by Greg Muskewitz
Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village
It seems rather ironic that the film of an overrated director that is causing his gullible disciples to vacate their seats, would be the one film of his that I find myself most comfortable with. I am talking about, of course, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and his signature ice cream-topper of a whopping cherry end twist. In today’s climate of movie-going, the potential blockbuster is given a one-week window to perform, with the weight heavily placed on the opening weekend to sink it big. Shyamalan’s fifth film (fourth to be theatrically distributed) falls into a new low of needing to squeeze every last cent as the race horse leaves the gate, in that The Village has a one-day window to pinch its draw before its fragile twist is spread and the viewer decides that they don’t want to be tricked that badly.
In reverse order, it does not work so well, if even at all.
It seems rather ironic that the film of an overrated director that is causing his gullible disciples to vacate their seats, would be the one film of his that I find myself most comfortable with. I am talking about, of course, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and his signature ice cream-topper of a whopping cherry end twist. In today’s climate of movie-going, the potential blockbuster is given a one-week window to perform, with the weight heavily placed on the opening weekend to sink it big. Shyamalan’s fifth film (fourth to be theatrically distributed) falls into a new low of needing to squeeze every last cent as the race horse leaves the gate, in that The Village has a one-day window to pinch its draw before its fragile twist is spread and the viewer decides that they don’t want to be tricked that badly. That would be one reason for separate press screenings, split between print and internet critics, television and radio critics. (The fear of the secret leaking, to me at least, creates no distinction between TV and radio as it has been made in this case, but just as the separation of screenings meant no difference to me, nor does this.) And that would also likely be an explanation for the hokey idea behind charging audiences around the country to sit in during a Simulcast interview with M. as he accepts pre-arranged questions to discuss with an audience who has spent a flat-rate of $10 to get in, with nothing to show of it — except as an addition to the box office take. But let me get on to mere movie matters.
Indistinctively set in either the Nineteenth Century or an Amish community, “the village” is our ambiguous host of land to a modest group of, well, villagers, mourning the loss of a little boy. Daily chores are observed (sweeping off the wooden deck, but also uprooting and burying a thatch of red flowers by the porch), but then and later on, any references to real work are left to the imagination and cryptic reference. The repeated sight of skinned carcasses of baby foxes are a means to let the villagers know that Those We Don’t Speak Of, apparently those who live where the woods begin, as well as those who have a thing for the color red (surely to be explained by Shyamalan in the director’s commentary, as having some other significance besides the descriptive color of a herring), are at unrest with the continuing trespass into their neck of the woods.
In a roundabout rigmarole to remain ahead of the viewer, the next couple of steps taken are out of the way, and evidence that M. is not so deft with comedy, as the village’s head elder’s eldest daughter is spurned by the shy son (Joaquin Phoenix) of another elder. Instead, he has eyes (but not much of a mouth), for the head elder’s younger daughter, an ominously redheaded blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron) — though Shyamalan’s customary desaturation of color lessens the effect, and therefore the ominousness, of those fiery tresses. While the quiet boy has notions of traveling to vague mentions of “the towns” in search of medicine, the love story kicks over into the priority until yet another change of path alters the course of the footpath.
The character of the blind girl, Ivy, played by Howard, becomes the unlikely and unplanned for central figure. What the movie has to offer because of her (though the attempt is to use her blindness as a crutch in the script, Howard does not use it in the same manner as an actress) is more than Shyamalan’s other movies have had to offer in that respect, or at least to me, in the genuine way of an amazing performance as compared to the disingenuous reception to the coached and coaxed Haley Joel Osment. As with any M. Night movie, the viewer of The Village has a lot of time on their hands to sit around and cook up theories to what the shock twist may be, but unlike his previous movies, it has a focal performance that the viewer can be absorbed by in the meantime. And where I agree with criticisms of the movie, and its hapless trick, I can still muster the enthusiasm for this to be seen on Howard’s behalf — she’s really something. It’s never clear how long Howard’s Ivy is going to stick around, until so much time has passed that we are still in her company. There is something of an unforced presence, a natural quietude, a piercing expressiveness and ability to talk — or whisper — the words we all dare not to say aloud, only to think. Howard is more than able to hold her own with the bigger likes of the cast, no matter how seasoned. (The movie’s most memorable scene, far removed from what it’s all really about, is shared between Howard and Cherry Jones, two warm actresses illuminating the screen for the briefest of moments.) Maybe it’s because she’s at an advantage of having no previous work to hold her to before, and maybe her next role will not stand up to the height here, but in this movie, the one true revelation is the tremendous talent that Bryce Dallas Howard seems to be.
