Lady in the Water – a Review

M. Night Shyamalan has done well out of the surprise success of 1999’s The Sixth Sense. Despite increasingly poor critical and commercial responses to his films since (Unbreakable, Signs, The Village), he continues to get major studio backing. This latest project was dropped by Disney (the backers of his earlier films), but eventually found a home at Warner Bros. After seeing Lady in the Water I can’t help but wonder what Warner Bros were thinking when they gave Shyamalan the ‘green light’.

After a short animated sequence that tells us of the mythical ‘water people’, we are introduced to Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of a Philadelphia apartment complex. We also meet some of the many eccentric inhabitants of this building, including an arrogant film critic, a crossword fanatic and his precocious son, a mysterious recluse, a Korean student and her volatile mother, a group of chain-smoking unemployed men, and a man whose various health issues are broadcast by his loudmouthed wife. All of these characters will play a part in the film’s confusing, convoluted plot.

One evening, while investigating a noise in the garden, Heep falls unconscious into the communal swimming pool. He is rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a fragile, pale-skinned being who claims to have come from the ‘Blue World’ and whispers about ‘narfs’. Instead of ringing the police or the local psychiatric hospital, Heep consults the Korean lady upstairs, who, conveniently, knows all about ‘narfs’, as well as the ‘scrunt’ (a cross between a wolf and a piece of astroturf) and the ‘tartutic’ (a monkey with quills).

I won’t spoil the fun by attempting to explain what happens next. In fact, I couldn’t if I wanted to, suffice to say that it includes a Guild, a Symbolist, a Healer, a Guardian, and a giant eagle. There are secrets and clues, a cave under the swimming pool, and a gifted boy who can see profound things in the packaging of breakfast cereals.

Shyamalan would like the film to be seen as a kind of modern fairy tale, but seems to have forgotten that the fundamental attribute of a great fairy tale is simplicity. You should be able to summarise its plot in a sentence or two. I could waste a few pages trying to explain Lady in the Water and it still wouldn’t make any sense.

Paul Giamatti performs admirably as the ‘everyman’ Heep, as do those cast as the various apartment dwellers (which include Bob Balaban, Mary Beth Hurt and Jared Harris). But there’s only so much they can do with the material. (In fact they do well not to giggle while delivering some of the silly dialogue.) Bryce Dallas Howard, as Story the narf, looks delicate and otherworldly, but doesn’t really have much to do, while the casting of Shyamalan himself as a writer destined to change the world is either a major blunder or a really bad joke.

Given the poor response Lady in the Water has received in the US I would be surprised to see Shyamalan given the freedom to indulge himself again as he has here. It’s not the worst movie I have seen, but it’s certainly one of the silliest.

Brick – a Review

Brick is the impressive debut feature film from American writer/director, Rian Johnson. The 31-year-old has cleverly created an unusual new world for his drama, complete with its own language, logic and mythology – a dark 1940s-style film noir set in a contemporary Californian high school community. It’s a brave and highly original concept that could have backfired, but manages to overcome any deficiencies with stylistic flair and strong performances from its young cast.

The movie opens with the discovery of a girl’s dead body in a storm drain by a teenage boy. The boy is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the girl is his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Rather than go to the police (or ‘bulls’ as they are known in Brick-world) Brendan decides to hide the body and do the investigating himself. He enlists the help of a trusted offsider, The Brain (Matt O’Leary), and proceeds to unravel the murky dealings of the High School underworld.

All the standard film noir characters are present, albeit in slightly disguised form. There is a femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), a thug (Noah Fleiss) and a mysterious crime boss called The Pin (Lukas Haas). Johnson also litters the movie with visual references to the film noir genre, while its dialogue reads like a Raymond Chandler novel. There are ‘gats’, ‘picks’ and ‘reef worms’. A town is a ‘burg’ and ‘duck soup’ is easy pickings.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is often so riddled with this kind of slang that at times you cannot help but feel disconnected from the action onscreen. This does not help matters as the film progresses and the plot becomes more convoluted and difficult to follow.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is impressive as the movie’s ‘detective’, Brendan Frye, and projects the requisite determination and cool. It’s Gordon-Levitt’s performance (he appears in every scene) that gives the film its strength and allows us to enter its world of mystery. Nora Zehetner also impresses as the double-dealing Laura, while Lukas Haas manages to inject his character with menace and a dark humour.

While the film has been shot in sunny California, Johnson has been able to use light (or lack thereof) and space to create landscapes that compliment the film’s often grim mood. The action takes place in desolate carparks, on empty playing fields, or in claustrophobic rooms or tunnels.

