What The Hell Happened To M Night Shyamalan?

m-night-shyamalan-picture-2

He came on the scene from seemingly out of nowhere in the cinematic banner year that was 1999. The film that put him on the map became a cinematic event and received a Best Picture nomination. He was being regarded as “the next Spielberg”.

Last year he released a big-budget summer sci-fi movie. Upon release, the studio tried to hide his name in the promotional materials fearing it would be box office poison.

What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan?

Manoj Shyamalan was born in 1970 in Mahe Pondicherry India. After six weeks, his parents moved back to Pennsylvania.

After receiving a Super 8 camera at a young age, Shyamalan began focusing on film as his passion. By the time he reached the age of 17 he’d made forty-five home movies.

Following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, Shyamalan went to New York University Film School. While there, he made his first feature film Praying With Anger.

shyamalan - praying with anger

Praying With Anger got a very limited release in 1992. Not many people saw it (myself included) and indeed I’d wager that most don’t even know it exists.

Shyamalan moved on. After Praying With Anger he went on to write and direct his second film Wide Awake. It was released in 1998.

shyamalan - wide awake

Wide Awake was about a ten-year-old boy who struggles with questions of life and death after he loses his grandfather played by Robert Loggia.  Dennis Leary and Dana Delany play the boy’s parents.  Rosie O’Donnell played a nun who teaches at his school

That trailer sells the movie as a heart-warming coming of age comedy.  Shyamalan has described Wide Awake as a comedy that he hoped would also make people cry.  To that end, he wrote and directed scenes like this one:

[Note from Lebeau: I hate to insert myself into someone else’s article, but I just can’t stop rolling my eyes.)

Wide Awake was filmed in 1995, but wasn’t released until 1998.  Even then, Miramax only gave it  a limited release. Reviews were mixed to negative.  Roger Ebert openly wondered “who the movie was made for.”  I got around to watching it a few years ago and found it to be not bad. It’s an anomaly of sorts in Shyamalan’s catalog. But it also proves that the painting into a corner that happened later on didn’t need to happen.

A year later, Shyamalan would release his next film and his life would change forever.

In 1999 Shyamalan co-wrote the script for Stuart Little. That film was a modest success at the box office. However, it was another film that would reveal itself as a cinematic game changer for both Shyamalan and Hollywood.  According to Shyamalan:

“I guess I would say that I manage it in the sense that I try to make it more accurate. For example, you’re saying the audience’s relationship started with me with The Sixth Sense. That same year I wrote Stuart Little. That combination is pretty accurate. The breadth of that and my interest in that, the family-oriented nature of that story — somewhere between there is where a lot of my movies fall, but if you don’t take that side of it into account, it’s probably more limiting than what my tastes are.

By the way, I ghost-wrote a movie that same year that would even add to the breadth of it all, but I don’t know if I want to tell you which movie I ghost-wrote.”

she's all that

Most audiences didn’t realize it at the time, but in 2013, Shyamalan revealed that he was a ghost-writer on the teen comedy, She’s All That.  She’s All That helped launch a wave of teen comedies in the late 90’s and earlier aughts.  It also featured perhaps the least-convincing nerd-to-babe transformation in the history of teen movies.

she's all that before and after

Clark Kent does more to hide his identity.

The extent of Shyamalan’s involvement is actually up for debate.  Some claim Shyamalan actually wrote the script while others claim he merely polished it.  Like taking a hot girl and saying, “hey, what if we loose the glasses and overalls?” to reveal a beautiful swan.  Reviews for She’s All That were mostly not “all that”.  But it was a hit with audiences.

shyamalan - the sixth sense

Buzz for The Sixth Sense was slow at first. Then it picked up steam. The movie was released in August. By October, it had become the year’s must-see movie.

Bruce Willis starred as a child psychologist who was dealing with marital problems.  Haley Joel Osment played a sensitive little boy who comes to Willis for help because he “sees dead people”.

