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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: M. Night Shyamalan

New M. Night Shyamalan protege: Here's how we're going to re-imagine '12 Angry Men'

November 19, 2010 | 12:26 pm

The first time Daniel Stamm met M. Night Shyamalan, the auteur of the supernatural was fiddling with a horn section.

"I got a call from my agents that Night is in town scoring 'The Last Airbender,'" said the German-born, L.A.-based Stamm, who directed this summer's horror sleeper 'The Last Exorcism." "He wants to meet you in an hour. And so I went down to the scoring stage, and James Newton Howard is there with a 110-piece orchestra, and Night is totally engaged as he talks to me, but every once in a while he'll turn around and say something like, 'Can we have the trombone louder?'"

Soon after, Stamm was on a plane to Shyamalan's Philadelphia farmhouse. He was told he was being considered for the second movie in The Night Chronicles -- the trio of films Shyamalan is shepherding that kicked off with this fall's "Devil" --  but wasn't told anything about it. Instead, in keeping with the filmmaker's trademark secrecy, Stamm was given a script, shown a locked room and instructed to stay there until he finished. Then he was told to give notes to Night.

The two proceeded to discuss the script (knowing Stamm, with a certain enthusiastic contrarianism). Whatever the young filmmaker said, it worked: He got the gig.

The 34-year-old Stamm represents what might be called a new breed in the movie business, particularly in its genre precincts. He's a younger talent who makes commercial movies but whose vision was honed outside Hollywood (he studied at a film school in  Ludwigsburg, Germany, before coming to the American Film Institute); who can stretch a dollar ("Exorcism," the story of a possessed farmer's daughter produced by Eli Roth, was made for less than $2 million and grossed more than 20 times that in the U.S.); and who can be paired up with more established filmmakers who serve as producers while he directs.

With Shyamalan, Stamm describes a relationship that's a mix of the hands-off and the interactive.

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Night's morning after: Has 'The Last Airbender' salvaged the embattled director's career?

July 6, 2010 |  7:00 am

The Last Airbender

"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" may have been the big opener of the weekend, but the big story (OK, one of the big stories) now that the weekend is behind us is just how well M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender" did, even as critics belched with displeasure and audiences didn't respond much better in post-screening surveys.

"Airbender" netted some wincing critical notices -- and as many of those who saw the fantasy film about a magical child named Aang trying to save the world can attest -- for good reason. (The Times' Kenneth Turan noted "Airbender's" "determinedly unsophisticated dialogue" and said that "nothing about the film's functional visual effects makes a major impression.")

Yet people came to see the film anyway, with the movie grossing a very solid $71 million over the five days it played this long holiday weekend in the U.S. As my colleague Ben Fritz points out, "Airbender's" box office grosses exceeded the expectations of both studio Paramount and many of its competitors, and, as it happened, also outdid another big-budget fantasy film this summer in "Prince of Persia."

Even taking just the four-day weekend domestic total of $53 million for "Airbender," or the three-day tally of $41 million, it's an impressive take, the highest three-day U.S. total among Night's last three films. This as the director's latest entry into his library of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror earned some of the worst reviews of his career. (And that's saying something -- since Night's reasonably well-reviewed "Signs" garnered a 74% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the director's numbers have steadily declined; he outdid the mediocre 43% of "The Village" with the tepid 25% of "Lady in the Water," sank lower with 18% for "The Happening" before a putrid 8% for "Airbender.")

Certainly, the "Clash of the Titans" effect was at work here, as higher ticket prices from a late conversion to 3-D helped boost the bottom-line gross. Paramount's generous marketing campaign didn't hurt either. And there's at least one contextual factor: pretty much since "Independence Day" (and in some ways, long before it), this has been a weekend reserved for action releases. The last five July 4th weekends brought the release of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Hancock," "Transformers," "Superman Returns" and "War of the Worlds." "The Last Airbender" doesn't exactly match the pyrotechnics of most of those films, but absent a Michael Bay-a-thon this weekend, moviegoers seemed to have turned here for their action buzz.

Given all these factors -- and the fact that lukewarm word of mouth (the movie earned a "C" CinemaScore) could mean it ends its U.S. run quickly -- an interesting question reveals itself, like Aang's telltale tattoos: Has Night --gulp -- re-established himself as a director capable of a box-office draw?

