Monday, July 24, 2006

ICFAB Reviews Lady in the Water

Let me be up-front and honest here, so there’s no question about where I’m coming from, whether or not I am biased, and to what degree I am. I like M. Night Shyamalan’s movies generally—even “Unbreakable,” the one no one ever mentions (panned mostly because it wasn’t “Sixth Sense pt 2,” in my over-inflated opinion.) I even liked “Signs,” despite its obvious logic flaws and contrived emotional moments—because I view it as an homage to the old 1950s invasion films, and because of the philosophical questions it addresses. On the other hand, I didn’t really “get” “The Village.” The M. Night twist (a dance that’s been popular in theaters across the nation!) did nothing for me to re-shape that film or make me rethink its plot—though it did make me question the director's current feelings about the origins of religion. I’m probably over-thinking that. See my review of “Silent Hill,” for instance.

I liked “Lady in the Water.” The plot, I understand, is based on a bedtime story Night used to tell his daughters. This shapes the plot and content a bit, naturally, though it’s not a kids’ movie. The film opens with a sort of story book introduction voiceover about how the water people and the land people used to live in harmony, and the land people benefited from the water people’s wisdom, until greed got the better of the land people and they drifted away. Since then, the water people have been trying to get back in touch with the land people, who keep missing out on their intended messages. And one wonders, the narrator asks, if mankind has forgotten how to listen. Okay, so we know up front that this is gonna be a message film. Shyamalan is not known for being subtle about the messages in his films (especially “Signs”), and “Lady” is no different.

Following this introduction is a movie that has a dreamlike feel of fantasy and wonder that put me in mind of some of work of Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands,” "Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Sleepy Hollow,” particularly, minus the dark humor) and Terry Gilliam (“Brazil”, “Time Bandits,” “Fisher King.”) The "Lady" in the title is a real-life character from an invented “old fairy story” that “my mother said her grandmother told her.” In other words, our source of information is the memories of older folks—an oral rather than literary source—which is piecemealed out as the older Japanese woman in the story chooses to reveal more. The Lady’s existence, among other strange coincidences, is proof that “some stories are true”—a theme resurrected from “Unbreakable.” (Night’s commentary on the Bible, perhaps?)

There’s a lot more comedy in this film than in previous Shyamalan entries, and also a lot more Shyamalan! Night appears much more in this story, and is a much more key character than before. Critics accuse him of intentionally associating his off-screen, real-life persona with his character in this story—imbuing himself with a sort of Messianic affectation (his character is an author unwittingly working on an earth-shattering, culture-transforming book)—but I doubt this is the case, in light of how he’s pictured himself in his previous movies. Besides Night, I think Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) may be the only previously-featured cast member. No Joaquin Phoenix or Bruce Willis anywhere!

I didn’t think “Lady in the Water” was as thought-provoking as previous Shyamalan films. Without giving away much about the plot, the recurring theme may be stated as "Everybody is special, despite what they think about themselves.” (Again, giftedness: a major theme of “Unbreakable” and also “Sixth Sense.”) Remember what I said about this being based on a bedtime story for Night’s daughters? This is one of the points where that aspect of the film really shines through. But there’s a great deal to be said about perception in this story. The Lady seems like a solid, flesh-and-bone human, but she’s really a water nymph. Nearly everyone in this story thinks that they are nothing special and have nothing to offer their world, but many find themselves to be key players in the plot that will—I guess—save the world. On the other hand, just when the main characters are sure that they have chosen the right people for the right roles in this plot, they find that much of their perception was mistaken—about themselves and about others. Perhaps the theme ought to be stated, “You may think you’re nothing special, or you may think that you’re really something, but you just never know!” There are overtones here of Signs’ recurring thought, “What if everything happens for a reason?”

Now, it’s not a perfect film. There are moments that seem rather contrived. Some of the characters are a bit cliche or one-dimensional. The fact that we get new additional details about the bedtime story characters or new “rules” for helping the water nymph return home—just in time to dash all hopes about the previous concocted plan can get wearing. On the other hand, it has a ring of truth about it, since life seems to work like that. We don’t get all the information right up front, and our best-laid plans are sometimes (oft-times?) upset by some additional new event or piece of information that means we have to start over from the beginning. And most of the scenes with the "interpreter of symbols" are just plain silly.

It’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it, and didn’t mind going along for the ride. I can actually imagine going to see this one again, which probably means it gets a pretty high rating in my mind. It doesn’t rank as a “Why haven’t you been to see this movie yet?” picture, but it’s definitely a “Yeah, I saw that. It was good.” In other words, it ranks above “Yep, that was a movie,” or worse, “What was that?! I want my money and my 2 hours back!” And it’s wa-a-a-ay ahead of “Oh look! “Manos: The Hands of Fate” has some competition!”

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