie I’ve seen this year. For starters, you have to believe that five random people stuck on an elevator all have serious criminal backgrounds. I just don’t buy that.

LS: Well, to be fair, they’re not exactly random. They were chosen beforehand by….THE DEVIL!

(Dramatic music plays)

MA: And the ending of this movie is horrible. It’s incredibly contrived, and I hate to keep saying this, but it’s got M. Night Shyamalan written all over it. The angst that Detective Bowden feels in the movie and what he encounters at the end reminded me somewhat of what the Mel Gibson character went through in Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002), only it’s not as well defined here, nor is it as powerful.

LS: I hated SIGNS. It was the first time I realized that Emperor Shyamalan wasn’t wearing any clothes. It just came off as incredibly preachy and I didn’t like it at all.

MA: Well, I liked SIGNS, but that was the last Shyamalan film I did like.

In DEVIL, the characters, for the most part, are all likeable enough, and the acting jobs here are decent. I liked Chris Messina a lot as Detective Bowden. I thought his performance was probably the best one in the movie. I liked his background story which gave his character some depth, but really, there wasn’t enough done with this. We don’t really see Bowden deal too much with his personal demons. He talks about it, but we don’t see him suffer through it.

In terms of investigating, Bowden could have done more, as well. He watches the TV monitors and runs around barking orders, but he never really gets the chance to get down and dirty. I would have liked to have seen him personally try to reach the people in the elevator. Where’s Bruce Willis when you need him?

LS: And where are the people who own the building? We see security guards and cops involved, but not once did I see someone in charge pop their head in. Doesn’t a big skyscraper like this have a facilities manager? Wouldn’t someone from the owner’s office at least be informed what is going on? It’s like the action takes place in a vacuum and the rest of the outside world isn’t let in.

SECURITY GUARD: Yeah, I was wondering about that, too.

MA:  Not to mention the press.  Where’s the TV cameras and news reporters? Too busy chasing down Lindsay Lohan?

OLD WOMAN:  Lindsay Lohan?  What is that poor troubled girl up to these days?

LS:  She’s skinny-dipping with MACHETE.

MA: For the most part, I liked the characters in the elevator. I thought both Tony and Ben the security guard were sufficiently intense, and the pretty rich girl Sarah was just mysterious enough that you could believe she might be a killer. I thought the old woman was just plain annoying, and the salesman Vince, who was supposed to be annoying, wasn’t annoying enough.

I also liked the two security guards in charge of the security cameras, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) and Lustig (Matt Craven).

Director John Erick Dowdle achieves mixed results here. While the movie looks fine, there really aren’t any memorable scenes in DEVIL. In fact, the murders in this one are routine and somewhat boring. For example, there’s a scene in the elevator shaft where a character falls to his death, and it’s completely forgettable.  Compare this to some of the accident scenes from the old OMEN series, and there’s no comparison.

LS: Yeah, we have talented people involved here. Dowdle has proven himself to be a decent director. Brian Nelson has written some good scripts. The actors do a good job. And yet we keep going back to M. Night Shyamalan who just wrote the story the script is based on. But the lame plot has M. Night’s fingerprints all over it, and that’s why it doesn’t work. Talented guys like Dowdle and Nelson need to be a little more choosey about where they get their stories from.

MA: DEVIL is a movie that should have been extremely suspenseful, but it simply isn’t. The suspense is destroyed by giving away the movie’s threat at the outset.

LS: Well, I don’t think it’s destroyed. You’re still guessing who the devil is.

MA:  Ooooh!  Talk about intensity!  Bring out the game of CLUE.

LS:  And the acting is good enough to keep us interested. It’s not like I was checking my watch – DEVIL is watchable enough, and you do want to know what’s really going on. Hell, the action starts right away (you don’t have to wait too long for the people to get on the elevator) and it doesn’t let up to the end. The problem is the pay-off is such a complete disappointment it ruins everything you’ve seen up to that point.

And it’s not scary at all!

MA: No, it’s not scary.

LS: And this movie could really have done without the narration. It gives away too much. It’s almost like the filmmakers weren’t confident about the story telling itself and they needed to spell it out in big block letters using the narrator. That’s the first thing I would have edited out.

MA: If you’re going to tell us immediately that something is in the elevator with those five characters, it’s probably best to leave a little to our imaginations and not to tell us what it is.

LS: Exactly.

MA: I also have a problem with the devil as the bad guy, and it’s not because you can’t have the devil as the bad guy in a movie, because you can. The devil here is just not that scary, and it’s not because he isn’t believable. It’s because, in real life, if you believe in God and the devil, you know that the devil doesn’t act this way. The devil, if you believe in him, tempts and lures, he doesn’t take over buildings, or if he does, he doesn’t let people live to tell about it.

