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.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest / *** (PG-13)

Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp
Will Turner: Orlando Bloom
Elizabeth Swann: Keira Knightley
Davey Jones: Bill Nighy
Gov. Swann: Jonathan Price
Bootstrap Bill: Stellan Skarsgard

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. Running time: 150 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images).

My parents took me to Disney World when I was a little boy and one of my favorite rides was Pirates of the Caribbean. It was one we rode for a second time on our final day there, our “highlights of the park” day.

I also enjoyed the film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, released in 2003 when I was no longer such a little boy. I admired it for simply supplying a fun time on a summer night. It had special effects and action sequences, but never seemed to push them ridiculously over the top like so many other summer blockbusters. Its success relied heavily on its interesting and original characters that nodded to the classic pirate lore of the past but breathed their own special air into the genre.

Now comes “Pirates of Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”, an almost entirely different breed than the first film. “Dead Man’s Chest” is wall-to-wall action from beginning to end. There is hardly a shot in it that hasn’t been tampered with by computer or special effects of some sort. And yet somehow the filmmakers have retained the same spark of originality from the first film, and those wonderful characters make this adventure work, however many tentacles it my bear.

“Dead Man’s Chest” is a much darker film than the first, despite the fact that the original took place mostly at night and a good majority of this one takes the risk of exposing its CGI trickery by placing much of its action in the sunlight. It opens on a rainy scene, the wedding day of the former film’s romantic couple Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, “Pride & Prejudice”) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, “Kingdom of Heaven”). But East Indian Trading Company envoy Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, “Pride & Prejudice”), crashes the wedding, holding death warrants for Will, Elizabeth, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport, BBC’s “Coupling”) and the outlandish Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”).

Jack Sparrow is nowhere to be found. He is doing his best to hide himself and his ship, the Black Pearl, from Davey Jones (Bill Nighy, “Underworld: Evolution”). Jack owes a debt to Jones for granting him the Black Pearl for 12 years in exchange for his eternal soul and servitude on Jones’ ship the Flying Dutchman. Of course, once Jones does get a hold of him, Sparrow is quick to point out that because of a mutiny by his first mate Barbossa; he was only Captain of the Black Pearl for two years.

Jones and his crew are one of the more impressive aspects of the picture. It’s obvious the character design team had a good time developing these beings who’ve paid for their immortality by mutating into humanoid forms of various sea creatures. One resembles a hammerhead shark; another has a giant hermit crab for a head. One punished soul has even begun to attach to the hull of the Flying Dutchman like a barnacle. Jones himself has developed the head of a squid with his tentacled beard making up for the lack of fingers on his lobster claw hands.

Of course, the crew of the Flying Dutchman is hardly the only spectacle in this summer sequel.
The film is laced with action sequences from beginning to end. There are sea chases and foot chases. Jack at one point finds himself hailed by island natives as a god that must be eaten to release him from his tormented human form. And there is an extravagant chase and fight sequence involving all four main characters, the crew of the Flying Dutchman, and a giant wheel that qualifies as the most unique obstacle in an action sequence in quite some time. And did I mention the giant sea beast known as the Kraken?

I have neglected delving into the plot because there are some rather surprising developments, especially considering this is fairly mindless adventure fare, but most are best left for the viewer to discover. The surprises do push what should be the lighthearted nature of the film in a grimmer direction, but Depp’s eccentric Jack Sparrow and two holdovers from the mutinous Black Pearl crew keep the darkness from overshadowing the picture with their quirky humor.

I will say the story begun in this film won’t be finished until next summer when “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” hits theaters Memorial Day weekend. This means “Dead Man’s Chest” really requires a bigger commitment from its audience than the first movie did. I am reminded of the second and third installments of “The Matrix” trilogy which requested a commitment level its audience was not willing to make through both films.

Reviewing the first film I wrote: “In a summer of sequels, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ harkens back to days when movies didn’t have to top each other or themselves. They just had to be fun and allow you to leave the theater with a smile one your face.” “Dead Man’s Chest” not only is an over the top sequel, but is more likely to leave you with a ponderous look than a smile.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada / *** (PG-13)

Andy Sachs: Anne HathawayMiranda Priestly: Meryl StreepEmily: Emily Blunt
Nigel: Stanley TucciNate: Adrian GrenierChristian: Simon Baker
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by David Frankel. Written by Aline Brosch McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sensuality).

