The last 20 some odd years have been somewhat odd for M. Night Shyamalan.
There was the meteoric rise, the faceplant fall, and the unexpected rise again. The writer/director’s highs (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split) have been clever, crowd-pleasing and well crafted, while the lows (The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening) became self-indulgent, condescending misfires.
Old, Shyamalan’s first since the disappointing Glass two years ago, may not rank among his best, but there is enough here to hold your interest while it delivers an earnest message about precious time.
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are ready to separate, but want to enjoy one last dream vacation with 6 year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11 year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) before breaking the news.
Shortly after getting a VIP welcome at their tropical resort, the family is offered access to a private beach paradise, just a short drive away. Once there, they find a few other guests have also gotten the invite to the pristine beach surrounded by majestic and imposing walls of rock.
But of course, there is a price to be paid for this privilege: time. Trent and Maddox are suddenly years older (and now played by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie), while the rest of the group (including Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee and Aaron Pierre) also begins to feel the effects of a rapidly increased aging process.
Shyamalan’s camerawork – usually a plus – is again nimble and expressive. He’s able to fuel a feeling of confusion and disorientation on the ground, while frequent overhead shots provide the unmistakeable suggestion that this group is being watched.
His pace is also well-played, fast and frantic (with one very effective visual fright) in the early going, then a bit more measured to reflect cooler heads trying to plan an escape.
But while Shyamalan’s script is an adaptation of the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, dialogue can still trip him up. It’s too frequently both silly and obvious, yet almost always rescued by a talented ensemble that never shrinks from selling every word of it.
This is a Shyamalan film, though, which will lead many to expect a humdinger of a twist. Don’t.
There is something waiting beyond the clearly defined metaphor about appreciating every day. But like the film, the resolution of Old is more tidy than revelatory, as easy to digest and appreciate as it is to forget.
M. Night Shyamalan has been grappling with expectations for nearly twenty years. They were high when he was blowing our minds with twist endings, but the craving for another Sixth Sense experience led its follow up, Unbreakable, to be wrongly labeled as a step down.
After years of diminished returns led to zero expectations for a Shyamalan project, Unbreakable began to get its due in retrospect, a hand the writer/director played perfectly with the riveting Split three years ago. That film stood tall on its own, but when the drop-the-mic final scene revealed it as an Unbreakable sequel all along, expectations for the next round went skyward pretty damn fast.
Or was that just me?
I know it wasn’t, and while Glass caps thetrilogy with a dive into comic book lore that is completely fascinating to watch unfold, it lands with a strangely unsatisfying thud.
Split left us with The Beast – the most dangerous of Kevin Crumb’s (James McAvoy) “horde” of personalities – on the loose in Philly. Glass begins with David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has spent the years since Unbreakable running a security firm with this son (Spencer Treat Clark in a nice return) and walking the streets as a mysterious vigilante hero dubbed “The Overseer”, tracking him down.
Their standoff leads to an early burst of crowd-pleasing action, and a trip to the psych ward for both Crumb and Dunn – the very same hospital where Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has been serving his life sentence.
Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) arrives to define the film’s central conflict, telling them all that superpowers are only for comic books, and everything remarkable about their lives can be deconstructed and explained, much like a magic trick.
Shyamalan’s feel for pace and sequencing is fine here, as is his changing color saturation when superhero themes gain strength. The film’s first two acts build a compelling arc on the fragility of human potential set against the ambitious premise of comic books as real life.
As Crumb and his 23 identities, McAvoy is completely mesmerizing once again, able to move freely between contrasting personalities with such incredible precision the understated performances around him seem only right.
Willis’s default setting of steely glares serves him well as the reluctant savior, Jackson gives his scheming mastermind the right mix of brilliance and condescension, and Paulson wraps Dr. Staple in a fitting air of mystery from her first introduction.
It is only Anya Taylor-Joy, returning as Casey “the girl The Beast let go,” whose talent seems ill-placed. While Casey is seemingly there as a reminder of Crumb’s humanity, the frequent tight closeups on Taylor-Joy’s comic book ready eyes become a heavy handed blur to the message.
But with Split putting Shyamalan firmly back in his groove, expectations for an unforgettable end to the trilogy create a uniquely painted corner. Potent storytelling gives way to declarations that ring of self-serving defenses of the filmmaker’s own work, while more obvious foreshadowing overtakes the nifty, hide-in-plain-sight subtlety.
Would Glass have worked better if we hadn’t been standing around staring all this time? Probably. but Shyamalan got us here with skill, and he gets us out with a film that’s easy to respect, but hard to cheer for.