The existence of said factors could work against him, and those looking for signs of Night's once-active creative vision might be even further put off than before. [UPDATE: And yes, as many commenters rightly point out, much of the opening-weekend success can be chalked up to the innate popularity of the Nickelodeon series.] But the numbers should prove a powerful weapon. A $70-million opening isn't easy to pull off, no matter how long the holiday weekend or how dimensional the opening-weekend screens.

It's an important question for a director who hasn't had the clout he once had to get a quirky passion project through the pipeline, and who also has been looking to show he's still reliable enough to be put in charge of a big budget (about $150 million here, according to some estimates, a budget larger than any he's piloted before).

And it's an essential question for "Airbender," whose final scene is set up as a tease for a new movie -- in fact two more are waiting in the wings (or Night's mind).

In his "Last Airbender" review, a displeased Roger Ebert memorably said that he hoped the franchise proved true to its name. After these surprisingly good numbers, we wouldn't be so sure.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Dev Patel in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender." Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Filmgoers beware: 'The Last Airbender' is NOT like 'The Last Emperor'

July 1, 2010 |  1:29 pm


I have a confession to make: I've always had a fondness for http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001EOQCMG?ie=UTF8&tag=latimes-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001EOQCMG"The Last Emperor," the sweeping movie about the life and times of the royal Pu Yi of China. Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece, the last foreign-language film to win best picture (and eight other Oscars)," is one I associate closely with my discovery of art-house cinema in the late 1980s. 

So you can imagine my excitement at hearing that Hollywood had decided to reboot the franchise.

The story in this new movie, which Paramount had cagily renamed "The Last Airbender" (you don't want to scare anyone off -- smart devils) seemed similar, only better. A young anointed one would face trials and tribulations while wars between civilizations swirled around him. A look at some of the studio marketing material, included above, confirmed that this was going to be a very comparable filmgoing experience to the one I had more than two decades ago. There would be a new "The Last Emperor"!

Anticipation filled my mind and excitement ran through my heart when I received an invitation to a "Last Airbender" screening this week. This movie was going to bring back all that was once good about moviegoing. Character nuance, striking cinematography, a parable of the modern world -- all would be present. I eagerly scooped up my 3-D glasses, certain that when I looked through them I would see a new world -- and, perhaps, a new soul.

At first things seemed to be going smoothly. I watched as Zuko the Fire Lord captured Aang the Airbender, which struck me as very similar to when the Red Army put China under Soviet rule and captured Pu Yi. I was equally enthralled thinking about how Pu Yi was installed as a puppet ruler of a Japanese state, and realized it was being perfectly re-created here when Fire Nation Commanders kill the Moon Gods and drain the life force out of the Waterbenders.

I also thought about the anarchy and cultural uncertainty Pu Yi faced in the early days of the Chinese Republic, and realized it was much like when the Waterbenders Katara and Sokka find themselves in a prison riot with the Earthbenders. This was a great remake!

The visuals were just as exciting. Many of the "Last Emperor" shots of the Forbidden City, shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, were expertly re-created on the sets in Reading, Penn., and remastered in a 3-D conversion laboratory.

AirbBut as the movie went on, it became clear that the people who made this movie weren't very faithful to the original at all. There was almost nothing, for instance, about Pu Yi's upbringing in the royal court of the Manchu Aisin-Gioro ruling family, or of his proletarian transformation during Mao's Cultural Revolution.

And where was Pu Yi when he realized he was complicit in atrocities against the Japanese? I'm all for artistic license, but did the people who made this film even read Long-hsuen Hsu's "History of the Sino-Japanese War"?!

I decided to find out more about the people who made this movie. Who is this "M. Night Shyamalan," I wondered? I went back and looked at what else he had directed and realized he had tried to remake Bertolucci before -- and failed. This "M. Night" had made "Lady in the Water," about a troubled young woman who seeks solace and refuge with an older man. But as I started watching it I realized it wasn't like "Last Tango in Paris" at all. "M. Night" had completely botched it.

I tried another one, taking a movie Bertolucci only wrote, thinking it might be easier for "M. Night" to remake that. I looked at an "M. Night" movie about a man who tries to protect innocents from an outside threat. But no matter how you design the marketing poster, Touchstone Pictures, you're not going to convince me "Signs" is as good as "Once Upon a Time in the West."

Sure, you can go see "The Last Airbender" this weekend. But don't let the analogous plot points or the very similar marketing fool you. It is nothing like "The Last Emperor."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photos: "The Last Emperor" and "The Last Airbender." Credits: Columbia Pictures and Paramount Pictures


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Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.


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