It was my wife’s birthday, and she had the pick of the movie. I wasn’t completely averse to seeing “The Devil Wears Prada” — it’s been treated fairly well by most critics. However, I was the third and final man to enter the theater. The rest of the audience was women.

As the opening credits rolled, I realized what an ironic treat this would be for the few heterosexual men who would deign to see it. I was as overjoyed to watch four women in their underwear trying to figure out the best outfit to wear for those credits as Angie was that we were seeing this fashion industry comedy about a lowly secretary whose boss is the queen of mean. The other gift us three men were treated to that evening was a fairly good movie made with wit and intelligence.

Anne Hathaway stars as Andy Sachs, an idealistic journalist who wants to make her mark upon entering “the real world.” With nothing but college credits on her resume, Andy takes a job as an assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart”), editor-in-chief of Runway, the fashion world’s most influential magazine. Although Andy has little interest in fashion, she sees the job as a doorway to other opportunities.

Andy has no clue what she is getting herself into, as Miranda may be the most demanding and unsympathetic boss that ever breathed. There’s a wonderful montage sequence where Miranda, while slamming her coat and purse on Andy’s desk, barks off a daily list of impossible orders for the frightened assistant. “Get me reservations at that restaurant that got that good review.” “I need tickets to that show I thought I’d like.” Etc. Andy looks on in wild wonder as this demon takes over her life without a care for how difficult she makes it.

Miranda is not the only obstacle Andy must face, however. There is also the first assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt, “Empire” TV mini-series), who previously held Andy’s position. Emily sees her role as sort of a Mini Me version of Miranda and breathes the very air Andy walks in with disgust. Emily never viciously sets Andy up for a fall, however, suggesting that beneath the artificial nature of the world they inhabit, these characters are all feeling individuals just trying to survive.

Andy’s salvation comes in the form of Nigel (Stanley Tucci, “Lucky Number Slevin”), the magazine’s fashion director. Nigel still regards Andy with distain, but is at least willing to see her potential and helps her in her inevitable transformation into a fashion maven.

The biggest problem with the film lies with Andy’s friends, most notably her boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier, HBO’s “Entourage”). Nate and Andy’s other friends accuse her of changing and losing her integrity to this job that she supposedly shouldn’t actually care about. Even though screenwriter Aline Brosch McKenna (“Laws of Attraction”) throws in a possible question of fidelity with a romantic connection between Andy and a famous writer, Christian (Simon Baker, “The Ring Two”), all of these accusations of betrayal never ring true since Andy never really changes from the nice person she started out as. They only feel betrayed by her because the script requires it of them.

But the film overcomes this weakness by not spending much time on it. Wisely, the movie narrows its focus squarely on the two leading performances. Streep and Hathaway carry this material effortlessly. Streep turns in yet another killer performance as this realistic Cruella De Vil. Instead of making Miriam into a caricature of an ice queen, Streep imbues her with thought, and with some help from screenwriter McKenna even gets a few moments with her that allow the audience to glimpse just a flash of humanity.

Hathaway, in direct opposition, is a ray of sunlight from open to close. She’s as loveable as Audrey Hepburn in her most memorable roles. When Hathaway first appeared with her breakout role in “The Princess Diaries” — not a far cry from her role here — I’ll admit I didn’t see anything extraordinary in her. But since her serious turn last year in “Brokeback Mountain”, and now with this delightful performance, I can see her star shining bright for quite a while.

While “The Devil Wears Prada” certainly treads on familiar territory, it has a charm and spunk all its own. It has a lot of pep to it, thanks to the refreshing presence of Anne Hathaway, and avoids succumbing entirely to its story’s clich├ęs. Meryl Streep, as always, lends legitimacy to a character that in lesser hands could easily become a cartoon clown. Director David Frankle (HBO’s “Sex in the City”) never compromises his characters for the sake of laughs, and the result is a surprisingly effective comedy that skewers the fashion industry without ever betraying it.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Superman Returns / **** (PG-13)

Clark Kent/Superman: Brandon Routh
Lex Luthor: Kevin Spacey
Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth
Richard White: James Marsden
Perry White: Frank Langella
Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington
Martha Kent: Eva Marie Saint
Kitty Kowalski: Parker Posey

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Singer. Based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Running time: 154 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense action violence).

