Weekend Reading #1

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Done with work for the week? Why not sit down, relax and have a poke at some of the cool things I found this week at the deep end of the interwebs. Enjoy your reading and/or watching!

Ranking the 20 greatest long takes – the title is pretty self-explanatory. Have a look and expand your appreciation towards those long and/or tracking shots. If you’re interested, have a look at how Paul Thomas Anderson’s long tracking Steadicam shots are disseminated. By the way, here are my two entries for the long take ranking: 1) the 15-minute conversation between Michael Fassbender’s character and a priest in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”, 2) 2.5-minute single-take (well, with a bit of cheating, but it looks seamless) orbiting shot of a car chase from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”. Continue reading

The M.Night Shyamalan Hate Club…

Unless you’ve been home-schooled, you are probably aware what bullying is. We all went through it at some stage of our lives, be it in schools, kindergartens, sandpits, colleges, universities (grad schools, I’m looking at you), or at work and we all fully comprehend how hurtful it is to be somebody’s target. And if you don’t understand it because you used to be (or even worse – still are) a bully yourself, then you sir are a douchenozzle and should be ashamed of yourself.

As I understand it, most of us have some sort of experiences in that regard. After all, we can usually identify a huge discrepancies in a given population between the bullies and the bullied – there’s always this one c**t in a given population that holds ransom an entire group of people, so, if my calculations are correct, chances are that most of us hate being ridiculed or otherwise abused. Then how is it possible that all of a sudden it gets so easy to hop on the hate train and participate in a heinous act of public humiliation? Is it the herd mentality or the illusion of anonymity that makes us all complicit in collective bashing of someone, just because it is trendy to do so?

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I already glanced over the subject of the social status (or lack thereof) of M. Night Shyamalan’s – once great and promising young talent, now a pariah forever condemned by the same people who once loved him. Back in 1999 he made an astounding splash with his big budget début “The sixth sense” and there’s not a soul in the Internet who hasn’t seen it and/or doesn’t hold a strong opinion on this particular film. This revolting supernatural horror sporting a duo of Bruce Willis and a young Haley Joel Osment (who by the way hasn’t made much out of this initial splash) and the now iconic phrase ‘I see dead people’ managed to win over millions of people and garnered fantastic reviews. The producers made tonnes of money out of the deal and Shyamalan was on course to become a full-time dollar-printing machine.

And this is where everything went sideways… Even though his two follow-up features (“Unbreakable” and “Signs”, both of which I personally loved) were still critically acclaimed and in spite of fantastic box office returns, the venomous world of critics started voicing louder and louder that the supposedly great M. Night Shyamalan was a crook – a one-trick pony…  And it all went downhill from there. Now, riddle me this: where does the line between an auteur and a one-trick pony lie exactly? Well, let me help you:

Auteur – A film-maker  usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

One-trick pony – A person or a group noteworthy for only a single achievement, skill or characteristic.

The way I see it, at the end of the day it is down to a personal preference whether to label someone an auteur or a one-trick pony and it is most likely based on either an emotional relationship with one’s work or other external factors. So, is M. Night Shyamalan a one-trick pony?

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Let’s examine, shall we? Most if not all of his films deal with supernatural themes – check. All of them have a characteristic pace, minimalistic dialogue, moments of deafening silence and related elements of style – check. All of them sport a good deal of jump scares – check. All of them have twist endings – check. Wait, hang on… “The Sixth sense” – definitely a twist there… “Unbreakable” – sure, I’ll give you that; an ‘it was me all along’ twist… “Signs” – nah, not quite a twist… “The Village” – sure, a twist… “Lady in the water” – no twist… “The Happening” – if you think that’s a twist, then you’re your problem, not mine… “The Last Airbender” – haven’t seen it, sorry… “After Earth” – no sign of a twist anywhere…

