An Open Letter to M. Night Shyamalan
Dear Mr. Shyamalan,
I’ve been a devoted fan of your films since you revolutionized cinematic storytelling with your masterpiece, The Sixth Sense, just over a decade ago. Since then, I have defended you to any and all detractors of your work who have the audacity to claim that one of your films didn’t live up to their oh-so-delicate standards of what a filmic experience should be. I defended you with authority, with vigor, and with the confidence that only comes from deep within when one knows that they are absolutely right and everyone else is an idiot at best. However, you have not, by any means, made it easy on me over the last several years. It pains me whenever a preview for one of your films keeps the interest of the audience until your name finally appears on the screen, to which the sound of shrill giggles and outright laughter make their way through the theater. It pains me to hear this, as I’m sure it would you, since you were once heralded as “The Next Spielberg” by Newsweek magazine, following the first three blockbuster films – we won’t mention such atrocities as Praying With Anger or Wide Awake, for what people don’t know won’t hurt them. Or you. As much as I don’t like to say this, it’s blatantly obvious that you would give everything you’ve ever had to become the Alfred Hitchcock of our generation, but your career is beginning to more closely resemble the infamous, tragic, downward spiral of Orson Welles.
Hitchcock was dubbed The Master of Suspense, and your films are saturated with his influence. He is the credited director of over 55 films, mostly damn good (Shadow of a Doubt, Marnie, Lifeboat, Rope), a few pretty bad (Topaz, Torn Curtain, Mr.andMrs.Smith), sprinkled heavily with destined classics throughout (Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Rear Window). Most of these films are replete with perfectly symbolic camera angles and cinematic techniques (Vertigo’s famous zoom-out-dolly-in, Psycho’s shower scene, the fact that Lifeboat was ninety-minutes spent in a small, confined space, the merely ten cuts in Rope, the murder reflected in the glasses in Strangers On a Train), time-honored suspense techniques (the sinking car in Psycho, Jimmy Stewart watching the murderer come home as Grace Kelly goes through his apartment in Rear Window, Marnie’s shoe slipping out of her pocket as she tip-toes silently away), and, of course, the ever-present cameo of Hitch himself in 75% of his films. The films that you’ve created over the last decade have all followed suit, sometimes skipping past tongue-in-cheek flattery for your idol and slipping embarrassingly into blatant replication.
One of the main ideas behind Hitch’s work is the notion that what you can’t see is more frightening that what the director can show you. In other words, your imagination is better than any camera tricks or special effects available to any director, ever. One of the main issues that your films suffer from is your strict adherence to these rules, often (at least more recently) to a fault. Orson Welles, however, created AFI’s (and many film critics’) pick for the greatest film of all time in Citizen Kane, and followed it up with another masterpiece in Touch of Evil, and the smartF for Fake followed suit, before he simply decided to create stories that he wanted to tell, with no regard for who might actually care to watch them. Lest we forget that at the end of his life he was taking jobs such as a cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan, and the voice of Megatron in the animated Transformers series just so he could pay his bills; a hapless parody of himself. We all knew that he was a genius, he’d proved it before, on more than one occasion, and it was even more disappointing because we were blatantly aware of the brilliant filmmaking of which he was capable.
The other main issue with your films, and I apologize for saying this, but it has to be said, is that you’re not an actor’s director. You’re a storyteller’s director, who is forced to use actors because hey, who the hell else is going to help you shoot this thing? You are more concerned with plot twists, camera angles, cameos, and color schemes than you are with pulling great performances from the actors you’ve chosen to portray the characters. The worse the actors are, or the fewer good actors you have, the worse reception your films tend to receive, because the actor’s aren’t connecting with the story, and/or they don’t have anyone to give them insight into what their character is actually going through. I hope this correspondence will not only illustrate my point, but will reassure anyone who might read it that you’re still capable of telling amazing, intriguing, suspenseful stories if you hold all of the proper cards. You’ll also notice that I tend to get more verbose with the poorly received, yet completely underrated films. This is the reason that it’s getting tiresome to defend you; every time some moron says something like, “The Village was stupid,” I feel compelled to take a deep breath and expound upon said moron – in your defense, and mine for liking the film – the virtues of Shyamalanian cinema. It’s exhausting. Hopefully this will save me some time. Or at least some oxygen.
First off, let me say thank you. The Sixth Sense (1999 – Good performances by: Bruce Willis, Toni Colette, Olivia Williams, Haley Joel Osment, Donnie Wahlberg) changed the way I, and millions of others, would watch movies forever. It is a puzzle in time; one of the first movies ever to leave viewers with the instant notion of, “I have to watch that again.” You somehow took us through an enjoyable two hour experience without revealing the unseen layer of enjoyment until the final seconds of the film. Once we were let in on the secret, we were absolutely thrilled. We became obsessed with watching it again and soon, looking for clues or hints that we missed, and with every one we found, we (subconsciously or not) found you that much more clever. Who is this guy that could do this to us? Never has the image of a ring rolling across a hard-wood floor been so symbolic or mind-blowing. We were all holding our breath, and when we let it out it wasn’t only to exhale in silent revelation, but to exclaim something like, “OOOOOHHHH! HE’S FUCKIN’ DEAD!!” Priceless.