LS: Not according to the narrator. According to Ramirez’s voice-over, everything is happening just like it’s supposed to. Maybe he’s a little more knowledgeable about the devil than you are!

MA: Ramirez is a fictional character in a poorly written movie. I don’t think he’s a credible source.

So, even if DEVIL hadn’t been crafted as a suspense thriller, I still would have had a problem with it.

DEVIL is a flawed, contrived movie, hardly worth your time. I give it 1 ½ knives.

LS: I left DEVIL feeling like I’d just sat through a Sunday School class. This is not the first time a Shyamalan story has focused on faith – he’s flogged that particular horse several times since SIGNS. However what annoys me is that you can have religion in a horror movie and make it work. It doesn’t have to be preachy or hokey. In something like THE EXORCIST (1973) or THE LAST EXORCISM, the religious aspects enhance the story. I didn’t leave either one of those movies feeling I’d been preached to.

The reason why M. Night is a bad writer is because he feels the need to spell everything out for us. He doesn’t trust the audience to come to their own conclusions. And he seems to think the only way you can have religious meaning in a story is to present it as you would to a child, as blatantly as possible.

And for that reason, I give it one knife. The only reason I’m giving it anything is because there are some talented people here, and there is some suspense as we wonder who in that elevator actually is the DEVIL. But when the movie ends, you just feel like anything good about the movie was wasted on a lame story.

What bugs me is that there was enough good stuff in this movie, that for a little while there, I actually thought I was watching a decent flick. In the end, I felt like I’d been PUNKED.

(The elevator finally starts moving again and the doors open up. M. NIGHT SHYAMALN is standing in the doorway)

M. NIGHT: So I hear you guys have been bad-mouthing my writing skills.

LS: You have writing skills?

M. NIGHT: You’ve made a big mistake. You’re in my world now.

(M. NIGHT suddenly turns into a giant red-horned devil and starts laughing loudly)

M. NIGHT:  Guess who I am?

MA: Um, the devil?

M. NIGHT:  How did you know?

MA:  You’re the master of the obvious.

M. NIGHT: You mean you guys aren’t scared?

LS:  Of you?  (bursts into laughter)

M. NIGHT:  But this is hell!

LS: Whatever.  I’ve been here before, and it’s not so bad. In fact, there are some fun attractions. (to MA)  Come on.  I’ll give you a tour.

MA: Oh, okay. See you next time folks, on CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.

M. NIGHT: Wait!  What about my twist ending?  This really isn’t hell.  It’s a village! COME BACK HERE!–

FADE TO BLACK

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gave DEVIL1 and a half knives.

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.

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L.L. Soares gave DEVIL 1 knife.

BEWARE! The Devil is watching you!

THE LAST AIRBENDER

Posted in 2010, 3-D, Daniel Keohane Reviews, Fantasy Films, M. Night Shyamalan Movies, TV Show Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by knifefighter

The Last Airbender (2010)
Film Review by Daniel G. Keohane
(with assistance from Andrew and Michael Keohane)

OK, before I get to whether THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) is worth the price of admission, I want to discuss a trend with movies that popped up after James Cameron made an astronomical profit with AVATAR (2009). “Converting” new releases to 3D and charging $3 – $4 more per ticket. Unlike Cameron’s film, which was shot as a 3D movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, like CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010), was not. It was converted to some semblance of 3D as a trendy gimmick. The “In 3D” tag at the end of the previews for this film only began appearing in the past couple of months. Now, this is not to say that the process did not add something to the visuals. There was a depth to the image you saw on the screen you might not have gotten in the 2D version, and perhaps some of the visuals such as the climatic ocean scene might not be quite as oh-wow-ish. But not by much. It much akin to watching a movie on DVD, then seeing it on Blu-Ray. Yes, there is a slight improvement, but not enough to justify the extra cost, or the eye strain I felt after the movie ended. Putting on glasses to see a simulation of 3D isn’t going to do much for a film with already-beautiful cinematography, which is how I’d describe most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, say what you will about his storylines. Like my 18-year old son Andrew said after the movie ended, this fad is driven by the studios in a quest for as much money as possible, and will probably fade out with time because the Surgeon General will finally announce that watching too many 3D movies ruins your eyesight. More likely, moviegoers will finally stop being suckered by the words “in 3D!” on a marquee. Most of us have already figured this out. I recommend if you see THE LAST AIRBENDER, or the upcoming HARRY POTTER films, pay for the original 2D version. Save the extra 4 bucks for a down payment on popcorn, or for a film that was actually filmed in 3D.