To me it looks like the ‘dreaded trademark Shyamalan twist’ only makes an appearance in three of his films. But the critics will actually go out of their ways to point out he’s known for the abundant twist endings to his movies every time they get a chance – which is false. Unless, of course, the twist in “The sixth sense” has done you in so much that you can’t get over yourself anymore. And what’s wrong with twist endings anyway? One in four films that make it to the screen sports some sort of a twist (don’t have the numbers, don’t quote me on that) and we somehow unilaterally decided that it’s the Shyamalan’s twists that we are supposed to hate. Is it because none of the remaining two twist endings were anywhere near the level of the first one? Still good twists though… Maybe we should ostracise Steve Soderbergh for his twist endings as well, or David Fincher, or Ang Lee, or even better – Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Is it a sin to take after the great master in more than one regard? Is it not tactful any longer? Especially that in his early films Shyamalan made it glaringly obvious where his inspirations were with Hitchcockian plot devices and even with making brief cameos in his films.

Practice your hate all you want, but we cannot deny him the fact nearly all of his films are suspenseful and scary, but somehow we’ve fallen prey to the merciless snake-pit of a world of film critics, who decided M. Night Shyamalan was not going to be part of the club any longer and whatever he does, the reviews he’d rake in can only get progressively worse. Interestingly, despite critical backlash, the audience has not quite agreed with what the professionals had to say…

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But guess what? The reviews aren’t the be-all-end-all in here – it’s the moviegoers who make the final call and even with callous reviews his last films have garnered – all of them made a profit. Even “The Last Airbender” that ‘won’ 5 Razzies turned out to make money after all. Could it be, because it was a kids’ movie? We can laugh all we want, but with the money this guy has made over the last 14 years, he could technically afford to make 10 more films budgeted at $150M, have no-one see them and still be in credit.

Therefore, I think it’s high time somebody put a stop to this madness. You’ve had your go (hell, even I said some hateful things about the guy in the past), but now it’s time to let him go about his day. You took his lunch money and gave him a wedgie – let him be and ask yourself a question, if per chance you claim to have hated Shyamalan’s movies because others told you to. If so, then make up your own mind instead. There’s no shame in saying you like Shyamalan’s films – I know I do. Even “The Happening”, which wasn’t exactly great, and “After Earth” that apart from being a substandard Sci-Fi, was in actuality quite nice when Shyamalan’s style could surface.

As it stands, the hate club has grown strong enough that Shyamalan’s name is absent from all the posters and trailers for his newest film and it should be a clear sign that the things have gone too far. He’s not a leper, y’know? He just chose to have a style and stuck with it, which doesn’t make him a one-trick pony – it makes him more of an auteur, I believe. If you hate abstract art, you wouldn’t take a day off work only to go and visit a gallery of modern art, now would you? Unless you’re a bit perverted and enjoy pain, but that’s not my problem…

Directors are people too and this one has had enough, don’t you agree? Maybe next time we should let him have his name on a poster for a change…

“After Earth” – M. Night Shyamalan’s last ditch effort

Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.

Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.

There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.

Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.

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Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.

It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.

Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.

I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.

The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.

 

Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.

Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.

And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.

I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…

In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…

“Side effects” – One part suspense, one part Jude Law and a pinch of Hitch…

It’s with a deep sense of regret I’m writing these words, because – unless he changes his mind – Steven Soderbergh is not going to direct any more movies, and if “Side effects” were supposed to be his last words, then so be it. At least he went down with his pride left intact… mostly.

It’s rare these days to enjoy a good detective story – thrilling and suspenseful. It seems that the Hitchcockian way has been completely abandoned in favor of cheap plots, dubious character development, violence, jump scares and pointless twists. That’s right. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan came along, a good story has no longer been needed to achieve a good commercial result. One needed only a revolting twist at the end. Therefore, many thrillers would become reliant on them to the point of forgetting about the structure of the plot, because it was all going to be OK when the twist is revealed. Not cool at all, I might say.

