In 2013, Jane Magnusson invited an impressive collection of international filmmakers to Ingmar Bergman’s home on Fårö to comment on his VHS collection and consider his legacy. The result was Trespassing Bergman, an engaging but haphazard documentary, memorable primarily for Lars von Trier musing on his idol’s masturbation habits.
Ingmar Bergman: A Year in a Life is a more robust and illuminating piece of work. The year Magnusson has chosen to build her film around is 1957, which makes sense when you look at what he achieved in the span of 12 months. Two of his most beloved masterpieces (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), a film for television, a radio play and four ambitious stage productions, all while juggling an increasingly complicated personal life.
It’s an output that might have impressed Fassbinder, who famously blitzed his way through projects with a cocktail of drugs, but Bergman’s furious work rate was apparently sustained by nothing more stimulating than yoghurt and biscuits. “He didn’t have the top one, in case someone touched it. Instead he’d fiddle one out from underneath,” Lena Endre says, recalling the packet of biscuits that was permanently within reach on set.
Endre is among the many contributors who knew and worked with Bergman, either in film or theatre, and they offer a greater sense of intimacy and insight than Trespassing Bergman’s interlopers could achieve. Their perspectives allow us to see Bergman from a multitude of angles, and instead of sticking to the events of 1957, Magnusson uses it as a jumping-off point to study different aspects of his career.
For example, there is little to be said about the 1957 stage production of Molière’s ‘The Misanthrope’, but it leads us to his troubled 1995 version of the same play, which involved a heated battle of wills between Bergman – by this point the all-powerful authority in Swedish culture – and the up-and-coming star Thorsten Flinck.
This shifting back-and-forth can make A Year in a Life feel a little baggy and unfocused, but so much of what Magnusson has unearthed is revelatory. No mere hagiography, the film explores the Nazi sympathies Bergman expressed as a young man and the domineering ego and temper that often left those around him stricken with fear. It reveals an account of a shockingly violent fight between Bergman and his ex-girlfriend Karin Lannby, which he wrote about and then excised from his autobiography ‘The Magic Lantern’.
Magnusson suggests that he later used this incident in From the Life of the Marionettes, and it often seems that real life for Bergman was nothing more than raw material to be exploited in his art; this was the man who had a doctor fabricate a grave diagnosis for Gunnar Björnstrand so he would be sufficiently distracted and depressed in Winter Light.
A genius and a tyrant, a master of his craft, and a disaster at home. It’s a familiar story, but Magnusson does an admirable job of presenting this artist in all of his complexity, respecting his brilliance while asking piercing questions. By the end of A Year in a Life we’ve learned a great deal about Ingmar Bergman, but one feels we haven’t yet unlocked all the secrets that made him tick. As Magnusson notes in her narration, “If you look for Bergman, the only place you find him is in his films.”
“This time our director OD’d on weird,” says wardrobe mistress Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) in Dario Argento’s Opera. “It isn’t like the movies. There if you come up with something original, everyone congratulates you.”
Giulia is complaining about the transition of Marco (Ian Charleson) – a horror film director, and by his own girlfriend’s admission, a “sadist” – from cinema to stage as he presents a modernist adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, complete with, as its soprano Mara Cecova complains, “birds onstage, back projection, laser beams!”, and a grand World War Two set. Outraged that he has to share the stage with a murder of ravens which threaten to out-caw her solo, the diva storms off, her retreat shown from her own retreating perspective as, heard but not seen, she remonstrates with the on-stage Marco – and with anyone else who will listen – about her sense of over-amplified mortification.
There is no shortage of POV shots in Argento’s gialli, but what makes this one so singular, aside from the fact that it is not aligned with the killer, is its backwards momentum. No wonder, given that Mara seems never to be looking where she is actually going, that she should accidentally walk back into the path of a moving car moments later, leaving her leading role wide open for young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach).
It is the kind of stunning opportunity for career advancement that, as Marco points out to Betty, “Usually only happens to people in the movies.” Yet Betty is worried. “It’s the opera,” she insists. “Macbeth brings bad luck.” Sure enough, not only will people involved in the production start meeting grisly ends, but a figure in mask and gloves is both stalking Betty, and soon forcing her to witness – with pins placed under her eyes to prevent her closing them – his ritualised acts of murder. Is frigid Betty, however, a mere victim of these crimes, or – like the character of Lady Macbeth whom she is portraying onstage – an inspirer and instigator of bloody action?
Much as Opera resorts at various points to reversed POV camerawork, the film also keeps looking back over its own history. The opening shot of a raven, and the crucial prominence of these birds in what follows, evokes the famous 1845 narrative poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and through that Poe himself, who is often credited as the founding father of detective fiction and a key ancestor for giallo itself. Even the ravens themselves are backward-looking, said, through a masterful (if typical) piece of Argento-esque pseudo-science, to be vengeful creatures with an elephant-like memory for any past mistreatment.
Argento also looks back to the operatic form, with which his own giallo shares a baroquely stylised approach to restaging old stories, while himself conjuring not just the myth of Macbeth, but also Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, and more improbably, in the final Alpine scenes, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. Meanwhile Betty is plagued by half dreams half memories of a primal scene from her childhood – and the sense that at least part of the film’s narrative is a nightmare in a damaged brain seems confirmed by occasional cutaways to the throbbing upper hemispheres of an actual encephalon, usually prefacing a hallucinatory flashback.