Where the criticisms pour out of, so profusely I’ve nary heard a mention of Howard elsewhere, are at the sleeves of M. and his dedicated chicanery. Myself not being fond of his fresh body of work (only Unbreakable as a like before this, and not as strong of a like as the stronger dislikes of The Sixth Sense and Signs), I suppose I have less to be upset about. He does his thing, so to say, in creating a ramshackle pretense that is destined to lead towards a surprise twist at the close. It’s his signature. However, these earth-shaking revelations appear to be his only motivation along the way; everything else in the interim is a temporary guise to cover the grand scheme of things, so that when Shyamalan stonewalls his audience on very big and obvious issues (the lockboxes, the monsters themselves, etc.), you know something must be up. It doesn’t take much to add the coincidences up before there’s a clear line-of-sight in the direction of what’s supposed to stay secret until the end, and in my position — one of a viewer who could care less about having the wool pulled over my eyes — the shock is not so much of a shock, especially when it is clear what that shock is or will be in less than thirty-minutes of the movie starting.
The trick has been played on Shyamalan, the pompous, pretentious writer-director, who feeds his need and ego to stay on a track ahead of his viewers. Only, he underestimates the intelligence of his viewers, and in his self-assured position of being several steps ahead of them, he is in fact behind them. While he considers himself in a master class of someone like Hitchcock (and make no joke of it, he’s coined terms of his style after his own name), he has forgotten the importance of having any meaning in building up to his trademark surprise. Shyamalan’s mistake is that the construction of everything in the path leading up to his revelation strictly hinges on how and where he is to trick the viewer; it relegates the movie to a hollow frame that caves from within when the truth is seen clearly. In reverse order, it does not work so well, if even at all. The reason I can’t get so worked up about it, is because this seems to be what his audience (critics included) wanted: inconsequential ambiguities all to be dashed by an end gimmick. And so that’s what he has done here, even if by covering his tracks by deceit and lies unlike before, which is understandably angering to a viewer of more intelligence than M. is giving them credit for.
Shyamalan’s know-how is not in question; he is able to generate tension and suspense and atmosphere from very little, if even anything at all. He knows how to get the look of the thing down, or at least how to choose a cinematographer (Roger Deakins) who does. He knows how to attract a mixture of big and respectable names (Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, etc.). But his gig of pulling one over on an unsuspecting audience is not going to last; the ending trickery (along with the slow-moving progression) is the one thing that people are expecting of him. (Look at Mamet for instance; each one of his films contains an unsuspecting twist, and the removal of that surprise would hardly tear down all that came before it. His surprises come in addition to everything he has to offer as a writer and director, merely a cherry to adorn the cake, not required to make it.) And, well, it seems to be turning into a doubt of capability on the behalf of many; for me, it just seems that those many are finally catching up on what us few saw long ago.