Now, to the film. This review is culled not only from my own opinions, but two others’. Andrew is going into his sophomore year in college, where the anime television series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (2005 – 2008) is a cult hit (Shyamalan renamed the movie version without the word AVATAR for obvious reasons), much like STAR BLAZERS (1979) was for my generation in high school. My nephew Michael, another fan of the show, is turning 11 this month (the screening doubled as his birthday present). I’ve watched a number of episodes with Andrew (the entire series is available instantly on Netflix), so I’m familiar with the series as well.

The movie was not officially subtitled BOOK ONE: WATER (this was shown in the opening credits, however), so I assume the studios have not decided whether or not the next two films in the series will be developed. THE LAST AIRBENDER covers the first of the three seasons of show, which takes place on a mythical world where the four natural elements: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, are embodied and harnessed by four distinct “nations.” People from each are able to “bend” these specific elements to their will, and have lived in harmony with each other for centuries because of one person called The Avatar, who can harness all four elements and act as a GORT-like police officer, keeping balance between the nations and kicking butt when one gets out of line. Reincarnated over and over, the most recent Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer) ran away from his Air tribe when he was twelve years old and had been missing for a hundred years. With no Avatar, the Fire Nation decided to wipe out the Air Tribe to assure he won’t come back, and began taking over the world. As the movie opens, Water and Earth have become subjugated by the war machines of Fire, and all hope is lost.

Teenage siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang frozen in a ball of ice. They free him, and the boy slowly discovers that his people are all dead and a hundred years have passed. Once people discover who Aang is, the hope for an Avatar-inspired peace begins to spread. The Fire Nation discovers who Aang is and sets about trying to capture him before he can complete his training as Avatar – learning how to master the other three elements: Water (this film), Earth and Fire (whether the other two films ever see celluloid, box office sales alone will decide). Aang and his new friends set off for the northern Water Nation to get trained and battle the forces of Fire along the way, with a rather good climatic battle.

So, that’s Season One of the series, and this film, in a nutshell. Did the movie do the AVATAR series justice? How do you make an entire season of a television series into an hour and forty minute film? You can’t, unless you rework it, but doing so would have alienated the movie’s target audience. What Shyamalan did was stick to the main, underlying storyline of the friends striking out to master the element of water (Aang is already an accomplished Air Bender).

The attraction of the series wasn’t just this underlying quest, however, but the adventures the three young people have along the way. Each village they encountered had some unfortunate person(s) who needed help, and every experience inexorably served to train Aang as the Avatar. They touched on this briefly in the film, but there wasn’t enough time. What we get is a movie version of the primary quest for Water skills, with very little of the trademark humor which made the series so popular, or much growth in the relationship between the characters, who are drawn closer together as family by shared experience. One exception to this is the interplay between Aang and the Fire Nation’s exiled Prince Zuko, played to perfection by Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 2008). Zuko was banished by his evil Firelord father and has decided to reclaim his birthright by delivering the Avatar to his dad and thus insuring the continued success of Fire Nation’s dominance.

Let’s back up and see what worked in this rather complicated, dark film, and what didn’t.

As I said, some of the performances were on key. Patel played Prince Zuko to perfection, hopefully slamming some critics who complain about Shyamalan changing the implied nationality of the Fire Nation from Mandarin Chinese to his own ethnic background of Indian, or a more generic East Asian. I think it worked well, and so did Andrew. Aside from looking exactly like the character, Noah Ringer also kept on target as Aang. Like I mentioned, most of the humor was filtered from the story, so Ringer could only play the serious side of his character. That’s a loss, since the Avatar was part messiah-like figure, part goofy twelve year-old kid. In Patel’s and Ringer’s scenes together everything clicked. Shaun Toub (THE KITE RUNNER, 2007) also shone as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. Though he didn’t look anything like this anime counterpart, he played the part with tight intensity and was a powerful presence in the film. Thankfully, Toub and Patel got quite a lot of screen time in this film.

This next plus is only a plus if you’ve seen the series. If you haven’t, the act of “bending” the elements is going make you mutter, Is this a movie about epileptics or something? No, it’s how they did it on the series. Andrew explained it best on the ride home. Each element requires specific style of gesture to control it. Water benders move with a grace, a flow like Feng-Shui. Earth benders stomp their feet and thrust their arms. Fire benders have violent arm motions, like martial arts. Air benders have a looping, Whirling Dervish dance. It’s clever, and specific, and I’m glad they kept these in the movie.

Many of the pluses mentioned above are also Andrew’s. He and nephew Michael would add that the action sequences were top-notch. The fights were well-choreographed and fun to watch. Especially those with the “Blue Spirit,” which were complex enough that the action was occasionally slowed to show what was happening – like THE MATRIX (1999), but without the cartoonish flair–more like a well-done martial arts film– which in many ways this film is.