In short, Opera is always heading backwards to move forwards, and ends, bizarrely, with its heroine crawling in joyous derangement amidst the primordial plants and critters of the natural world, in an ultimate act of atavism.
There are other POVs here – Betty’s, the killer’s, various eavesdroppers’, even the ravens’ – while Argento uses the opera production to offer a distorted perspective on his own filmmaking process, with Marco his double. One of the newspaper reviews for Marco’s Macbeth reads, “Advice to the director: go back to horror films, forget opera.”
Yet in this most self-referential of films, with its murders wilfully performed as set-pieces, its in-built captive audience and its costumed killer and its smoke and mirrors, the difference between horror and opera collapses as the traumas – and complicities – of the past are serially restaged in a dizzying blend of high and low art, smoke and mirrors. And although Opera appears to have a resolution of sorts in the Swiss Alps, no fat lady ever sings, and we are left with the impression that the show, in all its deranged psychodrama, must go on.
Opera is released by Cult Films in a new 2K restoration on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD (and on Digital) on 21 January.
From the outset, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse announces itself as a faithful comic book adaptation. The filmmakers’ deep affection for the medium is evident in every frame: a team of 142 animators rendered the CGI before working 2D elements on top, akin to the process of a comic book penciller handing their work over for inking before publication.
The result is arguably the most authentic on-screen recreation of a physical comic book to date, with Ben-Day dots and cross-hatched shading lending a sense of weight and texture that’s immediately identifiable to any comic fan. It’s a refreshing approach to 3D animation that certainly makes it feel as though you’re watching a comic. But does it make you feel like you’re reading one?
For such a saturated market, it’s remarkable how little interest most superhero movie directors have in adapting the visual tone and rhythm of a physical comic book. In his seminal text on funny-book creation, ‘Comics and Sequential Art’, legendary comic book artist Will Eisner dedicates a whole chapter to the issue of timing – specifically the relationship between the comic book page, the panels it constitutes, and the ‘gutter’ space that sits between.
Together, these form a visual language that denotes time for the reader, allowing you to consider specific moments in sequence – with certain panels having more importance conveyed by either their size or gap in time conveyed on its neighbouring panels. The shorter the gap, the more critical the moment. You could argue that Zack Snyder was effectively handed a complete set of storyboards for Watchmen, but it’s this sense of pace that his adaptation crucially misses; his slo-mo action sequences confuse the leisure of the reading experience with melodrama.
For the filmmaker, it doesn’t help that while comic book panels make an effective storyboard on the surface, it’s difficult to account for the variety of sizes and shapes they’re captured in on the page. Warren Beatty’s largely-forgotten Dick Tracy adaptation admirably championed the idea of every panel (or frame) mattering, thanks to Vittorio Storaro’s considered and highly stylised cinematography.
Yet although the careful compositions – made up of heavy shadows and a limited seven-colour palette – are a loving homage to Chester Gould’s original newspaper strip, they ultimately become a rod for the film’s own back: every shot is the size of the screen-as-panel. What’s more, the film’s expansive use of matte-painted backdrops is, at first, breathtaking – but it also meant that every shot is either static or on a slow dolly. Individually, the scenes of Dick Tracy are a delight. As a film, they make for a total slog.
It may well have been the box office failure of Dick Tracy that resulted in studios steering well clear of any attempt to mimic the staccato-like movement of a comic book for so long, but two decades later Edgar Wright more than made up for it with the hyper-kinetic Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Cramming six(!) graphic novels into two hours, Wright’s love of a good montage found its natural home in the world of comics, combining here with sudden, fluid cuts between scenes – linked by one visual element remaining constant – to effectively convey the vignette-like nature of reading across panels.
Finished off with captions and onomatopoeia, this visual treatment certainly gets close to the act of reading. It almost feels as though Wright set out to make the antithesis of Beatty’s flawed experiment; in Scott Pilgrim, the cuts stack up endlessly, and where Dick Tracy barely moved under its own weight, Wright’s film is so breathless it carries almost no weight whatsoever.
But in the homogenised world of comic book adaptations, at least Scott Pilgrim tries to be something different. In keeping with a trend which has emerged over the past decade, 2019 will see at least one major superhero film occupying multiplexes each month. Surely if this genre is to have longevity beyond this current cycle, it must seek to push itself further, exploring what makes comic books unique.
The climactic moment of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse sees newbie hero Miles Morales jump from a building for the first time, unsure if he’ll make it. We watch an extended sequence of him flailing through the air, the sound design emphasising the wind whipping around him. Then, with four short, sharp panels brought on screen in sequence, we see him shoot a literal lifeline that makes good on his leap of faith.
There’s no lingering shot, no slo-mo melodrama. Just a make-or-break decision captured across four beats. What comic book movies need is more of just that: trusting in the audience to read the action, and bring their own reaction to it.
Since the phenomenal success of his breakout feature, The Sixth Sense, turned the young director into an overnight household name, M Night Shyamalan has grown into one of the most fascinating auteurs currently working. Though he was once touted as the next American master, Shyamalan’s reputation has soured over the past two decades: Unbreakable, Signs and The Village were each greeted with a collective shrug by the critical community, while The Lady in the Water was perceived as a plunge into total self-parody.
