Monday, July 31, 2006

Lady in the Water / *** (PG-13)

Cleveland Heep: Paul Giamatti
Story: Bryce Dallas Howard
Mr. Dury: Jeffrey Wright
Harry Farber: Bob Balaban
Anna Ran: Sarita Choudhury
Young-Soon Choi: Cindy Cheung
Vick Ran: M. Night Shyamalan
Reggie: Freddy Rodriguez
Mrs. Bell: Mary Beth Hurt

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Running time: 110 min. Rated PG-13 (for some frightening sequences).

Criticism is a delicate art that tends to be delivered in an indelicate manner. It is easy for the critic to feel he is in some way above the subject which he dissects. I am as guilty of this weakness as any. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees -- or the dogs for the grass, but we’ll get to that later. Critics are just as susceptible to spoiling a film experience with the expectations they bring to it as any other filmgoer.

There is a film critic in writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest dark suspense rumination, “Lady in the Water”, that he deals with as indelicately as he may have felt himself handled at the release of his last film “The Village”. It is too bad the critics seem to be receiving “Lady in the Water” with the same resentment as its predecessor, because they are effectively brushing aside one of the greatest film imaginations to have ever graced the screen.

According to most media reports, the story goes that Shyamalan and Disney (who had a hand in distributing all of his previous films) had a falling out over “creative differences,” during production of “Lady in the Water”, which was based on a bedtime story that the filmmaker had concocted for his daughters. Warner Bros. snatched up the property for distribution and commenced an ad campaign that capitalized on the elements that have brought Shyamalan so much success: darkness, suspense, the monster in the pool and another in the woods. It was hard to see where the creative differences could lie since the trailers looked exactly as one would expect an M. Night Shyamalan film to look.

I figured Warner Bros. was trying to pull a fast one on the audience, making the picture look like a typical Shyamalan film when the director had actually turned in a product of an entirely different nature. I mean, this was supposed to be a story he told his children before they went to bed, so how much of a thriller could it be? Well, I don’t think anybody who sees this film will be going home to tell it to their children before turning out the light and assuring them there is no monster in the closet. The monster is just waiting in there. Shyamalan has convinced me of that.

The bedtime story in question involves a creature called a narf, a nymph-like water being that once shared the world with humans. But as humans developed a more advanced civilization, they forgot about the narfs’ water world. In forgetting the old ways, humans became more violent and turbulent, and the story says the narfs will one day try to reconnect with the humans in order to save them. The prophecy is not without strife, however, as there is a creature called a scrat that will try to prevent the reunion. This tale is laid out in the form of a stick figure animation during the opening credits.

The main action is a realization of the prophesized events in the bedtime story. Shyamalan provides a large cast of characters based around an apartment complex called The Cove. The leading players in this large ensemble are Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Village”) as the narf, who is suitably named Story, and Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) as The Cove’s superintendent Cleveland Heep. Their story has moments of terror provided by the scrat, a dog beast with green bladed fur that allows it to disappear in a field of grass, but it is more of a fairy tale than a horror flick.

Along with the element of horror, a trademark of Shyamalan’s films that make them so popular is the puzzle element, which I feel is responsible for some of the negative views of his two most recent films. While the puzzle pieces in “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” were all pretty much presented in the same manner, as flashbacks to remind the audience of elements they might have overlooked that were presented as part of the developing story, in “The Village” the primary puzzle piece was a lie. This lie made the audience feel betrayed by the story. I forgave the lie because it put the audience in the same position as the lead characters.

In “Lady in the Water” the puzzle is of a simpler nature than the previous films. The prophecy mentions humans with special powers that will help the narf in her journey. The trick Story and Cleveland have to face is figuring out just which of the residents of The Cove have these powers. Shyamalan does a masterful job of giving the characters and the audience several different options for each of these special humans, and much of the joy of the film comes from trying to figure out who is who before the characters themselves do.

I’m almost ashamed not to spend more time discussing the wonderful performances that Shyamalan inspires here, especially by Giamatti, who has the difficult task of putting a stutter on his very intelligent character. But Shyamalan’s tarnished reputation as a brilliant filmmaker concerns me more. As with all his other films, it is the mystery of the story that is most important, but it seems audiences are insisting on more. I’ve heard several people make the comment about the film, “Is that it?”

Why is there a need for more? He presents the mystery of who fills which roles in the prophecy and engages the audience to figure it out. Once that is done, the story plays itself out without lingering. This is efficient and unforced. Plus the story he builds his mystery around is filled with so much imagination. What more do people want?

MTV jump cuts and some blood and gore. I suppose. I prefer Shyamalan’s method, except for his treatment of that poor film critic; even though Bob Balaban (“Best In Show”) does such a good job making him a pompous know it all.

“Lady in the Water” and “The Village” certainly are not Shyamalan’s best films. It will be hard for him to match the kid who sees dead people, but I think it is a step in the right direction for him to have abandoned the structure of those first few films. It allows him more freedom to explore his imagination. “Lady in the Water” is clear proof of that. Shyamalan has greater movies in him. I hope his audiences and critics can allow him the freedom to realize those stories as well.

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