Michael also liked how the film covered the primary plotline, and that it didn’t change the story much at all. He saw what he expected to, and also thought the graphics– the overall look of the film–was great.

The sets were the expected mix of CGI and elaborate physical sets, and this matched the series perfectly. It looked like the show. Fake 3D aside, some of the cinematography was stunning, though personally I think Shyamalan shines most when you get him outside in the real outdoors, but there wasn’t much of that, being set on a different planet and all. The ocean scene with the Fire Nation fleet parked outside Water Nation’s walls was gorgeous, and the ensuing battle a visual feast.

Which brings us to what did not work. As I mentioned, most of the humor which made the television series so fun to watch had been leeched from the script. This is unfortunate, and not a small issue, because what we were left with is a rather dark film. Considering this movie is geared to teenage and “tween” boys, maybe that’s OK. When humor was used in the film, it didn’t always work. I’m not the only one who felt this was a major gap, both Andrew and Michael wanted more of it.

Not a lot of praise, either, for the characters of Katara and Sokka. Next to Aang and Prince Zuko, the brother and sister are the most important in the series. Nicola Peltz’s stilted portrayal of Katara brought the film down quite a few notches, due to her dialogue being mostly a series of overdramatic rhetoric. It’s how they talked in the show, but always interspersed with goofy clowning around and a wealth of humor. Since the latter was almost nonexistent in the final script, all she was left to speak were vague philosophical utterances. This seriousness could have been balanced by the brother, played by Jackson Rathbone (the TWILIGHT series, 2009 – 2010). In the television show Sokka is the comic relief, the joker who pulls everyone from their high horse if things get too La De Dah-ish, but this wasn’t possible with so much lightness lost in the script.

I mentioned the motions which benders use to control their elements as being very specific, and loyal to the anime series. However, I think the film spent way too much time showing Aang and Katara (a water bender herself) practicing their motions, sometimes with no water globules being raised up with their moves. These scenes could have been shortened a lot, especially considering how much of the story was cut to make room for scenes like this, where nothing really happens.

Being someone who’s seen every episode, Andrew was irked that pronunciations of many character’s names were changed. “Ahng” in stead of “Ayng” for instance. Why they did this is baffling, considering most people coming to the movie have seen every episode.

In the end,  there are pluses and minuses to THE LAST AIRBENDER. Most of the pluses will come from fans of the show, but also a few minuses. Anyone watching this movie without any knowledge of the AVATAR television series will likely walk out with another reason to hate M. Night Shyamalan. Which is a pity, because he’s the best thing to happen to Hollywood since sliced alien fingers, in my opinion. Shyamalan is by far one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. I know I’m in the minority here, but too bad. SIGNS (2002), THE VILLAGE (2004) and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) are easily in my Top 20 favorites. Think what you will about his occasional plot issues, his films have style, the acting is (almost) always top-notch and his musical collaborator James Howard’s scores are consistently on-target. Unfortunately for THE LAST AIRBENDER, Shyamalan’s signature style, by necessity of recreating a well-loved TV series for the big screen, is missing.

Michael, Andrew and I agree that if you’re a fan of the AVATAR series, this movie (in 2D) is worth seeing, especially for the sets and the action sequences, and how it tries, and in many ways succeeds, in paying homage to the show’s basic storyline. I worry that we won’t see the next two seasons of AVATAR on the big screen. The studio, however, should consider the film’s target audience. My nephew said, “Why wouldn’t people want to go see this? This kind of movie is what draws me and my friends to the theaters in the first place!” That’s a quote from an 11-year old. Smart kid. And he’s smack in the middle of the film’s intended demographic. In that respect, it was successful.

Andrew and I give the film 3 out of 5 flying bisons, if you’re a fan of the show.

Michael was more generous and offered 4 out of 5.

If you are not familiar with the series and you’re over twenty, I can only offer 2.5 lemur bats out of 5. I’m sorry, M. Night. Don’t hate me because I’m honest. You still have created three and a half of my favorite movies of all time, and I know you’ll do it again.

If they let you.

© Copyright 2010 by Daniel G. Keohane

THE VILLAGE

Posted in 2004, Cinema Knife Fights, M. Night Shyamalan Movies with tags , , , , on March 4, 2010 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT #5: THE VILLAGE
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA are standing at the edge of the woods, wearing mustard-colored hooded cloaks)

LS:  Ssshhhh! Those We Do Not Speak About might hear us.

MA (whispers):  We’re here to review M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, THE VILLAGE.

