‘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.

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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: Cinderella (2015)

July 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

cinderella

There have been a lot — some would say too many — fairytale reimaginings over the last few years. Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Beastly, Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, just to name a few.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Cinderella, I’m glad to say, is not like any of those movies. It’s a return to roots; a reminder that such stories don’t necessarily need a makeover, and that perhaps keeping them the way they are might be for the best. It’s basically the studio reminding us — and let’s face it, they’re right — that reimaginings might not be as good the originals.

That’s not to say Cinderella is merely a lazy live-action remake of the old 1950s Disney animated film. Brannagh and writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy, and soon, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One) manage to inject new life into the story with some subtle but welcome variations while maintaining the overall structure and spirit or the original tale. The humour is light and Brannagh-ish, and the special effects and costumes are pretty but not overwhelming. Fuelled by solid performances, this is an authentic and charming adaptation. Notwithstanding how straightforward it is, the results are surprisingly effective and strangely refreshing.

You know the story already so there’s no point in giving a proper overview. Skinny-waisted Lily James from Downton Abbey plays the titular heroine, who is left to the mercy of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) after her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) pass away. Richard Madden (holy crap I just realised he’s Robb Stark!!!) plays the Prince, Derek Jacobi plays his father the King, Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter is of course the Fairy Godmother.

However, rather than just being about a pretty girl who falls for and gets rescued from poverty and slavery by a stud muffin — with the help of some magic — this adaptation tries to add some workable dimensions and cover up flaws of the original story.

Cate Blanchett’s stepmother character, for instance, isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil. We’re given glimpses of her genuine concerns, which helps us understand why she has become the way she is. Plus Blanchett is really good in the role, as she seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a devilish, multi-faceted villain.

Recurring themes include kindness and forgiveness, duty and love, and a lot is said about economic and social status. Bear in mind most of it is just on the surface, but kudos to Brannagh for at least trying to insert some layers and depth into what is still ultimately a fairytale. I don’t agree with criticisms that it’s not “feminist enough.” This Cinderella is progressive; not every woman wants to go full Joan of Arc like Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite Brannagh’s efforts, there are still some things that a live-action movie adaptation of a flawed story cannot work around. The whole glass slipper thing — you know, getting every girl in the kingdom to try it out when they know what she looks like — still makes no sense.

Quibbles notwithstanding, Cinderella is a strong film, one that is suitable for children and adults alike. Humour, romance, magic and a good lesson or two, it’s a feel-good experience the whole family can enjoy. I’d rank it just behind my second-favourite Cinderella film, Ever After, and there’s no shame in that.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

January 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Big Hero 6 is the kind of animated film I would have thought was the best thing ever when I was a kid. Kid geniuses, cool superpowers and a cute robot friend to boot, it’s every little boy’s dream come true. I admit I had a great time with it as an adult too despite its fairly straight-forward sci-fi action premise, conventional plot and Avengers team concept (not surprising because it’s loosely based on a Marvel comics series of the same name).

Set in the fictional hybrid city of San Fransokyo (even though the Japanese aspects remind me more of Osaka), Big Hero Six is all about the conveniently named Hiro, a 14-year-old genius who loves to design fighting robots and using his 3D printer to turn them into reality. Without giving away too much plot, let’s just say Hiro designs something really cool that ends up being utilised by a masked villain for evil purposes, and it is up to him and his team of five very clever friends to save the day.

Big Hero 6 does not break any new ground, but it’s a strong effort by Disney that ticks all the right boxes. The visuals are colourful and easy on the eyes; the characters are affable and have plenty of heart; the action is exciting and creative; and the innovation — in particular the designs of the robots and their abilities — is very impressive. None of these things would matter very much if the film doesn’t have heart, but fortunately it does thanks to the strong development of Hiro’s journey.

If you’ve seen the trailer or the posters you’ll know there’s a very adorable white inflatable robot called Baymax, which is a health care assistant designed by Hiro’s brother Tadashi. It’s totally deliberate, but Baymax succeeds in supplying the film with ample cuteness and humour. You know that’s what he’s designed to make audiences feel but you can’t help but fall in love with him.

Big Hero 6 is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars next month and I’ll probably be rooting for it to win. It’s not super hilarious like the snubbed Lego Movie, it’s not super cute and moving like Up, and it’s certainly not on the level of Toy Story, which is all of those things and more — but Big Hero 6 succeeds as a fun, entertaining and pretty animated film that audiences of all ages will enjoy.

3.75 stars out of 5

 

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Sometimes you just have to go against the grain. Despite the awesome ensemble cast, the reputation of stylish director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4), the box office and critical success, there is only one thing I am certain of: Into the Woods is a shit film.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods cleverly builds a world combining several Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. At the centre of the story is a couple played by Emily Blunt and James Corden, who come in touch with all these classic fairy tale characters as they try and break a curse that has prevented them from having a child.

