The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan

I’m an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I’ll admit it. I love (most of) his movies, and can even find merit in the ones I don’t particularly like. There was a time when I felt that much of the criticism aimed at M. Night Shyamalan was unfounded, coming from people who just “didn’t get him.” But I “got him,” so well, in fact, that I wrote a thesis paper on his films back in college. They had something to do with what his films are really about (The Sixth Sense isn’t actually about ghosts, Signs isn’t actually about aliens, etc.). But now, I’m have a much harder time defending his movies, even to myself, probably because the spark he had  in the late 90′s/early 00′s is gone. Now I’m looking at movies that he’s directed where Shyamalan seems like he’s just phoning it in, and it’s a shame.

Looking back at his first commercial hit, The Sixth Sense, it’s easy to see why he was Hollywood’s “Golden Boy” for a moment. Newsweek even called him “the next Spielberg.” In The Sixth Sense all the way up to The Village, Shyamalan had displayed masterful control over his films; the writing, acting, mise en scene, and music were all in near-perfect sync. Look at the cinematography of Unbreakable — it’s gorgeous. The colors are a muted blue hue for much of the film which mimics the malaise felt by the characters. Then there’s a change, when Bruce Willis begins making use of his newly-discovered powers, which is accented by the subtle injection of color in some of the scenes, almost as if the characters’ new-found life is breathing life into the film itself. And the camerawork is something I look at for reference every now and then. Unbreakable‘s camera is wandering, with lots of handheld and crane shots, but it matches up perfectly with the dialogue. From a visual standpoint, it may be Shyamalan’s most ambitious film.

Fast forward to The Happening. As much as I enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s films, this is one I can’t defend. It’s a misfire in all aspects: it’s miscast and though the music and cinematography harken back to his early work, with such an incredibly weak script, it all falls apart. I feel like this was a turning point for Shyamalan; what was working for him five movies ago is now working against him, and it’s probably why he’s moved into “director-for-hire” mode, directing big-budget features like The Last Airbender and After Earth.

In these effects-heavy movies, Shyamalan displays almost none of the inventiveness he did in his earlier, more supernatural films. While I’m not saying he needs to go back and do only movies about ghosts and aliens and creatures living in the woods, I feel like he’s lost his creative spark. A few years ago, he produced Devil, a low-budget supernatural thriller about people stuck in an elevator and one of them happens to be the Devil himself. It was a decent movie that suffered from predictability (and to be honest, some boredom as well). But, as part of Shyamalan’s “The Night Chronicles” brand of films, it felt like something more akin to what he was good at: telling stories of the fantastic, but rooted in reality.

In his recent After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan is working off a story by Will Smith and a screenplay co-written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli). While it is certainly a fantastical tale (a coming of age story set on Earth a thousand years into the future), there wasn’t much that was relatable about it. Jaden Smith’s story arc about a boy who must face his fears and survive on his own is lost amid the special effects (some of which looked terrible by today’s standards) and his own shortcomings as an actor. Visually, the movie is fairly straightforward, with none of the auteur-like camerawork I expect from Shyamalan. For a $130-million-dollar movie, it looked kind of cheap. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think After Earth is terrible like The Happening, in fact I think children would enjoy the movie, especially young boys looking for adventure. I just don’t think it’s as good as it could have been considering the talent involved.

Maybe he’s going through what Tim Burton is going through: relying to much on large budgets to make up for a weak script and laziness with the cinematography. Give him a budget that forces him to be creative with what he has. Perhaps he should stick with building up his “The Night Chronicles” brand while producing and nurturing up-and-coming directorial talent. Regardless of what you may think of his films, he’s worked in the film industry for some time now, and I’m sure he’s got a treasure trove of knowledge he could impart on a newer generation who’s used to working on small budgets with limited equipment.

Hopefully, some time spent producing and writing films (but away from the director’s chair) will be enough to recharge his creative batteries. A lot of people have commented on how his ego was considerably inflated after his early success, and hopefully scathing reviews and a disappointing box office gross will be enough to reign him in.