I saw The Sixth Sense before the hype really took off and had mixed feelings about it. On one had, the story was genuinely entertaining and Bruce Willis proved he had more range as an actor than many of his action contemporaries (Schwarzenegger, Norris). On the other hand, it was too dependent on its much discussed final plot twist.

SPOILER WARNING!!!

My father, who I went to see the film with, figured out the plot twist midway through. Recall the scene where Willis is talking to Haley Joel Osment in the kitchen. Osment’s mother is there too. But she never acknowledges Willis’s presence. That’s tip-off number one that Willis is dead people.

END SPOILER

Anyway, The Sixth Sense went on to become a phenomenon of sorts. It was far from the best movie of the year. But it was entertaining enough, even if it didn’t totally live up to the hype.

The Sixth Sense was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. No win. But it did announce that a new filmmaking talent had arrived.

Next: Unbreakable and Signs

Posted on February 8, 2014, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Director and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. Good article. I was surprised you didn’t mention his recent claim to have written the script for ‘She’s All That.’ When that happened, I kept thinking, ‘Who would actually take the blame for that pile of crap?’

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  2. Did you leave The Village out of this write up for a reason?

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  3. Dang…the moody girl from She’s all That. Wasn’t she an ‘it’ girl..? or the ‘this is your brain on drugs’ <>? what happened to her? (Who cares…?!)

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  4. They actually compared him to Rod Sterling. The “creepy story with the surprize twist” is what made the “Twilight Zone” so great. But M. Night was only able to pull it off once in “The Sixth Sence”

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  5. I think Unbreakable is his best film. Sixth Sense doesn’t quite hold up post-hype. He unfortunately made himself into the twist guy. Lady in the Water is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Ever. So is Airbender. And I’m a huge fan of the show. And he botched it. Dropped every ball on that one. After Earth was even worse. It was an atrocity. Will Smith basically directed the film himself. M Knight was in charge of setting up shots, that’s it. Smith “coached” the terrible performance from his son, and put in his own equally terrible performance. Possibly his worst performance on screen.
    I don’t think there is any hope left for M Knight. He might be able to use his name to be a director for hire for a few more films like he was for After Earth. But that really exposed him as having no great eye in camera, or control over tone or pacing when he’s not doing the writing. This is one of the more interesting director flops, because it’s all of his own doing. He got to make exactly the movies he wanted, and got exposed.

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    • Basically true. Airbender and After Earth proved he can’t put the same effort into other people’s material that he does into his own. In other words, Being a director-for-hire is never a real option for him. I suspect he’ll continue doing this until his movies start going direct to DVD. He more or less painted himself into a corner that it seems increasingly likely that he can’t get out of.

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  6. So what the hell happened?

    …his ego did not help matters at all

    Why do I have a feeling that will become a running theme in this series? (See also; Coppola, Francis Ford and Cimino, Micheal)

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    • I figure if you go into show biz without an ego, you are going to get eaten alive. You have to believe that you can make it against extremely long odds to keep at it long enough to succeed. So it’s only natural that all of these guys have egos. But then, when they do succeed, that ego is going to inflate. It’s just a matter of how they deal with it.

      In Shyamalan’s case, he didn’t handle it well. The man seemed to be completely consumed by his own ego. I will give him some credit. He clearly has some talent. But he is far from the creative genius he was hyped to be. He “borrowed” most of his famous twists from other works. And without the twists, he’s really just the guy who made Wide Awake.

      But Shyamalan so believed in his own image that he bristled at any and all criticism. He started casting himself in central roles in his own movies. Tarantino sometimes gives himself too big of a cameo. But it’s nothing compared to Shyamalan. The guy just radiates arrogance. Like I said, I expect that from a director. Especially a director as successful as Shyamalan was. But few directors manage to have such an over-inflated sense of their own self-importance as Shyamalan. And that says something given the sense of self-importance most directors have.

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  7. The Sixth Sense ending was mind blowing to me, and that´s why I still can´t get over the fact that that movie came before The Others, because Alejandro Amenabar movie is vastly superior.

    sigh

    If only I had watched The Others first…

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    • I will admit to having had my mind blown by The Sixth Sense.