Yes, Split is the latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and no, you’ll never see it coming.
You know what I mean. And Shyamalan knows you know what I mean. So, while you’re trying to guess what surprise twist he’s got in store for you, a nifty psychological thriller plays out, elevated by a transfixing performance from James McAvoy.
After years of misfires, Shyamalan got his groove back by scaling back two years ago with The Visit, an enjoyable bit of lightly scary fun that amounted to one giant misdirection. With Split, the director himself is the main misdirection, as his reputation pushes you to chase something that may not be there at all.
McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.
Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.
The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face closeups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.
Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.
Maybe the best case for this new Shyamalan surprise is the fact that even without the kicker, Split would hold up as a competent, emotionally disquieting thriller. But when you add that final reveal?
At long last, the keeper of the keys for Killumbus Horror joins Fright Club, with the topic of her own choosing. Bridget Oliver decided we should discuss the most polarizing filmmakers in horror, so here you have the Love Them or Hate Them list. Note, we are not talking about filmmakers whose personal lives make them hard to stomach. (We’re looking at you, Roman Polanski.) No, these are movie makers whose cinematic output have made them polarizing figures. The three of us have differing opinions about the 5, so be sure to check out the full podcast HERE.
5. Tom Six
After a handful of middling Dutch comedies, Tom Six stumbled upon inspiration – 100% medically accurate inspiration. Yes, we mean the Human Centipede trilogy – a set of films that doubles its ridiculous, bloody, unseemly intensity with every new episode.
For a lot of viewers, the Human Centipede films are needlessly gory and over-the-top with no real merit. But for some, Six is onto something. His first effort uses a very traditional horror storyline – two pretty American girls have a vehicular break down and find peril – and takes that plot in an unusual direction. But where most horror filmmakers would finish their work as the victims wake up and find themselves sewn together, mouth to anus, this is actually where Six almost begins.
His next two efforts in the trilogy are more consciously meta and more clearly referential of the controversy he caused with Episode 1. Much like Last House on the Left, the Centipede films seem to be addressing the abundance of almost unthinkable but true life violence available for public consumption, turning that into something so bombastic and fictional that it’s almost safe to watch.
Not everyone (George, for example) buys that theory. For many, Tom Six makes movies that people simply don’t want to sit through.
4. Ti West
Because West’s films are not, in and of themselves, particularly controversial, his inclusion in this list may seem counter intuitive. But West’s early work suggested a promise that he has failed to live up to, or so several of us seem to think.
West’s first film, The Roost, starring Tom Noonan (hooray!), was a low budget affair that worked mostly because of a peculiar style and ingenuity. It seemed to mark a filmmaker who could benefit from a little real cash flow and some time to develop an idea. For a lot of people, the filmmaker’s next effort, The House of the Devil, proved the director’s mettle.
Not for everyone, though. We see House of the Devil as one of those horror movies that people who don’t like horror really enjoy. It’s a short film extended far beyond its natural length, and though it boasts some excellent cast mates (Noonan, again, along with Mary Woronov and Greta Gerwig), it’s a long slog. The rest of West’s catalog offers a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. While many (including Bridget) are eager to see whatever it is West is ready to put out next, MaddWolf thinks he’s outstayed his welcome.
3. Rob Zombie
Here’s where the real heavy-hitters begin, because if there is one filmmaker who’s caused the most divisive response from our listeners, it’s Rob Zombie.
We enjoy Zombie’s particular knack with casting. His giddy affection for horror and other cult film genres is on full display with every minor and major piece of casting in every film, and for that reason alone, true horror fans must enjoy his work. On the other hand, his greatest successes – Halloween, for instance – are often his worst films.
Though The Devil’s Rejects is a very fine genre effort, his version of Halloween was nothing more than an arrogant correction of John Carpenter’s genre classic, and the very polarizing Lords of Salem was his ill-aimed attempt to model classic Italian horror.
2. M. Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan is clearly not known solely for horror, but he’s a tremendously polarizing filmmaker who dabbles in horror. His The Sixth Sense was not only nominated for two Oscars (directing and writing), but it was one of the most popular films of 1999. The filmmaker went on to write and direct his personal masterpiece, Unbreakable, followed by another wonderful effort, Signs, before bottoming out completely.
For the next 13 years, Shyamalan did little more than embarrass himself. But just this year he made a humble but genuine comeback with The Visit – a return to his twist ending horror shows. It’s a modest film, but refreshingly lacking the pretentiousness that has marked most of Shyamalan’s work in the last decade and a half.