June 6, 2013 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

A (final?) 1UP Memory with the 1UP Crew

There came a moment last night at Steff’s Sports Bar in San Francisco when former 1UP/MyCheats/GameSpy guru Mike Nelson put his drink down and said to me, “I was walking here and looking at all these people passing by, and I was thinking, ‘They don’t even know. People got laid off today and it was an end of an era. And they don’t even know.’”

I still don’t consider myself part of the “videogame industry,” but for a brief moment of my life, I worked in it. I lived and breathed it. And while I was in this bubble, I had kind of lost sight of what it is I was doing, what we all were doing. I was writing strategy guides and making silly videos for a website about videogames. Seriously, who the hell cares about that stuff? Apparently, a lot of people do.

When the news broke yesterday about the closing of 1UP, UGO, and GameSpy and the laying off of staff from those sites and their parent site, IGN, my Twitter feed was immediately flooded with tweets featuring the #1upMemories hashtag. At first it was from people I knew – old co-workers, friends I met while working there, etc. Then it came from random people I didn’t know – the “community.” And it was an amazing thing to behold.

I was waiting at the bar counter for some fruity coconut drink I ordered for Matt Leone (whose features can be read at Polygon) and I kept thinking about how 1UP meant a lot to a lot of people, and their outpouring of support over the past day was really touching. I haven’t worked at 1UP for more than a year, but at that moment I never felt closer to the 1UP community. Later in the evening, when more 1UP alumni and friends showed up to the bar, Mike’s words came back to me. It was an end of an era.

It really was. A lot of things in videogame media that we take for granted, like podcasting, really got its start at 1UP. Name any gaming podcast and I could tell you that it wouldn’t exist without 1UP Yours and EGM Live and Retronauts, and many more paving the way. And who could forget The 1UP Show? Groundbreaking, to say the least. And don’t get me started on this whole notion of “journalistic integrity.” The 1UP Network and its sister magazines was one of the few places that had that. Not that there aren’t sites now that won’t stick up for old-fashioned journalism ethics, but there aren’t that many in this age of ad sales and influential marketing teams.

This gathering at Steff’s wasn’t my first with the 1UP crew, and it probably won’t be the last, but it definitely felt like it. There was something in the air last night that signalled the finality of it all. I’ll admit I was getting a little misty-eyed. When 1UP and Gamepro alum Justin Haywald walked into the bar, late as usual, to the cheers and applause of many, everything suddenly felt very warm. We were all gathered near the counter (and taking up way too much space for this establishment), and I stood on a chair and tried to take a picture of everyone.

I realized that this wasn’t even close to everyone. But all the people at the bar – at that moment – carried with them the same memories as those that couldn’t make it out last night. They shared the same ups and downs, victories and defeats. These people had seen it all. System launches, studio closures, game announcements. E3′s, GDC’s, PAX’s, TGS’s, Gamescom’s. Lay offs, mergers, and site closures. To the world at large, none of this matters. But to a community of enthusiasts and players both pro and casual, those things mean everything. And 1UP was there for all of it over the past ten years. These people, just a sampling of a lucky few, had been through it. Most people don’t care, but many do.

“…it was an end of an era. And they don’t even know.”

There was plenty of reminiscing done last night. Countless exclamations of “remember whens,” usually followed by some embarrassing story. Jose Otero, who started as an intern the same time I started on the cheats section, pointed out the door of the bar to a building across the street. It was one of the old 1UP offices. We were there for only a few months before moving into IGN’s building. “A lot of memories in there for such a short amount of time,” he said. I nodded in reply.

