Shyamalan’s cinematic magic no longer Happening

IT’S a common mistake, but still worth noting: Contrary to what many people seem to think, The Sixth Sense was not M. Night Shyamalan’s first movie.

It was, in fact, his third. But virtually no one had seen his first film, Praying with Anger (still not available on DVD), or his second film, Wide Awake (with Rosie O’Donnell as a nun who really likes baseball).

So when The Sixth Sense came out in the summer of 1999 and wowed audiences with its deeply felt drama and its shocking twist ending — becoming such a big word-of-mouth hit that, for the next couple years, it was one of the top 10 films of all time at the North American box office — it was easy for many people to treat the film as though it marked the debut of a brilliant and brand-new talent.

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Review: Signs (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)

SIGNS IS a daring bait-and-switch, in which director M. Night Shyamalan seems to promise his audience a movie about aliens and gives us a movie about God, instead. The film, which stars Mel Gibson as an Episcopal priest who has lost his faith following the tragic death of his wife, is about the need to believe that there is someone out there watching over us, and not just some empty meaningless void, and the film cannily plays with — and rejects — the idea that aliens can fulfill this need.

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Review: Unbreakable (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)

Unbreakable has a lot in common with The Sixth Sense, the surprise spook-story hit that nudged its way into the ranks of the top ten box-office hits of all time early this year. It is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It stars Bruce Willis. And it is a solemn tale about a person who has supernatural powers and must find a way to come to terms with his gift, and use it responsibly.

Willis plays David Dunne, a security guard who survives a train wreck without getting so much as a scratch, while all the other passengers die. David is soon contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book zealot who has been keeping an eye out for just such an incident, hoping to find an invulnerable man. Elijah has extremely fragile bones — the kids back in school used to call him “Glass” because he shattered so easily — and he’s been waiting his whole life to meet someone at the opposite end of the vulnerability spectrum.

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Review: The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)

The sun still shines brightly in these last days of summer, but moviegoers are showing a pronounced taste for things that go bump in the night. As I write this, no less than three of the week’s 10 most popular films are ghost stories of one sort or another, each with its own spin on this time-worn genre.

The Haunting epitomizes the flawed big-studio Hollywood approach: throw lots of money at the screen, come up with all sorts of special effects on your computer, and hope the audience will be scared. But the effects actually undermine the suspense. The scariest movies are those which play on the audience’s own imaginations. Don’t show, and don’t tell—rather, suggest.

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