LS:  Ever since THE SIXTH SENSE, Shyamalan has become the master of the twist ending. So much so that audiences look forward to each new film he makes to be surprised. And THE VILLAGE is no exception.

THE VILLAGE is about a small 19th century village where the people live in fear of creatures who live in the woods beyond their settlement. The villagers and the creatures have established a kind of truce where neither invades the other’s territory, but events transpire that make the villagers realize that the truce may be coming to an end and their lives may be in danger.

(Kid in a cloak approaches them:) Mister, would you like to buy some magic rocks?

LS: Beat it kid, ya bother me!  (Kid runs away)  The always reliable William Hurt plays town leader Edward Walker. When Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), the fiancée of Walker’s blind daughter, Ivy, is gravely injured by another villager, Walker allows his daughter to go out into the woods and to the towns beyond, to get the medicine needed to save Lucius’s life. His rationale being that because she is blind and therefore innocent, the creatures will sense this and let her pass, knowing she is not a threat to them. There is more to the story, but I won’t reveal the “surprise twist” here.

THE VILLAGE has many of the same qualities found in Shyamalan’s other movies. It’s rather slow paced, but effectively builds tension. Things are revealed gradually. The acting for the most part is pretty good, especially Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) making an impressive debut in the role of Ivy.

I found the movie watchable and suspended my disbelief enough to go along for the ride.

MA:  Well, I was going along for the ride too, and two thirds into the film I was really enjoying it. You had terrific acting, a wonderful violin score, and creative directing by Shyamalan.  The result was a film experience that was truly mesmerizing, almost poetic.  And the woodland creatures are deeply, deeply frightening.  These things are scary!

But then, you have—- I won’t even dignify it by calling it a twist.  It’s an explanation.  And the explanation— or explanations, as the case turns out— completely ruins everything.  It couldn’t have been worse if one of the characters woke up and announced everything was a dream.  I felt absolutely cheated.

Had Shyamalan made the film which was advertised, he would have had an instant classic. Instead, we’re left shaking our heads at a very disappointing conclusion.

And the whole part where Bryce Dallas Howard’s blind character journeys alone through the woods seemed to me an excuse to satisfy a neat plot idea— blind woman walks through woods stalked by unknown menace.  Neat idea, good enough to build a story around, but Shyamalan should have spent more time building that story than concerning himself with, as you say, being the master of the twist ending.

LS: It’s kind of funny that I find myself having to defend THE VILLAGE, because frankly I thought it was just a so-so story, and while I wasn’t thrilled with the big twist either, it wasn’t a big enough deal to make me angry. If anything, I was much more fired up about his previous movie, SIGNS, which let me down by being too preachy and very illogical. Aliens whose one vulnerability is water invade a planet that is mostly water? Sounds like pretty stupid aliens to me.

Remember when we were kids and we’d watch TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY, and some episodes were great, but other ones were kind of cliché and clunky, but you liked them anyway. Well, THE VILLAGE is like one of those clunky episodes for me

MA:  See, I disagree.  I think it started off great.  I was really let down by the “twist,” so much so that I can’t recommend the film.

LS:  And while the acting was mostly good, the characters were pretty one dimensional. Lucius was so stoic and stilted that I didn’t really care about him that much. I think Ivy was much more interesting and sympathetic, and I actually didn’t mind the focus on her in the second half.

MA:  I did.  I was enjoying Joaquin Phoenix’ performance.

LS: I’ve actually thought that Joaquin Phoenix was an overrated actor for awhile now. He did a serviceable job in THE VILLAGE, but the reason Ivy was more sympathetic to me was because I thought her character was stronger, and I thought Bryce Dallas Howard turned in a better acting job.

MA:  Phoenix is just as good as Howard.

LS (pulls out machete from beneath cloak): Care to debate that?

MA (reveals hideous-looking monster claws from beneath his cloak):  Any time!

(Man suddenly appears holding a presidential candidate sign):  Did someone say debate?

MA:  Sorry, pal, wrong venue.  Blood, guts, visceral mutilation, that’s down the street at the convention.  We just review movies here.

LS:  Beat it, buddy!

(Man walks away looking perplexed).

LS:  All in all, I was willing to accept that this was the movie Shyamalan wanted to make. THE VILLAGE was a pleasant enough way to waste an hour and a half, but I never really felt emotionally committed enough to feel cheated. I just can’t cop to emotions that aren’t there for me. I can think of a lot better movies to defend.

But I will say one thing.  Sometimes a “surprise” just isn’t enough…

(Woodland creature jumps out and attacks man in background.  Man shrieks and is taken to the ground).

LS and MA look over shoulders

MA:  Now that’s an ending I’d pay to see!