The director’s brief foray into big-budget blockbuster storytelling fared even worse. After Earth was largely laughed off as nothing more than a showcase for the meagre acting chops of its adolescent lead Jaden Smith and The Last Airbender is still widely considered to be one of the worst films to ever be produced within the studio system. The very artistic traits which were once championed as the markers of a singular creative voice – the slow pacing, the hushed sound design, the pared-down performances, the pervading atmosphere of portent, the obsession with fairy tale and Gothic imagery – were increasingly disregarded as the pretentious extravagances of a creatively bankrupt director treading water.
Although the release of Split marked a minor resurgence of critical goodwill, a title card reading ‘from the mind of Shyamalan’ is still more likely to inspire derisive titters than genuine excitement. For many, the downward trajectory of Shyamalan’s career is a cautionary tale of a director who peaked too young and crumbled under the weight of outsized expectations. In the eyes of this writer, however, Shyamalan is the real deal; an idiosyncratic, tragically undervalued filmmaker whose triumphs vastly outweigh his follies. To celebrate the release of Glass, we’ve revisited and ranked all 13 of his feature films. Read the full list below, then let us know your personal favourites at @LWLies
13. Wide Awake (1998)
Though rough around the edges, Shyamalan’s deeply personal debut feature, Praying with Anger, is clearly the work of an ambitious young voice expressing a unique cinematic vision. The same cannot be said for his follow-up, Wide Awake, a schmaltzy coming-of-age dramedy produced by the short-lived family division of Miramax studios.
The film centres on Josh Beal, a Catholic schoolboy who begins to question the existence of God following the death of his beloved grandfather. Conceptually, this may sound like prime Shyamalan material, though in execution it couldn’t be farther from the brilliance of his later explorations of tested faith.
Relying on cutesy sitcom-style gags, an overbearing score and formulaic character arcs, Wide Awake packs the emotional punch of an afterschool special. Absent is the ravishing visual panache that Shyamalan would develop in his later films, instead this feels like it was directed on autopilot.
12. Playing with Anger (1992)
Written, directed and self-funded by Shyamalan while he was still studying at NYU, Praying with Anger is a scrappy debut that has been largely forgotten outside of a few hardcore auteurist circles. It’s not hard to see why, as it is marred by many of the deficiencies you may expect from a student film. The acting is stilted, the audio track varies in quality from scene to scene, and there is a lot of lazy blocking.
Yet there’s a ramshackle charm to this autobiographical tale of an Indian American college student (played by Shyamalan himself) who, at the request of his mother, travels to his native country to take part in a year-long exchange program, only to be shocked by the extent to which he has strayed from his cultural roots. Shyamalan’s signature preoccupation with spiritual devotion, cultural disconnection and familial bonds are all present in a rough form, and it’s fascinating to see these play out within the context of a light dramedy.
11. The Last Airbender (2010)
Although it is far from the colossal, world-shattering artistic disaster its reputation may have you believe, Shyamalan’s big screen adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon is one hell of a mess. Shyamalan’s strengths lie in his lean visual storytelling, but the task of condensing the plot of an entire season of television into a 90-minute feature forces him to devote long stretches of the runtime to dull explanatory narration and exposition-heavy dialogue scenes.
The tone is wildly inconsistent in the worst possible way, and the charisma-free lead cast recite their lines as if they have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet, there are so many flashes of inspired aesthetic splendour that it fells misguided to write The Last Airbender off as a total failure. The combat sequences in particular stand out for their balletic choreography and some creative use of CGI to realise the manipulation of the elements.
10. Signs (2002)
Released in late 2002, Signs was the film which marked the beginning of Shyamalan’s mid-career fascination with the sensation of trauma and anxiety that took over the nation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Although his later films would go on to tackle these themes on a grander scale, Signs takes a decidedly intimate approach, zeroing in on a single rural family who find their taken-for-granted sense of security destabilised by the mysterious threat of an encroaching alien force.
Rather than revealing the aliens outright from the get-go, Shyamalan devotes the bulk of the film to carefully building tension through the power of suggestion, giving us only brief glimpses of shadows in hallways, reflections on knives, and eyes peering through windows as the shadowy beings increasingly intrude upon the domestic space. Because of this, Signs seems less interested in the invaders than the very notion of invasion itself, powerfully tapping into the zeitgeist of its period.
9. Lady in the Water (2006)
At the core of Shyamalan’s endearingly ludicrous tale of narfs, scrunts and tartutics is a genuine belief in the radical power of storytelling: to foster empathy, to break down interpersonal barriers, to heal emotional wounds, to lead the way to redemption. The Lady in the Water spends its opening act introducing a large ensemble cast of broad stereotypes (a braindead bodybuilder, a bickering Jewish couple, a group of aimless young stoners), who each live a shut-off life in their own corner of the central apartment complex.
As superintendent Paul sets about unravelling a centuries-old riddle that will hold the key to releasing a stranded mermaid-like creature known as Story, he must draw on the unique talents of every one of the building’s residents – the very idiosyncrasies which initially marked them as figures of ridicule. The strict divisions that once defined the central housing project gradually break down – spatially, culturally, emotionally – and a harmonious, multicultural community is established.
