‘The Man Who Heard Voices’ by Michael Bamberger

October 30, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews

man who heard voices

I haven’t been reading as much as I would like to this year. First I thought it was just laziness, but I’ve realised it’s because there hasn’t been a book that’s made me want to devour it like a rabid dog.

That changed when I came across — almost by accident — The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger. The book flew completely under my radar when it was released in 2006, the same year as Lady in the Water was released. However, with the recent release of Shyamalan’s so-called “return to form” film, The Visit (review here), articles referencing the book started popping up all over the place. They were mainly to remind us what an awful film Lady in the Water is, and to take digs at Shyamalan for being a megalomaniac who thinks his shit don’t stink.

So in all I honesty, I was looking forward to reading the book so that I could gain a better understanding and of just how much of a douchehole Shyamalan truly is. Now that I’ve read the book, I can say this about him: I’ve never been a bigger fan.

First off, some general background about how the book came into being. Bamberger met Shyamalan at a party in 2004 and became fascinated with the “it” director of the time. Night (the English name he made up himself) was still riding high from the phenomenon that is The Sixth Sense and follow-up successes such as Unbreakable and Signs. His latest film at the time was The Village, a moderate success that polarized some viewers but remains one of my Shyamalan favorites.

Anyway, Bamberger asked Night if he could follow him around and write an independent account of the making of the next Shyamalan project, Lady in the Water, based on a bedtime story about a “water nymph” the writer-director tells his two young girls. Night said yes, and, and The Man Who Heard Voices was born.

The book itself turned out very different to what I was expecting. Bamberger is a good writer who tries to keep himself out of the picture unless his opinion as an integral part of the experience is called for. Through observing on set and interviews, he gets into the heads of key people – most of all Shyamalan – involved in the making of the film and delves deep into their thinking and motivations. At first you wonder whether he’s just making stuff up, but he eventually explains that if he describes what a person is thinking it’s because that’s what the person has told him.

Night600

Night with his star Paul Giamatti

For people who have ever wondered what it is really like behind the scenes of a movie set, this is the book for you. I’ve never come across any book that gives practically a blow-by-blow narrative of exactly how a film is made, beginning with the writing of the script to workshopping it, from pitching it to a studio to meetings with studio executives, from selecting each member of the team in pre-production (we’re talking cinematographer, cameraman, set designers, special effects designers, music writers, script managers, caterers, stand-ins – the list goes on and on) to building the sets, from auditioning the actors to contract negotiations. I’ve always wondered how cool it would be to direct a Hollywood blockbuster, but this book has definitively put all such fantasies to rest. It’s exhausting; shooting 12-14 hours a day with random start times, braving the elements (in this case the scorching Philadelphia summer), managing all the personalities and egos, controlling the budget and dealing with studio politics. Even the most organised person can be overwhelmed.

For me, reading an in-depth account of a film production from start to finish was intoxicating stuff, though I can understand how it can be boring for others. The only feedback given to Bamberger by Shyamalan, who wanted the book to be completely independent, was to take out “the boring bits,” meaning the nitty gritty of the production process. Bamberger said he tried, and I think his writing style is conducive to a swift and enjoyable read. But that’s just me.

Now for the good stuff – what the book revealed about Shyamalan and the crew. Well, as expected, Shyamalan does come across as a dude with a massive ego and immense self-belief. However, he is also revealed to be quite fragile, suggesting a sense of low self-esteem. The contradiction is not unlike another genius I worship – Larry David.

In a way, it’s not hard to understand why Shyamalan turned out the way he did. Both his parents are doctors from India, and they always wanted him to get a “real” job like being a doctor or lawyer. Even when Shyamalan boastfully told his father that he had become the first director to grace the cover of Newsweek, his father’s response was that Time had a wider circulation.

My affection for Shyamalan comes from his hard work and pure balls. The book tells the story of his big break, The Sixth Sense, which was the ultimate example of betting on yourself. Shyamalan had made a couple of largely ignored indy films for Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, who thought very little of him. Night hated Weinstein’s interference, but he was contractually bound, so he thought of a bold and brilliant plan. He made sure the script for The Sixth Sense was so awesome that there would be a bidding war for it by the major studios. He sent it to all of them – except Weinstein, who received it later – at the same time and staged a make-or-break auction soon after. He gambled on the possibility that a top studio would pay so much money for the rights to make The Sixth Sense that Weinstein would scoff at matching it and let him go. He won when Disney offered US$3 million despite the condition that Shyamalan himself would direct, and the rest is history. The film would go on to gross more than US$670 million on a US$40 million budget.

