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Entries in M. Night Shyamalan (2)

Friday
Sep172010

Devil

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8 NIV.

Those words from the Bible, or at least a variation of, open the latest thriller Devil. Within the context of the film, they serve one single purpose: to set up a supernatural story where evil people come face to face with Satan himself in an elevator. From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, but thankfully neither written nor directed by him, Devil is a solid, if a bit underwhelming, horror movie.

The story is simple. Five people get on an elevator. There’s a fragile old woman (Jenny O’Hara), an attractive young girl (Bojana Novakovic), a claustrophobic security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a loud mouthed salesman (Geoffrey Arend) and a soft spoken, rugged man (Logan Marshall-Green). One of them is the devil. After the elevator breaks down, strange things begin to happen and Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who doesn’t believe in God and the devil, is the closest person on the job that can help.

Perhaps to counteract Detective Bowden’s atheism (but mostly to provide some background for the flimsy narrative), there’s a religious security guard (Jacob Vargas) who knows exactly what is going on. His mother used to tell him stories about how Satan works and he knows from the get go that he is on that elevator, manifested in one of those people. He tries to convince Bowden, despite his skepticism, telling him, “Everybody believes in him a little bit, even if they pretend not to.” It’s a classic tale of a non-religious person learning that there is indeed deeper meaning to life and someone is out there looking over us.

It’s a noble story that’s been done to death, but it doesn’t necessarily work here because Bowden is an outside spectator and the chills of the movie rest inside that elevator. Devil tries to have it both ways by crafting a morality tale of forgiveness and understanding outside while also hoping to provide a claustrophobic nightmare within the broken down lift, but neither fully work.

When the movie reaches its most tense moments inside the elevator, it repeatedly ruins them by cutting away to the events outside. It lacks that feeling of the walls closing in on you that movies like The Descent or the upcoming Buried possess. While some characters address the camera directly, effectively placing you in the shoes of someone in that elevator, the movie leaves its confines too much, which strips away much of its dread.

However, it does a decent job of keeping you guessing until the end, though that’s only because there aren't any real clues to tip you off. Who the devil is in the movie doesn’t seem to be so important. Any of them could be and it wouldn’t make much difference. Each of the characters in the elevator are interchangeable, almost to a fault, and some of the ways the film throws you off the right trail is almost cheating, but I commend Devil for restraining itself when it came to the violence and for not succumbing to the temptations of a typical Hollywood ending. While it’s not perfect, and despite having Shyamalan’s name attached to it, there’s something unsettling in Devil that I just can’t shake. If anything, that’s a good thing.

Devil receives 3/5

Saturday
Jul032010

The Last Airbender

There was a point in time when you mentioned the name M. Night Shyamalan and people would stand up and cheer. After writing and directing the terrific 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense and following it up with the solid Unbreakable, it seemed like the man could do no wrong. His guts to go where nobody else would and his intelligent twists promised great things to come. Unfortunately, he has been on a downward spiral ever since, attempting to recreate those successes and failing, sometimes catastrophically. Even after factoring in The Village, a travesty on any level, it seems like the once famed director has hit a new low with The Last Airbender, a movie that gets everything wrong.

The film is set in a fantasy world where certain people called “benders” can manipulate the four natural elements: fire, air, water and earth. Most live in tranquility, but one group from the fire nation wants to dominate them all. The only way to do this is to stop the last Airbender, a kid named Aang (Noah Ringer), who has been trapped in a block of ice for the last century. After being found by Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), he sets off to save the other nations, but to stop the fire manipulators, led by the shamed Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) hoping to get his honor back, he must first master the other elements.

Changing its name from its source material for obvious reasons, the film adaptation of the hit animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender is an embarrassing mess. It’s a movie that impresses in no area and, furthermore, sets itself up for a sequel, which, if there is indeed a higher presence watching down on us, will never come. To pinpoint exactly where The Last Airbender goes wrong would be like choosing the best spot to begin shoveling manure. Regardless of where you pick, you’re dealing with crap from start to finish.

This catastrophe's biggest problem is the writing. Shyamalan is one of the few, like Juno writer Diablo Cody, who struck gold in his first major cinematic endeavor only to fail to recapture that magic. The Sixth Sense had a great story that flowed well and ended with a shocker of a twist. Like a flailing fish on the ground searching around for water, The Last Airbender grasps for something to keep its story moving, but finds nothing within reach. The basic idea works—the characters go from Point A to Point B and fight the evil fire nation—but the excursions in between make for a jumbled experience. The characters jump from place to place, meet many different characters that have already escaped from my mind and Aang randomly enters a dreamlike state where he meets spirits that tell him what to do. This confusion is plainly evident from the fact that the dialogue consists of dumbed down exposition that explains what’s going on. The characters speak as if they themselves aren’t completely sure what they’re supposed to do next and are seeking explanation.

Because of this, I’m not really sure who to blame for the abysmal acting. Should I blame it on Shyamalan the writer for forcing his actors to say such dimwitted things? Should I blame Shyamalan the director for failing to properly manage them? It’s tough to say, but my guess is that this film’s awfulness was a collaborative effort. The young Noah Ringer, who plays the titular character, is one of the worst child actors I’ve seen in a long time. Not only can he not emote when necessary, he can’t even speak a line without it feeling like he was reading from a cue card.

Even Dev Patel, who was terrific in the 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, comes off as lazy. His botched make-up job, which is supposed to show how hardened he’s become from his past transgressions, only makes him look sleepy. With bags under his eyes and hair that sticks up more than Cameron Diaz’s in There’s Something About Mary, he looks like he crawled out of bed five minutes before arriving on set. His performance only solidifies that theory. He looked tired, ready to go home and get away from the inanity around him. I knew how he felt.

Suffice to say, the acting comes off as wooden. You could film a forest and you’d get the same effect. Even the action, the one thing in this movie that should be a genuine treat, is bland beyond belief. Sure, the actors are agile and the fights are well choreographed, but when you consider that the majority of the action utilizes element bending and consists of little more than special effects, you realize the lack of talent from everyone involved. There isn’t a single thing to recommend in The Last Airbender, an excruciating experience that is a contender for one of the worst of the year.

The Last Airbender receives 0.5/5