He has also been careful to exclude (almost entirely) adults from Brick-world. Richard Rowntree makes a brief appearance as the school’s Vice Principal, and we get a glimpse of The Pin’s mother (she provides milk and cookies to her son’s thugs and goons), otherwise it’s an all-teenage cast. This ploy might seem gimmicky, but Brick is no Bugsy Malone. The adult-free environment helps to reinforce the idea of a fully self-contained world, with its own laws and language.

If you are a fan of film noir, Raymond Chandler or Humphrey Bogart you will savour every minute of Brick, and find yourself grinning at the snappy dialogue and familiar characters. If not, there is still plenty to enjoy, for it is a film-lover’s film, filled with visual treats and clever references.

But it’s also the sort of movie that requires your close attention. So watch and listen carefully. The chances are you’ve never seen anything quite like Brick.

Jindabyne – a Review

‘Jindabyne’ is a new movie by Ray Lawrence, the acclaimed director of ‘Lantana’ and ‘Bliss’. The story of a group of men who discover the body of a murdered woman while on a fishing trip has been adapted from a short story by Raymond Carver.

The story, ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’, has been used in film before. The 1993 Robert Altman movie ‘Short Cuts’ featured an adaptation of this story. But on that occasion it was only one of a dozen or so Carver stories included in the movie, with its large cast and multiple interwoven storylines.

By devoting an entire movie to the story Lawrence is able to take his time developing themes and ideas. There are observations on parenthood, grief, love, spirituality, male-female dynamics, amongst others. And by making the murdered woman an indigenous Australian, the film is able to explore cultural differences, prejudice, and reconciliation. There is actually too much going on, and one of the faults of the film is its inability to tie everything up satisfactorily.

The two lead actors, Gabriel Byrne, an Irishman, and Laura Linney, an American, blend in well with the cast of Australian actors that populate the small Snowy Mountains town of Jindabyne. They play Stewart and Claire, a husband and wife already battling to hold together a fragile marriage. Stewart’s discovery of the body, and his subsequent actions push them both to breaking point. Byrne, in particular, excels as a man grappling with feelings of guilt and denial.

Of the Australians, Deborra-lee Furness stands out as Jude, the wife of one of the fishermen, struggling to mask her own doubts and vulnerabilities, while John Howard offers stoic support as her husband, Carl. Other familiar faces include Chris Haywood, Charles Tingwell (in a brief cameo) and Max Cullen.

Haywood’s role as the girl’s killer is one of the film’s major mis-steps. By not only identifying the killer, but also getting him to interact with Claire, Lawrence creates an unnecessary distraction. On a couple of occasions you feel the film is almost about to morph into a Hitchcock thriller.

For me, the other mistake is the sub-plot involving Stewart and Claire’s son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), and Jude’s difficult granddaughter, Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzero). The moments spent with the children are among the weakest in the film.

But there are many more effective moments to offset these, including some fine scenes with Byrne and Linney. The other ‘star’ of the show is the Snowy Mountains landscape. Ray Lawrence is particularly skilled at using landscape as a tool, often to illustrate or accentuate the feelings of his characters.

The film ends with a reconciliation of sorts as the major characters gather with the indigenous people to mourn the death of the young woman. Given the prejudice shown by some of the townspeople, such a development seems unlikely, however, it does give the film some sense of closure.

‘Jindabyne’ is not a complete success, and those thrilled by ‘Lantana’ are likely to be disappointed. But it is a beautiful looking film containing many fine performances, and a welcome addition to the current crop of quality Australian films.

Cars – a Review

After seeing the teaser trailer for Cars about a year ago I was preparing myself for the first Pixar failure. The story sounded dull, and the characters looked clumsy and unconvincing. But not only is the movie far from a failure, it is among the best of the Pixar collection.

It shouldn’t work. The fact that it does, and does so well, is a tribute to the skills of Pixar’s artists and storytellers. I must admit, the car is far harder to anthropomorphise than the insect or the fish, and it did take a while to warm to the characters, but by the end of the movie I actually cared about them.

The story follows the career of cocky young racing car named Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) who gets waylaid in the quiet backwater of Radiator Springs on his way to race for the Piston Cup in California. At first, he proves unpopular with the locals, and his over-confident city ways only get him into more trouble. But, as Lightning gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs – Mater the Tow Truck, Sally the Porsche, Fillmore the hippie VW, and town patriarch, Doc Hudson – they begin to see a more likeable, generous side of him.

