Friday, July 21, 2006

Lady In the Water

Well, I’ve got to hand it to him; M. Night Shyamalan has created one of the boldest, most original, and most demanding Summer movies I’ve ever seen. Much more than any of Shyamalan’s others, Lady In the Water will polarize viewers. Audiences were largely divided on his films Unbreakable and The Village, but this latest tale practically draws a line in the sand, demanding that you either get on board and appreciate it, or promptly leave the theater. Many will call this one of the worst films of the year for the same reasons that others will call it one of the year’s best. The eccentric plot unfolds through an absolutely audacious presentation. Interestingly enough, I enjoyed it.

Lady In the Water tells the story of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a maintenance worker at a typical apartment complex in Philadelphia. After hearing splashing in the pool after hours, Cleveland discovers a Narf, or water-nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard), named Story. She tells him that she must return to her world, named “the Blue World.” Cleveland decides to rally the tenants in the apartment complex to help Story return to her world, but doing so won’t be easy. Her ticket home involves being carried off by the great Eatlon, a giant eagle, but she can’t safely do so because of the presence of a Scrunt, a deadly creature whose skin is covered in grass. Her only hope is that the Tartutic, a clan of justice-enforcing monkeys from the Blue World, will come to take the Scrunt away.

If you’re wondering at this point what the hell I’m talking about, I don’t blame you. The story was originally crafted as a bedtime story for Shyamalan’s children, and the plot feels that way: spontaneously made up, one element at a time. All of the characters quickly hop on board with this Narf legend, without question. No one ever stops to say things like, “What do you mean, she’s a Narf?”, or, “This makes no sense!” Because the characters don’t raise these questions, it stands to reason that many audience members will, but I just chose to let go. In order to enjoy this movie, you have to accept the rules and limitations of a bedtime story. There’s no room for cynicism, or any level of believability, for that matter. Shyamalan’s rewriting all the rules this time, and he invites you to come along only on his own terms.

Here are some examples. Cleveland has multiple conversations with an elderly Korean tenant who knows the Narf legends. Rather than letting Lady In the Water tell us the Narf story, we hear a Korean woman tell the story first, so that as it unfolds we feel like we’ve seen it already. The most obvious example of Shyamalan’s boldness is the presence of Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a film critic who roams in and out of scenes predicting what will happen based on his knowledge of film clichés. It’s as though he knows he’s in a movie and seems unimpressed with it. As always, Shyamalan himself makes an appearance, but he gives himself more of lead role this time, playing a visionary whose ideas will change the world. It’s an audacious move, but Shyamalan knows what he’s doing. He presents himself as a visionary, while showing a film critic as arrogant; no wonder this movie has received a lot of negative reviews.

Like Shyamalan’s other films, there’s a crafty creepiness and strange mysticism. Performances are fitting all around, including Shyamalan himself. My hat is off especially to Paul Giamatti, who manages to bring real sensitivity and gravity to material that’s potentially disastrous. M. Night Shyamalan has made a movie that many won’t connect with, but I think he ultimately made it for himself and for his children. As for Mr. Farber, the film critic, he really represents an inability to accept the fantastic. After more than a century’s worth of movies, most audiences are unwilling to condone “silly” story lines and overlook gaping plot holes. Shyamalan demands that you leave all inhibitions behind and absorb the moment. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but so be it. I found Lady In the Water to be surprisingly sweet and enjoyable, and for me, that was enough. “There is no creativity left in the world,” Farber says to Cleveland. M. Night Shyamalan has proven him wrong, and I respect him for that.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The film that started this series, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, achieved the only goal that matters in a summer movie: it was just plain fun. Everything about it was designed to give the audience a good time, most notably the performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. In this second installment, the entire cast returns, but the film carries a much more ominous tone. Part of what made the original film so fun was the lack of real danger. It possessed a sense of adventure, but never became truly intense. The stakes are somewhat higher this time.

The film opens intriguingly, with rain drops pattering onto settings of fine china. Elizabeth Swan’s (Keira Knightly) wedding has been interrupted as both she and her fiancee, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), are arrested for having helped Captain Jack Sparrow escape from the gallows (think back to the first film). Meanwhile, Captain Jack has a run-in with Will’s father, the sort-of-dead “Bootstrap” Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgård). Bootstrap informs Jack that Jack’s time is up; he owes his soul to the sea’s most fearsome pirate, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Suddenly, the race is on as Will desperately needs Jack’s help in saving Elizabeth, and Sparrow hunts after the mysterious contents of the legendary Dead Man’s Chest.

While the film has a considerably darker feel to it, it also has its fair share of humorous moments. I think most fans will enjoy this sequel and appreciate it’s numerous allusions to the first Pirates film, as well as some fresh character developments. Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), for example, was a fairly stereotypical and unexciting villain in the original film. In Dead Man’s Chest, Norrington has lost his job and has become a desperate loser, willing to do anything to regain his military status. There are other character developments similar to this that are both surprising and fitting. Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones with a cold sincerity, even though most of his face has been computer-enhanced to resemble an octopus. In fact, every member of Jones’ crew has physically bonded with the sea in some way, allowing for some creative visuals; Bootstrap Bill has barnacles growing on his face and small hermit crabs crawling across his body.

There’s plenty of adventure and swashbuckling fun, but both the content and color-palette of the film suggest darker, heavier themes. Apart from the devilish Davy Jones, the East India Trading Company emerges as the film’s other villain, spearheaded by Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). Beckett desires the contents of the Dead Man’s Chest for himself, adding another major player in the film’s events. It’s strange that this film should feel more tense; on the one hand, it makes sense because more characters’ lives are in danger. On the other hand, if this franchise has taught us anything, it’s that no one ever really dies. Even the characters we thought were dead (like Bootstrap Bill) can appear in some mystical half-dead form.

This film doesn’t exactly live up to the first, but I think it wisely avoids any such attempt and just moves the story ahead. Unlike the original film, Dead Man’s Chest doesn’t stand completely on its own. It’s obviously dependent on a third installment, and can therefore be compared to sequels like The Matrix Reloaded or Back To the Future: Part II. This isn’t a complaint, so much as an observation. Without disclosing any plot details, Dead Man’s Chest ends with a wonderful surprise that will leave viewers excited about what awaits them in Pirates 3. In fact, the whole film feels like something of a setup for the series’ inevitably epic finale. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t carry any weight of its own; Dead Man’s Chest works, but mostly it sets the stage for what should be a spectacular conclusion to the Pirates saga. I left the theater looking forward to it, already anxious to climb aboard for one last ride.