Shyamalan Week: Redux Review – The Last Airbender

Introduction

When this review was first posted on The Site That Shall Not Be Named, I spent far too many words on reacting to the reviews of others. Of all the reviews I’ve written it’s one of two I lamented most. The other does not bear rewriting here because the less thought spared to that film the better. However, with this film seeing as how I was trying to write a minority, albeit not staunch defense of it; I failed that aim by trying to counter arguments. Unless, entirely relevant I dislike comparative analysis of films as a shortcut to writing a review. If that’s the aim it should be a separate piece. Argumentative points or analysis of mass reaction are made for op-ed pieces not an appraisal of the film itself. Therefore, I present to you now an edited version of that review which internalizes, and distills it all to what I thought of the film and nothing else.

The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

This isn’t a complicated movie and moves briskly. A film can have a slow pace if that is the appropriate pace for the narrative being told, this film works with the pace it has and does not seem to be extraordinarily quick-moving and there are peaks and valleys in the emotional ebb.

I never saw the TV show. I don’t care if I do but I liked this. One can have a preference for one or another but ultimately a film is its own work. How much it used or discarded of the original is ultimately a debate that’s academic, and ought not affect one’s interpretation of what is presented. On that note there was a flashback I was begging Shayamalan for early on the film and it was delivered at the climax and it was better and more well-placed where he put it and quite emotional. So sometimes he does know best.

One of the more enjoyable elements of the film was that it was a essentially a simple through-line which was not burdened by unnecessary complications just necessary information.

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

As for the dialogue, it does slip into the unforgivable zone on the rare occasion. It serves a function and moves the story along. This is no worse than Mr. Lucas, who himself has referred to his dialogue as “wooden,” and I always referred to as “functional” as it did what it needed to
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The effect of the performances on the film overall, as is the case with most motion pictures, is nominal. It’s true Jackson Rathbone is better in Twilight than here but there are some cornerstones here like Dev Patel and Shaun Toub. Meanwhile, the protagonist, Noah Ringer, isn’t asked to carry too much of the load. Most of the time he is “bending” (performing martial arts) as opposed to speaking. Should the series continue he will be able to develop his acting skills not unlike the Harry Potter cast who were very raw and unpolished when they started.

As for the 3-D, it wasn’t shot in 3-D, so don’t watch it in 3-D. I saw it in 2-D and it looked fantastic. All you really need is good cinematography, which this has and the production design is absolutely out of this world in its splendor and brilliance. Philip Messina deserves special recognition for his work here (Note: in December I will likely cover some BAM Awards oddities through the years. This was one of my more lamentable snubs). The same goes for Judianna Makovsky’s costumes. The score, as is typical for James Newton Howard, is wonderful.

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

What I liked here is that you saw M. Night Shyamalan go to a different place. I first became an admirer of his after seeing the vastly underrated Wide Awake, which was actually his second feature. After he did the The Sixth Sense and it was one of the biggest sleeper hits of all-time the burden of expectation fell on him. While he enjoyed(s) making “feature-length Twilight Zone episodes” it became kind of a game. “What’s the twist?” or “What did you think of the twist?” as opposed to “What did you think of the movie?” About the only thing I did appreciate about The Happening was the fact that he tried to monkeywrench his own formula and deliver a tale with no easy answer. As is the case with many works of fiction like that it’s hit-or-miss. Here he finally bit the bullet and went on a full on departure and for the most part lost himself in the story and didn’t make it your standard Shyamalan aside from the expected cameo, which is a lot less subtle and welcome than the “Find Hitch” appearances he is referencing.

Overall, though flawed, I thought it was a successful step in a different direction for the director (Note: mind you this was his first feature after The Happening.

7/10

BAM Best Picture Profile: Peter Pan (2003)

Each year, I try and improve the site, and also try to find a new an hopefully creative and fun way to countdown to the unveiling of the year’s BAM Awards. Last year, I posted most of the BAM Nominee and winner lists (Any omissions will be fixed this year). However, when I picked Django Unchained as the Best Picture of 2012 I then realized I had recent winner with no write-ups. I soon corrected that by translating a post and writing a series of my own. The thought was all films honored as Best Picture should have at least one piece dedicated to them. So I will through the month of December be posting write-ups on past winners.

Peter Pan (2003)

While I didn’t really post explications that I can easily access for the BAM Awards back in 2003, this was a year wherein I lost my nominees and can only find winners) I was able to quote myself from an unusual source nowadays, my IMDb reviews:

There should be a rule that bars people from remaking a story when the definitive edition has been made. While I loved the much maligned ‘Hook’ and Disney’s version PJ Hogan created the perfect version of this tale. It uses more from the book than ever and even improves on some elements. The proper theatrical conventions are kept like Hook and the Father being played by the same actor and also the proper ones were done away with like a woman playing Peter’s role.

