Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lady In A Big Shirt

Let's be honest, you either like the films of M. Night Shyamalan or you don't.

Okay, maybe The Sixth Sense is an exception. But, basically, you're either the kind of person who took to Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, or you ain't. Either of these is fine by me - I'm a movie fan who genuinely never took to Coen Brothers movies, after all. (Hey, I KNOW they're good films, but, Fargo aside, I just don't gel with them.)

What his critics say about him is basically right. He's short on new tricks, he's massively formal in his style, and his characters are 'characters' rather than 'people'. Oh, and his ego may be becoming larger than his talent - though in that regard he'll always tail behind all-ego-minimal-ability Cabin Fever director Eli Roth, who seems to have got into movies in order to 'score chicks'.

So, anyway - Lady in the Water.

I should preface this waffle with two caveats. Firstly, I genuinely believe there is nothing more adorable and attractive on this Earth than a woman dressed in just a man's shirt. It's sexy, for sure, but more than anything it just makes me want to curl up and cuddle. And Bryce Dallas Howard spends the entire movie dressed this way.

Secondly, I like Night's movies. He's not the revolutionary genius he thinks he is - I remember one interview where he claimed that only he and Spielberg had the secret to making great, popular films, something Lady's box office seems to disprove - but he IS a talent to be acknowledged.

Lady has a great deal going for it. Paul Giamatti for one thing, who's wonderful as the building caretaker trying to escape his old, painful life. The photography's gorgeous, too. Not chocolate-box, but unusual; no apartment building ever felt more familiar and yet alien.

The story is hard to convey, because it's a story about storytelling. A water nymph arrives to inspire a writer to a great work just with her presence. That Night PLAYS this writer is disgustingly self-aggrandising; "What me? Change the world with my words? Well, gee..." It's a stupid mistake, because he's actually fine in the part. His acting isn't great, but it's not noticeably bad, either. But why THAT part?!

Still, the writer DOES have an interesting arc. Lady in the Water makes the reasonable point that hugely influential, world-changing writers tend to be recognised after they die; and sometimes they're killed for their views. If you knew your book would improve the world, but that you'd be killed for it, would you still write the book?

Me, I'd use a pseudonym. But that's not part of the guy's poetry. It's not a cynical film.

What I would have loved to see is Night in the role of the critic. Yep, that's right, one of Lady's characters is a movie critic. You can tell he is, because he's miserable and judgmental and complains about things being derivative and unoriginal. Because critics are always negative and uncreative, and writers are always life-embracing and inspirational. Always. Obviously.

I'm a writer AND a critic, and I feel I'm being misrepresented twice.

So, with her writer duly inspired (seeing each other was, apparently, enough; reducing the concept of a 'muse' to something pretty bland), our nymph has to get home.

There then follows a series of discoveries about fairytale rules. The legend goes that our nymph - called a Narf, apparently, and this particular shirt-wearing lady is named Story (for crying out loud...) - will be carried away by an eagle. She would, too, if it weren't for the dog-like Scrunts trying to kill her. But they can be held back by...

...and so it goes on.

At this point the film is more like Signs than any other Night movie. It presents a series of oddities and threads and waits to tie them all together. But where Signs' wrap-up didn't really work, this one does, if only by virtue of continually reminding you that THIS IS A STORY. Unlike 'life', it has to follow the rules of narrative cinema.

Which means that our hero eventually goes to the critic to ask what happens next.

Now, brilliantly, the critic tells him. He doesn't know why he's being asked, it's all done in the hypothetical, but later - when he turns out to be wrong - one character gets to say "What kind of man would presume to know what is in another's heart?" That dang rat-bastard critic, that's who.

Which is all Night's way of digging at people who write bad reviews, presumably. Because they're uppity, talking about storytelling when they clearly know nothing about it. Ugh.

What's massively wrong with this picture is that a) the critic was asked about a hypothetical movie storyline, he didn't know some idiot was going to follow his advice because lives depended on it, and b) he's being written by Night. So how could he give the right answer? ("Oh, I'm in a Night movie? Well, he hates critics, so assume whatever I say will be wrong...")

Actually, any critic in the audience would have given a more extended answer than the one in the film, one that included the following: "Well, we're still in the middle act, so there has to be some misdirection. So the solution we seem to have found nice an early will have to turn out to be wrong, but that the REAL solution will still have been seeded early in the plot exactly like I told you."

It's anger-inducing, because the critical vendetta really gets in the way of what, otherwise, could have been a great film. It really could. Away from those moments we have neat narrative tricks, smartly used effects, the odd good scare, some genuinely affecting tear-jerks, and some quirky characterisation. Plus a running thread about the importance - the need - for belief in stories.

I LOVE that nobody in the building questions the weirdness of what's going on; they want it to be true, so let it be. Wouldn't we all like to shake off our cynicism? The sharpness of it, the cruelty, is horrible. But we have to have it to keep living - otherwise we'd all have been conned, ripped-off, cheated or killed by now. It's a survival instinct we wish we didn't need - and that's a great thing to make a movie about.

Disney kicked Night out based on this film. Too self-indulgent and weird, they said. Well, weird is fine, but the other thing is spot-on. This cried out for a script editor, or an executive, with power enough to make the egotist reconsider. "Night, you've got two-thirds of a great movie here. It treats fairy stories with the same reverence and importance as Unbreakable treated comics. The terminology gets a bit daft and over-complicated, but we can fix that. So, what say we give you the greenlight based on one change - dump the critic."

So, yeah, see it if you like his stuff. You'll be frustrated by some of its tricks, delighted by others, and irritated by the ego and the bare-faced, one-dimensional temper-tantrum that is the 'critics are bad' theme...but, with that ignored, it's actually an interesting piece of cinema.

Plus - lady in a bloke's shirt. I'm just sayin' - in any context, Best Thing In The World Ever.


At Wed Jun 13, 02:04:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, so women in guys' shirts get the cuddle vote. This is something to remember for future reference.


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