Though definitely flawed, the film boasts a fine cast, a lot of creepy tension, and the kind of twist ending you should have seen coming but simply did not. That is, it marks a return to form, however low key, for a filmmaker that seemed to have all the promise in the world before he lost his way.
1. Eli Roth
There was a thread about The Green Inferno on Bridget’s Killumbus Horror facebook page that just about broke the internet. Bridget had to remove it, not because those posting were being too hostile toward Roth, but because the comments turned a bit vitriolic toward other posters. This is a guy people love to love and love to hate.
We have to admit that we’re in Camp 2. Though both Hostel and Hostel 2 are decent efforts, Roth is a filmmaker whose timing is far superior to his actual talent. Hostel was released at a time when the world was just beginning to understand that torture was now actually on the table as an acceptable, even encouraged, strategy. Roth’s film tapped into the zeitgeist – forgive our pretentious vocabulary – and spawned a decade of horror porn followers.
But Roth has struggled to follow the popularity of his torture porn epics, and recent efforts like Knock Knock and The Green Inferno, attempts to push the genre envelope, come off more as neutered versions of Seventies films.
Join us next week as filmmaker Jaston Tostevin helps us count down the best horror films of 2015. Until then, stay frightful, my friends.
The Last Airbender. The Happening. After effing Earth. Man, it has been a long time since M. Night Shyamalan made a decent movie. If you keep that in mind – if you manage your expectations – his latest film, The Visit, is pretty enjoyable. It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.
A single mom (a very believable Kathryn Hahn) reluctantly allows her two teenagers visit their estranged grandparents in rural Pennsylvania for a week. You’ve seen the ads – things don’t go well.
Whatever the flaws, no matter the lack of originality, The Visit generates creepy dread punctuated by some genuine laughs, and it boasts several fine performances.
Ed Oxenbould is endearing, fun and funny as little brother/would-be rapper Tyler. Olivia DeJong is slightly less compelling as his sister/budding filmmaker Becca. (Yes, tragically, this is a found footage film – but it’s an M. Night Shyamalan film, so expect some weirdly beautiful vistas and panoramas given Becca’s age.)
She’s decided to make a documentary of the visit as a gift to her mother, and an attempt to rebuild the relationship that went south long before she was born. (This is a theme that echoes, somewhat tediously, throughout the effort.)
Nana and Pop Pop are played, quite eerily, by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, respectively.
Per usual, Shyamalan peppers the mystery with more than enough clues, which you look right past. He’s a master at sleight of hand, and his film – modest as it is – showcases his enviable craftsmanship.
The Visit will absolutely not stand up to the filmmaker’s greatest efforts – Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense. Hell, it may just be the result of a flagging filmmaker turning backward, falling into patterns that garnered early success, but bringing less inspiration with him to the project. Whatever the reason or craft behind it, The Visit is easily the best film Shyamalan’s made in more than a dozen years.
At the recent screening of After Earth, I overheard one lady say to another, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Will Smith movie I didn’t like.”
No doubt, the man has been a pretty reliable crowd pleaser for many years. His latest, though, is little more than a weak attempt to make his son the next big movie star in the house.
Jaden Smith gets top billing here, and well he should. Will is merely the co-star in a completely pedestrian sci-fi yarn about facing your fears, reaching your destiny, becoming a man, and zzzzzzzzzzz…..
It’s one thousand years in the future, and mankind has fled to a new home planet, after ravaging Earth until it was no longer hospitable. The bravery of military commander Cypher Raige (Will) has earned him hero status, leaving his son Katai (Jaden) as a young cadet with big shoes to fill.
A crash-landing on the now-quarantined Earth leaves the father with two broken legs, and the son as the only hope for survival. Katai must journey through the dangers Earthlings left behind, as he searches for a distress signal miles away from their crash site.
Director/co writer M. Night Shyamalan, working from Will Smith’s story idea, continues his streak of films that make you wonder what the heck happened to the young auteur who gave us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. There’s no reason to care about anything in the film; it comes at you without a hint of subtlety, as if you’re just expected to buy in simply because they’re selling.
It’s all so trite and obvious, from the environmental scolding to the boy yelling in the wilderness for his father to believe in him.
Will, apparently due to his character’s legendary calm and fearless nature, gives a one note performance anchored in scowling and lowering his voice. Jaden, after a nice breakthrough performance in the fine remake of The Karate Kid, can’t quite make Katai’s quest for manhood a convincing journey.
Heck, it doesn’t even have the look of a summer blockbuster, especially after the sublime scorched-Earth visuals just seen in Oblivion.
No offense to ladies at the screening, but even Will Smith isn’t likable enough to save After Earth.