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Therefore, I welcomed “Side effects” with arms wide open. In short, the newest and last big screen picture signed by Steve Soderbergh pays due homage to Hitchcockian traditions. We are introduced to a trio of characters: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who – post Lisbeth Salander – looks shockingly attractive), who struggles with depression while waiting for her incarcerated husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to come back home and help get their lives back together, and Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) – Emily’s psychiatrist. We meet Emily when she’s about to get her hubbie back from prison and just as they’re attempting to resume their married life and get back on track, Emily’s long suppressed depression finally manifests itself in a form of suicidal tendencies. Following a failed attempt at her own life she ends up in a hospital where she meets Dr Banks, who offers her counselling to treat her now rather obvious and severe depression. It quickly becomes apparent that Emily’s case is like none other as she doesn’t respond well to any medication or treatment, so – in the throes of desperation and following Emily’s suggestion – Banks prescribes her a totally new anti-depressive that’s just been released on the market. And it quickly turns out that this new drug – Ablixa – has very severe side effects.

This is the point from which the story takes flight into a downward spiral wherein Dr Banks needs to risk everything (his wife, his stepson, his practice, his reputation and his life) in order to solve the mystery of Ablixa, understand and cure Emily and save himself from becoming a victim to whomever is pulling the strings.

Now, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Side effects”. That was exactly what I needed and I think it was a good way for Soderbergh to part ways with the big screen cinema. The story was well-crafted and carefully paced, so that the detective aspect of the plot was actually very engaging. I think that the very Hitchcockian archetype of ‘the wrong man’ was perfectly exploited here and Jude Law did his job very well.

 

However, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that Jude Law’s character and the whole story as a result (he is after all the pivotal pawn in this mysterious game of chess) would have been far more engaging if it hadn’t been for Vinessa Shaw – the actress portraying Banks’ wife – Deirdre. I mean, you can’t really find a more lifeless piece of wood of an actress than that, which makes the whole movie suffer across the board whenever she is around. I think, what we were supposed to see was how the doctor’s life slowly falls apart as he becomes more and more involved with the mystery of Ablixa, but instead we witnessed a wife so appallingly annoying and whiny that I literally cheered for her leaving the screen once and for all. I secretly hoped for her being hit by a bus or something, because she was simply a spanner thrown in the gears of a perfectly running suspenseful story.

Now that I finally got that off my chest, I can only congratulate both Jude Law and Rooney Mara on their very convincing work. I am not entirely sure what to say about the very cold and calculated performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the distant and enigmatic Dr Siebert, and that’s because something tells me that she was just playing herself there. But why should I bother? It fitted the story perfectly, so all is fine with the world again.

“Side effects” ended up a very good thriller with a detective slant and a well-fitting ending that did not overshadow the rest of the plot with its twisty-ness held at acceptable levels. I think Soderbergh did a very fine job here (again with a helping hand from Scott Z. Burns – author of “Contagion”, who wrote the script) by presenting us with a film that touches on a very important subject in these recent times – namely our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The movie exemplifies our inner fears and phobias that we sometimes associate with modern medicine. I think everybody knows at least one person who would identify themselves with the sentiments that “Side effects” brings up. It’s almost every day I hear about how big pharmaceutical companies are plotting conspiracies to get us all killed or worse – zombiefied by their secretively addictive medicines, and how the only thing that counts for them is monetary profit, or how they have no respect for us – their customers.

I think Soderbergh’s “Side effects” touch on these problems in a very subtle way by using our own fears to fuel the story, thus making it even more compelling. And to my vivacious satisfaction, the film ends up straying away from making any political pseudo-scientific nonsense statements on the matter, which saved Soderbergh from looking like a semi-educated judgmental fundamentalist conspiracy theorist, which I hope he’s not.

In the end, I have to say that I hope Soderbergh changes his mind. Fair enough, “Side effects” is a very good way to leave the scene on a good note, but still I secretly hope he would come back and give me another ride like this one. All things considered, I think “Side effects” was a very good movie and I’m sure as hell that if The Great Alfred was still alive, he’d gladly direct it himself – and with a similar net result. Maybe he’d give Jude Law’s character to a woman, but other than that, “Side effects” by Hitchcock would look more or less the same.