      I remember seeing it pre-hype. I was running late to the show and the person who sold me my ticket was in a hurry to get me into the theater. If I had stopped at the concession stand, I think they would have had a heart attack. Apparently, they were worried I would miss Willis getting shot. Which, if I had, would have lessened the entire experience.

      What I liked about The Sixth Sense was that it played pretty fair. The clues were there. Some people figured it out. That’s not a bad thing. That means the movie wasn’t cheating. I, like most people, was too involved in the story of this sad little boy to put two and two together. But afterwards, it all made sense. Mind blown.

      When it was in theaters, I used to have access to pop in and watch audiences reacting to movies. So if I was in a theater and Sixth Sense was showing, I always hopped in to watch the reaction to the big reveal. You could hear people gasping. Then there would always be at least one guy who didn’t know what was going on and had to turn to their significant other to have it explained to them. Weeks after the movie was released, it was still getting the same reaction. That’s why it became a cultural phenomenon.

      I do agree that The Others was a better movie that suffered because it followed in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense. On the other hand, if The Others had come out first, The Sixth Sense probably never would have been successful. Because they were released in this order, both movies enjoyed some success.

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  8. I stumbled into the After Earth after party in Philly. It was at a bar I go to in a private room. Shyamalan films most of his films in the area. I remember asking a friend of mine- “Hey is THAT M.Night…??”

    I liked Unbreakable- too bad most of the audience was expecting the 7th Sense. Note that water was a weakness in that movie as well- M Night likes his water metaphors as much as Shakespeare in Anthony and Cleopatra.

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  9. For what it’s worth, I do consider The Sixth Sense a brilliant film. I actually just watched it again recently for the first time in several years, and I was impressed how the film still holds up after all these years. Lebeau is right in that the film doesn’t cheat to get to the surprise twist, the clues were planted there all along, though subtly. Unbreakable was a strong though flawed follow-up. After that, it was all downhill. Signs was a huge success, yet I walked out disappointed. Water? Really? And why are these aliens who are trying to kill us getting out of their spaceships and going house-to-house? Silly stuff. I consider myself lucky, because that’s where I stopped watching his films. From all that I’ve read about The Village, The Happening, After Earth, etc., I got out while the getting was good. Though I will admit, just for one minute, after The Sixth Sense, I did think just maybe he could be the next Spielberg. Turns out, not so much.

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  10. 10 Directors Who Should Never Be Trusted With Giant Budgets:

    http://whatculture.com/film/10-directors-never-trusted-giant-budgets.php/9

    M. Night Shyamalan

    It’s hard to think of a high-profile filmmaker that has suffered a fall from grace quite like M. Night Shyamalan in recent times. A mere fifteen years after The Sixth Sense was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and saw the writer/director lauded as the most promising talent of his generation, his last four movies were widely panned and have been racking up nominations at the Razzies instead: a return to smaller-scale film-making is well overdue.

    Made for $40m, The Sixth Sense would go on to earn $672.8m at the box office and infiltrate popular culture in the process. His next two movies, Unbreakable and Signs, would each cost around $75m and bring in a combined total of over $650m, along with positive critical responses. From here, things would go downhill as Shyamalan’s penchant for over-indulgence would often get the better of him. The Village did solid business despite middling reviews, but the pretentious Lady In The Water would earn only $72.7m worldwide before the unintentionally hilarious killer plants of The Happening would see his stock plummet even further.

    The $150m Last Airbender is undoubtedly one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory, which nonetheless did decent business at the box office before Shyamalan swept up at the Razzies. After Earth was almost as expensive and just as dull, a relentlessly po-faced sci-fi that placed charisma-free Jaden Smith at the forefront in a show of Hollywood nepotism at its worst. Shyamalan is a talented director, but as a writer he just can’t reign in his self-indulgence. Hopefully his currently shooting micro-budget effort Sundowning will refresh his creativity because the man has proven he is not to be trusted with a blockbuster budget.