The acting was simply superb throughout. Bruce Willis gave a dark, stoic performance, something we weren’t used to seeing from the likes of John McClane. It was subtle and powerful, as was Toni Colette’s portrayal of a mother warring with her lonely situation and her love for her frightened, outcast son. You could see that she deeply cared about him but at the same time was angry at the world, and often blatantly at the child, for dealing her such a psychologically imbalanced hand. Throw in the broken heart of Olivia Williams and that cute kid from Forrest Gump both giving heady, frightened performances, plus a disturbing, surprisingly emotional cameo from a malnourished New Kid on the Block, and your acting is taken care of on this project, good sir. Feel free to concentrate on telling your story.
And concentrate you did. The use of color was amazing; any encounter of the living with death or ghosts was eternally linked with the color red (via blood, a sweatshirt, a dress, a tent, a bedspread), the only place we find it in the film. As we’re watching, everything runs smoothly and remains so interesting (partly due to the performances) that we never notice that no one other than the child speaks directly to Willis after he’s been shot, even though we see him sitting across from the mother when the child gets home from school, and even though he apologizes to his wife for being late to their anniversary dinner. We never see where he goes when he’s not with the boy, or where he’s coming from when he arrives. Through the time jump in the beginning of the film (after he’s shot, we’re told that it’s about a year later), we find out nothing about where Willis has been – little do we know that he isn’t aware of it, either – and we simply assume that everything turned out okay with his crazy ex-patient. Only when you allow us do we understand why we were shown Willis being shot in the first place, though it goes unquestioned throughout the story, among the performances and plot twists. The only point where Willis comes close to existing again in the physical world is when he sees his wife with another man, and he’s somehow able – through anger, usually associated with the color red – to shatter the glass door of her house. And somehow we never give enough credence to the fact that the kid sees dead people. Even your cameo was short and sweet. A wink for us in the know. Hitch would be proud.
With Unbreakable (2000 – Good performances by: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn), you started out 2 for 2 (technically 2 for 5, but who’s counting?). It was set at a much more deliberate pace, never getting ahead of itself, never lagging behind. We knew that we were watching David Dunn (Willis) discover that he had special powers, a la comic book superhero, but we didn’t realize that you were setting up an entire comic book storyline to go along with it. The audience just assumed that we were going to see one man’s realization that he couldn’t be hurt and never got sick, along with the implications that such a thing might have on his life in contemporary America. But it was so much more. Telling us in the film itself that all comic book heroes have arch nemeses, that they were always someone close to our hero, and that every super hero has his Kryptonite, you weren’t only setting up this guy’s realization about himself, but, unbeknownst to us, you were telling us the story of his beginnings, the responsibilities that come with such power, and, most importantly, in my opinion, the history of his arch enemy and close friend (the one who helped him discover who he really was) in Mr.Glass.
“They called me Mr.Glass,” is one of the best lines in any of your films. Somehow, like Haley’s confession of seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense, we hear this and take it at face value, in the common knowledge that children taunting other children seen as weaker or different. Kids are assholes. We all knew that. No one saw coming, however, the fact that we were being introduced to Mr.Glass’ beginnings as well. And somehow, through all of the hardships he’d been through, his search for David Dunn seemed to us justified, if we can look past the murder of hundreds of innocent people via a plane crash, a building fire, and a train wreck in order to do it, all of which were mentioned somewhere during the film itself.
One scene in particular was simply a microcosm of the entire story. Mr. Glass sits in his wheelchair in a comic book store as it’s closing up shop. The clerk, who had already told him to take on the wheel and spoke, walked over and began irritably wheeling him out of the store. On his way out, however, Mr. Glass, on three occasions, lurches the chair to the side, knocking over dozens of comics. On his third crash, a single comic book, a single superhero portrayed mightily on its cover, fell into his lap. Three “accidents” with multiple casualties, finally discovering what he was looking for on his third destructive attempt. You told us what was happening as we watched, but we had no idea what we were listening to.
Again, the brilliant use of color played well with the comic book feel of the film. Purple and clear for Mr.Glass, dark grays and blues for Dunn. Camera angles and shot selection lent themselves beautifully to the angular presentation of the boxes in comic books. In the beginning there is a shot where Dunn is being told about what happened to him during the accident; Dunn and the doctor are framed in the doorway of the room with the torso of the second survivor lining the bottom of the screen. As the doctor explained to him that the train he was on had wrecked and only he and one other individual survived, the dot of blood on the victim’s torso grows steadily, eventually soaking the bottom of the frame in blood, and the man dies as the doctor tells Dunn that the second survivor isn’t going to make it. He was telling Dunn what was happening as we watched his words come true.
Willis gives another stoic performance, which was actually fairly similar to his portrayal of the child psychologist inThe Sixth Sense, but fit perfectly for this role as well – luckily, you didn’t have to coach him on what Dunn should be feeling – and Jackson gave a surprisingly timid (timid for Sam Jackson, anyway) performance as a once bullied kid who grew up with a deep, psychological hatred for most of humanity. Jackson even looked the part of a super villain, after we had recognized that that’s what he was, of course; before we knew he just looked creepy, with his angular fro leaning off the side of his head. And Robin Wright Penn did well enough as Dunn’s downtrodden wife (not that Olivia Williams couldn’t have done the same thing again, but that would have invited too many associations with The Sixth Sense).