Maybe comic books will save Hollywood. Films like “Elektra” or “The Punisher” may not offer much evidence of this, but over the past few years, some of the most popular comic book characters— Spider-Man, Batman, and now Superman— haven proven the superhero genre to be both highly entertaining and capable of great character depth. “Superman Returns” shows us a contemplative Superman, not sure of his place on Earth or in the universe, no mater how much the public accepts him as its hero.

In this sequel, director Bryan Singer (the first two “X-Men” films) pays tribute to 1978’s “Superman”, starring Christopher Reeve. As the film opens, Superman has left Earth to revisit the ruins of his home planet of Krypton. Five years have passed, and the world has moved on. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, “Beyond the Sea”) is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden, “X-Men”), son of The Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella, “Good Night, and Good Luck”). The two have a young son.

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, “The Usual Suspects”) has managed to weasel his way out of a double life prison sentence thanks to due process and is amassing a huge bankroll swindling old widows out of their family fortunes. Luther, still obsessed with Superman, searches out his Fortress of Solitude to learn the secrets of his nemesis’s home planet.

Spacey obviously relishes his role as the villain. His performance is a little more subtle than Gene Hackman’s blustering in the 1978 film. The character isn’t as rich, but he makes up for it in down right devilishness. He is joined in his evil schemes by Parker Posey (“Blade: Trinity”) as Kitty Kowalski, the not-so-bright assistant. Posey plays well off Spacey, adding a comedic counterbalance to his cool menace.

Newcomer Brandon Routh makes for a fine Superman. He’s not as over the top nerdy as Reeve when playing Clark Kent. Routh’s Superman is more meditative upon his return to Earth than the hero has been in past incarnations. The problems he returns to are more complex than in the past. His girlfriend has moved on to other, less adolescent pursuits, and as a renowned reporter has taken it upon herself to write Superman off for the rest of the world as well.

Superman’s actual return to the public limelight takes place during a spectacular action sequence involving a piggy-backed space shuttle launch. While the action never becomes the point of the picture, there are some wonderful special effects at work here. The flying sequences alone have evolved light years since 1978. Superman truly seems to defy gravity as he flies without breaking the rules of weight and movement.

In many ways, “Superman Returns” is like a remake of that original film. Lex Luther’s plot to destroy a large part of the United States, thus providing himself land ownership riches, remains in tact. Superman’s introductory action sequence again involves an aircraft carrying a helpless Lois Lane. Perry White is still determined that Superman is the only story worth pursuing. Superman and Lois even share another moonlight flight together, although this time it’s not as much about romance as it is about character motivations. Like last year’s “King Kong”, the advances in technology have let the filmmakers broaden their pallet of the action and locations, allowing the film to take on a more epic feel.

Singer obviously loves the 1978 film, and he takes the opportunity to pay tribute to it and other cinematic standards of Superman. Wisely, he and composer John Ottman keep much of John Williams’ ’78 musical themes in tact. One of the few problems with “Batman Begins” was that Batman had no theme music, but John Williams’ Superman score has become almost as well associated with the character as his blue tights and red cape. Singer even presents the opening credits in the same style as the ’78 movie.

Singer also references several iconic Superman images, such as a shot recreating the original “Action Comics” cover art from Superman’s first appearance, and another of Superman catching the Daily Planet globe as it plummets to the street below, invoking the imagery of Atlas carrying the Earth on his shoulders.

Remake or tribute, “Superman Returns” is a film made with sincerity and love. Film critic Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star disparages the film as “terribly sincere” in his review of it. I’m not sure when sincerity became terrible. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the changed world in which Superman now finds himself, but Superman has always been a symbol of sincerity. Perhaps the dark times since 9/11 call for a sincere hero. These filmmakers understand what made Superman work almost thirty years ago and couldn’t have done a better job delivering the hero we need today.