—END—

(Originally published in the HELLNOTES newsletter on August 19, 2004)

© Copyright 2004 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

THE HAPPENING

Posted in 2008, Cinema Knife Fights, M. Night Shyamalan Movies with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE HAPPENING (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares

(The scene:  A vast field of grass. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L. L. SOARES stand in the middle of the field. A wind suddenly arises and pushes through the tall blades of grass)

LS: Oh no, it’s the wind!!

MA: Run away! Run away!

(They both run around the field, trying to avoid being touched by the wind.)

MA (trembling):  Look out for that tree!

(A quick shot of a maple tree.)

(LS stops dead in his tracks.)

MA:  What is it?  Are you losing focus?  Are you receiving signals to kill yourself?

LS:  No, I’m realizing how stupid this all is.

MA:  I agree. And on that note, why don’t you tell the people about M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, THE HAPPENING.

LS: Certainly. Although, I wish I didn’t have to. I really can’t believe that I sat through this one with a straight face. I mean, in retrospect, it’s pretty damn absurd. Did he really expect us to swallow this one?

(MA points to the sky. They look up to see cream pies falling from the sky. A pie each hits MA and LS in the face.)

MA (licking cream):  I don’t know, but I’ll swallow this. Delicious!

LS (wiping cream from his face): Mine’s lemon meringue! M. Night Shyamalan, the man who gave us THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS, now gives us yet another elongated TWILIGHT ZONE episode. This time, it’s called THE HAPPENING. And no, it’s not a party where a bunch of hippies take LSD. If it were, it might actually be entertaining.

The movie begins promisingly enough. All of a sudden, people start acting weird and committing suicide in droves. A woman plunges a hair pin into her throat. A bunch of construction workers leap to their death from a high building. A policeman shoots himself in the head. What the hell is going on? At first, nobody knows, and the country panics. Or rather, the east coast does, since that’s where all this craziness happens. For once, California is spared.

Mark Wahlberg plays a robot – er, a high school science teacher – named Elliot Moore-

MA:  I liked Wahlberg. As a teacher myself, I thought he nailed the classroom teacher persona rather well.

LS: Wahlberg is a convincing teacher? Where do you teach – the robot academy? But c’mon, most teachers have to be more animated than this guy!

MA:  Maybe you weren’t paying attention (slaps LS’s wrist with a ruler). I found him animated enough.

LS:  Anyway, Wahlberg takes part in a mass exodus out of Philadelphia to the suburbs because all these suicides appear to be taking place in the big cities. Along for the ride are his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo), who is also Elliot’s best friend, and Julian’s 8-year old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They get as far as a small town in the middle of nowhere before the train stops, and everyone has to get off. When asked why, the conductors say they have lost all contact with the outside the world.

Not knowing what to do, the stranded people try to find ways out of town. They gather in a local diner and watch the news. When it’s clear that whatever is killing everyone is branching out from urban areas to small towns, they realize they have to keep moving.

(A giant carrot  jumps on LS and they wrestle on the ground. LS throws it off)

LS: Hey, didn’t I see you in an episode of LOST IN SPACE? Get outta here, before I make a salad!!

(CARROT runs away)

LS: Where was I? Oh yeah. Wanting to find his wife, who was headed towards Princeton, Julian separates from the rest of them and leaves his daughter with Elliot. Along the way, Elliott and Alma try to repair their damaged marriage, and bond with little Jess.

At first, everyone thinks that the mass deaths are some kind of terrorist attack, but as it goes on, they realize it’s something much more bizarre. Somehow, the planet earth is rebelling against its human parasites and is killing them off using the toxins of various plants. Normally, I wouldn’t reveal this since it would be a big spoiler. Shyamalan is known for his famous twist endings, after all. But this time around, we find out what’s “happening” pretty early on, and there’s no big twist at the end.

MA:  It’s not much of a spoiler. Technically, the film never states with certainty that the plants are responsible. While it is strongly implied, the story leaves open the option that it’s just one of those things that will never be explained. Like your taste in movies, for instance.

LS  (sneers and goes on) The toxins are carried on the wind, so every time there’s a big gust of wind, people start acting strange and then killing themselves off. The first symptom is confusion/ disorientation. In the second stage, victims become incoherent. And the third stage is death.

My two main problems with this movie are the characters and the plot. The characters are just about all annoying. Wahlberg plays his role like he’s an android. Deschanel isn’t any more animated. In fact, they don’t seem to show any real emotion until the very end, and by then it’s too late. I don’t get any sense that I know these people, or that I should care about them. Throughout the film, they remain one-dimensional. And there’s something odd about Walhberg trying to play a nice, innocent everyman. He’s just not believable. I’ve liked him in a few movies like BOOGIE NIGHTS and I HEART HUCKABEES. Some directors can just get interesting performances out him. But most can’t.