Your cameo got a little long, considering that you were on screen for more than a few seconds – something Hitch would have never done, nor spouted off those few lines of dialogue you mumbled through – and I think here is where we can pinpoint the beginnings of your, ahem…ego getting the best of you. Hitch would walk across the screen, or step onto a bus, or (in my favorite Hitch cameo ever) simply be seen in a picture for a weight loss ad in a newspaper; it would have been awkward for him to suddenly appear on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.
I’d also like to mention my fears concerning, dare I say it…Unbreakable 2, which has, as recently as last year, been “in talks”. Allow me to say this: Please don’t. You had no intention of doing a sequel when you first wrote the original, and didn’t think twice about it in the decade since, but it’s been recently reported that both Willis and Jackson would be up for a reprisal. If you would have asked me eight years ago, just after its release (not that you asked me this time), I would have been all for it. But considering how things have gone for you and the reputation that you’ve garnered over the last five to seven years, I would be afraid that some studio would simply throw bazillions of dollars at it to make it some sort of blockbuster action flick – as opposed to the dark, psychological thriller that the first one turned out to be – and it would simply turn out to be a parody of itself, drowning and pulling the reputation of the first one down with it. There was only one scene in the first that could be considered an “action” scene, which is when David Dunn saves the two little girls from the murderer who has broken into their house. The scene itself was so powerful because, even though we had discovered that Dunn was a super hero, he was still, in our minds, a human being. He didn’t shoot the intruder with lasers, or crush his head with the power of his mind, he simply jumped on his back and struggled and struggled until he choked the life out of him, a scene we’ve seen many mortal men attempting in countless other films. I’m terrified that a resurrection of the unbreakable David Dunn vs. Mr.Glass would turn it inside out; we would see action scene after action scene with about two minutes of psychological suspense that filled the first one. Please don’t confuse our love of great suspense with our love of two badasses fighting. Totally different ballgames. I’m sure Hitch would agree.
Signs (2002 – Good performances by: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix) was another great film. There’s plenty of suspense, a touch of humor, and a few spots of good ol’, down home scary. The performances were good, although nothing to write home about (which is the bare minimum for Mel and Joaquin), but somehow this one fell just short of the greatness of your previous two outings.
This is probably your most Hitchcockian film to date – yes, Hitchockian is a word, as is Vonnegutian, filmic, and Shyamalamian…although I might have made that last one up; it means “Good, but not as good as the last one”. The notion that one’s imagination is scarier than what’s on the screen was all over this one, to great effect; the silhouette of the alien on top of the house, the foot in the cornfield that’s pulled back just as the flashlight hits it, and the terrifying scene in the basement. The whole family has barricaded themselves in the cellar when suddenly the light gets broken and we see a single tentacle wrap itself around the youngest son before the camera follows the flashlight that falls on the ground. We stay with the flashlight on the dusty floor and hear only screaming and things crashing about before catching just a glimpse of an alien foot stepping into the dusty light. One of the scarier moments came also when we got to see the home video footage of a little boy’s birthday party, where an alien steps quickly (and fuzzily) into view.
The story was well laid out, and played just like something from the Hitchcock canon until the last half an hour or so, which, sadly to say, is where it ran into a few problems. First off, let’s relax on the cameos. You’re not an actor. You need to be content with sticking your face into frame for a second long enough for us to realize it’s you, then pull it back out. Hokey Pokey your cameos. You’re taking us out of the story (which is exactly what Hitch feared he would do, thus he tried to make all of his cameos quick, and early in the film, because he didn’t want the audience simply playing Where’s Waldo? the whole time). Once you decided to put yourself in the movie – are you trying to cry in that scene? Really? – is when it started to snag. And I’m not referring to physically placing yourself into it, although that doesn’t help, but you tried to give the story an ending like your previous two films had, so that it would catch us off guard, so that we wouldn’t see it coming. You did what we expected you to do, and because of that, the last half an hour of the film made it a bit more divisive than you might have wanted. You did your best to make everything come together and “fit” in the end; you were the one that killed the reverend’s (Gibson) wife, and she gave him her dying words of “Swing away” to Merrill (Phoenix), her eldest son, and she tells her husband to “see” – referring to seeing all the connections: see that his youngest son’s asthma will save him, see that water is harmful to the aliens, see why the youngest daughter is “very particular about her drinking water”, which she leaves all over the house for Merrill to “swing away” at in order to kill the alien with water bombs. You forced it. It’s like you were trying to turn this into a Seinfeld episode, where all the inane things you’ve been watching over the course of the show somehow come together in the end to paint a cohesive picture, but we as an audience could literally feel you trying too hard to create the kind of thing that you had created with The Sixth SenseandUnbreakable. We do appreciate the effort, though. Seriously.