8. After Earth (2013)
Economic, narratively efficient, and composed in gorgeous ‘scope images by cinematographer Wolgang Suschitzky, Shyamalan’s marvellous work on After Earth elevates the film far above its nepotistic origins as a Will Smith-produced starring vehicle for his son Jaden. Although Shyamalan was brought onto the project late in the game, he acts as more than a gun-for-hire, using this pre-existing material as a vessel to explore his recurring interests in father-son dynamics and environmental ruin.
In essence, it’s a simple survivalist story with a sci-fi twist: in the distant future, a spacecraft crashes on the surface of a depopulated Earth, which was abandoned after mass pollution rendered the natural world inhospitable to human life, leaving the only two survivors stranded within a hostile, hyper-real wilderness.
On a purely visual level, After Earth contains some of the most impressive material of Shyamalan’s career, as he fully imagines an intricate alien eco-system, created through a richly textured combination of natural landscape photography and imaginative CGI enhancement.
7. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Shyamalan’s first masterpiece and the feature which first introduced the world to his distinctive style: a patient, meticulous formalism which draws on elements of classical Hollywood, modern European art cinema and ’50s B-movies.
The final twist has become a cultural touchstone so deeply ingrained into the popular consciousness that even those who haven’t seen The Sixth Sense are familiar with it – but the revelation that Bruce Willis’ Malcolm has been dead for the bulk of the film functions not only as a shocking narrative sleight-of-hand but a revelation that complicates The Sixth Sense’s thematic core and recasts everything we’ve seen before in a new, melancholic new light.
Although broadly categorised as a horror film, The Sixth Sense eschews conventional scare tactics in favour of a more classical, slow-build approach, with Shyamalan’s rigorous formalism maintaining a sustained atmosphere of dread which crescendos into a final act which packs the operatic punch of a grand tragedy.
6. The Happening (2008)
The Happening, Shyalaman’s most peculiar genre project, reconfigures the paranoid sensibilities of atomic age genre flicks for the era of climate change and mass environmental pollution. The film hinges on a daring formal conceit that is, depending on who you ask, a major misstep or a stroke of genius: the threat at the centre of the narrative isn’t a physical being but invisible, intangible neurotoxins being emitted by the natural world.
In this writer’s eyes, the prospect of the very land we rely on to survive inexplicably becoming unable to sustain human life is fundamentally terrifying, and now, 11 years after its release, its environmentalist message seems even more urgent.
Shyamalan reminds us that our lives are dependent on environmental stimuli – the water we drink, the trees that purify our air, the dirt which fertilises our crops – and imagines the large-scale extinction event that may occur unless we put a stop to widespread despoliation.
5. The Visit (2015)
Following his stint in the realm of the big-budget blockbuster, Shyamalan returned to his stripped-back horror routes with The Visit, a claustrophobic chiller which manages to fashion a rich exploration of familial relations and documentary ethics from a hokey found-footage horror premise.
As he did in The Sixth Sense before it, Shyamalan draws on childhood feelings of loneliness, anxiety and incomprehension of the adult world to create suspense and pathos in equal, intoxicating measure. This time, the physical ailments of old age are filtered through a child’s restricted, uncomprehending point-of-view, transforming fairly commonplace infirmities – dementia, brittle bones, incontinence– into the stuff of horror.
Found-footage movies have a bad tendency to use their gimmick as an excuse to be formally sloppy, but Shyamalan finds a witty workaround by making his protagonist a precocious wannabe filmmaker (and cheeky director surrogate) who explicitly reflects on the importance of careful film craft.
4. Split (2016)
The notion of a claustrophobic thriller centred on a gang of young girls held captive by a man with dissociative personality disorder may sound inherently problematic, but Shyamalan masterfully subverts viewer expectations to craft a deeply emphatic study of the after-effects of intense personal trauma.
The film first sets up an archetypical good-versus-evil structure common to the American B-movie tradition it draws on, but then instead of following this genre model through to its expected clash-of-the-elements conclusion, Split collapses such simplistic distinctions to reveal the true villain of the piece to not be any single character, but the very concept of abuse itself.
Rather than simply codifying Kevin as a monstrous Other because of his illness, Shyamalan delves deep into his inner life and finds a vast reservoir of palpable sorrow; in doing so, Split interrogates the mechanisms by which the most vulnerable in society are dehumanised by popular genre fare, thus compounding their sense of alienation.
3. Glass (2019)
Admittedly, it might seem a little early to be placing Glass in the upper ranks of Shyamalan’s fine body of work, but this delightfully deranged conclusion to the Eastrail 177 trilogy is clearly major. One of the most surprising tricks Shyamalan ever pulled was to reveal Split to be the second instalment in a planned series only during its closing moments, making us realise only in retrospect that we had just witnessed a quasi-sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable.
Though, despite its structural engagement with the dynamics of contemporary blockbuster world-building, anybody expecting this final chapter to be a violent confrontation between Shyamalan’s three modern day titans (David Dunn, Kevin Crumb and Mr Glass) is bound to be confounded by a piece that’s far more idiosyncratic, as the conflict instead plays out as claustrophobic psychodrama.
Stylistically, Glass deviates quite radically from the muted, earthy tones of previous instalments in the series, instead embracing a mode of hyper-real expressionism that more closely resembles the pulpy art style of comic book fiction. Blocks of primary colour dominate compositions, silhouettes are thrown across corridors, and off-kilter camera angles abound. It’s a damn audacious way to stage a superhero picture, and a reminder that there is still a great deal of potential left in the genre.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
This languid, self-reflexive enquiry into the nature of comic book mythology and its function in wider society finds Shyamalan at the height of his powers as a genre movie aesthete. The opening act in particular is a masterclass of visual economy, showing us the two major accidents that will hang over the rest of the narrative like an oppressive weight in an elliptical series of long-takes which pointedly omit the actual moments of violence.