Other characters along the way include two teenage boys, Josh (Spencer Breslin) and Jared (Robert Baily, Jr.). But I cared even less about them. The only interesting character at all is an insane hermit lady (Betty Buckley, yes the mother from the old 70s show EIGHT IS ENOUGH) who takes them in for awhile and seems very capable of violence.

The plot, as it is, is ludicrous. I really liked the scenes where people kill themselves – I thought they were very effective and the movie starts out really good. Especially powerful were a guy who goes into a lion cage at the zoo and offers himself up as dinner (the lions are happy to oblige), and a guy who turns on a giant riding lawn mower and then lays down in front of it. But no matter how powerful and disturbing these moments are, they’re quickly forgotten so we can move forward with the lame plot.

And once Wahlberg and company figure out that the wind is dangerous, they always try to stay one step ahead of it, which starts to seem incredibly silly. Suddenly, everyone is terrified of the wind! I’ve seen old Roger Corman B-movies that were scarier!

It doesn’t help that Shyamalan feels the need to give us a moral with our story. He’s always been an incredibly preachy director and THE HAPPENING is no exception. His ham-handed pro-environment message actually takes all the fun out the proceedings rather effectively.

MA:  I didn’t mind the message, probably because I agree with it, and I didn’t find it all that preachy.

(Behind MA, a group of trees jump and down and cheer.)

LS:  As I’ve said before, I really liked Shyamalan’s films THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE. But from SIGNS on, I’ve just lost all my trust in Shyamalan as a director. The stories he has to tell just aren’t very compelling. And his infamous “twists” have become pretty laughable. Any promise this guy showed early on has drifted away on the wind.

One thing that surprised me was that the showing I went to was a full house. You’d think that after getting burned on bad movies like THE VILLAGE and LADY IN THE WATER, audiences would have gotten smart to Shyamalan’s tricks and stopped spending money to see his movies. No such luck.

MA:  I wouldn’t worry about this too much. As I walked out of the theater, a man next to me said loudly, “That was horrible!”  I had to laugh.

Anyway, I agree with you here. I didn’t like THE HAPPENING either, but not always for the same reasons you didn’t like it. You thought the characters were annoying. I liked them. As I said earlier, I enjoyed Wahlberg. I found having a sensitive lead character in a movie refreshing, rather than the usual macho hero.

LS: It would have worked better with another actor.

MA: I also enjoyed Zooey Deschanel as Alma. I thought she was quirky, and I liked her. I didn’t find them as one-dimensional as you did, and I was caught up in their relationship, although I have to admit that the scene near the end with the two of them expressing their love to each other because they expected to die made me want to throw up.

I also agree with you about Betty Buckley’s performance. She scared the crap out of me!  It says something that a crazy old lady is scarier in this movie than the film’s main menace.

To me, the acting wasn’t the problem here. It was the storytelling.

This movie worked best as a series of images. The people falling from the sky— scary. That image definitely evoked horrible memories from 9/11 and the bodies falling from the towers. People hanging themselves from trees, and the images you mentioned, like the man at the zoo with the lions. These images worked. They were truly creepy!  However, you can’t make a successful movie based only on a few creepy images.

LS: That’s exactly what I said. The suicide imagery is very effective. But the actual story stinks.

MA: See, I don’t think it’s the story. I have no problem with a plot about wind and plants being a menace. I thought it was creative. The problem I have is that everything just stalls out.

LS: It stalls out because shots of plants and the wind aren’t compelling. And they aren’t scary.

MA:  I disagree. I thought those shots were creepy and set up a mood that was ripe for a kick-ass second half.

(MA picks an apple off a tree and it suddenly has an angry face)

TREE: Do I go around picking things off you?

MA:  If I had an apple dangling from my arm you might!  Go back to Oz!

The story was set up perfectly by all the images we found scary, but when it came time for the payoff, it just didn’t deliver.  At the very moment when things should be picking up, they die out. There’s no pacing towards the end. Okay, it’s the wind, it’s the plants, but what do these phenomena do?  I’ll save you the cost of a ticket— nothing. But they could have. The first half of THE HAPPENING is crafted very meticulously and works, but by the time we get to the farmhouse, all those images and creepy scenes we enjoyed are nowhere to be found. The only thing scary is Betty Buckley as that crazy old lady. The story at that point needed to be taken to a higher level. Something REALLY scary should have come out of the woodwork for the last third of this movie, but it doesn’t.

To use a baseball analogy, it’s akin to loading the bases with no outs, and then having the scoring threat fizzle and only scoring one run on a harmless ground out.