Reading this book, you get an amazing sense of Shyamalan’s dedication to his craft. I know it sounds phony and pretentious, but he really sees his work as “art”, and he wants to suffer for it. I’ve only seen Lady In the Water once (I plan to see it again) and thought it was a piece of shit, but I respect and even envy his ambition and the amount of effort he put into the film, as misguided as it was. It also shows that, no matter how much a project can seem promising on paper or during its making, you can never tell how it’s going to be received once it is released.

Paul Giamatti from a scene in Lady in the Water

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep in Lady in the Water

Shyamalan is also portrayed in the book as a loving father and a generous and thoughtful director. On the set of Lady he had weekly prizes – such as overseas vacations – picked out of a hat for staff, and all of it came out of his own pocket.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that Shyamalan can come across as a complete dick because of his bloated sense of self-importance. Being called the “next Spielberg” can do that to some people. This is a guy who got his assistant to send a hard copy of his script to the homes of Disney execs at the exact same time like it was God’s gift to the world, and questioned their devotion when one of them wasn’t there on time because she had to take her kid to a weekend party.

Bamberger tells it as it is and doesn’t sugar coat it. Night thought of himself as a visionary on the same level as artists like Bob Dylan, and wanted to be the Michael Jordan of the film world (more on Night’s basketball exploits later). There was one incident in the book where Night shared an elevator with a mother and son who didn’t know who he was and had little interest in making small talk with him despite his best efforts. Afterwards, he says that if only the mother knew who he was she’d be clamouring to get her son into one of his movies, and lamented how people don’t “connect” with others anymore.

There was another incident in the film when leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard (whom he made a star in The Village) was getting cuts and welts from being dragged on grass during filming.

“This is not about you. This is about the movie,” Night told her. He was apparently more worried about continuity problems. “I can’t have a reputation as a director who doesn’t protect his actors.” Yes, Night, it’s always about you.

One interesting fact I discovered from reading this book was that Shyamalan is a huge basketball fan and can even ball a little. I think he’s around 5’11” and was likened by Bamberger to a solid high school point guard. Living in Philly, he was actually a neighbour of Allen Iverson and the two often saw each other playing on their respective driveways with their respective cousins or nephews. And apparently, Night once said that if he had unlimited time to practice for two years, he’d be able to shoot as well as any player in the NBA. Like I said, balls.

The now-legendary Disney blow-up during negotiations for Lady was also described in painstaking detail in the book, and it’s not as bad as proclaimed. If you don’t know the background, Disney had produced all of Night’s films since The Sixth Sense, but for Lady he ended up going with Warner Bros. Interestingly, the guy who picked it up from Warner because he loved The Village, Alan Horn, is now the chairman of Disney.

The truth of the split from Disney was much tamer. The went to a dinner where the execs told him they didn’t “get it,” but were still willing to give him US$60 million to do whatever he wanted out of goodwill. Too late. To Night, having someone say they didn’t get his art meant they “no longer valued individualism” and cared more about the bottom line. For him, it wasn’t about the box office; it was about their belief in him. He was more disappointed than angry. He was really only angry after Disney came out with a statement that they had parted ways due to “creative differences.” In reality, it wasn’t the hostile break-up it has been made out to be. Disney was hurt Night didn’t want to reconsider; Night thought he had no choice but to leave. Both sides thought they were the loser in the situation.

As for the other characters in the book, Paul Giamatti, the lead actor who played protagonist Cleveland Heep, comes out looking best. He’s shown as a down-to-earth guy, a humble dude who likes to act but doesn’t want to be a star. I had no idea his late father was the former commissioner of the MLB.

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Hollywood heavyweight Ron, is depicted as more of a mixed bag by Bamberger. She’s well-intentioned but comes across as a little phony; she’s sweet and true to herself with all her vegan philosophies and enviable determination to prove her worth, but is never able to shake off that weird privileged hippy wannabe vibe.

The other crew member who gets a lot of mentions is Chris Doyle, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking Aussie cinematographer. He’s an amazing character – a flamboyant genius and habitual line-stepper with his over-sexualized antics and alcohol problems. Reading about how Night manages this ticking time bomb on set is one of the most compelling aspects of the entire book.

The book actually ends without any discussion of how Lady in the Water actually performed. All we know is that Night surveyed 40 advanced screening subjects and was shocked to discover that it was his best-performing film since The Sixth Sense. Bamberger himself said he didn’t like the movie.

Well, Lady in the Water grossed US$72.8 million against a US$70 million budget, excluding the cut going to cinemas and tens of millions in marketing expenses. It got 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 36/100 at Metacritic. Night won for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor at the Golden Raspberries (beaten out by Basic Instinct II). Asian-American actress Cindy Cheung, who played Young-Soon Choi in the movie, won Worst Supporting Actress and Most Annoying Fake Accent at the Stinkers Bad Move Awards.