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    • 10 Terrible Films That The Wrong Person Got Blamed For:

      http://whatculture.com/film/10-terrible-films-wrong-person-got-blamed.php/10

      M. Night Shyamalan – After Earth

      Who Else Was To Blame: Will Smith

      Figuring out who took the brunt of the blame for After Earth is a tricky task. The film, a hodgepodge of poorly thought out ideas presented in an illogical manner, all brought to life by rote acting, had two key players who were equally as culpable for bringing it to the screen. But as we’ve discovered, people want one person at fault, so was it M. Night Shyamalan’s direction or Will Smith’s general managing of the project that sunk the film?

      Ultimately, it was M. Night who got it worse of it. In decline to the point where his career is more of a joke than Nicolas frickin’ Cage, Columbia Pictures were smart enough to keep him completely absent from the marketing; after The Last Airbender his name was marked by even the most forgiving cinema-goer. When you’ve got that sort of form, it’s not hard to imagine that he’d produce another dud.

      But if you trace the big problems with the film back through the production, it’s Smith, not Shyamalan who is at fault. Turning a nice, low-budget idea into overblown sci-fi? Smith. All that pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo? Smith (and writer Gary Whitta). Casting his untalented son as the lead? Smith. Heck, even hiring Shyamalan was Smith’s idea.

      Thankfully, even though the extent of his involvement isn’t as widespread knowledge as it should, the whole After Earth ordeal has a dint on both Smith’s popularity and ego, so he didn’t get away scott free.

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  11. I liked Sixth Sense and was genuinely moved by it, but then it resonated strongly with what was going on in my own life at the time.

    And, I have to admit this in public so everybody can rag on me, I liked Signs. I liked that little family hunkered down against the terrifying unknown.

    Initial filming on Signs was interrupted by 9/11. The plane that went down in Shanksville, PA, was about 50 miles from where the cast and crew were assembled. Anyone who was alive and aware on that day will recognize the traces of it in Signs (the horrifically unthinkable rebroadcast 24/7 by the TV news networks; the sick feeling that life as we once knew it might be over forever).

    I also liked Unbreakable, but not as much as either of these.

    Other this trio it’s all unmitigated sludge. Maybe Shayamalan had only three good ideas and he’s used them up. How sad for us, but how much sadder for him.

    PS: Thanks for the Good Vibrations ear worm. Can’t get it out of my head.

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    • I enjoyed Signs quite a bit the first time through. But I have a hard time sitting through it now knowing how it is going to end. Plus, I have soured on Shyamalan and his style. So even the aspects of the movie that charmed me the first time aren’t as enticing now.

      If it makes you feel any better, you have put the Good Vibrations ear worm back in my ear. Thanks!

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  12. The aliens who hate water invading a water planet doesn’t bother me and I’m not sure why it bothers other people. What choice do they have? They’re probably scavengers who were running out of resources and attacked the first planet they came across that had food they could eat.

    And I don’t think Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or Signs relied on their twist endings at all. You could remove the twists from those movies and you’d be none the wiser. That was not true of The Village at all though. And only Sixth Sense and The Village had that Twilight Zone twist ending anyway.

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    • Regarding the aliens in Signs, we have no idea what their motivations are. I don’t recall anything in the movie that would support or negate your food theory. The aliens are just there. Clearly, they are not friendly. Beyond that, we don’t know much. They are sophisticated enough to travel through space. But apparently don’t wear clothes, can be easily trapped in a pantry and chose to invade a planet that is mostly covered with a substance that is lethal to them. Knowing that, they have not taken any precautions to protect themselves from liquid. Seems kind of dumb to me.

      I could not disagree with you more about The Sixth Sense. You take away the twist and the movie is empty. It is all about the twist. Unbreakable, less so. The twist almost feels forced on because Shyamalan felt the need for a twist ending. Signs isn’t exactly a twist ending. And I totally get that Shyamalan is ripping off/paying homage to War of the Worlds. But the ending doesn’t work for me at all.

      Totally agree about The Village though.

