M. Knight Shyamalan at the National Press Club

Posted on June 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm

M. Knight Shyamalan at the National Press Club Writer/director M. Knight Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “The Last Airbender,” “After Earth”), appeared at the National Press Club this week to talk about his side project, an intensive assessment of American schools and proposals for reform, as described in his book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.  He became interested in the issue after he visited two schools just four minutes apart.  In one, the students were vitally engaged and excited about all possibilities.  They gathered around him, asking if they could be in his next movie.  In the other, they recognized him but assumed that it could not possibly be the same man who made Hollywood films.  They had already internalized the idea that no opportunities would come to them.

Shyamalan is the son of doctors.  He was raised to believe in evidence and data.  He spent years trying to figure out the elements that separated effective schools from failing schools and found that there were a lot of passionate adults and a lot of “heated, accusatory” arguments but very little quantifiable, replicable data.  He had his own studies done and he found five core elements that were necessary for schools that made students excited about learning so that they would achieve at or beyond grade level.  All five were required.

First is: principals who spend 80 percent of their time teaching teachers (“the norm is 8 percent, like a coach not coaching the players”) and the creation of “an incredibly loud and consistent culture.”  He spoke frankly about the racism that is still a toxic force in the lives of children today.  “They’re getting a message shouted to them outside of the school and we’re going to shout one louder.”  That’s what school culture can do, especially in communicating a sense of community and possibility.

He also emphasized the importance of teachers.  A good one can sustain a student despite subsequent years of mediocre teachers.  But a bad one will make students lag for as much as three more years.  Data must be available for continuous assessment and feedback and to create a highest common denominator by making best practices replicable.  More time with the students is essential.  The school day and especially the school year do not provide enough time and kids who do not have access to resources at home fall too far behind over the summer to catch up.  And schools must be smaller.  By itself, keeping the school to 350 or fewer raises the graduation rate 17 percent.

Shyamalan was engaged and engaging, self-deprecatory (“celebrity advocates make my stomach cringe”) but passionate.  It was good to see his willingness to take on this complicated problem and be a constructive part of the solution.

 

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The Last Airbender

Posted on November 16, 2010 at 10:34 am

I am truly sorry to say that this movie is a big, dumb, dull, dud and a failure in almost every category.
It is difficult to imagine how even writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who seems to forget more about film-making with each successive production, thought that this cardboard claptrap could engage an audience. It is a disappointment to those of us who continued to hold out hope that Shyamalan could once again show us his genuine gift for cinematic story-telling, and it is an even bigger disappointment to fans of the popular animated television series who were hoping to see its spirit honored with a large-screen, live-action feature film.
I was hoping that Shyamalan’s creative energy would be sparked by working with stories and characters that were proven and created by others as the problem with his most recent films were a sagging sense of story and a disconnect from the audience. But instead of benefiting from the material here, he simply transferred the same problems. The story-telling is distant and chilly. The performances by the adult and child actors are stilted and wooden, with Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh the only one who creates a character of any kind.
The screenplay is so exposition-heavy the characters sound like they are chewing on rocks. And then much of it gets repeated. It even has the ultimate cliche of a character, upon discovering a mass killing, screaming up to the sky. “Forget an air-bender,” I thought as I watched. “This movie needs a cinema-bender.” You know, an editor. For a movie with so much focus on responsibility, you would think Shyamalan would recognize some sense of obligation to the source material and its fans.
The story-line tracks the first season of the series, which was called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The world is divided into four nations: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. At one time, each nation produced “benders” who had special powers enabling them to control their elements and communicate with spirit guides, and they lived in harmony. There is a single avatar, the same spirit reincarnated over and over, who can master all four elements, speak to all the spirits, and maintain the balance of peace and harmony
But there has been no avatar for a hundred years as our movie begins, and the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) is a cruel despot who will stop at nothing to control everyone. When he heard that the new avatar lived with the Air Nomad, he had them all killed.
But the young avatar, now the last of the airbenders, was not there. He is discovered inside an iceberg by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (“Twilight’s” Jackson Rathbone) of the Water Tribe. Together, they must protect the avatar from Orzai’s son (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel as Prince Zuko) and his general (Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao).
Every single system is a #fail, from the murky cinematography to the murkier storyline. Appa the flying bison has no majesty — he looks like a cross between a woolly mammoth and Mr. Snuffleupagus. The dialog sounds like it has been translated from another language, badly, with weird juxtaposition of fantasy-film-talk and contemporary syntax, and even the heaviest, most portentous comments are delivered as though the characters are talking about a trip to the mall. The special effects might be impressive if they were not exceeded by the imagination of the original animated series — or if they were better integrated into some sort of engaging narrative. And it has to be the poorest use yet of 3D technology. The only thing that jumps out of the screen are the too-frequent titles telling us of yet another confusing location shift and reminding us that the rest of the movie has no dimension at all.

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