Category: Studies

In the waning summer of 1999, The Sixth Sense was released in the United States and soon took the world by storm. There were just too many perfect combinations: the new catchphrase, the decade’s third-best twist (The Silence of the Lambs and The Usual Suspects as 1 and 2, respectively), and the pale little boy with just the right amount of cute and dread factors – all coming together to create the best horror film in years, and also a pop culture phenomenon.

Nearly $300 million domestic gross and six Academy Award nominations followed.  Even now, a decade later, we’re still talking about The Sixth Sense

The film was the writing and directorial brainchild of a man named Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan, better known as M. Night Shyamalan.  A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1992, Shyamalan achieved worldwide recognition in 1999 with Sense.

After Sense, Shyamalan was in talks with everyone, reputedly being tagged to direct the first adaptation of the “Harry Potter” series to co-directing the next Indiana Jones sequel with Steven Spielberg.  He made Unbreakable in 2001, a solid script that resulted in solid critics’ reviews, and followed it with the extraterrestrial Signs in the summer of 2002 starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, one of the highest-grossing movies of the year.

And then in 2004 he made The Village.

What’s bizarre, really, is that The Village is a movie that was supposed to be good.  It features a multitalented ensemble cast, brilliantly-made period costume and set design, and a whopper of an ending.

But it tanked.  Just like nowadays when people still comment on how great The Sixth Sense was, the same people groan when they hear The Village mentioned.  I personally never really understood where the hate came from.  Seeing it in theaters I was surprised by the number of boos, the negative catcalling.  Hell, it wasn’t the greatest movie, but I’d seen (and, believe me, have seen) many, many worse.

In 2006, Shyamalan made Lady in the Water, based on a bedtime story he used to tell his children about what happened in their pool at nights.  Slated to be the filmmaker’s magnum opus, Lady in the Water, in rough summary, involves a pool handyman that finds out that a sea nymph is responsible for the recent drain clogging.  The nymph wants to go back to her world, and isn’t alone.  She’s followed through the pool by horrible wolves made of moss called scrunts, evil simian “tarturics” and a giant eagle called an Eatlon. 

Paul Giamatti, easily one of the best actors to shine out in the new milennium, and Bryce Dallas Howard as the Lady in question (scrunts not pictured).

The movie sucked.

 I came out of the theater laughing, not able to believe the same director made a movie seven years ago that made me afraid of my own shadow.  Critics agreed, and word of mouth made the movie lose millions at the box office.

In 2008 Shyamalan’s latest film, The Happening, came out in theaters, the only one of Shyamalan’s movies I didn’t rush out to see.  That’s how much Lady in the Water affected me. 

Starring actor/rapper/comedian/professional bodybuilder Mark Wahlberg, The Happening detailed Wahlberg’s struggles to survive with his estranged wife in a world where foliage has decided to get back at humanity by releasing toxins that make them suicidal.   Shyamalan’s script made for some truly suicidal dialogue of its own, with the most horrendously wooden acting since Hayden Christensen in, well, mostly everything.

Shyamalan later admitted that he was pleased with the film, as he wanted to “make an excellent B movie”. 

Well, congrats.

I believe in directorial redemption, but the disappointment of Lady in the Water still reverberates within me to this day.  Thankfully I wasn’t really expecting anything from The Happening, Shyamalan’s first R-rated feature, but it still managed to be irritate me.  In the back of my mind I kept thinking – whatever happened to the man that wrote and directed The Sixth Sense?  Previous anonymous suggestions that Shyamalan plagiarized a large amount of his earlier work make me wonder now.

A critic after watching Lady in the Water wrote “if Shyamalan is going to use his kids as a focus group for future projects, maybe he should start making movies for Nickelodeon already and stop wasting our time.”

Ironically, Shyamalan’s next movie, coming out in 2010, brings the popular Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender to the big screen.  It’s called The Last Airbender.

Who’s excited?

Images courtesy of and, respectively.

Last weekend (retroactively, I guess sometime mid-November), I was arguing with a friend from my high school who was in town for the night. I had just come out of a University Mall Theatres screening of Inglourious Basterds, and was particularly surprised and enthralled by the film.

The strength of Basterds was its writing, as it is in every film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. He possesses a narrative style all his own, and writes dialogue so realistic that it makes even the most outlandish and fantastical themes seem plausible.

The friend from my high school, Steve, has been my friend since the first day of school in eighth grade. And in those nearly eight years, half of every conversation Steve and I have ever shared has involved the topic of film.

We bloviate on the best movies of our generation, dismiss certain actors and actresses and praise others, and generally consider ourselves the most luminous film aficionados of our generation.

And when two people such as these discuss something they love, sometimes they high-five in concordance, but mostly, they butt heads in discord, the latter of which applied to this particular argument, which occurred while Steve was about seven beers deep.

While I rampantly praised Basterds’s depth in plot, character and especially writing, Steve mentioned that his only qualm with Tarantino had always been how some of his dialogue can become too consuming, sucking time and energy out of the story.

I retorted that the dialogue in Basterds, not even for the fact that it shifted impeccably back and forth between four different languages, was some of the strongest, most interesting I’ve ever heard.

This scene is indicative of my point

“If you want to go sit and watch people talking for an hour, go see a play,” Steve said. He mentioned that film is a visual medium, where viewers watch things that they don’t normally see in everyday life: sights and sounds that take them far, far away from their seats.

I mentioned that all those things are still in Basterds, made better by the excellent writing, but he had another beer and I gave up the argument.

But what Steve was saying really made me wonder, made me think about the last decade of film. What makes a successful movie these days? Off the top of my head, I can think of a few of the most financially-successful movies of 2009.

I think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I think Transformers 2, Saw VI – ugh, I’ll stop. Was Steve right? These three movies were monstrously successful but, with the exception of Harry Potter, they were absolute garbage, rehashings of previous movies that weren’t interesting or provocative enough to require a sequel.

But they were visual – oh so visual. Who needs dialogue when you’ve got viscid dismemberment going on or robots turning into General Motors vehicles every second, with the occasional explosion to make you look up from your texting and remember the magic of moviemaking.

If filmmaking was judged solely on box-office performance, then Michael Bay would be winning the Best Director Oscar every year. Thankfully, though, this is not the case.

A good film is not a good film without good writing; let’s just get that out there.

A well-written screenplay makes a plot whole and engrossing, filled with characters that are real, developed, attractive or repulsive.

Effective dialogue between well-developed and interesting characters can make a scene so involving, so riveting, that there’s no need for the random explosion or gunfight to grab your attention and remind you to keep watching.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on the individual filmgoer. Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been desensitized as a collective audience over the last two decades, thanks to the increased inclusion of computer-generated imagery that saves time and money on special effects, but hurts writing (and thus plot and character) integrity as a result.

Not that CGI means awful movies. A film that combines effective use of CGI with a well-written story can result in an absolute winner. Look at The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or The Dark Knight. To a much lesser extent, Avatar.

Film is a visual medium; I’m not disputing that. But silent films were silent only until sound came. Since then, how many silent movies have you seen? How many have been made?

For true visual displays with little to no writing evident, go see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra or go to the closest RedBox and get down on some Van Helsing. The latter is a serious guilty pleasure of mine.

Otherwise, maybe some of you (including Steve) could skip the next guaranteed blockbuster, and settle in for some lesser-advertised, smaller-budgeted film fare. Maybe some dialogue-filled, story-driven little film that, if you just give it a chance, may remind you that filmmaking once was, and in some ways still is, a true art.

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