LS: A baseball analogy? Are you trying to put me to sleep?

MA:  Hmm, there’s an idea!

THE HAPPENING would have worked better as a 4-hour TV miniseries a la one of the Stephen King adaptations, where we could have followed a bunch of characters on their exodus to safety. It would have been more compelling, and we would have had time to learn more about the threat. Of course, such a story would still need a better payoff.

LS: They’re also making a big deal out of the fact that THE HAPPENING is rated R, like this is something important. Wow, finally a Shyamalan movie aimed at adults! Not really. The only reason it got an R is because of the gore of some of the suicides. And even that is done quickly – for the most part he doesn’t dwell on the more gruesome scenes. This is especially ironic since Shyamalan was the guy, back in 1999, who ushered in the era of the PG-13 horror movie with one of the few good horror flicks with that rating, THE SIXTH SENSE.

MA: I also thought the R-rating hype was humorous. This film played much more like a PG-13 movie. Even the scenes you mentioned were hardly of the intensity we usually see in an R rated movie.

(THE LORAX jumps out from behind a bush)

LORAX: I’m the Lorax, I speak for the trees!

LS: Okay, okay. We’re listening. What do the trees have to say?

LORAX: (blushes) Um…I forgot.

MA: Oh, go away!

I’ve been down on Shyamalan’s recent movies as well, but to give him some credit, I thought this story was creative, and the movie creepy. It just didn’t have the intensity to sustain it to the end.  The feel of this movie reminded me somewhat of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963), taking an otherwise harmless thing (birds then, wind and plants here) and making them a threat. I’m not a big fan of THE BIRDS, but this film came towards the end of Hitchcock’s career (sort of- he worked for another 13 years but only made 5 films in that span) and certainly didn’t tarnish the immense body of work the famed director left behind.

LS: What are you talking about? THE BIRDS is a classic! Hitchcock took everyday creatures we don’t think twice about and made them genuinely scary. How can you compare a powerful film like that this flaccid flick?

MA:  Simple. Because THE BIRDS isn’t all that powerful. I don’t place THE BIRDS among Hitchcock’s best.

LS:  And you comment on MY taste in movies? THE BIRDS is terrific! It’s funny that you should mention Hitchcock, though. One thing they have in common is that Shyamalan loves to make clever cameos in his films. This time I didn’t remember seeing him, so I made sure to wait for the credits – and yep, Shyamalan plays “Joey.” Who is Joey? He’s a character who has a crush on Deschanel’s character and keeps calling her cell phone. We never actually see Joey, but at one point we hear his voice on the phone saying “Hello, Hello.” How clever!

MA: Good job. I completely missed that.

LS:  Well, I guess this is preferable to LADY IN THE WATER, where Shyamalan gave himself the role of savoir of the human race!

MA: Getting back to my previous point about comparing this to THE BIRDS. Don’t get me wrong. I like THE BIRDS better than THE HAPPENING, but the point I was making was that Hitchcock could be forgiven for making an average thriller because he had made so many extraordinary movies already. On the contrary, I’m not so forgiving with Shyamalan. His body of work is still very small.  While he certainly is talented, he needs to make a string of solid movies in order for him to deserve the amount of hype which usually surrounds his films.

THE HAPPENING is not that movie. It’s about as solid as a gust of wind.

LS: It’s not even a gust. It’s a soft and boring breeze. A minor film for a minor director. At this point, he has more failures than successes.

What’s sad is that Shyamalan does have talent. His movies always have at least a few very compelling scenes, and he always hires talented cinematographers – his movies look great. But he can’t seem to follow through with his plots and give us something truly satisfying. I still think that the big problem is that he’s a good director, but an awful writer. Instead of writing his own scripts, He should leave that to someone with more ability. I think if he just stuck to directing, he’d turn out a much better product.

And I actually find it frustrating that this guy continues to get funding for his movies, and still gets wide releases, while true masters like Romero and Argento have to take the crumbs of limited release. Even Romero’s so-so new flick DIARY OF THE DEAD is a work of genius compared to THE HAPPENING. I just don’t understand how studios continue to get hoodwinked by this guy.

MA:  One answer may be that a film with an environmental message is probably a better sell than a blood and guts movie about zombies. I wouldn’t call Shyamalan a minor director either, or even a poor writer. He’s too talented. I’m confident he’s got more work worthy of the term “classic” left in him.

LS:  Care to put that in writing?

(LS hands MA a pen. As MA prepares to write on a tree, a loud growl is heard, and the tree suddenly is holding axes in its branches.)

MA:  Um, some other time.

(They run away)

—END—

(Originally published on Fear Zone on 6/17/08)

© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares