Director Review – M. Night Shyamalan

After recently watching both The Village and Lady in the Water back-to-back, I have taken upon myself to design a new style of movie review.  These “Director Reviews” will focus on a handful of movies that share a common director, while illuminating his or her overall style and talents, as well as how each film compares to each other.  Mr. Shyamalan will naturally be the first, as he served as the inspiration for this category.  I will begin by giving mini reviews for each of the films, being Lady in the Water, Unbreakable, and The Village, then work into a review of M. Night Shyamalan himself and how his style permeates each of these movies (I will touch on his others as well, but I must say I have not seen The Last Airbender).  Hopefully this will serve as a slightly more optimistic review for Mr. Shyamalan, seeing as his last several films have flopped in the critic department.

Buckle your seat belts people, this is a long one.

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Lady in the Water:

This film is rich with atmosphere.  It feels like a fairy tale straight from the pens of the Brothers Grimm.  Lady in the Water presents a strange, mostly unseen world that parallels our own, in which wolf-like creatures with grass-like fur lie completely flat and unseen on our lawns, and sea nymphs whisper secrets of the future in our ears.  Since watching it, I cannot help but look at the grass in my front yard and wonder if there could be hidden creatures staring up at me.

Paul Giammati, who continues to prove that he is a master of acting, plays a maintenance man with a stutter.  He lives in a small house next to the apartment complex that he works at, which is also home to many strange and interesting people.  When the film opens, we find out that there have been reports of somebody using the pool at night, which is not allowed.  The culprit is a sea nymph by the name of Story, played by the talented and attractive Bryce Dallas Howard, who has a message to communicate to mankind.

The film has a wonderful storybook feel to it, but that is pretty much all it has going for it.  While the acting is solid, the characters are hard to understand, which is understandable seeing as there are many of them.  At times, the film expects us to know more about these characters than we do, which seems like Shyamalan was originally shooting for a longer, more involved movie, but had to cut it down for one reason or another.

The cinematography was nice, but in many cases it seemed to exist only to serve the atmosphere instead of the plot or the characters.

In terms of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but this is mostly because the film kept adding to the interesting fairy-tale aesthetic, which held my interest because I was constantly wondering what new element they would add.

While Lady in the Water failed to construct truly interesting and believable characters, and ultimately ending in an almost disappointing way, the film was strong in its atmosphere.  Unfortunately, a good atmosphere does not make a good film…  It certainly makes it fun to watch however.

(all star ratings are out of five, with halves)

Direction:  ***

Acting:  ***

Cinematography:  ****

Story:  **

Dialogue:  * 1/2

Editing:  ** 1/2

Music:  ***

Art Direction:  ****

Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: *** 1/2

Overall “Film as Art” Rating: ** 1/2

Overall: ***

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Unbreakable:

This is by far my favorite Shyamalan movie.  It seems to have everything: a fabulous atmosphere, wonderful story, believable characters, and some truly amazing bits of cinematography.  Many do not believe me when I say that I believe Unbreakable is a better movie than The Sixth Sense, but I truly feel this way.  If any of you are wondering, the reason why I’m not going give The Sixth Sense its own review section is because I will be talking about it a bit here, comparing it to Unbreakable.

Unbreakable is about David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who is the sole survivor of a train wreck.  He emerges from the wreckage without a scratch on him, which, along with a few wise words from a man named Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), makes him believe he is somehow more than human.  The film is a voyage of discovery, an origin story of his character, who slowly grows from an ordinary man to a hero.  It approaches the superhero genre in a very unique way, preferring the “relentlessly real” over a suspension of disbelief.  It presents an engaging story that builds its tension at a slow and deliberate pace, until it climaxes with an incredibly intense scene that flows effortlessly into a very suitable ending, making you wonder what will happen next.  It does contain a twist, but many have compared it to The Sixth Sense’s ending, saying it isn’t as mind blowing.  While it doesn’t make us rethink every plot device in the movie, it does make us suddenly understand the characters and the whole superhero setting in a different light.  It is a much more suitable twist in my mind.  On the other hand, The Sixth Sense feels like M. Night Shyamalan had sat down at his computer, after writing the entire film except the last page, and asked himself “What could I do here that no one would expect?”  That kind of twist does not tell us anything valuable, it simply has us leaving the theater thinking “How did it all fit into the rest of the story?”  The ending of Unbreakable doesn’t do this, instead it leaves us asking “What does this mean for the future of the characters?”  It is a plot device that moves the story forward instead of backwards, and in my opinion, it is essentially a better ending.

The film is filled with unbroken shots, which are all fantastic, presenting a darkly lit world that carries a strong mood.  Every exterior shot is overcast and muddily grey in appearance, while indoor shots are even colder.  The camera moves like a dream, hovering here and there, shifting its view as it sees fit, instead of what the action of the scene dictates.  Most of the time it gets caught in a swinging motion, simply moving back and forth…  Very reminiscent of the final shot of The Conversation, but conveying an entirely different mood, choosing to be dreamlike instead of mechanical. We see only what we need to see, and therefore know only what we need to know.  The music reflects this as well.  It is haunting.  In fact, every aspect of this film is haunting.  This film is required viewing.