Shyamalan would go on to make The Happening with 20th Century Fox in 2008, which performed even worse with critics but was a financial success, making more than US$163 million against a US$48 million budget.

The Last Airbender (Paramount) in 2010 was Shyamalan’s nadir in terms of critical failure – 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and 20/100 on Metacritic. But surprisingly, it was still a financial success, making US$320 million on a US$150 million budget. And for all the jokes about After Earth in 2013 (11% on RT, 33/100 MC), the film still made US$244 million against a US$130 million budget on the back of moderately successful box office intake overseas.

And now, Night appears to be back. He directed the pilot of the TV show Beyond the Pines, which was well received. The Visit has been huge, making US$66 million already on US$5 million budget and with a 62% rating on RT and 55/100 score on MC. It’s his best-performing film, critically speaking, since Signs in 2002.

I’ve gotten a bit off track, so back to the book. The Man Who Heard Voices is a fascinating book and a wonderful insight into both Shyamalan and his filmmaking process. Interestingly, I have read some reviews that question why Shyamalan didn’t object to the publishing of the book because it paints him in such a bad light, and others that suggest the book is effectively a hagiography. I don’t believe either is true. While it is obvious that Bamberger has a soft spot for Shyamalan in his heart – why else would he write a book on him – he does, for the most part, divulge the bad and the ugly along with the good. My takeaways from the book are: nobody is perfect; making a film is a lot of work; excessive praise has never done anyone any good; you can be a dickhead but also a great director; hard work and determination pays off; and that you never know how a film will be received no matter how magical the production process may have been.

4.5/5

Movie Review: Jurassic World (2015) (IMAX 3D)

August 9, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Jurassic-World-poster-Mosasaurus

Like for many people who grew up in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was a major cinematic event in my life. It was a movie you heard about and just had to see. It wasn’t the first dinosaur movie, but it was the first that made you feel like the dinosaurs were genuinely real and that it was possible for them to be real. And most importantly, it was actually a great movie full of action, suspense and characters we cared about and could root for.

And so of course I was super excited about Jurassic World, the long-awaited “reboot” that has already become the third-highest grossing film of all time after raking in box office earnings of nearly US$1.55 billion in just six weeks (though it appears unlikely to catch Titanic‘s US$2.19 billion or Avatar‘s US$2.79 billion). I knew it wasn’t going to live up to unrealistic expectations, but I wanted to see an enjoyable blockbuster that would bring back some of the magic of the original while taking the spectacle to a whole new level.

The verdict? Mission accomplished.

Jurassic World cleverly mirrors the idea in the its story that consumers, having gotten used to the idea of “living” dinosaurs, can only be impressed by bigger, badder and scarier. The premise, which essentially ignores Jurassic Park II and III, is set 22 years after the original. Despite the disaster that was Jurassic Park, humans fail to learn their lesson as ambitious billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) decides to give the idea another go by building the massive Jurassic World theme park on the same island. But with kids having grown up in an era where dinosaurs are as real as animals they can see in a zoo, Masrani goes to great lengths to create even more dangerous creatures to draw new visitors.

At a basic level, it’s fundamentally the same film as Jurassic Park in that there’s a theme park of genetically engineered dinosaurs that get loose, a couple of kids who get caught in the middle of the mayhem, and a couple of adults trying to save them. Velociraptors also play a key role again. What it does different is broaden the scale and raise the stakes. This time, the kids are brothers played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, nephews of park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), more or less the Laura Dern character from the original. The Sam Neill character is replaced by raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who naturally has a romantic dynamic with Claire and is a bit of a swashbuckling hero.

How I feel about Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is analogous to how characters in those movies felt about their respective theme parks. Like it was for the kids in the original, Jurassic Park was for an awe-inspiring experience that completely blew my mind. Jurassic World, on the other hand, no longer has that jaw-droppingly awesomeness to it. Just like it is for the kids in this reboot, dinosaurs just aren’t as big of a deal to me anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still have a bloody good time looking at them chasing people around on a giant screen. They are, after all, still dinosaurs, and dinosaurs will always be cool.

The first half of Jurassic World does an excellent job in bringing the theme park to life. It’s as you would expect if such a park existed in reality, with various different sections, attractions and rides, a petting farm, an interactive museum, shops galore and glaring corporate sponsorship. This was something we didn’t get to see in the original because the park was not fully functioning, and I found it to be a lot of fun, especially as it was presented as though we — the film audience — are also visitors to this eye-opening and wondrous place.

The second half, when the dinosaurs predictably run amok, is also well-executed. Director Colin Trevorrow, previously best known for the Indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, does a solid job of building tension and creating a sense of chaos and despair. It’s always difficult to find the right balance of frights and humour in a film like this, but I think he gets it for the most part by keeping the focus on the action with only the occasional funny one-liner to give audiences a breather.

