The worldwide theatrical release of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass this week has prompted a rush of appreciation online for Unbreakable, the first in what became a trilogy of superhero films spread out over nineteen years. With its deconstructionist take on superhero mythology, the 2000 flick, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, anticipated the great wave of 21st-century comic book movies and TV shows grounded in pseudo-realism.
Everything from The Dark Knight trilogy to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its initial emphasis on tech and science over magic, surely owes a big-screen debt to Unbreakable. On the small screen, shows like Netflix’s recently canceled Daredevil have taken a late cue from Shyamalan by focusing more on human drama and showing us street-level vigilantes who operate in the shadows in do-it-yourself costumes. One subplot on the final season of that show even sought to establish a realistic psychological framework for a super-villain by showing us his backstory with a sympathetic therapist, à la Split, the surprise backdoor sequel to Unbreakable.
As we await Glass and the conclusion to the story begun in these two movies, let’s take a look back at Unbreakable and what made it so special and ahead of its time as a superhero film.
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Early reviews of Glass, the first big movie of 2019, have mentioned how writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was once seen as the next Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. For at least a three-year stretch at the turn of the millennium (five, if you count the two years after Signs, but before The Village), Shyamalan stood as a worthy successor to the throne of populist filmmaking, capable of delivering high-concept thrills in an intimate, character-based way. Maybe the world at large needs reminding of his erstwhile crowd-pleaser status, because it’s been a long time since he graced the cover of Newsweek magazine. Among cool kids, there’s a rather revisionist tendency now to discount the years of widespread appeal Shyamalan enjoyed before he became a critical punching bag and a laughingstock among audiences during movie trailers.
More than any other living filmmaker, perhaps, Shyamalan is one who has experienced the extreme highs and lows of mass popularity. Some rate him a cinematic one-hit wonder. If you were basing that solely on the global name recognition of The Sixth Sense, you might be right. Others reckon him a two-hit wonder, with everything after Unbreakable being a mixed bag … but if you’ll forgive the subliminal Signs pun, that doesn’t quite hold water, either. To really come away with a full appreciation for the arc of Shyamalan’s career and how it went wrong, then right again, you’d need to take a deep dive into his filmography. 1999 was the year he broke through to the cultural mainstream; the first sign of trouble came half a decade later, with a TV movie called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan.
Twenty years. Twelve movies. One “event series” on television. Let’s board the quality roller coaster and take a long ride through Shyamalan history.
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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch isn’t the first movie to test the concept of a Choose Your Own Adventure-style narrative with diverging pathways on-screen. In late 2017 and early 2018, Steven Soderbergh did it with his murder mystery app and HBO movie, Mosaic. With its availability on the worldwide streaming service of Netflix, however, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has taken the concept to a new level, giving a global viewing platform to a new kind of interactive cinematic storytelling.
In the movie, the viewer becomes a backseat driver for the main character, but while it might feel like you’re steering the story for a while, it soon becomes clear that Bandersnatch — to quote Lost — “has a way of course-correcting itself.” As it presents viewers with decisions, it doesn’t quite go all-in on the idea of a branching narrative with different conclusions. Instead, it wants to mix and match endings, showing you multiple outcomes without committing to any single one.
The movie prefers you to make certain choices over others, so much so that it will return you to those choices and give you a second chance to choose the right one, as it were. In a way, this goes along with the idea of a video game, with Pac-Man not giving up on reaching the final level even though he’s died. It also goes along with the age-old theme of free will versus determinism, which is something that Bandersnatch has on its mind. Let’s take a spoiler-filled look at the movie’s tangled decision web and examine how viewer missteps and system course-corrections enforce the notion of choice as an illusion.
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If the definition of an auteur is a director whose authorship is self-evident from their signature filmmaking style — so much so that you could theoretically identify their movies without seeing a name credit — then Terrence Malick is a winning candidate for the title. Left unchecked, Malick’s style of whispery voiceovers and immaculately framed nature scenes can be overbearing. In recent years, he’s fallen out of critical favor, earning increasingly mixed reviews … in direct proportion, it would seem, to how newly prolific he’s become.