I finally got that group picture. Again, it wasn’t everyone. Jeremy Parish, who is the last editor-in-chief of the site, was on a plane coming from Sony’s PS4 event in New York. Dan Hsu, former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor-in-chief, had gone off to create his own respectable gaming website years ago. Tina Palacios moved to Los Angeles. Alice Liang took a job a whole continent and ocean away in England. Garnett Lee went to GameFly. Jane Pinckard, who helped craft the memorable 1UP Show theme song, now works at a university. The 1UP Show creators set up their own production company, Area 5 Media, a few years ago. Former CGW/GFW editor-in-chief Jeff Green, who made an appearance at the bar earlier in the evening, had moved to game development.

Many, many more 1UP staffers of old had gone off to do other things, some in the games industry, some in entirely different fields. But the people in these snapshots were still connected to them through 1UP. Former 1UP video guy Richard Li once said over Twitter that he was “…deeply touched by the bonds established during our short time at 1UP, a period of unbridled creativity and kick ass friendships.” People came and went, but 1UP was the constant variable. The site was what connected us to each other even if we had never met in person, and is what connects us to our wonderful community of readers, listeners, and viewers.

On the train ride home with Mike Nelson, he said to me, “It’ll probably hit me in like a month. 1UP’s gone. Okay, maybe a week. It’ll be real in a week.”

Thanks, 1UP.

February 23, 2013 at 8:16 am 2 comments

Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

I’m mixed on my feelings for The Secret World of Arrietty. Studio Ghibli’s latest effort to come to America is, on a technical level, fantastic. The artwork, sound design, and music are all great. But when it comes to the story, it falls flat. The American voice acting is droll, there’s no real ‘threat’ to the characters, and it commits an egregious sin at the end of the movie: the filmmakers literally tell you exactly what lesson you should have learned via voice over.

Based on the children’s book The BorrowersArrietty is about a family of Borrowers, tiny people who live out of sight and “borrow” (steal) things they need from regular humans, but only things that us normal-sized folk won’t miss. The world from the point of view of Arrietty is actually quite fascinating. Everything is new and wondrous to her, though from our perspective everything just appears larger. During her first “borrowing,” she venture forth from her family’s home with her father, Pod. While attempting to take a cube of sugar, she is discovered by the sickly boy, Shawn, living in the home.

This creates all sorts of problems for the tiny Borrowers. Their rule, whenever they’re discovered by humans, is to move since a human’s curiosity will eventually disrupt the Borrowers’ way of life. Arrietty befriends Shawn and must enlist his aid when her mother goes missing. Unfortunately none of these problems were ones I cared about. I felt that the dangers of the world they lived in were enough to keep me worried for the little heroine. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, in his directing debut, does a great job of establishing the world, but once it’s time to amp up the stakes, the movie just doesn’t deliver.

As with most animated films, especially ones dubbed in English from their original language, the voice acting could make or break an audience’s enjoyment of the movie. I was particularly disappointed in this aspect of Arrietty. While the voice of Arrietty herself was fine (Bridgit Mendler in the American version, though I would’ve loved to hear the U.K. audio track with Saoirse Ronan), everyone else just seemed drab and dull. Shawn, voiced by David Henrie (the “Son” in the TV series How I Met Your Mother), sounded lifeless and Will Arnett, who voices Pod, is surprisingly boring. I assume Pod is supposed to be the stern father who tries his best to be the protector and provider of his family, but here he sounds bored with it all. And Carol Burnett, the legendary comedienne, sounds like she’s trying too hard to be the cooky old housekeeper. It all just sounds. . . off.

The slow pace of the film may also put off younger viewers. Children old enough to read the book itself may have the patience to sit through this, however. But at that point, maybe they should just stick to reading the book. The Secret World of Arrietty is a gorgeous movie, and the sound design may make this a disc to own on Blu-ray if you want to show off your home theatre. If you’re looking for something on the level of Spirited Away or most of Pixar’s films, you may be let down.

6/10

And another thing – it sounded, to me, like they couldn’t decide on how to pronounce ‘Arrietty.’ At times it was pronounced in a very American style, with an emphasis on the first syllable. Then all of a sudden, it would sound very Italian, with emphasis on the third syllable – Arrietty. It’s not that big of a deal, but it did bug me.