This is the way the story of Peter Pan should be told The imagery is balanced between fantastical and realistic. Every single character is perfectly cast, especially Jeremy Sumpter as Peter. The special effects were so amazing and unique I was actually surprised to see that Industrial Light and Magic did them. The film flows beautifully with scenes that seem as if they are pulled straight from my dreams.

This is a story that has always been very dear to me and I feel that people are making way to much of this film. Peter’s escape embodies a fear all children suffer from at one point or another: growing up. This is the essence of the film and the conflict is heightened by the fact that Wendy loves Peter and for him to love her back he knows he’d have to grow up. One day we know we must grow up. As children we envy Peter’s being but know that our destinies are more those of Wendy, Michael and John. As adults we find Peter’s dream of perpetual childhood beautiful but as we see his heart breaking because he cannot change who he is and live with the Darlings, so do ours. For that is our plight. There is not an audience this film can’t play to for that very reason.

It’s a heartwarming, swashbuckling, funny, adventurous, to say that its an experience doesn’t do it justice. This film is truly a dream come true.

It’s impossible not to like this movie. Open your heart, shut off your brain and watch Peter Pan the way it was meant to be seen.

Yes, I included that in its entirety even though there are some aspects I’d caveat or amend today. One of the amendments would be about stopping remakes. My point was that there’s a crystallization of a narrative in a certain form, to me this version of Peter Pan is it. It’s conscientiously still a storybook version but more real than prior versions, darker and more dramatic.

The second statement above that would need clearing up was the “shut off your brain” segment. While I still agree that Peter Pan is more a visceral than intellectual experience I wrote that as a knee-jerk reaction to some of the over-analysis of certain production decisions I read at the time. In terms of the intellectual aspect this version perhaps places the most emphasis on the tension between Peter and Wendy and the inner struggle each faces; Peter’s clinging to childhood and Wendy’s realization that she needs to go towards adulthood. Furthermore, the Hook/Pan dynamic, to borrow a trite modern colloquialism, the “frenemy” status exemplified by Sumpter and Isaacs is brilliantly portrayed.

Quite a few of my selections I believe were directors going where they were not necessarily expected to, and PJ Hogan hadn’t done anything in this vein yet. That’s for sure.

Peter Pan (2003, Universal)

One history of the BAM Awards-related note. I used to in the days before streaming and on demand selections call the end of the year on-or-about Christmas. I believe Peter Pan’s release date was 12/27. Based on the conception and the strength of the trailer I extended the deadline that year and it became the first last-minute title to claim the number one spot.

This was and is a story I have a long history with. There was never a version quite like this one, and I don’t anticipate there will ever be one like it again. It’s something rather special. I knew that from the moment James Newton Howard’s “Flying” began (Another BAM note is that I erroneously eliminated it from scoring contention because of the classical cues used, when most of what I loved was original work).

Peter Pan
, in the face of being written off by many, won a slew of BAM Awards in one of the most dominant showings ever, and I can explain why further if need be, but I think my case is made.

Shyamalan Week: BAM Best Picture Profile – The Sixth Sense

Introduction

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Here’s another one where I’ve decided on a different tact as opposed to the pre-existing text I’d written. I don’t recall what the assignment was but I originally wrote a comparison between The Sixth Sense and American Beauty as they were best picture nominees. I’ve decided to edit that such that I only discuss The Sixth Sense and why it won the BAM Award for Best Picture of 1999. As I recently stated in the site’s first official piece on Django Unchained all the Best Picture winners should have write-ups and to that end, those that do not yet will get their due in December. However, since I decided to focus on the work of M. Night Shyamalan this week, I may as well post it now.

Overly-Cautious Warning: If you’ve never seen this film stop what you’re doing right now and go see it. I do spoil it eventually in this analysis.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

When I first saw the trailer to The Sixth Sense I knew I wanted to see it. I thought it was going to be one of “My Movies,” meaning no one but me would like it. There was a sneak preview a week before the nationwide release. My family and I got our tickets early via Moviefone. Thank goodness we did because there were many people walking up to the box office wanting to see it and being turned away because it was sold out. That was a good sign.

The film spent five weeks at #1 at the box office. I then started to hear the Oscar buzz stirring. After the Golden Globes and SAG Awards it didn’t seem likely it would do much at the Oscars. It didn’t. That doesn’t make it right, though. However, that’s why I had started the BAM Awards in the first place.

The Sixth Sense starts slowly but builds upon detail, one thing that give it a boost is amazing ensemble acting. The role of Cole’s mother is played by Toni Collette, an Australian actress. She had her Philly accent down so well I believed it was authentic at the time. She’s a very caring, playful mother but there’s also anger, fear and worry in her performance.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

If you want character development this film is definitely for you, it’s not a concept-only piece. It has a strong and fairly high concept, but there is a lot of character to it. You are thrown into the life of Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) immediately. There is a confrontation in the first few minutes. This confrontation ends up being pivotal in the rest of the story. Then a year later he meets a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). From that moment forward there is rarely a moment when one of them isn’t on screen.

