Friday, July 21, 2006

Lady in the Water - Movie Review

Lady in the Water 2006

“Oh but if I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!”
- Monty Python & The Holy Grail

One of the most peculiar film career trajectories in recent years has been that of modern day suspense guru, M. Night Shyamalan. His breakthrough film in 1999, “The Sixth Sense” earned millions at the box-office and reaped in six Oscar nominations. And we hated it. We found it to be an overblown episode of “The Twilight Zone” with little dramatic thrust and a prolonged bang-the-audience-over-their-collective-heads “twist ending” that was completely useless to anybody who paid attention from the beginning. His follow up was less successful to the populace at large, but we found “Unbreakable” to be a darn good spin on the nature of heroism.

His take on U.F.O’s,Signs” was well regarded by some – us included – and lambasted by others for its routine “alien reveal”. With his next film, Night faced his first real critical trouncing. “The Village” was a simple take on group of Luddites who escape the modern world by forging their own village. Despite the clear explanation that poured forth throughout the storyline, Night was taken to task for his very brief (Thank God!) reveal ending that punctuated what we all knew beforehand. And here is where we disagree with the critical consensus. We found “The Village” to be his most mature, atmospheric and effective film. With a dazzling turn by Bryce Dallas Howard as a blind villager overcoming her own fears of darkness to rescue her true love, played brilliantly with a sly comic twist by Joaquin Phoenix.

Well, the good news is that the lovely and talented Bryce Dallas Howard returns to work with Night on “Lady in the Water”, and co-stars with one of the most talented actors around today, Paul Giamatti. Their combined talents almost save the day in this modern amalgam of various myths and legends. Almost. The problem here is that Night has begun to infuse his films with a bizarre self-mockery combined with a vitriolic lashing out against any naysayer that doesn’t thoroughly bow to his will. It’s a very strange and ultimately disappointing experience to say the least.

The “Lady” in the water is a nymph of sorts who has crossed over from the “Blue World” into our own to help guide the lost and foundering. She emerges from a suburban apartment complex swimming pool straight into the arms of their resident nebbish superintendent played with vim and vigor by our Paul Giamatti. What follows is his desperate attempt to help return this fair nymph to her watery world unharmed from demons that lurk in the underbrush.

And that’s as simple a plot reduction as we can provide. For in this film, Night has blissfully avoided any “B-I-G” twist endings – but unfortunately has decided to scatter about a million little twists throughout the film that rely too heavily on plot complications, red herrings and a need for an additional volume of Joseph Campbell’s fabled “Mythology” series. Now, we don’t mind the use of the fantastical and certainly with the right blend of artists and director we are fully prepared to enter a complex imaginary world. But not when they begin with the lead actress being called a Narf. “That’s no Lady, that’s my Narf!” Thud.

By the time the Narf has escaped the clutches of the moss covered grass demon dog labeled a Scrunt, who fears the all powerful tree dwelling Tartutics who are on guard to help the Narf regain her freedom via a giant eagle – we were praying they were all actually dead and that the film had been a bad dream. We might have been with Night and his crew, if were not for the total lack of a storytelling thruline. Is this film meant to be a fantasy film? A horror film? A fairy tale for adults? And when did Night completely lose his sense of humor? One of the things we enjoyed most about “Signs” and “The Village” was the gentle humor that ran throughout without becoming slapstick or forced. And believe us with such fine comic talent as Paul Giamatti, Bill Irwin, Jeffrey Wright and Tovah Feldsuh on board, it was a true waste of talent.

Paul Giamatti has finally broken through the acting hordes with his back to back brilliant turns in “American Splendor”, “Sideways” and last year’s Oscar nominated turn in “Cinderella Man”. Here, he is in very fine form as the befuddled building super whose daily dealings with his kooky cast of hundreds leaves him equally frustrated and exhausted. He manages to sell the wounded loser bit, combined with a hit-the-rafters stutter that might have sunk lesser actors. When the Narf . . . ahem . . . arrives and begins to beguile him with her wounded charms – exquisitely played by Bryce Dallas Howard, we understand what this film could have been. A truly adult fairy tale that reached out to the kid in all of us. Unfortunately, Night begins to smother any charm or magic with a series of bizarre characterizations and stereotypes that begin to sink the film with far less than the desired comic effect.

A young Asian student comes off much more “Two-Dollar-Make-You-Holler” whore than book lover. Her scowling mother who harbours all the secrets to the Narf world is straight out of a Margaret Cho act.

The young muscled lunkhead who only develops one side of his body, to what purpose we have no idea is completely thrown aside until his big moment arrives by which point we could care less. The elderly Jewish couple who apparently live in their own private Boca Raton kvetchfest from the 1960s is straight out of a retired Mel Brooks sketch. And worst of the clichéd bunch, the new resident who turns out to be a film and book critic used only as a punching bag by Night to vent his anger at his own critics.

What might have been a dazzling display of lurking shadows and mysterious omens turns into second rate digital monsters composed of shrubbery and ridiculously circuitous explanations of the fairy tale come to life with more updates than needed. By the hundredth time we have been updated with the particulars of the story, we simply throw our hands up in despair and pray the damned demon grass dog will devour them all.

It also doesn’t help that Night likes consider himself an actor, and not only in the brief cameo style of the true master of suspense and horror, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. At least Alfie’s narcissism extended to “blink-and-you-miss-him” long appearances in his film. Here, Night casts himself as one of the turnkey characters with the only other emotional arc to the piece. Let’s just say this simply. Night, you sir are no actor. He is only capable of portraying numbness and befuddlement on the level of an elementary school pageant. Which is fine if you’re one of the three little pigs in your local Red Riding Hood performance, but deadly in a major motion picture. His scenes fairly grind the film to a dead halt.

But by the point Night has his “big” dramatic scene to a response of crickets and yawns, we have failed to give a hoot about any character or situation. Be they Narf, Scrunt, janitor, racial stereotype or unfunny comic relief. This “Lady in the Water” is probably not the final chapter in Night’s film career, but it definitely deserves to be labeled his most dreary. And for a filmmaker known for his ingenuity in the retelling of mystery genres, we pray it is his last such venture. The source of all this mess is apparently a story Night created for his own children’s bedtime story. They should demand a new nanny, one with good storytelling abilities. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep
Bryce Dallas Howard as Story
Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Dury
Bob Balaban as Harry Farber
Sarita Choudhury as Anna Ran
Cindy Cheung as Young-Soon Choi
M. Night Shyamalan as Vick Ran
Freddy Rodríguez as Reggie
Bill Irwin as Mr. Leeds
Mary Beth Hurt as Mrs. Bell
Noah Gray-Cabey as Joey Dury
Jared Harris as Goatee Smoker
Tovah Feldshuh as Mrs. Bubchik

Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Film Editing by Barbara Tulliver
Original Music by James Newton Howard
Production Design by Martin Childs
Art Direction by Stefan Dechant & Christina Ann Wilson
Set Decoration by Larry Dias
Costume Design by Betsy Heimann


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