Since the late-career peak of The Tree of Life in 2011, Malick has raised his output significantly, releasing a swift succession of films. Some have accused those films of playing as little more than extended cologne commercials, with movie stars cavorting to classical music. There was a time, however, when a Terrence Malick film was more of an event, one that might only come along once every two decades. After helming two landmark New Hollywood films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick did indeed go on hiatus for twenty years.
We are now another twenty years removed from his comeback film, the star-studded World War II epic, The Thin Red Line. Backed by an all-time great Hans Zimmer score, the movie went into limited release in late December 1998. The years have not lessened the effect of its visual poetry. This is a motion picture that plays like a prayer, probing the duality of the human spirit, showing the struggles of numerous characters as the war and Mother Nature play out indifferently around them. Martin Scorsese was right: it’s one of the best films of the 1990s.
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Two of the 20th century’s greatest films are bound together by the same historical tragedy. When it arrived in theaters in mid-December 1993 — just six months after his summer blockbuster, Jurassic Park — critics and audiences alike embraced Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as a masterpiece. More than just an awards season drama, the film provided what’s been called a “first foundational encounter with the Holocaust” for a whole generation of viewers. It soon emerged as the crowning achievement in Spielberg’s career, earning him his first Best Director Oscar and his only Best Picture Oscar. In 1998, a mere half-decade after its release, Schindler’s List placed in the top ten on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time.
The movie had its detractors, however. Not everyone was enamored of Spielberg’s dramatic approach to the weighty, real-life subject matter. One of the most vocal critics was Claude Lanzmann, a French filmmaker known for his own landmark Holocaust documentary, Shoah. Released in 1985, Shoah helped inspire the pseudo-documentary look of Schindler’s List. In 2012, it was this film, not Spielberg’s, that showed up in the results of the British Film Institute’s once-a-decade poll of the 50 greatest films of all time. Yet when Shoah was commemorating its own 25th anniversary back in 2010, Lanzmann lamented to The New York Times that his film had “disappeared from the American scene.”
Earlier this year, Lanzmann passed away, and now all eyes are on Schindler’s List again as we recognize the quarter century that has passed since its release. Recent world events have made both of these films more relevant than ever, and rather than be at odds, Schindler’s List and Shoah stand as necessary companion pieces in the preservation of Holocaust awareness.
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When movie fans think of Sam Raimi, they most likely think of Evil Dead or Spider-Man. Raimi’s name has become inextricably linked with these two franchises, the former of which he created and which launched his career as a feature filmmaker. As it progressed, the original Evil Dead trilogy leaned from splatter into slapstick horror. From Darkman onward, even Raimi’s superhero films toggled between moments of horror and comedy. Think of the “horror hospital” scene in Spider-Man 2, where an operating room turns into a scene of shrieking terror as the sentient, serpentine arms of Doctor Octopus come to life and kill the surgical staff (including one doctor who utilizes a bone saw as a weapon in a callback to Ash Williams). It’s pure Raimi: funny but scary all at the same time.
The mid-to-late 1990s marked a transitional phase in Raimi’s career. As the cult director went mainstream, he ventured outside his usual genre wheelhouse and made a series of films that were less distinguishably Raimi-like than their predecessors. Sandwiched between a western and a baseball drama was a neo-noir thriller set in the snowy fields of Minnesota. More than just a foray into Coen Brothers territory, that thriller — A Simple Plan — is perhaps Raimi’s most mature, meaningful film to date.
On December 11, 1998, A Simple Plan went into limited release theatrically, allowing it to qualify for the Academy Awards. Of all the titles in Raimi’s filmography, this is the one that’s the most straight-faced, the most grounded in some semblance of pseudo-reality. It’s a character-driven, small-town crime drama that zeroes in on the human horror lying beneath the veneer of seemingly good people. What would you do if you and your friends found a bag full of money? Who would you kill to protect it?