Films of a supernatural nature like this one often have underlying messages and present real questions. These movies, like horror fiction, are generally frowned upon. This may be another reason it didn’t win at the Oscars. If that’s so, it’s not justified.

In my estimation, Haley Joel Osment is not a supporting actor in this movie, he is the lead. Just like Joseph Cross wasn’t a supporting actor in Shyamalan’s previous film Wide Awake. Bruce Willis like Rosie O’Donnell prior sold the film. While Crow starts and ends the movie, a vast majority of it is dealing with Cole and his issues. You can argue Crow is a lead based on perspective, but if you’re talking screen time and, more importantly, who faces and ultimately overcomes their obstacles it’s Cole.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Osment’s performance is incredible. The best acting is when you believe it’s happening and he sold it to you and you bought it because it’s real. He’s genuinely afraid. He’s shy and awkward when necessary and his suffering reaches off screen and wrenches your guts. In one scene when the thermostat drops and his breath vaporizes, I felt cold. Osment’s performance would not have been so amazing if not for the brilliant script. The script is nearly Hitchcockian in both its detail and the way Shyamalan is seemingly tossing elements up and plucking them down at exactly the right moment. The ways Shyamalan got everyone to believe Bruce Willis was alive then allowing hindsight to show he definitely wasn’t is both amazing writing and directing.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The Sixth Sense has subplots, even aside from the obvious ones which are the tales of the spirits that Cole sees. One example is the characterization of a secondary player: Tommy Tommasimo, played by Trevor Morgan, isn’t just a bully. His performance is typical of a bully when it has to be, but in his character’s cough syrup commercial it’s commercial acting and satirical. It also gives the audience good comic relief. Tommy in the end of his narrative is comedic and dejected. He becomes and inside joke between Cole and Malcolm. Another storytelling interlude goes as follows: In a classroom scene where the school grounds were the sight of hangings. His teacher denies the fact. Then Cole starts to yell calling him by his boyhood nickname. It’s very intense and serves as momentary comic relief as well. We empathize with Cole for it, and who wouldn’t want to know their teacher was called ‘Stuttering Stanley’? We see the hanged bodies later and perceptive viewers are awed, those who miss the connection will be frightened regardless. It works on two levels.

That’s what most of the brilliance of the script and the film is: connection. Cole’s mother is cleaning and she notices some spots shining in the pictures. All we see her do is questioningly look at it. Later, when Cole tells her his secret she believes him deep down. The proof is given after. That too is a subplot. It’s a movie of such intricacies but it works because of its intimacy. There aren’t too many characters in it. The movie deals realistically with the supernatural. There is a psychologist involved with the boy. Cole at one point is in the hospital and the doctor questions his mother about the bruises on his body. This is a societal critique, but a subdued one and a welcome one. Both her and the therapist are in the room and disgusted by these accusations. They don’t see each other. We don’t know that though.

The crumbling marriage of Malcolm Crow is also a pivotal part of the puzzle. This also works brilliantly as an illusion. The best illusions are the ones we believe to be true. He and his wife never speak to each other anymore. She is with another man and Malcolm never quite chases him down. What’s crucial is when Malcolm comes to the restaurant late. She signs the check says “Happy anniversary” and leaves. This is so key because we think she is talking to him. She wasn’t and what’s best is the way all the pieces fit together and nothing is really out of place.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The film also expertly foreshadows after re-viewing The Sixth Sense you see how it was set up all the way through the movie and you wonder how everyone took the bait, but we did. The ending was a shock. Nothing in The Sixth Sense seems forced or out of place. It all comes together in the end and it moves me. Cole asks, “Grandma says the answer is ‘everyday.’ What’s the question, Mama?” His mom is on the brink of tears and puts her hand on her chest, “Do I make her proud?” This is something we can all identify with. I got teary-eyed just thinking about it. I went to see it again with my cousins in Brazil. They all loved it. It’s truly a universal movie and now fourteen years on this films has not waned in my eyes, not in the slightest. It’s tremendous.

The Awards

The Sixth Sense was nominated for 10 BAM Awards, and won seven.

The wins were in the following categories:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best ActorHaley Joel Osment

Best Performance by a Child Actor – Haley Joel Osment

Best Supporting Actress – Toni Collette

Best Score – James Newton Howard

Best Cast

The Other Nominations were for:

Best Original Screenplay – M. Night Shyamalan

Best Cinematography – Tak Fujimoto

Best Supporting Actor – Bruce Willis