The other thing that lost a lot of people was your abandonment of our powerful imaginations. The film was full of clever ways to hint at the aliens without actually showing them – by way of silhouettes, reflections, glimpses of body parts – creating in us a growing wonder as to what the hell one would look like if we could ever get a good glimpse of it. Unfortunately, you decided to show us exactly what one looked like: CGI, apparently, and we all scoffed (yes, I scoff) at the blatant alienism of the thing. If you’re going to show the whole thing you have to do it differently than it’s ever been done before (see Aliens, District 9,Cocoon). If you put a fishbowl on your version of an alien’s head, we’re suddenly watching Mars Attacks; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you’re not in the business of making comedies, at least not intentionally. You didn’t lose us, per se, but there were a few people who would’ve thought it superbly subtle had you not tried so hard to make the story fit, and had you not shown us what we really wanted (but really didn’t want) to see.
A note on the ending: That last shot was phenomenal. We see, close up, a father watching his youngest son wake up in his arms in the front yard. Then we cut into the bedroom, where we are watching, from the window, looking down on the reverend holding his son on that beautiful summer day. The camera pans slowly around the room, sliding past the window on the opposite wall, where it’s snowing and lands with the bathroom doorway in frame, as the reverend tidies up is clerical collar before walking out of frame and fading to black. All in one shot, we are given the entire dénouement; seasons pass, everyone is okay, the aliens are gone, and the reverend has rediscovered his faith, giving us the idea that he’s not so angry, thus allowing his family to live happily ever after. Hitch would be proud. Although he’s still a little pissed about the full-frontal alien thing.
I loved The Village (2004 – Good Performances by: Joaquin Phoenix*, William Hurt*, Sigourney Weaver*, Adrien Brody*, Bryce Dallas Howard*). However, this where your audience really begins to diverge. Some of your biggest fans will do their best to stick with you through such…we’ll call them “accidents” as The Happening, but this is where you start to lose your casual, everyday movie-goer. You let them feel that they were smarter than you, that they were able to figure it out too easily, and that it wasn’t at all what they were expecting, and not in a good way. This fact leads me to the central, encompassing flaw with this film: The setup was all wrong.
The cards were stacked against you, champ. Your producers didn’t do you any favors beginning with the promos months out from the theatrical release. The marketing campaign for this film was lunacy, and set up the audience’s expectations for something that they definitely weren’t going to get. The teasers and trailer for this film were built around glimpses of sharp horns and claws covered by a torn red cape, hurtling through the dense forest towards what we could only assume would be some poor, helpless victim. People thought they were going to go see some sort of horror-monster flick with a big twist ending. But it wasn’t about the monsters, or even the village’s fear of the monsters, which you dismissed by the first plot twist (see below) very early in the film. People were expecting to be scared because of the uber-scary monster they’d been shown running through the forest, but you took them on a much more solemn, dark, psychological journey, though many audiences would compare it to a psychological trip around the block, or maybe just to the end of the driveway and back. Had you not pushed so hard with the ending of Signs, they might not have been expecting your twist-ending recovery instead of a slowly-revealing, somewhat philosophical look at what some will do to maintain some sense of decency in the world. They didn’t get a last minute twist-ending, or the monsters they were promised. Which leads me to the second reason this film disappointed a lot of people.
Had this been your first movie, people would have left the theaters thinking, “This guy is gonna be good.” They’d be stoked for the next project because, without looking too deeply or without the expectation of being shocked at the very last minute, they would have seen the underlying psychological themes that you were presenting, as well as one community’s method of dealing with them. It would have come with some surprises along the way (three, to be exact, which I will get to momentarily), wonderful suspense, and would have left us with an appetizer for the smorgasbord of psychological thrills that you had in store.
But it didn’t. Your endings had become too famous, too good, and people came to expect too much of you each and every time out. I know, I know, the American public is a fickle, silly beast. They’re used to being shocked into amazement in the last few frames of the film, and had been hoping beyond hope that they didn’t really know what they were watching as they viewed it. Apparently, if you give too much time for the audience to think about what you’re telling them, they lose interest; 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t realized for years what a brilliant film it was, for the obvious reason of general confusion at the ending, but also because of the slower than leisurely pace of the story. Impatience is a virtue in the world today, and the only reason the pace of The Sixth Sense was forgiven, much less lauded, was the bit of gore and the brilliance of its closing moments. It was just over the halfway point of The Village that you allowed us a glimpse into what was really happening in this small community, and it upset a lot of people: The monsters weren’t monsters at all. Even worse. They were just plain ol’ people. The audience took this as not only a trick to keep the children of the village from running off into the woods, but a trick on the audience themselves. And they were pissed. They felt like you were toying with them, or sitting in your huge Willis-and-Gibson built mountain mansion laughing at all the silly movie-goers below. After they realized there were no monsters, much of the audience spent the rest of the time wondering, “So what the hell am I watching, then?”
And then came the second revelation of the film: Noah – Brody’s character, who’s mentally challenged, if you don’t recall – had apparently discovered this secret long before we did, stolen a monster suit, and had been the animal-skinning culprit the whole time, as opposed to the spooky, red-cloaked, horned beasts, that the majority of the audience anxiously awaited. Now the audience is asked to believe that Noah is chasing Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, the blind girl), with whom he was apparently in love, through the woods, which is where the logic begins to snag slightly, and where some in the audience begin to think that it borders on silly. There is, after all, a mentally challenged man chasing a blind girl through the woods in a pretend monster outfit because she slapped him in the face after he had stabbed her boyfriend in a jealous rage. Read that last sentence again. Silly might isn’t the right word, but dramatic or suspenseful aren’t it either. It’s something, though. Something.
Finally, once Ivy had managed to crawl over a huge wall she finds in the middle of the woods, we are let into the fact that this isn’t some small community in the 19th century who’s afraid of the creepy forest, as we were lead to believe, but it’s set in present day, in a wildlife preserve that was bought out by the elders of the village (each of whom experienced some terrible trauma at some point in their lives which had led them to lose faith in humanity in this 21st century. The audience began realizing this, and the realization made the film even further from what they were expecting, again feeling bamboozled. But to solidify what was being revealed you actually came out and told us what was going on. And I mean that very literally; you, M.Night Shyamalan, decided to use your cameo – which was done tastefully, at least from a visual standpoint, with your reflection in the open medicine cabinet – to literally tell us everything that happened in order for The Village to come into existence. The audience hated this because – and this is a well known foible in all of storytelling – you drubbed us over the head with the information. You told us after you had shown us. We realized it was present day after she scaled the wall and we saw the wildlife preserve truck, and then you had to literally explain what had happened. We needed to know that the elders bought it and that planes don’t fly over and that’s it, and you could have found a more visually interesting way of giving us those two small bits of information, as the boxes that the elders held containing the reason behind The Village’s founding in the form of pictures and articles about their own separate tragedies. I was reminded your idol’s most famous films, Psycho. The only thing that kept it from being a perfect piece of cinematic history was the last three minutes, where a psychologist was shown literally explaining everything that had happened to and everything that was wrong with the young Norman Bates – although Hitch made up for it by superimposing mom’s skull over Bates’ face in the final seconds of the film. But although the last shot of The Village is one of my favorite last shots in all of cinema (which I’ll get to soon), it wasn’t able to turn an already antsy audience around from boredom to bravo. Then again, it is the American public, in whose taste we’ve both (I’m sure) lost faith in long ago.
Concerning the performances of the film; I was disappointed with most of the acting going into the second half of the movie. Everyone spoke in such a stifled manner, annunciating every syllable to the point of annoyance. I kept thinking to myself, People just don’t talk like that. And I was correct. But it all made sense (and made up for the stiff acting choices) when we realized that those stifled performances weren’t actors doing a bad job of portraying characters from the 19th century, they were characters from present day (the elders of the village, at least), doing their best to imitate what they assumed people in the 19th century spoke and acted like, probably from movies they’d seen and books they’d read. This plays right into your directing style. You don’t have to tell them anything about their performances other than, “Act like it’s a hundred fifty years ago”, and with such hefty acting talent as William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Joaquin Phoenix, they can pretty much take it from there. And they did a good job of acting like bad actors. As far as Adrien Brody and Bryce Dallas Howard go, it’s widely believed (though I’m not an actor, nor mentally challenged, at least not technically) that playing such roles as a mentally-challenged individual or a visually-challenged individual aren’t the most far reaching or difficult roles to portray. Plus, Howard plays pretty much the same part (without the blindness), with the same fear in her eyes and inability to communicate effectively in the next film you release, giving us the impression that you’re somewhat lazy in your casting choices. If they did it in the last film, they can do it again, right? For these reasons the actors are all marked with an asterisk because of either their great acting talent showing through simply because they’re great actors who don’t need a lot of directing in a project such as this, or because they have roles that are notably easier to play than any heavy parts they’ve played in the past. Had you cast a bunch of nobody’s in this film, you might have been ousted from Hollywood. But you seem to still be working on that.
From a technical standpoint, the film was wonderful. The score was nominated for an Oscar – please hold on to James Newton Howard as if your life depended on it – and Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, 90% of the Coen Brothers’ films, Kundun, A Beatuiful Mind, The Assassination of Jesse James…shall I go on?) made it an absolutely vivid and beautiful viewing experience, from the color (the good and the bad), to the shot setup, everything was near perfect. I’ll never forget the shot of Ivy’s hand sticking out the front door, and Lucius grabbing it only nanoseconds before we see the long claws of the monster reaching out for her, or the shot of Noah lying in the hole in the forest, death blanketing him with his monster suit. The pacing was well done despite the audience’s impatience, and the story was well written, save for a few tiny points of logic here and there. Everything melded beautifully to create a taught, suspenseful film, but in the eyes of most audience members, all of the suspense we shared and the fear we felt was (for an idiotic few) negated once we discovered that the monsters weren’t actually monsters. I think that a lot of your audience looked back and thought to themselves, “What the hell was I scared of? This is stupid…”, as opposed to appreciating the fact that the members of this community had either grown up under the fear that they might one day be eaten alive should they not obey all the rules, or that the elders, the founders of the village, had to live with the guilt of striking this horrifying fear into the hearts of their children. Needless to say, I’m guessing it was a solemn existence in the village, which is exactly what the elders wanted to create. In that sense, this more-psychological-than-scary film did exactly what it was intended to do, with some frights and revelations along the way.
The last shot of the film gave me reason to overlook nearly everything flawed about the movie, as well as left a perfect scripted ending considering the psychological themes that emerged throughout the story. All of the elders stand around the bed of Lucius (Phoenix), Noah’s parents included, waiting for Ivy to return with the medicine that will cure him. Edward (Hurt, basically the original elder) tells Noah’s parents, “We will tell the others he was killed by the creatures. Your son has made our stories real.” He looks to everyone around Lucius’ bed and states, “Noah has given us a chance to continue this place, if that is something we still wish for.” It’s now that everyone in the room slowly contemplates their fate and begins to stand in affirmation of continuing their secretive existence, with Ivy returning and announcing, “I’m back, Lucius,” just before Noah’s parents slowly stand in agreement. Breathtakingly beautiful. And don’t let anyone tell you different. God knows they’ve tried to tell me.
The main thing that audiences failed to realize about Lady in the Water (2006 – Good performance by: Paul Giamatti) is that it began as a fairy tale that you made up to tell your children. It was even marketed, on some posters, as “A Bedtime Story”, which went mostly unnoticed. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially considering what it was and where the idea came from. Had it been a serious attempt at suspense, or comedy, or whatever it was, I might not have been so happy with the final product, like most other audience members. Again, I’d like to stress that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching this film, so much that I’ve seen it a few times since then, but – and here’s where you might get a little upset with me – this is the film where your ego began to take over, and gave you the feeling that you can basically just masturbate with whatever idea you have in your head and somebody (although not Disney, apparently) will let you put it on the screen.
You let our imaginations take over in this film, allowing us only fleeting glimpses of all the scary, wonderful creatures that inhabit The Cove. “It’s better when you can’t see it” was used to perfection in this film – other than when Bob Balaban’s character was killed by the Scrunt, which almost came off as silly, and to me sounds like a dirty word; the Tartutics and the Scrunts were only terrifying silhouettes against a dense forest, and the undulating shot of the Great Eatlon swooping down to enfold Story under its wing was beautiful, especially considering our point of view from just under the surface of the water, where we entered her world, as she was swept away from ours. I like the idea that every tenant in The Cove had some part in discovering what they had to do in order to get Story safely back to the Blue World, although the execution of their discoveries about themselves wasn’t the most believable, or entertaining, for that matter. Sorry man, I really did like this film.
It seemed like the comedy was trying too hard to be comical, which took away from the solemnity of the film (Paul Giamatti’s performance, the frightening creatures from Story’s world), and somehow negated the consequences of Story getting back to her own realm. It left people wondering if they were supposed to take it seriously (which has become hard for many people in your recent films), or with a grain of salt. The inhabitants of The Cove came off as one-dimensional, at best. There’s the angry Asian lady who just happens to know everything about the story of the Narfs (who didn’t like Giamatti, but didn’t make him work all that hard to get the details), and the people needed for Story to return to the Blue World: Symbolist, Guardian, Guild, and Healer. You even used a film and television critic (Balaban’s character, widely believed to be your tongue-in-cheek poke at your recent reviews) to tell how, in mediocre movies who, exactly, of The Cove’s tenants is supposed to play which role. Of course, all of those characters are accounted for, in one way or another, although it wasn’t exactly who we assumed it would be. I guess those could count as twists.
Everybody was just so damned tepid. You only used the butterfly woman to throw us off the scent of who the real Healer was (Giamatti…thank God he served some role other than scared fat guy who’s fallen in love with a mermaid), and you only used crossword man (Jeffrey Wright, usually a great actor, but with no one to guide him…well, you know the drill) to throw us off the scent that his son was the actual Symbolist. I can’t even begin to tell you how obnoxious your stoner group was (only used to make us think that they were the Guild, when it was actually the sisters that were terrified of a spider in the beginning of the film); isn’t this for your kids? And these guys are sitting around getting high all the time? And I have to be honest with you, those dudes were the lamest, dorkiest potheads that have ever existed. These guys sit around trying to come up with “the next big phrase”, which ended up being…ready for this? ”Baby’s on the half-tip”? What the hell does that even mean? It’s not funny, or catchy, or clever; it’s just a string of words put together that five random idiots think is cool – sounds like the script for The Happening. Got ‘em! I could write a paper on how much more entertaining you could have made these guys had you been sure whether or not this was supposed to be a comedy or a suspense film, but I’ll leave it alone. For now.
This, of course, brings me to your “cameo”, which appeared curiously more like a full-blown acting gig. Now, the fact that you lengthened your part to three or four scenes isn’t necessarily where your ego starts to shine, although it doesn’t help, but it’s in your character’s role in the story. You play a guy who writes a book that changes the world, but will have to die in order those incredible changes take place. Right? Sounds quasi-familiar. Only Jesus didn’t write the Bible. You gotta be careful with how much self-importance you allow us to see, brother. I think you’re great. You obviously think you’re great. But there are a lot of people on the fence after this movie (okay, and the last one), and you playing the man who singlehandedly makes this crazy, fucked up world a better place might come off as a little narcissistic.