Collateral. As bloated as Michael Mann movies get, something about a hitman (Tom Cruise) in Los Angeles for a designated five stops (one for each hit) and the unfortunate cabbie (Jamie Foxx) who is made accomplice to the zigzagging about town. (We get a little preamble to be witness of the goodness of the driver as he chauffeurs a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, along with Foxx making their second stand in a Mann film after Ali, but don’t let that be distraction for a greater purpose in the long run.) It takes a good, long while before there’s much sense made of anything (the whos, the wheres, the whys, the whats, the hows — given that one is so intent on keeping their head above water), and even then, things aren’t to stay as they seem. There are a lot of unnecessary diversions taken, such as the side trip to the hospital, which only gives way to an opportunity for another otherwise pointless pitstop, but all in the general vicinity of tying things together with Mann’s clumsy fingers, his jittery, jagged, jumbled m.o., additionally garbled up by ambient noise and inarticulate actors. The only help that it serves is to connect the gross coincidences that pile about, that is, before the end collision is to take place — the u-turn, the blow out, the bust, the flat, the crunch. Long before then, it’s run out of gas and has screechingly and grindingly reached where it has got to go by riding on the rims. Foxx works hard to tuck away some points for his namby-pamby out-of-type portrayal (nothing, say, Will Smith could ever humble himself to play), while Cruise and Mann keep bringing attention to his badly dyed silvering hair (and with skin as tight as his!), with the additional likes of Bacardi Silver and a lone silver wolf.
Ju-On. Formerly with the attached title of The Grudge so as to alert the unsuspecting viewer that this is the original that the remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar is based on, but likely served with a cease-and-desist in order to avoid mass confusion. (The movie itself well enough does that.) It’s a minor and very low-key spook story, broken off into fragmentary bits for each of the characters that come onto the curse. As for the anathema itself, its brief explanation is hurriedly rushed off the screen, leaving one to discern things all on their own. The inhabitants and visitors of a particular home are tortured by the souls of a mother and her young son, both killed in that very house years ago by the paterfamilias. (Explanation as to why never occurs.) Takashi Shimizu takes a haphazard approach to the introduction of those who enter the abode, with their own impending disaster to be followed mostly out, before returning to the house for the break down of its next victim. Eventually, that poses a problem in itself, especially because there are so many characters, so many of them similar looking (it’s a horrible defense, I know, but there is never much time to become accustomed with whom we are seeing before a checkmark is made, and we’re on to the next), and the movie throws the regulations for continuity out of the window. (A character whose story we’ve already had, is mentioned to have died via a report on the radio, only to return to her at an earlier time in someone else’s chapter, with a different outcome than the radio report.) Shimizu, while elaborate in his storytelling, is rather simplistic in his filmmaking, relying on old-fashioned framing devices (his signature “profile shot,” where the camera twists out 180-degrees around the character), basic makeup (powder blue, like the Morlocks), shrill and vibrating electro-haunt music (think Dawn of the Dead), and general fear of the unknown. (One nice detail out of the whole thing is the shoeless Japanese detectives who canvass the crime scene in their socks.) There is the occasional special effect (a black hand, in the form of a shadow, that engulfs a security guard), but the meager tension is all a result of basic sweat and tears from someone attempting to use imagination, however misguided. (The question becomes, since Shimizu has also directed the remake, has more money resulted in less imagination?) The best hope that could come out of the remake is to be able to make heads or tails out of what actually went on here, with faces I assume I’ll better recognize.
A Home at the end of the World. Another helping from the novelist of The Hours, Michael Cunningham, this time taking care of the scripting himself. It starts in Cleveland, 1967, as a wee lad witnesses his high brother run through a sliding glass door and die. Jump forward to high school, his mother is dead, and he befriends perhaps the school’s biggest dork, culling him out of the closet for what is likely cinema’s most excruciatingly embarrassing scene of mutual masturbation, before his father dies as well. There’s some pot-smoking (the nerd’s mother, Sissy Spacek, gets in on the action rather than discouraging it), and then we jump to adulthood, where Colin Farrell takes over, and he hooks back up with his old friend who’s on the prowl in NYC, and his alterna-girl roommate (Robin Wright-Penn), who has the best use of red-dyed hair since Franka Potente in Run, Lola, Run. We are supposedly to feel sorry for both boys, one for the lack of a family, the other for having his family infringed upon. And so, Farrell’s clinginess taken into consideration, it’s no surprise when he winds up abed with Wright-Penn. In the writing department, at all times, there are far too many circumstantial implausibilities that are being introduced in rapid rotations (same as the songs), and all for the convenience of the script. Cunningham as a writer, and Michael Mayer as a director, have a tendency to introduce a bounty of issues and character flaws that they never take resolve to; the issues are unearthed and divulged, but before any ground can be covered with them, it has been abandoned in search of the next dig. Mayer also has a lot to say sexually, but as well, he doesn’t know exactly what to say or how to say it. Pro-bisexuality, or con-bisexuality? The movie takes a stance on both at different times, only leading to a confused scratch of the head, but once more, the tone is inconsistent and unresolved, which is not a sign of diplomacy, but of a weak spine. Along with her red hair, Wright-Penn is the only one to make much of an impression, but as far as these kind of things go, the matching of two younger actors to Farrell’s physicality is also well done.