Unbreakable is also structured around one of Shyamalan’s most inspired conceptual conceits: it’s a superhero origin story that only reveals itself as such in its final scene. Until this denouement, the film presents itself as a dual character study of two men who deal with horrendous trauma in very different ways: Mr Glass retreats into the fantasy realm of superheroes and neat narrative threads, convincing himself that every event in his life has been predetermined for a vital reason; Dunn, on the other hand, favours a coping strategy of avoidance, refusing to address his physiological pain.
By stripping the film of spectacle and instead focusing on intimate drama and quotidian moments, Unbreakable takes many of the moral issues that lie at the centre of the camp-and-mask mythos and subjects them to intense philosophical scrutiny.
1. The Village
In many ways, The Village acts as the ugly flipside to Signs: Signs engages with the collective hysteria following the 9/11 attacks by offering a re-assuring message of hope, while The Village reflects on the ugly neo-conservatism and xenophobia that infected American life in its aftermath. From the vantage point of 2019, it is hard to view the faith Signs places in the US government to re-establish order and bring peace back to the nation as anything other than naive, while The Village’s vision of the government as a hypocritical force eager to exploit public fear to serve its own imperialistic interests seems as vital as ever.
By fabricating mysterious evil-doers who dwell just outside of the village limits, the elders are able to maintain total authority over a frightened, pliable and culturally ignorant population under the guise of maintaining public safety and unity. If that sounds familiar, it’s because The Village is the fiercest critique of the Bush administration ever put to screen, a fearless expose of the mechanisms by which the neo-colonial ‘war on terror’ heightened the unease of the American population with the aim of forcing them into acquiescence and, ultimately, stripping them of their civil liberties.
Piercing, intelligent and genuinely horrifying, The Village is one of the masterworks of 20th century American cinema, and it stands as Shyamalan’s greatest achievement to date.
M Night Shyamalan has been many things since the success of The Sixth Sense two decades ago. He has been a creative visionary, The Next Spielberg, Hollywood’s king of the twist ending. He’s also been both a punchline and a punching bag thanks to commercial flops like After Earth, The Visit and The Last Airbender. The surprise triumph of 2016’s Split may have put him back in the moviegoing public’s good graces, but it remains to be seen just who Shyamalan will be in the next chapter of his career.
There’s no mistaking the Shyamalan touch, yet there is one aspect of his multifaceted filmmaking style which tends to go unnoticed: his politics. He may not be a political filmmaker in the traditional sense, but in all his films there is an underlying interest in how people in a society relate to one another. More than a master of suspense, Shyamalan is a master of melodrama – and there has always existed a political urgency to film melodrama in it how uses style and performance to emphasise and interrogate certain social issues. Shyamalan has carried this torch into the 21st century, using genre conventions to explore how people connect, which is fundamentally a political issue. After all, political bodies are in the business of setting the parameters within which we interact.
Shyamalan’s political streak is particularly evident in one of his earliest films. The political imperative of 2000’s Unbreakable lies less in asking why American culture idolises superheroes and more in questioning who gets to be the hero. Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka Mr Glass) points out the essential physical difference between comic book heroes and villains: the classic superhero has a square, sharp jawline; the villain’s head is a little too big for his body. On an aesthetic level, superheroes fulfil some kind of societal norm. They don’t just act right, they look right, living up to our standards of beauty, ability and normalcy. On the other hand, culture shows us who the villain is by telling us who doesn’t behave or appear “right”.
If superhero movies are about individuals – team-up movies like The Avengers are more about collections of personalities than they are about an actual cohesive unit – disaster movies are about communities. In the classic disaster movie scenario, extraordinary circumstances – epidemic, natural disaster, alien invasion – force a group to come together in spite of the looming danger and their own interpersonal differences.
Even post-apocalyptic disaster movies about isolated protagonists like I Am Legend are defined by community: not the presence of community, but the absence of it. Of course, “community” is a concept Shyamalan has explored in several of his films, most notably 2004’s The Village and 2006’s Lady in the Water, the latter of which treats a single apartment complex as a microcosm of society as a whole. Yet Shyamalan’s most potent political message appears in perhaps his most maligned film.
The Happening may have outgrossed its budget, but it proved the straw that broke the first act of Shyamalan’s career, with critics and audiences alike condemning the film for its wacky sense of humour, maudlin sentimentality and truly baffling lead performance from Mark Wahlberg. Shyamalan had been criticised for his corny jokes and schmaltzy storytelling in the past, but those things alone were not any more of a turn-off for audiences in this case.
On the surface The Happening might be Shyamalan’s silliest movie, but it’s also his darkest: the plot concerns a virus that makes you kill yourself the instant you catch it. One of the first images we see in the film is of construction workers willingly flinging themselves off of rooftops, which inevitably evokes those deeply upsetting real-life images of bodies falling from the Twin Towers.