Giamatti did a great job, on the other hand. Not because of your direction, by any means, but because he’s just a superb actor. He was the perfect mix of scared fat guy, confused tenant, man falling in love, and courageous badass. An all around good job, considering the people he was surrounded by. His performance (again) brought some gravity to the whole film, which (again) went against the grain of all the silliness that the other tenants brought to the screen. Throw in the terrifying creatures out to get Story, and we don’t know when we’re supposed to cringe, hold onto our seats, or laugh; again I have to apologize, we’re laughing at those characters, not necessarily with them. Bryce Dallas Howard did a good job playing the frightened, innocent young girl, but she also did that in your last outing; an apparent M.O. for using actors more than once. You could have just inserted blind Ivy from the village into this story, and the only thing you’d have had to concern yourself with is how many times Story would bump her head on the side of the pool.
Sorry to be so rough on you. I promise that I really did like the film; there were a plethora of beautiful shots, the glimpses of the creatures from the Blue World were as perfect and slight as they could be and left us wanting to see more, the story was well written, even though the idea was slightly better than the execution, and everything came together in the end to make for a cohesive, cinematic fairy tale. I loved it, although I think Hitch would have been somewhat indifferent. Can’t wait for your next one…
Okay, so The Happening (2008 – Good performances by: …) happened. I’ll give you this much: This movie started out looking good. The opening was terrifying, with people jumping off of buildings and setting their heads under the wheels of their moving cars for no apparent reason. It’s quite a shame, however, that you had to tie this opening to the rest of the movie. This is where your desire to be like your idol came back to bite you in the ass. Hard. You had a grand idea of nature getting even on a global scale, but for some reason, you wanted to do it on the cheap; you thought that your stories are so good, that your ideas are so clever, that you can pull them off without spending any money on any real special effects. Let me rephrase: You tried to show an angry Mother Earth taking her revenge on mankind by using wind machines and shots of empty fields. Did you really think you could pull this off? Hitch himself wouldn’t have even attempted such a feat. And this is the guy who filmed a movie in ten cuts.
We get it. Our imaginations are scarier than what you can show us on screen. You didn’t use that idea enough in Signs. You used it perfectly in Lady in the Water, and you punched us in the face with it in The Happening. We didn’t see anything, although I’m not sure what we’d have been looking at had you spent $100 million to make it – a sign that it’s probably a better book idea than a movie – but I’m sure it would have been better than a static shot of a hilltop with the occasional report of a handgun. Yeah, we know they’re killing themselves, but we’ve got nothing to make it frightening. I’m not saying that you have to spray brains in the camera lens to get the point across; think the sound of Jack Torrence’s ax slamming into the bathroom door…not to be confused with the old lady banging her face on the outside of her house later in the movie, which bordered on comical. But how creepy would it have been to get some context as to what, exactly, we were hearing? Were they each killing themselves by picking the gun out of the most recently deceased’s bloody hand? Creepy. Or was one man walking up to each of them, as they quietly stood in line waiting to be executed, a laThe Blair Witch Project? Creepy. All you let us see, however, was the top of a hill and Mark Wahlberg. Combine this kookiness with shots of him and Zooey Deschanel running across a field being chased by the wavy, grassy borders of an elevated wind machine, and you’ve got the makings of something along the lines of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Without the kitsch. Why not just take out a Save the Earth ad? You could have spent way less money, would have sent a good message without wasting 2 hours of everyone’s time, and might have even gotten props for being a philanthropist instead of an increasingly laughable filmmaker.
And you decided to cast Mark Wahlberg as your lead. That’s your great actor? Okay, Three Kings (great supporting cast, although he played the kind of person he is in real life), Boogie Nights (I won’t even mention the incredible cast, plus the incredible talent of Paul Thomas Anderson, who is definitely an actor’s director), andThe Departed (Marty, Jack, Leo, Damon, Baldwin, come on…) were all fantastic movies, but you can’t look past Planet of the Apes, Shooter, We Own the Night, and Max Payne. This guy is good when he’s either surrounded by an incredible cast with a good director or when he’s playing some roughneck asshole from Boston. And you want this guy to be the face of your film surrounded by a decent cutesy actress and a bunch of wavy grass? You should have gone with Donnie. And sorry Zooey, but those big, beautiful eyes of yours can only help this thing but so much. While you look up terrifyingly at the unseen forces reigning down upon you, all we could think as we watched was, “Aww, isn’t she just adorable? This sure sucks, though. Seriously.”
I don’t even know what else to say. It’s like you got the idea to challenge yourself to make a big budget movie on a small budget (how’s that ego problem coming along?) and simply put, you failed miserably. Remember how I said that with Lady in the Water, we weren’t sure whether we should be laughing or afraid? With The Happening, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself from laughing. I felt like I was watching an Andy Kaufman prank unfold, and that I’d get my twelve bucks back before leaving and we’ll all have a big laugh about it on the ride to get milk and cookies. Nope. You were serious. Laughably serious. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be bashing my head on the side of my building. Wish I had a lawnmower to lay down in front of.