It sounds like a fun idea, and for the first few minutes of the film (at least) it was not difficult to see the potential of the premise. You get a bunch of big name stars — from Meryl Streep (whom I cannot believe was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role at the upcoming Oscars) and Anna Kendrick to Chris Pine and Johnny Depp — playing wacky characters. The tone is light and tongue-in-cheek, and the script makes good use of our knowledge (and the characters’ lack of knowledge) of the fairy tales they’re in.

And so it came as a slow and painful shock to me that Into the Woods simply didn’t work as a feature film. It may have as a Broadway musical — I don’t know because I haven’t seen it — but I found myself not caring much for the story or the characters. There are some admittedly funny moments, many of which are sarcastic or involve Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s unfortunate prince, though the whole “turning fairy tales on their head” gimmick grew tiring in a hurry.

At 124 minutes, the film is far too long and the dark final act dragged on for what felt like an eternity. I actually thought the movie was already long when it hit its faux ending much earlier and had to be forced to endure about another 20 minutes of soulless mayhem.

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with the production per se, though as a whole Into the Woods failed to engage me. I couldn’t get into the story because it was so all over the place, I didn’t get into the songs because there was nothing resembling a catchy melody or song, and I didn’t care about anything or anyone because there was no heart or genuine emotion.

Maybe it’s my bias against fairy tale “reimaginings” or my inability to get most musicals, most notably the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables from 2012. But  even had I approached it a clean slate I just don’t see how I could have come to a different conclusion — and that’s the film is strangely detached, unexciting, and far too long.  It’s a pretty movie to look at and I have the utmost respect for the talented cast on the screen, though these positives alone are insufficient to drag Into the Woods out of the shitter.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

August 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

maleficent

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Maleficent, the new re-imagining of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale, is that I didn’t mind it. That’s already saying a lot, given that I have not withheld my disdain for similar efforts in recent years, from Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Maleficent is the most visually stunning film of the lot, with colorful creatures, fairies and a magical world full of wonder. It is also far more emotionally engaging than those other films thanks to Angelina Jolie, who is magnificent as Maleficent (see what I did there?) and deservedly singled out for her performance.

It was a relief to discover that Maleficent was not a supporting character — ie, the film was not simply trying to use Jolie’s fame to promote a film that is otherwise dominated by other lesser known actors. True to its title, Maleficent is all about Jolie’s character, who has been tweaked to become both the (wronged) villain and hero of this revisionist fairytale. 

Without giving too much away, Maleficient starts off as a cheerful young fairy who befriends a young human boy after saving him from the wrath of the creatures he stole from. Years later, as required by the story, an ultimate act of betrayal turns her into a vengeful bitch determined to exact her vengeance on the human world. Her fury ends up being manifested in a curse on a baby Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister from 2011’s Super 8), who grows up to become — you guessed it — Sleeping Beauty.

The rest of the film goes off on a very different tangent to the Disney cartoon, and, as with most of these re-imaginings, contain plenty of action and obligatory fighting sequences, though to the film’s credit it does feel slightly less coerced. A big reason is because Jolie is so good as the titular character that you actually feel something for her, to the point where all the special-effects-fuelled violence — unlike other films of this kind — begins to means something.

The problem Jolie’s superb performance, and her dominance, is that it renders everyone else in the movie insignificant (even the special effects, prosthetics and makeup used on her seemed more advanced than the others). Apart from Sharlto Copley, who barely holds his own as the King, just about all other characters fail to hold our attention, from Maleficent’s useful shape-shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) and the boring prince (Aussie Brenton Thwaites) to the three “good” pixie fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Elle Fanning, in particular, came across as a poor choice for Sleeping Beauty. Her beauty is a subject for debate, but the strange thing is that she feels too young for the role, despite being the same age in real life as her character (16). I guess it says a lot about Hollywood’s tendency to cast much older actors for younger roles. More pertinent is Fanning’s “acting,” or lack thereof, as all I can pretty much remember of her is the fakish stupid grin she had plastered on her face throughout most of the film.

The other issue I had with Maleficent was how much they had to twist the story so that it fit within the scope of the Sleeping Beauty narrative. There’s a fine line between changing too little and changing too much, and in this case I think they couldn’t find the right balance because it opened up too many plot holes and occurrences that were illogical, even for a fairytale. Part of it is because they tried very hard to make Maleficent a villain you could root for, so that every bad thing she did was justified, and even when she was being “evil” she wasn’t really. What they ended up with was a completely new standalone story, rather than a side story that complemented the original fairytale and filled in the gaps to give audiences Maleficent’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, except they still tried to squeeze in too many elements from the original Sleeping Beauty story, resulting in a weird hybrid that didn’t fully work.

But as I said at the start of this review, I didn’t mind Maleficent. It’s a flawed film with a saggy middle act, but thanks to Jolie’s film-saving performance, it’s much better than it otherwise would have been. Coupled with my low expectations, I admit I don’t regret seeing it.

3 stars out of 5