Split Decision: Giving M. Night his day
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
Which is your favorite film directed by M. Night Shyamalan?
Bonus: what is your favorite use by Shyamalan of a Philadelphia-area location?
My favorite Night film is his comedy, The Happening, because it's just plain bonkers. It's so bad it's good.
And my favorite location is Rittenhouse Square, which is featured in a traffic jam in The Happening.
The Village is my favorite Shyamalan film as far as "movies that have inherent quality" goes. I'd still argue that it and Signs are his two crowning achievements, and that they prove he wasn't just a flash in the pan director who got a little too much hype a little too early. The twist was spoiled for me, as every Shyamalan twist has been, long before I actually watched The Village, but the way that twist is revealed is still terrific (shout-out to Roger Deakins for filming the requisite Shyamalan cameo purely in reflection). I just wish the twist wasn't placed right at the end-- give me a Village continuation before a Split.
My favorite of his movies is, honestly, The Last Airbender, because I never intended to see it and then watched it two or three times over one summer because a friend owned it and convinced everybody it was secretly amazing. And it is! My favorite part of the movie, besides it legally not being allowed to be named Avatar like its source material, is that one of the male leads blinks less than five times in his ~70 minutes on screen. This isn't a subtle thing, like Christopher Lloyd consciously not blinking in Roger Rabbit for aesthetic reasons. This is a white guy playing an Asian guy and bugging his eyes out like the Bird Box monsters are just off-camera. Avatar is both Shyamalan's nadir and a movie that reminds me of having a great summer with great people. It's the only one of his films I own on DVD.
My favorite Shyamalan Philly scene is also the Rittenhouse Square moment in The Happening. It's also my favorite because of context. A year after my partner started going to grad school in Philly, I flew out from the west coast to visit her. It was my first time in the city and it was a great week of being together after two years of living apart. Walking through Rittenhouse Square, she cut our conversation off and indulged the kind of shitty trivia I love and she tolerates: "We're in the park from The Happening." I felt alive for the first time.
I think my favorite Shyamalan is Unbreakable, although I've only seen most of his movies once, in the theater. Unbreakable is the only one I own I think, and I have watched it a handful of times since its release, always surprised each time by how engrossing it is. It's so solemn and deliberately paced, and so tightly controlled in ways that I think Shyamalan is always trying to be but often make him come off as self-important. He wants his stories to speak for themselves but usually it's his own voice or writing that he seems to be celebrating. That is not the case here. In fact, he seems set out to let Willis' understated performance do the talking and be the thing that he focuses his celebration on - this is a tour de force for Willis and Shyamalan seems very focused on making sure we the audience understand that he's one of the best actors in the business. I also think it's one of Shyamalan's best looking movies, with an extremely distinct color palette that tips its hat to the comic books it's inspired by. I am excited and hopeful for GLASS based on my love of this movie and my surprise at how much I enjoyed SPLIT, but I do have some trepidation about it that is mostly born of this idea that of all of his movies, this one seems the most poised to be a self-aggrandizing victory lap. If he slips back into that mode, I'm afraid it might break the reignited good will audiences seem to have for him again.
As far as Philly locales go, zoo at the end of Split surprised me that he was able to set the whole thing there without me suspecting it.
My favorite Shyamalan movie is still Unbreakable. The understated weight-lifting scene is still one of my favorite sequences in any Shyamalan movie, and Unbreakable preceded the whole "what if superheroes occupied the real world?" phase that we find ourselves in. That being said, the ending of Split actually made me stand up out of my chair, mouth agape. The Sixth Sense didn't even do that.
My favorite M. Night Philly filming location is Pretzel Park, right across the street from St. Josephat's Church in Manayunk. The park was featured in Unbreakable and is around the corner from a girl I dated for several years. Every time I visited, I would park along Pretzel Park, so when Bruce Willis' character parks in the same area, I felt the weird sense of "I was there too!”
Unbreakable by a mile. My original response blossomed into something long enough where it became its own post. Over the years, I’ve found more and more to mine out of his films.
Watching Split is one of my all time favorite experiences of watching a film. Not because of the reveal about its connection to Unbreakable, but because the opening scene takes place in the parking lot of the King of Prussia Mall (outside Urban Outfitters). Watching a film less than a mile from where a key (and pretty riveting) scene was filmed was kind of a surreal experience.
My favorite Shyamalan jam remains his unjustly overlooked 2004 period-thriller, The Village, which I wrote at great length about last Summer at our former site, Cinedelphia.com. You can read the piece by clicking here.
I don't have much more to say about it now – which shouldn't indicate that the film's mysteries and underpinnings were fully examined – so I'll simply note that I stand by much of what I wrote then and continue to believe The Village remains the superior example of M. Night's directorial prowess.
My favorite is The Village. He got me hard with that twist. Granted I was in high school, but I will never forget it!
I love his use of Philly locations because it is so clearly Philly, but it's often hard to identify where exactly in Philly. He doesn't just do it all on the art museum steps and call it a day. I guess I have to go with the park where Elijah Price first finds his comic book his mother left for him in Unbreakable. My reason is simple- it's across the street from the first house I lived in in Philadelphia, at N. 30th and Jefferson Streets in the Brewerytown neighborhood. You can even catch a glimpse of the house in the background in the scene above.
While I think Unbreakable is Shyamalan's best, my favorite is probably Signs. It features a pre-meltdown Mel Gibson doing some of his finest work across from a delightfully batty Joaquin Phoenix. Add to that some truly effective imagery and a chilling score from James Newton Howard, and you've got yourself a true rarity: a family friendly film that is absolutely terrifying. We can talk about the merits/demerits of the ending until we're blue in the face (it's not even remotely a "twist" - not by even the loosest definition of the term), but that's neither here nor there. What makes Signs work for me is how it's both scary and life-affirming, speaking to the most difficult truth of being alive: you're never really safe, but to fear chaos defeats the whole purpose.
I guess you could say it's about faith, but I prefer the term "blissfully hopeful ignorance." It's an important skill to develop.
As for my favorite Shyamalanian usage of a Philly location: gotta go with the Rittenhouse Square suicide chain in The Happening (a movie I can and will defend, despite it being pretty goofy).
Signs is my fave M. Night film, not because it's necessarily the best, but because I've never been more terrified by such a simple scare in a movie. You know the one. (The BIRTHDAY PARTY.) And yeah, the twist is.... well, is the twist. And actually seeing the aliens is kind of lame, but the movie is also really touching. Because family. It also validates how much water I drink in a given day. Prepping for aliens over here.
Signs. It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I remember enjoying the performances, especially Joaquin Phoenix and I really like the kids in this film too. I'm partial to anything involving aliens, and while I do wish they didn't reveal the creature design at the end, it's not enough to sour me completely. I also happen to think this film is scary. Corn fields are scary on their own, but when you're chasing a monster through them, it tends to ramp up the fear factor. I also really love the scene when Mel Gibson's character is confronted with the alien for the first time trapped in the closet, and the scene during the final "invasion" sequence when the whole family is down in the basement, and there's a scuffle off-scene but all we see is little Bo's feet illuminated by a dropped flashlight. At least these are the details that remain with me years later.
I also have some nostalgia for this film because all the "town" scenes were shot in Newtown, PA, where I grew up. Unlike Philadelphia, or other big cities depicted in film, it's especially strange to see the small suburb you live in on the big screen. The bookshop in the film is a place I frequented a lot as a teen. I will always regret not playing hooky from school to watch them shoot mere blocks away.
The films I remember best of his used more locations outside the city proper. Like I do love that he used the pagoda in Reading, PA, for The Last Airbender though.