The film’s big twist (spoiler alert: the plants did it) emphasises Shyamalan’s preoccupation with environmentalism, a concern that has recurred throughout his filmography, from Lady in the Water to After Earth. Humankind has become a danger to Earth, so Mother Nature is exacting her cruel revenge. It’s not just that the virus is a certain death sentence for those who catch it, but that it forces the uninfected into complete isolation.
The plants infect the air not only with a dangerous neurotoxin but with paranoia, one that leads to the breakdown of normal societal relations. The film’s ensemble cast is slowly but surely paired down as the runtime staggers on, until Wahlberg is left communicating with his wife and child through a talking tube in the walls of an old house. They might be able to hear each other still, but they are completely and utterly alone.
Once you’ve read The Happening as an allegory for 9/11, it’s hard to read it as anything else. The true damage of a disaster like 9/11 comes not just from the initial incident, but from society’s response to it. Like the plant plague in The Happening, 9/11 spread and stoked lingering panic and paranoia. It may not have forced Americans into isolation quite as literally as occurs in The Happening, but it isolated people from one another as certain segments of the population were blamed for the events, treated with suspicion, and pushed to the margins.
“Disaster”, both in real life and in cinema, has a certain generative potential, as it can force those who may not normally associate with one another to work together. But in an already decaying society, disaster can offer an excuse for those who want to exclude, punish and oppress.
As the success of Split and the release of Glass prompt us to rethink M Night Shyamalan, it’s worth noting that his work digs deeper into important issues than he might have been given credit for. Shyamalan isn’t just telling us scary stories in the dark, he’s thinking critically about the environment, the icons our culture worships, and how we use narrative forms to connect with one another. Given his love of good old-fashioned Hollywood thrills, it’s probably safe to say that Shyamalan will never make an Adam McKay-like pivot to upfront, in-your-face political filmmaking. Then again, we all know how he loves a twist ending.
Season three of the ‘Serial’ podcast took a radical approach in its investigation of the American justice system by spending one year in the courts of Cleveland, Ohio and examining the imbalance of power through everyday cases. It scrutinised the brutal level of force used by the local police on African-American men and the impact that had on their lives and the community.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature aims to start a comparable and nuanced discussion in its depiction of the aftermath of a fictionalised shooting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn but it’s nowhere near as compelling as it should be.
Green places his camera in all the right places, peering into the neighbourhood and homes of three residents to paint a triptych of sorts. Anthony Ramos plays a young father full of potential who witnesses and films the shooting, John David Washington is a cop struggling with the blatant racism in his line of work, and Kelvin Harrison Jr is an ambitious school kid on the cusp of graduation who is inspired to join an activists’ group in the wake of the killing.
All the principal cast do good work with what they’re given, but there’s little in the way of weighty examination of their inner lives as Green’s script occasionally dips into the kind of basic storytelling you might expect to find in an educational film. It’s frustrating to watch after the poetic style of Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting blasted its confrontational personality on screen in 2018 covering similar thematic territory.
The parting shot in Harrison Jr’s narrative provides the most poignant moment in the film, with a sportsman enacting peaceful protest in a large auditorium. Leaving the viewer to ponder on this powerful image, which reflects a growing political movement in the USA, is rousing enough, but the rest of the film doesn’t always possess the same elegant gravitas.
“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser,” boasts the now-incarcerated festival promoter/techpreneur Billy McFarland during Fyre, Chris Smith’s new Netflix documentary about the eponymous 2017 music festival. Across more than 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, staff interviews and pre-festival social media coverage, we see Fyre’s vision of luxury excess burned to the ground as fantasy and reality implode in an embarrassing spectacle of soaking wet tents and processed cheese. But how did it go so wrong?
Footage of the festival’s flashy promotional video featuring celebrities and supermodels like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid lounging on expensive yachts proved how easy it is to sell an idea in the age of influencers and hashtags. Within just 48 hours of going live, the festival had offloaded 95 per cent of its tickets (approximately 5,000) with prices ranging from $1,500 to $12,000, and some attendees reportedly forking out as much as $250,000 for deluxe VIP packages.
Guests were promised performances from Skepta, Disclosure, Major Lazer, Blink-182, Migos and others as well as “first-class culinary experiences” and “entertainment add-ons” that included the chance to rent your own private yacht. It was billed as an unmissable event primed for #livingmybestlive opportunities. At one point in the film, we see festival co-organiser Ja Rule crudely raising a toast to “living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars,” while the gap between fantasy and reality continues to widen.
Because it’s not easy building a luxury festival village from scratch on a remote island with just a few months’ notice. The vicious storm that tore through the Bahamian island of Great Exuma just hours before the guests were due to arrive didn’t help matters either. Back in April 2017, the world watched the chaos unfold in real-time; a maelstrom of angry tweets, disaster relief tents and viral images documented the festival’s downfall as many of us soaked up the schadenfreude at home.
The film shows attendees arriving on the island with nowhere to go, before being plied with tequila for six hours on the beach while the festival site is still being built. However, there is only so much alcohol one can physically take and pretty soon the would-be revellers begin to ask questions. After being piled onto buses, guests are finally taken to the festival ‘site’, which doesn’t quite live up to their expectations. All hell breaks loose, with reports of attendees looting mattresses and toilet rolls like some kind of post-apocalyptic millennial disaster movie.