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      • While I liked “Signs,” it was “plagued” by REALLY DUMB aliens (or lazy writing). “Hey, let’s invade a planet that’s AT LEAST 2/3 a substance that’s fatal if it touches us! What’s the worst that could happen?!?”

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  13. Craig Hansen

    You would think the aliens in Signs would have better results from just scorching the Earth, or dropping their equivalent of a nuclear bomb on us to eliminate us, rather than getting out of their spaceships and going house-to-house to kill us. Travelling a hundred zillion miles and then going door-to-door to stab-murder-kill seemed kinda dumb for such intellectually superior aliens. I couldn’t help but think that when I saw the movie at the movie theatre back then.

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    • jeffthewildman

      Good point. Then again, the aliens in many movies are often stupid. For instance, the ones in Independence Day have no idea what a computer virus is or how to stop one.

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    • Yeah. I was able to suspend a lot of disbelief on the first viewing. But they traveled further than mankind can even see. You would think they would at least have weapons. Or clothes.

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      • Clothes! Ha ha. You’re right. For some reason that immediately made me think of the aliens in Close Encounters. No clothes. Then again, there’s also E.T. He’s walking around naked too the whole time, no clothes. Those aliens in Independence Day. Also naked, no clothes. Those aliens in The Arrival, yep, naked as the day they were born. I’m sure there’s plenty more examples. What is it with highly evolved aliens traversing the galaxy buck naked???

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        • I guess if I were going to annihilate a species ala the aliens in Independence Day, I’d be freeballin’. But getting locked in a kitchen pantry in the buff is just embarrassing. It’s something your drunk uncle does, not an alien menace.

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  14. Where Jason Reitman Went Wrong:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/the-fall-of-jason-reitman/381044/

    Once a critical darling, the Men, Women & Children director appears to be on the disastrous M. Night Shyamalan trajectory. The problem? Hubris.

    Five years ago, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was released to rave reviews, a slew of Oscar nominations, and box-office success. Critics praised it as a timely, heartfelt work that tapped into anxiety about the ongoing recession and the wave of unemployment beleaguering the nation. Now, though, he’s released his sixth film, Men, Women & Children, and it looks to be his worst-received yet, which is saying something after the critical drubbing his last effort, romantic melodrama Labor Day, got in 2013.

    Pretty much every filmmaker has to contend with bad reviews at some point, but the distressing implication in this case is that Reitman has lost whatever human touch he used to possess. Men, Women & Children is “obvious and mundane, ‘Chopsticks’ pounded on the piano,” writes Amy Nicholson in The Village Voice. “And it doesn’t feel like the work of Jason Reitman, who made a sterling debut with a string of smart comedies.” The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr calls it “a near-total misfire, by turns sour, preachy, facile, and pretentious.” Where Thank You for Smoking and especially Juno and Up in the Air broadly connected with audiences and critics, Men, Women & Children is being lambasted as a tone-deaf piece of cultural commentary, hysterically decrying addictions to screens and social networking as an existential crisis for middle-class America.

    Would Reitman be under fire if Men, Women & Children wasn’t so needlessly hectoring? Or is there an unavoidable target on his back that comes with being an acclaimed young filmmaker? Reitman was Oscar-nominated for directing two of his first three films (Juno and Up in the Air), a nearly unheard-of achievement, and largely skated by any charge of being “overrated” (Juno took some flak for its smart-aleck dialogue, but that fell at the feet of screenwriter Diablo Cody). His fourth film, Young Adult, also written by Cody, was an acidic story that was well-reviewed and found a niche audience. On its own, Labor Day (a disastrously campy escaped-convict-meets-repressed-housewife yarn) could simply be dismissed as a blip. But with Men, Women & Children, Reitman’s career seems to be developing a worrying trend. He’s taking his material far too seriously and has lost sight of the humor and humanity of his earlier works.