(all star ratings are out of five, with halves)

Direction:  **** 1/2

Acting:  ****

Cinematography:  *****

Story:  *****

Dialogue:  ****

Editing:  **** 1/2

Music:  ****

Art Direction:  **** 1/2

Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating:  ****

Overall “Film as Art” Rating:  ****

Overall:  **** 1/2

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The Village:

There has been a lot of harsh criticism about this movie, mainly that the twist ending is obvious and a little stupid.  I would have to disagree with this.  I thought The Village was quite good actually.  The film is set in the past (how far back, we don’t really know) in a small town that is surrounded by a mysterious forest that harbors dangerous creatures.  The founders of the village (who are known in the film as “The Elders,” a group akin to a government) came to the valley many years ago in order to escape from the corruption they had witnessed in the outside world.  They founded the village as a sanctuary to raise their future children in a pure environment.  While the village serves as sanctuary, the forest serves as its borders.  No one is permitted into the forest out of fear of the creatures that live there (who will not attack the village if the villagers do not invade their land).  The fear is strong enough that they define their borders with torches and watchtowers in order to keep the beasts out.  While this premise serves as the foundation for the rest of the story, ultimately the story is about the villagers.  The main character is a blind girl named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, the actress that also starred in Lady in the Water as Story) who is the daughter of one of the Elders.  And that is where I will leave you.  You will just have to watch the movie to see the drama that unfolds.

The idea that the film focuses on these characters is one of the strong points of the movie.  Every actor does a fantastic job, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard (Ivy) and Adrien Brody (who plays a mentally challenged man who acts very much like a child).  Shyamalan could have easily made this into an action horror movie, but it is in fact a drama that possesses a few gripping scenes in just the right places.  I only have two complaints about the story, but both of which contain spoilers, so I will simply say that I wish the skinned animals that they find in the beginning had a clearer explanation, and also that the twist was presented in a much more subtle manner than it is.  Shyamalan tends to be very subtle in his story telling, but is anything but when he reveals his twists.  I only wish he would stick to the subtle side of things.

The cinematography must be discussed because the DP was none other than Roger Deakins (Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man, amongst many others), who is simply a master of his craft.  Every daytime exterior scene appears as if it was shot at dawn, resulting in warm highlights, cool shadows, subtle but fantastic colors and a drop dead gorgeous sky.  Every shot is gorgeously framed and flawlessly executed.

(all star ratings are out of five, with halves)

Direction:  ****

Acting:  *****

Cinematography:  *****

Story:  ****

Dialogue:  ****

Editing:  ***

Music:  ***

Art Direction:  ****

Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating:  ****

Overall “Film as Art” Rating:  *** 1/2

Overall:  ****

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M. Night Shyamalan as a Director:

Mr. Shyamalan certainly knows how to tell a story.  His presentation is very avant garde, favoring subtlety, unbroken shots, and unconventional stories.  And this is what I like about him.  He has a solid style and sticks by his decisions, despite what the critics say.

Shyamalan has used many different cinematographers in his various movies.  While each has brought their own unique touches to the screen, but one can tell that Shyamalan influences them greatly.  His signature move is the long take, sometimes presenting entire scenes through a single camera setup, sometimes with very little movement.  He knows that filmmakers are never required to have an edit every other second.  The resulting shots are such that they either completely favor one character within the scene, without trying to pick up any reaction shots of another, or that they contain every character necessary for the interaction.  This allows the camera to only show what the scene needs, leading to a remarkable subtlety that allows even a complex story to be conveyed without any unneeded flash or filler.

As many know, he writes his own movies.  This is an admirable quality to me, as many of my favorite directors, Stanley Kubrick and Quinten Tarantino for example, have mostly done the same thing.  It allows for just the right level of creative control.  Many directors have either too much or too little of this, leading to either the studio controlling the film to a degree that the finished product is inferior to what it could have been (for example, Kingdom of Heaven was far superior as a director’s cut), or the director trying to “do too much” with their film (for example, Star Wars, Episodes I-III).  I applaud Shyamalan for being able to produce work that has a level of uniqueness akin to some of the more avant garde independent films, while still working inside the studio system.

That being said, a few of his films tend to rely too much on either their premises (Lady in the Water and The Happening) or their endings (The Sixth Sense).  Unbreakable and The Village are two that I really enjoyed because they don’t do this.  They were able to introduce an interesting premise, develop it successfully, and end in a satisfying and strong way.

I am a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s, loving his eye for interesting stories and his unique eye for camera placement, movement, shot length, and information conveyed through the camera work.  but I must confess that this fact hasn’t been the thing to convince me to see The Last Airbender. Instead I will probably see it simply to find out what all the negative fuss is all about.  If I end up seeing it, be sure to count on a review.

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