While all this is happening, moments of pure Shakespearean tragicomedy reveal the truth behind the shambles. A “22-year-old kid” who has never booked a festival is asked to secure Fyre’s A-list lineup. The world-class caterers are fired because the festival under-budgeted by five million dollars. We can only cringe as a bottle of beer is carelessly knocked over a map.
“You’ve ruined my sewage calculations,” says a production manager. Everyone laughs. “You have to stop thinking about models and start thinking about toilets,” he tells them. He has been coming to the Bahamas for 10 years and strongly recommends against putting guests in tents for multiple reasons. After raising too many concerns, he is dropped from the festival team.
On being warned by the logistics manager about the very real danger of incoming guests being left stranded on the island with nowhere to sleep, the festival’s marketing director, Grant Margolin (who again had no prior experience of putting on events or festivals), responds in kind: “At least they will still see your smiling face and crazy yoga skills!” You get the impression that some of the organisers of Fyre are not taking things very seriously.
The extent of the festival’s brazen exploitation of the local workforce hits hard. Labourers worked round the clock to help realise McFarlane’s “pipe dream for losers” and yet many of them were never paid. The most heart-wrenching testimony comes from Maryann Rolle, the restauranteur tasked with feeding 1,000 guests a day, who reveals that she was forced to use some of her own savings to pay her workers. Many of the festival’s disgruntled guests will have been able to brush off the drama and carry on with their lives, however, Rolle’s has been changed forever.
McFarland is currently serving a six-year jail sentence having pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and wire fraud. He has been ordered to pay back the $26 million he admitted to stealing from investors. Two attendees were also awarded $5 million in damages. The moral of the story is clear enough: Don’t fuck with rich people. Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for rich people with seemingly more money than sense. Comedian Ron Funches said it best. “If you have thousands of dollars to go on a trip to see Blink 182, that’s on you,” he told Conan O’Brien. “That is Darwinism at its finest.”
Steven Soderbergh likes to blaze his own path through the film industry, whether that means singlehandedly inventing new methods of financing a project or cutting costs by shooting an entire feature on an iPhone. Appropriately, his next film will focus on a pair of self-proclaimed ‘disruptors’ who also set out to upend the status quo of a big, powerful business.
Netflix has unveiled their first trailer for High Flying Bird, the first of two Soderbergh features slated for release this year, in addition to his gestating Panama Papers picture The Laundromat.
André Holland reunites with scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney – who wrote the play upon which Holland’s star-making Moonlight was based, as well as the script for this film – to portray athletic agent Ray Burke at a time of crisis. A full-blown lockout has shaken the NBA to its foundations, but while the moneyed owners try to get the players back in line, Ray’s launching a daring gambit to shift the balance of power forever.
Sharp-eyed viewers may also notice an odd polish on the visuals in the trailer; Soderbergh has once again used the iPhone 7, outfitted with telescopic lenses, to complete all cinematography under budget.
The clip throws a lot at you and quickly, perhaps as a reflection of an inside-basketball film that spends more time in tense boardroom meetings than the hardwood court. Those expecting the sort of rousing, inspirational story so common to the sporting genre will be surprised to find a film primarily concerned with the tension between institutions and individuals.
High Flying Bird will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on 27 January, before arriving on Netflix in the US on 8 February.
Roughly 10 minutes into Glass – the final film in M Night Shyamalan’s ‘Eastrail 177 Trilogy’ – Spencer Treat Clark’s character Joseph Dunn explains the concept of internet meme “Salt Bae” to his bemused father David (Bruce Willis). David seems suspicious. “That’s all he does?” he asks gruffly. “Puts salt on things?” If we consider Glass a self-reflective metaphor for Shyamalan’s entire filmmaking career, perhaps the question is as much about him as it is a Turkish butcher who became a viral sensation back in 2017. After all, Shyamalan has become similarly defined for one single element of his oeuvre: plot twists.
Following the massive success of Split in 2016 – and a pretty great cameo at the end of the film from Willis, confirming that Split and 2000’s Unbreakable exist within the same cinematic universe – a sequel was duly announced. The prospect of Willis and Samuel L Jackson reprising their roles as comic book adversaries David Dunn and Elijah Price was enticing enough, though there’s always trepidation when it comes to revisiting old ground. To wit, Shyamalan has a decidedly checkered filmmaking history, ranging from the sublime (The Sixth Sense, Signs) to the ridiculous (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth). What could possibly go wrong…
In the two decades since Unbreakable, Dunn has led a relatively quiet life, establishing a home security business with his son while using his powers of extra-sensory perception and invulnerability to right wrongs across the city of Philadelphia. For some reason, he does so in a seaweed-coloured poncho, and has been nicknamed “The Overseer” / “The Green Guard” / “The Tiptoe Man” by the local press.
Meanwhile, Price is languishing in a secure facility having been convicted of orchestrating numerous acts of terrorism. Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy) and his host of multiple personalities, collectively named “The Hoard”, have evaded capture, kidnapping and killing more teenage girls in order to pacify a superhuman entity known as “The Beast”. The three meet when confined to a psychiatric unit by Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who is charged with curing them of their “delusion” about being superhuman.
The problem with this, of course, is that we know these characters are superhuman. Shyamalan has delivered two previous films which established as much, and so it’s frustrating to see him spend a lengthy amount of time in Glass attempting to undermine his own mythology for dramatic effect. It’s hard to buy into the idea that Dunn, Price and Crumb really are delusional, and as such the inevitable Shyamalan twist set-up loses all momentum.
