Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass opens this weekend, and it sees the writer-director reaching big: Not only wrestling with a cosmic explanation of how the universe works, but also tying together his previous films Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2017).
The strain shows, but this has always been an issue for MNS: He has moviemaking skills that surpass most of the directors of his generation (he actually understands that how you put the frame around an image matters, for instance), but his grander ideas sometimes get the better of him.
After Split came out, the film critics who make up Framing Pictures, filmed at Scarecrow, talked about Shyamalan’s skills in 2017. Check that out here.
I looked through my files and found my Film.com review of Shyamalan’s second feature (the first to receive wide distribution), Wide Awake. Some of his issues were already present in that one, as I discovered. Needless to say, if you want to explore of re-visit the work of this filmmaker, Scarecrow has his work in abundance (but seriously, stay away from The Last Airbender).
The one moment of honest revelation in Wide Awake comes when the movie’s heavy philosophical questions are tossed around by the fifth-grade heroes. Discussions about the existence of God are offered up, but one kid qualifies his ideas by observing, “I drink chocolate milk through my nose. What do I know?”
That’s not good enough for the protagonist, Joshua (Joseph Cross), who can’t seem to wake up in the mornings; his parents have to walk him through washing up and brushing his teeth, because his eyes won’t open. Joshua’s worried about the afterlife of his late grandfather (Robert Loggia), a kindly gent who pops up in flashbacks. Most kids would be terrified to have Robert Loggia as their grandfather, but little Joshua bonded with the old man, and now he wants to make sure that Gramps is truly in heaven.
Therefore he poses metaphysical questions throughout the film’s running time: to his parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delany), the priests at school, his fellow students, and especially to a plain-talking nun (Rosie O’Donnell). She’s the Barry Fitzgerald figure in the movie: twinkling and cute, she teaches class by filtering everything through her love of baseball: “If you were captain of the apostles’ team, who would you pick to bat cleanup?” Even the unflaggingly likable O’Donnell can’t do anything with a role like this.
The writer-director of Wide Awake is M. Night Shyamalan, a 26-year-old NYU grad with a little-seen debut film to his credit, Praying with Anger. Shyamalan’s style consists of ladling on the music, sweet sentiment, and heavenly light, all of which bathes the movie in a thick, sickly goo. Shyamalan is obviously sincere about engaging subjects that many children’s movies don’t tackle, but his innocent approach crosses the border into complete naïveté; or doesn’t he know that the sight of the 11-year-old hero going into the restroom with an elderly priest sets off all kinds of alarm bells these days?
I can’t remember much of the second half of the movie because I zoned out, my system crashing from the sugary sweetness of it all. There’s an irony: The movie’s called Wide Awake, about a kid trying to wake up, and it puts you to sleep. The kid actor, Joseph Cross, is amiable and natural (he also appeared in Desperate Measures). As for Denis Leary and Dana Delany, we can only assume they have the usual talk-show reason for taking such tiny, colorless roles: “I’d really like to make a movie my kids/grandchildren/nieces and nephews could see.” You sit there praying for Denis Leary to launch into some riff on the horrors of Catholic school, but all the adults in the movie are neutered. As for the kids, they speak in phrases and ideas far beyond their years, as screenwriters love to have them do. This movie needs less speculative philosophy and more chocolate milk going up its nose.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.