Of course, during his stay in Radiator Springs, Lightning learns much about life. He falls in love with Sally the Porsche, finds a new ‘best friend’ in Mater, and uncovers the secret history of Doc Hudson (voiced by screen legend and racing buff Paul Newman). He also learns of the town’s former glory days, before it was bypassed by the interstate freeway.

Will Lightning get the ‘girl’, save the town, earn the respect of Doc, and win the Piston Cup? These various plot strands come together nicely in the last moments, and there is still room for a few unexpected developments.

Cars is not devoid of clichés and stereotypes (grouchy patriarch versus young upstart, the obsequious Italian tyre merchants), but given the freshness of the rest of the film, and the lush visual treatment, these can probably be forgiven. The movie is stunning to look at, with some gorgeous landscapes and many other beautiful details. Indeed, it is the fine details that set Pixar movies ahead of the rest, and Cars is no exception, with each frame filled with original ideas and images.

As is usual for Pixar movies, there are plenty of jokes. It’s not as funny as Monsters Inc or the Toy Story movies, but there’s still enough to amuse most people. Stay alert during the final credits. I laughed most at a series of gags slipped in when most people were filing out of the cinema.

Judging by the number of previews screened before Cars, computer animated films are here to stay (at least, for a while). Unfortunately, few filmmakers seem to be able to balance the various elements of the animated film as well as Pixar.

You can see why they might want to keep trying though. John Lasseter and friends make it all look so easy.

Candy – a Review

I really wanted to like Candy. After all, it’s not often I get to review a movie bearing my own name. But despite my best efforts to embrace the film, something about it fell short, and I came away feeling somewhat disappointed. Given the strength of the source material it really should have been something special, rather than a solid but unremarkable drama.

Candy is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by acclaimed Australian poet Luke Davies, and details the relationship between the titular Candy, a beautiful young artist, and Dan, her aimless heroin-addict boyfriend. The movie makes some alterations to the story, omitting some scenes and characters, while developing others. Candy’s parents, merely background characters in the novel, have been given a higher profile, and the couple’s heroin-addict friend and mentor, Casper, has also become a more important figure.

The movie follows the couple’s gradual decline – from the first euphoric encounters with heroin, to the descent into prostitution and petty crime, and the inevitable madness and dissolution. It’s a grim tale, and there’s not much in the way of a plot beyond this sketchy outline. Candy and Dan experience the occasional glimmer of hope, a lighter moment or two (thanks mainly to Geoffrey Rush’s Casper), but for the most part it’s pretty desperate stuff.

Candy will remind you of other ‘heroin movies’, however, it has neither the humour of Trainspotting, nor the visual style of Requiem for a Dream, to offset the relentless squalor. Apart from a handful of scenes, the incidents are generally mundane and unspectacular – Candy and Dan shoot up, sit around, steal things, and shoot up some more. In its favour it does offer a more realistic portrayal of the addict’s lifestyle than either of the aforementioned movies. This is due, for the most part, to the fabulous performances of the two young leads – Abbie Cornish as Candy, and Heath Ledger as Dan.

Cornish and Ledger are well supported by Noni Hazelhurst and Tony Martin as Candy’s parents. The few scenes featuring all four actors are among the best in the film (in particular the doomed ‘country lunch’).

There are a few other standout scenes. The sequence detailing Candy and Dan’s efforts to stop taking heroin is appropriately horrific, and the couple’s marriage reception is cringingly awkward (Dan shoots up in the toilet then falls asleep while talking to Candy’s relatives).

The film’s conclusion is one of its weaker points. Unlike the novel, in which Candy and Dan’s relationship just fizzles out over time, the film attempts to end their romance in one dramatic scene. The resulting encounter is somewhat forced and doesn’t quite ring true.

Go and see Candy, if only for the performances of Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger. It might not be the best film you’ll see this year, nor the most entertaining, but its portrayal of love and addiction is honest, insightful and quite moving.

Inside Man – a Review

Inside Man is a caper movie – the ‘perfect’ crime, a battle of wits between criminals and police, and surprising plot twists. But with Spike Lee directing, it is anything but a straightforward caper movie. In the hands of another director the movie might have remained standard action fare, but Lee is interested in dialogue, character and the small details.

The movie opens with the criminal mastermind, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), addressing the camera from within what we believe is a prison cell. He tells us that he has committed the perfect crime. We then flashback to the crime itself, following Dalton’s group as they hold up the bank, take hostages, and put their plan into operation.

Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are the detectives assigned to oversee negotiations with the criminals, along with uniformed police captain, Darius (Willem Dafoe). As the negotiations progress they learn that things are not as they seem.