That’s not for lack of trying on McAvoy’s part, though. Despite the film’s title, this is very much still the Kevin Crumb show, with the delicacy of Dunn and Price’s terse relationship overshadowed by their co-star’s larger-than-life performance(s). McAvoy spits and flits his way through all 24 of Crumb’s multiple personalities, in particular lisping nine-year-old Hedwig (who spends a lot of time talking about how much he likes Drake) and creepy matriarch Patricia.
One scene gives McAvoy the opportunity to rapid-cycle through each personality, and though it’s certainly impressive to watch it ends up feeling more like a wayward drama school audition than something with any relevance to the actual plot. The upshot of all this is that we don’t learn anything new about Dunn or Price, with Shyamalan recycling one key plot twist from Unbreakable with predictably diminishing returns.
It’s a shame given Shyamalan had a real shot at creating his own comic book mythology in a world entirely dominated by the superheroes of the mass-market. He codes his characters in their colours through lighting and costume design, making each an icon, and there are some striking shots which show the director does have substantial technical skill. Yet at the same time he seems caught up in the idea of Glass as the redemption story of his own career.
A Mr Glass monologue near the end of the film may as well be delivered by Shyamalan himself, with the pièce de résistance line, “I truly am a mastermind,” feeling straight-up self-congratulatory. Given the trials and tribulations of Shyamalan’s career, it’s fun to see him herald Glass as a triumphant, good-natured ‘f**k you’ to critics. Fun, but not exactly coherent filmmaking.
What’s more, this is perhaps the silliest Shyamalan offering yet, filled with reaction shots, physical comedy and goofy dialogue. The fact that Samuel L Jackson manages to keep a straight face when explaining to the audience how the action unfolding resembles classic comic book tropes is testament to his consummate professionalism.
Shyamalan is always at his best when dealing with one or two characters, telling stories on a personal level. By contrast Glass feels curiously impersonal, failing to bring either the genre thrills of Split or the emotional weight of Unbreakable. It’s strange, too, that the film appears to forget that Price and Crumb are mass murderers, encouraging us to feel sympathy for them despite the heinous nature of their crimes. And that’s not to ignore the film’s problematic depiction of Dissociative Identity Disorder (and by extension mental illness in general) as a precursor to violent behaviour.
Still, Glass is not an actively dislikable film. Yes it’s scrappy and daft, invoking the spirit the Wachowskis’ big-budget oddity Jupiter Ascending (McAvoy’s performance has much in common with Eddie Redmayne’s), but there are bright spots. Shyamalan’s own cameo – which naturally, comes with a twist – is the film’s greatest single moment. It may be a hot mess, but it’s a highly entertaining one all the same.
There’s a reason why Saoirse Ronan is thought of as one of the best actors working today: she possesses the innate ability to make you second-guess as to whether the film you’re watching is really as mediocre as it appears. Mary Queen of Scots, from director Josie Rourke, is as stiff and studied as a fat, dog-eared library textbook, a well-meaning, information-packed drag which is all exposition and no drama.
Yet Ronan’s mellifluous and sprightly presence in the title role forces a reconsideration. How can someone who has sunk her talons so deeply into the throat of this character, has worked so hard on a better-than-convincing Scottish lilt and who is clearly taking all these fanciful, dress-up-box larks extremely seriously, be at the centre of a film in which every other aspect is a paragon of coffee table banality?
But, as the old saying goes, Saoirse Ronan’s ineffable screen magnetism can only get you so far, and so the middlebrow rot of this decorous historical runaround starts to set in.
It begins, like these matters so often do, at the end, with milk-skinned beauty Mary Stuart (Ronan) taking a diva-like last walk to the chopping block where, following a Magic Mike-style execution outfit reveal, she succumbs to the falling axe. Then, we flash back to the upstart’s late teens, where she is smuggled to Scotland from France via boat with plans to make sure she’s next in line for the throne if her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), fails to produce an heir.
The story consists of a lengthy battle of attrition between the formidable monarch and her feisty northern charge, made all the more complex by the fact that they are unable and unwilling to meet in person. Rourke, who awkwardly transitions over to film from a career directing for the stage, attempts to whip up tensions by highlighting the similarities between these two powerful women, whether through the self-assured manner in which they act around their preening and duplicitous male cohorts, or creating extremely strange visual rhymes.
With regard to the latter, there is one appallingly misjudged moment in which a cascade of bloody afterbirth is doubled with scenes of Elizabeth hate-twirling red paper ribbons as part of some mammoth, depressive handicraft session. It’s as if Rourke is trying too hard to embrace the visual and editing tools at her disposal, but at the expense of getting to the heart of these fascinating historical icons.
The script by Beau Willimon (adapted from John Guy’s 2005 biography, ‘Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart’), gives focus to a number of strange details which feel like they pander too much to the progressive whims of a contemporary audience. Italian courtier David Rizzo (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is accepted as a gender-fluid nymph by the all-embracing Mary, even when her downfall is catalysed by his sexual dalliances.
Also, the film pushes hard in making the female characters seem strong to the point of omnipotence, and largely achieves this by making all the male characters vile, backstabbing, patriarchal cretins. Fans of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth films, with Cate Blanchett in the lead, might find some pleasure in this handsome but strangely hollow offering.