February 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Review: “Red Tails”

A lot is riding on the success of Red Tails. Most obvious is how this will be used as a measuring stick to gauge future box office performance of other action-adventure films with a predominantly minority cast. Sure, there have been plenty of big-budget films with a black or Asian or Hispanic (or whatever) actor in the lead role, but aside from the Tyler Perry-produced movies, there haven’t been many with an entire main cast that’s non-white. And if Hollywood wants to shake off its supposed “white-washing” of the cinemas, Red Tails needs to succeed.

And in a lot of ways it doesn’t.

The best way I could think of to describe this movie is to compare it to the aforementioned Glory. That film, made in the late 1980s, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, an all-volunteer and all-black (except for the commissioned officers) infantry regiment that fought for the Union in the American Civil War. It’s a well-made and at times moving film about people fighting for a government that is willing to suppress them.

Now, take the same premise (an all-black fighting unit going to war for the United States at a time of segregation), and move it up to World War II. Still with me? OK, now strip everything away that was great about Glory and you have Red Tails. Here’s a run-down of all the times I rolled my eyes in Red Tails:

  • The bad guys are stereotypically bad – If there was an actual ‘villain’ in Red Tails, it’s this hotshot German pilot whom our heroes dub “Prettyboy.” He sneers, looks down his nose at the “African pilots” (as he calls them) and of course, has a scar. All that was missing was a Snidely Whiplash moustache and it would’ve been the ultimate WWII bad guy stereotype.
  • The pilots are stereotypes – No, not in the racist way. Many of the main characters follow typical soldier-in-a-war-movie plot lines. There’s the guy that drinks too much, there’s the new kid eager to fight, there’s the one that falls in love, there’s the wise-cracking one, there’s the stern commanding officer with a heart of gold, there’s the tough-talking executive officer who has to put up with all the pilots’ BS, etc. etc. etc. I understand that the screenwriters and filmmakers wanted to have some depth with these characters, but COME ONE. They fall into the most obvious war film stereotypes. In fact, you could probably guess correctly as to which one of them is going to die right after their introductions.
  • The rousing speeches are given at the stereotypically right times – There were two moments that stand out in the picture when a character is delivering a speech that was written to stir up the audience and make them stand up and cheer for the good guys. The first is when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), is giving a report to his superiors in Washington. He tells them that they need combat assignments and that they “won’t go away” like his superiors thought they would (part of the speech is in the trailer). He gets through to them and is given what he asked for: combat missions. The second was right before the last mission of the movie, when the squadron is assigned to protect bombers flying over Berlin. I’ve nothing against rousing speeches, but their timing and delivery in the movie are more important than what’s being said. Both times in Red Tails it fell flat. In the first instance it happened too soon. The picture was barely getting started and Howard’s delivering a line that sounded like Oscar bait. The second time it fell flat because of the music. Yes, the music. Simply put, the score for this movie isn’t very good and didn’t serve to either highlight the air combat or the rousing speeches.

I understand the filmmakers were trying to add some depth to this war film, but if the filmmakers wanted depth, they should’ve looked toward, again, Glory. Example: in Glory, the character of Tripp (Denzel Washington) is the young ‘angry black man’ of the group. He probably joined up because there was literally nothing else left for him and the opportunity to kill would give him a way to vent his rage at the white man. He could’ve been a stereotype, someone to contrast with Morgan Freeman’s character, Rawlins, who is older, wiser, and understands how the world really works. But there’s one scene in Glory that erases any first impressions you may have had about Tripp, and it’s the flogging scene.

As anyone who’s studied American history can tell you, slaves in the U.S. were not treated kindly. But this is a film, and we need to see and not assume what had happened to some of these people. When Tripp is about to be flogged for going AWOL one night (to look for proper shoes), he has his shirt ripped off in front of his peers. And then we see it. The dozens of scars that criss-cross his back, evidence of the harsh life he left behind. He’s been flogged, no whipped before, but as a slave. Now he’s going to be whipped by his superior officers in an army that is supposedly fighting for his freedom. So what’s Tripp going to do? Take it like a man because that’s what he is. A man. Not an ex-slave. Not a black soldier in a white man’s army. A man. He never “broke” when being whipped by his white slave owners, and he’s determined not to break this time.