Enter bank boss, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who has something in the bank he wants to remain secret, and Madeline White (Jodie Foster), the power-broker he hires to protect his interests. We soon learn that Russell is no simple bank robber, and that there is more at stake than a pile of cash.

To reveal much more would spoil the fun, suffice to say that you will probably leave the movie scratching your head and wondering why and how certain things happened. It’s that kind of movie. I would have liked a bit more information about Russell’s background and motivation, while Madeline White’s role is hazy at best.

Clive Owen is well cast as the cool, arrogant criminal, and Washington cruises in his role as the imperfect police detective, but Dafoe is wasted, and Jodie Foster’s role is surprisingly undemanding.

There are sprinklings of Spike Lee’s humour and politics – a racially charged conversation between Frazier and a street cop, the Sikh accused of being an Arab terrorist, the glimpse of Grand Theft Auto style videogame violence. And you can’t help but wonder if the treatment of the hostages by the police is a comment on post-911 America.

There are also a few clichéd moments – the banter between Frazier and Russell, the final confrontation between the cops and the bank chief. And the undercooked romantic scenes between Frazier and his lover add nothing (apart from some very corny references to ‘Big Willy and the twins’).

Inside Man will probably not be remembered as a great Spike Lee movie, but it is an engrossing and entertaining take on the genre that will keep you involved until the final credits.

The Academy Awards 2006

The 2006 Academy Awards will go down in history as ‘The George Clooney Oscars’. And that’s not just because George managed to have himself nominated for just about every award. This year Hollywood outdid itself in recognising movies with a social conscience – racism, intolerance, homosexuality, freedom of speech, terrorism, transexuality – the ‘Best Picture’ nominations might have been picked by liberal-minded George himself.

Of course, all this liberal thinking wasn’t going to make the night any more enjoyable. I was expecting a dull evening, but I wasn’t prepared for an evening quite so dull. The sombre atmosphere might have had something to do with host, Jon Stewart, whose low-key approach to presenting the event verged on the soporific. The little-known (at least in Australia) New York comic had the charisma of a cardboard cutout, and his deadpan mock-serious delivery simply meant that no one knew when they were supposed to laugh (which wouldn’t have been a problem if his comments had been funny).

There were the usual uneven attempts at comedy – a montage of clips from Western movies that reflected on the genre’s ‘contribution’ to queer cinema; a truly awful ‘skit’ on how not to give an Academy Award acceptance speech; and Ben Stiller’s (actually quite funny) ‘special effects’ demonstration.

The funniest things were (as usual) the unintentionally funny – a freakish Dolly Parton performance, Charlize Theron’s dress (the bow on her shoulder was enormous, almost a second head), John Travolta’s haircut (Friar Tuck-meets-Ed Straker), and Keanu Reeves (not only can he not act, he cannot even not act – if you know what I mean).

There was an overdose of montages (in fact, Jon Stewart’s funniest line was ‘next we have Oscar’s salute to montages’) – film noir, epics, biographical movies – as well as a self-congratulatory look at ‘movies that mattered’.

Academy Award musical moments are, by default, always exceedingly awful. This year’s efforts were no exception. Apart from the aforementioned bizarre Dolly episode, there was a dire song from the movie Crash featuring slow-motion zombies and a burning car wreck, and a hideous rap effort ominously called It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp. (The Pimp song won, although, admittedly, it didn’t have much competition.)

And the good things about this year’s Awards?

It was nice to see Phil Hoffman get recognition for his work in Capote. He’s been a solid performer in ‘indie’ movies (Happiness, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) for over 10 years, and if he was ever going to win an Oscar this was his chance.

Well done also to Nick Park, Ang Lee, Dion Beebe, Robert Altmann, Larry McMurtry, and Mr Clooney (of course).

Uma had the best frock. Naomi had the best hair. And Dolly had the most frightening cleavage.

And, of course, the biggest upset of the night was Crash winning Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. This movie has been languishing on dvd rental shelves for over six months. It received solid, but unexceptional reviews, and was almost entirely forgotten until a couple of weeks ago when Oscar buzz about the movie’s chances started filtering into the media.

So why didn’t Brokeback win? According to friends and family, there are plenty of people out there who refuse to see the movie. It’s just too challenging. (And, apparently, there is a certain type of male who thinks that they will be ‘converted’ to homosexuality simply just by watching the movie.)

Could members of the Academy have suffered a similar attack of homophobia at the last minute, and opted for the less threatening alternative?

Maybe Hollywood is just not as enlightened as it thinks it is!