There is also apparently a lot of references and homages (or rip-offs, if you are a critic) to the original, which I’m not sure is a good or bad idea, though it didn’t really matter to me as I seriously can’t remember most of them anyway.

On the surface, therefore, Jurassic World is fantastic. From a popcorn movie perspective it won’t be easy to find experiences that are as spectacular and exciting. Where it struggles is all the other stuff that holds good films together — like logic, characters, and surprise.

Having been in development for more than a decade and having gone through numerous pairs of hands, Jurassic World is littered with plot holes and filled with nonsensical things galore. For some, this might kill the movie, but in its defense I think a lot of the problems are mitigated by the fast pace and fun factor. To me, it’s hard to avoid noticing the problems plaguing the plot and the script, though at the same time I found it relatively easy to move on from them without dwelling for too long.

The characters in the film are also not very well developed. Bryce Dallas Howard’s female lead is annoying and not particularly likable, while I feel they criminally underused Chris Pratt’s comedic talents in making him more of a typical action hero. He could have been super funny, charming and memorable like he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but instead he plays a character a dozen other guys in Hollywood could have pulled off without much of a discernible difference. If he ends up playing the new Indiana Jones, which is rumored and which I can totally see, I hope they let him be all he can be.

Flaws notwithstanding, Jurassic World is a rewarding summer blockbuster experience. While it fails to capture the magic of the original from more than two decades ago, as expected, it’s still a highly entertaining film packed with spectacular visuals and plenty of fun, thrills and excitement. It’s certainly a worthy reboot if you can try and ignore all the things that don’t work and just go along for the ride.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I did not want to see Jurassic World in IMAX 3D. It’s super expensive and 3D, as I have said many times before, absolutely sucks balls. But due to timing, it was the only session I could see, and while I enjoyed seeing it all on a massive screen, the 3D did annoy me to no end. The uncomfortable glasses (that kept fogging up), the added shade of darkness and the lacklustre 3D effects all contributed to a lesser experience.

PPS: The only returning character and actor is BD Wong, aka Dr Henry Wu, who doesn’t appear to have aged much over the last 20 years. Maybe he had been injecting dinosaur DNA in himself.

PPPS: Not sure how they will one-up this in the planned sequel, scheduled for release on June 22, 2018. That said, they have clearly and intentionally left a few things open ended, and I can see a few ways in which the story might go.

Movie Review: The Help (2011)

April 1, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Even before I saw The Help I knew it was going to be a polarising film.  While some called it the best film of the year, I had also heard that the film was accused of trying to ‘glamorise’ what some African-American maids had to go through during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s.  I can’t say I know enough about it or history to make any sort of meaningful comment on that, so instead I simply approached the film as a piece of entertainment.  And as such, I would say The Help worked on most levels, even though it didn’t blow me away like it did for many others.

The Help, based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of black maids as they work for their white bosses and look after their white children. Skeeter herself was more or less raised by a black maid, and unlike many of her peers, such as the insufferable Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), sees them as people rather than something a lot less. Two of the maids central to the story are Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who are both initially reluctant to help Skeeter with her book for obvious reasons but eventually take it in their stride.

I guess it’s easy to view The Help as a “good white person saves black people” kind of movie, because to some extent, it is. Skeeter is so obviously “good” and characters like Hilly are so obviously “bad” — there’s really no middle ground. As a result, I can see why some people felt the film was trying too hard to skew audiences in one direction, as Hollywood films often tend to do.

However, what prevents it from being more than merely a melodramatic feel-good movie aimed at making white people feel better about themselves are the awesome performances from Davis and Spencer, both of whom received worthy Oscar nominations. Spencer, who won the best support actress gong, was especially brilliant and stole the show as the outspoken Minny.  By making the film more about these extremely strong black characters rather than Skeeter, The Help ended up being a lot more entertaining and touching than I initially expected, without making me feel like I was being over-manipulated.

Also unexpectedly good was fellow best supporting actress nominee Jessica Chastain, playing the outcast Celia, who gave the film a different dimension with her affable naivete and sweetness. This is the type of film that would have been a complete flop had it not been for the strong ensemble cast. Full credit has to go to director and screenwriter Tate Taylor (who adapted the book) for eliciting such solid performances and penning an adaptation that utilises humour so well. Yes, although it tackles some serious themes, The Help comes across as generally quite light-hearted and contains plenty of funny moments.

At the end of the day, while it does oversimplify the situation a little (or a lot, depending on your point of view), I found The Help to be an entertaining feel-good film that generated exactly the type of emotions I expected it would. It’s not perfect and it’s not the type of film that usually appeals to me, but I think it’s a little unfair that the film is being criticised for not being certain things when it probably never intended to be those things in the first place.

3.5 stars out of 5!