    The most obvious comparison for “wunderkind gone sour” in recent memory is M. Night Shyamalan, who was Oscar-nominated at 29 for making The Sixth Sense (the second highest-grossing movie of 1999) but hasn’t directed a remotely well-received film since 2002’s Signs. In retrospect, that film hinted at the hubris that would befoul his later efforts. He inexplicably cast himself in a crucial role and his famed skill for endings suddenly vanished (alien invaders of a watery planet have a critical weakness against water). Two films later, The Lady in the Water saw Shyamalan casting himself as a writer destined to create great works of literature; that and every subsequent effort have been laughed out of theaters by critics.

    Shyamalan now appears to be attempting a “return to his roots” with a low-budget horror movie. The problem for Reitman is that he can’t attempt the same. His model has been remarkably consistent—when he’s not directing Cody’s screenplays, he’s adapting a contemporary novel and injecting some visual verve and a carefully curated soundtrack. The problem can’t entirely be chalked up to the source material, since Up in the Air could have taken an equally dour tack (it’s about a lonely man whose job is firing people) but managed to find warmth for its characters even as George Clooney told angry, sobbing employees they were losing their jobs. Men, Women & Children lacks that humanity—most of its big ensemble come off as storytelling cyphers to essay some blindingly obvious point, like “middle-aged married couples can get sexually restless” or “young people sometimes use video games to escape real life.”

    The other thing that separates Reitman from Shyamalan is his self-awareness. He was candid in a recent interview with ScreenCrush’s Mike Ryan about the failure of Labor Day, saying he was well-aware of his golden streak with critics being broken. “It’s shitty as hell. It’s totally shitty,” he said. “I mean, I was proud of my Tomato Rating and, yeah, it sucked … I’ve done more work on that movie than I’ve ever done on a movie. I’m proud of it. And then it doesn’t land and then you realize, oh, this was a misguided effort, for whatever reason.”

    Reitman could figure things out and rise again; Hollywood is littered with just as many surprise comebacks as it is with stories of faded superstars. But his is still a fascinating cautionary tale. Even when sticking close to his personal brand (he says in that interview that Men, Women & Children is “more in my natural voice”) he seems to have lost the finesse that distinguished his earlier films. Consider Bennett Miller, another classic wunderkind (although one who got started at a later age—his debut fiction film Capote came out when he was 39). He has so far followed a very specific formula, making somewhat chilly biopics that semi-fictionally expound upon the internal lives of real-life figures—Truman Capote and, in Moneyball, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. This year he has Foxcatcher, which is about the crazy-but-true John du Pont saga, and it’s getting raves consistent with his previous work.

    Would things change drastically if Miller left his comfort zone, as Reitman did with Labor Day? Maybe. But in Men, Women & Children, I would argue Reitman committed the more fundamental hubristic error of thinking himself a great social commentator. Only Up in the Air really felt like it had something sweeping to say about the state of our nation, and it did it by telling a personal story. By contrast, Men, Women & Children explicitly criticizes people for having their heads in their phones, but forgets to ground the story in anything relatable. Reitman is largely sticking to his formula, but would be well-served to narrow his focus next time on to characters anyone can actually care about.

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  15. And the Worst Director in Hollywood Is…:

    http://411mania.com/movies/and-the-worst-director-in-hollywood-is/

    What it comes to M. Night Shyamalan, the biggest question is, “What happened?” A career that started out with Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable has delved into a last gasp to get funding. Perhaps his “Endings With a Twist” hurt him. Maybe he was a one-trick pony and he peaked early. No matter, he’s has a string of failures and things don’t look like they’re going to get any better for him.

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  16. I can’t sleep so I find myself catching up on some of LeBeau’s articles I didn’t have time to read…

    M. Night Shyamalan seems to be a guy who forgot the basics. Somehow his ability to present a rational concept that could be believable was transformed over time, into irrationality. My ability to “suspend my disbelief” which was freely given in the early movies, was gradually transformed into “impossible to believe” to the point where I felt personally disrespected. My expectations were high because I thought this guy had a special talent for telling great stories, but for whatever reason those expectations were gradually beat down until this Airbender movie, that was so bad, so poorly presented as to destroy any respect I had for his story telling abilities. Trust, once destroyed, is hard to rebuild.

    Brad Deal

    Like

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