But is there a comparable scene in Red Tails? Nope. Probably the closest thing would be when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) delivers a report to his Washington superiors about his squadron’s recent victories. He uses the moment to “stick it to the man” when talking to the overtly racist white officer who didn’t think the Tuskegee program had any chance in Hell of succeeding.It’s not a horribly bad movie (I’ve seen worse), but it suffers from so many war cliches that the only way I could recommend someone to spend money and see it in the theatre is to bring up the fact that big-budget movies representing minorities don’t get made often, and they should.

Essentially, I’d have to play the race card.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t dislike the movie. The air combat is exciting to watch and the special effects are what you’d expect from a George Lucas-produced movie (really really good). In fact, I’d say I had a reasonably good time watching it, but it was only after I realized this is no Glory. It also helped that the audience I saw it with laughed and cheered at all the right times, which reminded me that there are some people who are willing to buy in to war cliches. Still, sub-par acting, a messy script (there’s a whole subplot about a captured pilot that could’ve worked much better either as its own movie or left out entirely), and a questionable score just drag this movie down from what it should’ve been.

If you really want to watch something about the 332nd Fighter Group, watch the HBO-produced The Tuskegee Airmen or the decent History Channel-produced documentary narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr.

6/10

And just to be fair, Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, isn’t a perfect filmmaker, either. He fell into similar war stereotypes with The Last Samurai and Defiance. And another note, there’s a review I read somewhere online that said this movie felt like an old serial from the 40s. It kinda does, and maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn the story of the Tuskegee Airmen into a mini-series…

January 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

The Road goes ever on and on…

I don’t really post a whole lot of “personal” stuff to this blog; I try to keep it movie-centric so that there’s some consistency with the content (whenever I actually get around to posting content). Today, the second day of the year 2012, has ended a little strangely for me because I realize how different the beginning of this year is compared to 2011. Last year was an exciting year for me: new opportunities, new experiences, etc., etc. This year has the potential for all those things, but none of it is certain.

To start, as I write this I’m unemployed, and have been for about six months. The job market where I live (the San Francisco Bay Area) sucks and new opportunities to do anything beyond serving food or ringing up a purchase are hard to come by. Not that there isn’t work, there’s just not a whole lot and, more importantly, finding full-time work is even more rare. But this isn’t some sob story of how my life sucks or anything. My being unemployed was mostly my choice, having left a really cool job where I basically played videogames all day. I did it to continue pursuing my passion: film. I moved across to country and earned a Master’s Degree so I could explore cinema, and maybe do it for a living. My year working in the videogame industry was amazing, but there were more than a few times where I questioned what I was doing and where I was headed.

A year ago, the company I worked for was moving offices and had also downsized in staff. That meant more responsibility for everyone, and that was OK by me. I was itching to do more than what I originally signed up for, and they let me expand my horizons a little. I had my core responsibilities and I also got to do some video stuff on the side. This was fine for a few months, but that itch to do even more started again in the back of my head. By the summer, I was contemplating a break from my day-to-day. I had talked it over with some friends and we were all considering a trip to New York to shoot a short film. We didn’t really have a plan (or even a script), but it didn’t matter. I had been away from my passion for too long and “winging it” was all the plan I needed.

Then my work life got a little more complicated. Long story short, the option was on the table for me to try for a new position with different responsibilities, or not do it at all. I wasn’t being fired, and this wasn’t some sort of ultimatum, but that’s just how it was. I decided to not pursue this “new position” and take my chances back out in the world. I was nervous (being unemployed in an expensive city like San Francisco will make anyone nervous), but I was also excited. I didn’t want to get stuck in a job, no matter how good it sounded on paper, only to dislike it down the road and realize I’m too old to pursue my dream.