Well, well, well. Look who was given $280 million to make The Last Airbender (2010 – Good performances by: who are we kidding?), a live-action trilogy of a Japanese anime-esque TV series that originally appeared and ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon, of all channels. If I were asked to sum up the film before I saw it, I would have said something like, “It’ll be a bad story with bad acting and pretty cool special effects.” If I were asked to sum up the film after I saw it, I would have to say something like, “It was a bad story with bad acting and pretty cool special effects. And they’re going to make two more of them. Where did I put my noose?”
There wasn’t a decent actor to be seen in this thing. Dev Patel (the kid from Slumdog Millionaire) had just won an Oscar, so I’m assuming he was your “bankable” star – yikes – and Aasif Mandvi is great on The Daily Show(which has no bearing on his acting ability, especially when he’s playing a role like Admiral Zhao in a Shyamalan film), but couldn’t you have used some of that loot to pay a decent actor or two so to stop people from cringing every time someone takes a breath to deliver a line? Even2012 had John Cusack, and that was somehow a better movie, unless you’ve just eaten some ‘shrooms. It’s like you saw what you did with the lack of special effects in The Happening and decided to go the exact opposite route, only keeping the bad actors and poorly written story.
This was your chance at showing Newsweek that they were correct; that you are the next Steven Spielberg, and a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for you, Spielberg is not only the master of big movies, but he’s got a keen eye for the written word and a keen talent in pulling great performances from his actors. He deals with heavy, real drama, while your films (stated very well by Slate’s Michael Agger) are, for the most part, “…fragile, sealed-off movies that fell apart when exposed to outside logic.”
Okay, so you’re no Spielberg. Or Hitchcock. But on occasion we, the viewing audience, find you to have very pleasant Spielbergian, Hitchcockian tendencies. Which is more than most filmmakers can say. If I could give you some advice – and please think of me as a huge movie buff who’s seen, loved, and defended nearly everything you’ve done, as opposed to some asshole who’s writing a letter in his underwear while drinking coffee and eating Cheetos – I’d say this: Relax. Let’s get this trilogy (which get notoriously worse with each film, with few exceptions like The Godfather, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings) out of the way so that you can move on to doing things that you enjoy doing. And that we enjoy watching. And you couldn’t have enjoyed doing The Happening. You just couldn’t have. Please don’t correct me if I’m wrong.
Airbending out of the way, you’ve signed on to produce – and not direct; I’m wondering whose idea that was – through your new production company, Night Chronicles, three films over the next three years. The first, entitled Night Chronicles: Devil, is set to be released in September of this year, and is about a group of people stuck in an elevator, with one of the people being the devil. Honestly, I like the idea. It sounds like it could be dark, twisty, frightening, and reminiscent of Hitch’s Lifeboat. But because of your last few films, a somewhat scary trailer is followed by your producer’s credit, which garners a chuckle from the audience. I wasn’t one of the chucklers, but I honestly have to reserve judgement until I see it, which is the only the second time I’ve ever said that about one of your films (the first being The Last Airbender; and you made me look like an asshole when I touted The Happening before its release). I don’t know who these sibling directors are who you’ve assigned the task of filming Devil, and I don’t care, honestly, considering that it was your idea in the first place. Unless you are trying to get great performances pulled out of the cast of unknowns stuck in elevator, I’m not sure why you would give up the duties of finding the right camera angles and the visual aspect of telling the story to some shlubs who haven’t directed anything that wasn’t shot on a digital camcorder. You should just snag the director credit and get Spielberg to come in and direct the actors for you. I realize how cruel that is, but it’s the truth.
I also want to say that none of your films have been all bad, and I’m not very hard pressed to find the brilliant (yes, brilliant) things that you did in each of them. On those merits alone, I have faith in you. I know that you know what you’re doing. You know that you know what you’re doing, now it’s time to show the American public that I knew that you know what you were doing. Or something like that. My suggestion? Do something un-Shyamalamian. Find a topic or a story that speaks to you on a very emotional level, with no room for suspense gags or imagination utilization. Tell us a powerful story, with characters we’ll love, or hate, or should hate but love (Mr.Glass, mother fucker!), and with an ending that doesn’t seem worked at, illogical, or far-reaching. We don’t want to see living punch-lines, with the first three quarters of the merely a set-up for the end. I promise you that we don’t want your career to turn into a joke.
I have absolute faith in you, Night. Anyone that can give us moments like the ring rolling across the floor, the realization of Mr. Glass’ search for David Dunn, an alien foot bouncing past a dropped flashlight, or lines like, “Do your best not to scream,” or the infamous whisper, “I see dead people,” obviously has the capability to tell engrossing, deep, emotional stories that touch the hearts and minds of millions. You got this. Hitchcock made bad movies on occasion, but he would turn around and find an amazing and special story to tell his next time out. Do something to surprise us, and I don’t necessarily mean with a twist at the end, and I promise we’ll love you forever, and we’ll introduce our children to the plethora of emotions that you’ve made us feel through experiencing your stories. And we can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve given us so far. Whether we show it all the time or not, we’re grateful. And we know you can do it again.
P.S. I’m a dead alien superhero who’s terrified of flowers that’s been writing this in an underwater village. Bet you didn’t see that coming.