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Endings are natural. In its zeal to depict a post-apocalyptic world where no one is safe, The Walking Dead has killed off a lot of characters, so on the surface, it would seem to understand that idea very well. With its revolving door of cast members and showrunners, the show has superficially embraced change, all the while maintaining a certain underlying status quo.
When news broke this summer that the show’s star, Andrew Lincoln, would be leaving The Walking Dead in its ninth season, we didn’t know what the fate of his character, Rick Grimes, would be. It was probably too much to hope that he would ride off into the sunset. Yet while it might seem like common sense that Rick would simply be fed into the meat-grinder, there was always a chance that the show would find a way to write him off without killing him.
If so, he wouldn’t be the first character to disappear and be kept on hand for a later possible comeback. Other Season 1 names like Morgan, Merle, and Morales (remember that guy?) had exited the show, only to reappear seasons later as guest stars or even full-fledged recurring characters. Following last night’s episode, “What Comes After,” we now know how that squares with Rick’s fate. Let’s dive into heavy spoilers about Rick Grimes and how his 120-episode arc reflects what is arguably a fundamental flaw in The Walking Dead: namely, its early mission statement to be the “zombie movie that never ends.”
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In this edition of Theme Park Bits:
- Double-time it to Universal if you want to add some new Fantastic Beasts wands to your collection.
- Soon we’ll all be nursing a Halloween Horror Nights hangover as this year’s event comes to a close.
- There’s no better time than a 25th anniversary to ride the Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland.
- Mark your TV calendars for a Christmas parade and preview of the new Cars attraction in Florida.
- Captain Marvel and characters from Ralph Breaks the Internet have meet-and-greets on the way.
- One talented tiki bird is about to spread her wings beyond Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
- And more!
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Cool Posts From Around the Web:
Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead is the little zombie movie that could. Made on a shoestring budget of about $27,000, the Japanese film turned worldwide festival favorite has since earned back a whopping 1,000 times its budget. Its box office numbers would be a victory by any measure, but they’re especially vindicating for a movie that initially opened in just one small Tokyo theater for a six-day run. They’d also have to be vindicating for Ueda, a 34-year-old first-time feature filmmaker who assembled a cast of unknowns for this project and only spent eight days shooting it.
In late September, One Cut of the Dead took home the Audience Award and the award for Best Director (Horror Features) at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. /Film’s own Jacob Hall was there and he called the movie “the best zombie comedy in years.” Others have mentioned it in the same breath as Shaun of the Dead. I was curious to see this film because of all the buzz surrounding it, so I jumped at the chance to be in the theater when One Cut of the Dead made its homecoming at the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival.
It seemed like the perfect venue. The only catch? The movie was screening on Halloween night, when Tokyo turns into a street party on par with Times Square, New York City, on New Year’s Eve.
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Netflix’s anime Godzilla trilogy has suffered in some ways from the staggered method of its release. The installments have been spaced out about six months apart from each other so that the movies could enjoy a theatrical run in Japan before their worldwide Netflix release. In retrospect, this is a series that might benefit more from a binge-watch.
The concluding film, Godzilla: The Planet Eater, vindicates the trilogy in a way that manages to stay true to it while also being true to the franchise and what fans have come to expect when they sit down for a Godzilla movie. If the name Ghidorah isn’t on your radar, it should be. He’s Godzilla’s arch-nemesis, the fearsome three-headed dragon who will be making his live-action Hollywood debut next year in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. In The Planet Eater, Ghidorah makes his first appearance in animated form, where he and the cult of death surrounding him prove themselves to be the trilogy’s secret weapon: capable of plumbing great thematic depths through kaiju action and character intrigue.
On Godzilla’s 64th birthday, November 3, 2018, The Planet Eater will make its world premiere as the closing film of the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film screened for the press this week in advance of its festival premiere and we’ve got an early review of it for you right here.
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