I wanted to direct again. I wanted to be slaving away over pages of scripts with my trusty red and green pens in hand, making notes and crossing things out. I wanted to be on the set, discussing lens choices with a DP, or at rehearsal arguing with actors over choices and stakes and all that pretentious-sounding film stuff. All that stuff I spent the previous three years doing, I wanted it back. That’s why I came out here. That’s why I left my old life behind and started a new one.

As 2012 begins I’m only a little more closer to getting back to all that. My first priority has to be survival – SF is an expensive place and making a living somehow is what I’ve been focusing on. I think about what I’ve done since I moved, what I’ve accomplished. I haven’t won any awards or become famous or anything, but I feel like I’ve done a lot. I’ve met new people, tried new things. 2011 felt like a transition year, a test year. A year that tested me to see if I had in my heart to really do what it is I wanted to do. Fate dangled something nice in front of me, but I struggle to look beyond that, to see what lies ahead. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien,

“All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost…”

I feel like I’ve been wandering the desert these past few months, and at times it seemed as if I lost my way. But I was just finding myself. I’m hoping 2012 is going to be a fantastic year. I’ve already got some things (hopefully) lined up that will not only take care of my need for survival (i.e. paying rent) and my passion. So here’s my raising my proverbial glass to the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

January 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm 1 comment

Androids Need Love HD

Yesterday I put up a video shot using the stop-motion feature on my Nintendo 3DS. Titled, Androids Need Love, it got a little bit of love from popular gaming blog Kotaku. I mentioned that I shot it with my Canon 7D as well, and I finally got around to processing all those RAW images.

But the results are less than spectacular.

The video is jerky as a result of the camera being shifted incorrectly between shots. My focus was on my 3DS, so I had my 7D positioned next to it at an angle. Because of the way the shutter button is positioned, and the amount of force needed to press down on it, this caused my camera to shift slightly at an angle on quite a few of the frames. Also, because the 7D was kind of at an OTS (over the shoulder) angle, and not in a wide shot like the 3DS was, panning with the camera was a little more difficult.

I’d like to try again sometime, maybe using the 7D exclusively. And maybe shooting JPEG instead of RAW because I’m not really concerned about editing the images in post and it will take considerably less time processing hundreds of JPEGs than it wold RAW images.

Anyway, you can see the video below.

The framing is kind of tight because I was on a 50mm f1.8 lens. Because the 3DS version (when viewed on a 3DS) is in 3D, I needed to do something with the 7D to help make the figures pop a little more. This particular lens has a very shallow depth-of-field; it’s not the same as 3D, but I wanted more separation between foreground and background.

If I ever shoot another one of these, I’ll make sure to choose a better angle, or at least plan out exactly how the camera is going to move. With the 3DS, it wasn’t too much of a concern because the system was parallel to the “actors.” And the lo-fi quality of the 3DS kind of lets it get away with some mistakes.

December 9, 2011 at 8:17 am Leave a comment

Androids Need Love

http://youtu.be/Yy4FnEwxj-o

Yesterday I shot a stop-motion short using some toys and figures I had lying around. This was actually something I’ve wanted to do for a while but I decided to wait until Nintendo released the update to their 3DS that allowed for 3D video recording. Although the 3DS could do 3D image capture out-of-the-box, one of the many features in the update was a ‘stop-motion’ mode, which allowed for easier stop-motion photography.

The dual-lens 3D camera on the system actually sucks, with quality being equivalent to a cell phone from six years ago, but whatever. It actually looks good in 3D, though no one will be able to see it that way unless you viewed it on a 3DS screen.

I also shot this simultaneously with my Canon 7D, so I’ll cut together an HD version at some point. There were over 200 RAW files taken with my 7D, so going through all those is going to be a pain.

Continue Reading December 8, 2011 at 10:09 am 1 comment

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