Catwoman. Or more aptly titled, Catgurrrrrrl, because since it’s Halle Berry in the role, she brings her own brand of ‘tude to it. The insults are pretty easy to come by, from bad pussy, to kitty litter, or one big fat furball, but it isn’t as though they’re unwarranted. Batman’s nemesis gets her own vehicle, though he’s nowhere to be seen, nor is Gotham City or any other fair New York backdrop, but a mousy ad girl is flushed through some major pipes and reborn as Catwoman upon a saving breath from an Egyptian Mau, and so the anti-hero (but not quite full-fledged villain) battles the cosmetics company and their crooked heads who are responsible for her new being. An embarrassment to any comic book movie, the thing is plagued from the get-go with a time-consuming prologue for us to become acquainted with the woman who once was Patience Phillips (Berry), even though we are made aware from the start that she really is no more. A lengthy sixty-minutes pass before the leather dominatrix suit is donned, and our confused girl opts for some haute couture cat-burgling — we’re asked to forget about such things as alarms going off when a shotgun is unloaded at her by some competing amateurs. And we’re also asked to ignore inconsistencies with her own cat powers (sometimes she lands on all fours, sometimes she doesn’t; sometimes she has night vision, sometimes not), as well as overlook that somehow, her abilities appear to outstrip Spider-Man; proportion is no matter, she has no issues with gravity, and her homemade claws allow her to scale any surface, and whatever Halle and her stunt double cannot do, CGI is proven not to be able to do it convincingly, either. There are plenty more side-issues — the pathetic excuse for a sidekick played by Alex Borstein, Benjamin Bratt’s Detective Tom Lone (with lines like “I’m used to working alone most of the time”), who is apparently the only detective on-call in whatever anonymous metropolis they live in, and whose skills as a sleuth could use some fine-tuning considering he can’t notice the similarities between his naked girlfriend, and the same woman with a tiny cat-mask on. (Bratt was more convincing as a detective on Law & Order, where we would have things like a gunshot residue test on the “smoking gun,” fingerprinting tests, DNA analysis for the victims’ blood on Catgurrrrrl’s claws, etc.) I know nothing about the comic character, apart from that she was white and what was seen in Batman Returns, but this updating (like Kingpin in Daredevil) doesn’t seem to jive without a lot of catering to; Catwoman must now be a hip diva, and the singularly monikered director Pitof (maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but he seems like a former music-video director) sees to it to turn up the volume at every opportunity, such as having Halle and Ben grindin’ it up on the b-ball court to Mis-teeq’s “Scandalous.” The music-video influence unbounds itself at every corner, from the arbitrary changes of tinting, the airbrushed photography (everyone glows, or looks fuzzy), and the choreographed dance-like fight sequences (from one-on-one brawls, to an interruption at a Hydrogena performance), always managing to get in the perspective of the infamous booty-shot. I suppose the one positive from all this, and maybe I’m alone, is that we didn’t have to bear witness to Berry trying to lick herself clean.
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originally posted: 08/03/04 09:23:50
last updated: 08/06/04 23:18:48