Judging from the tale of Lady in the Water, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan prefers bedtime stories about extraordinary creatures, scary monsters, troubled men who need redemption, and contrived plot twists.
And if Shyamalan's goal with this movie was to put viewers to sleep, well, he seems to be succeeding. Most critics—including those in the religious press—are disappointed in the film. Some think that Shyamalan has run out of the great ideas that made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs so compelling. Others continue to praise his direction, but wish he would find a better screenwriter.
Lady in the Water begins with the emergence of an otherworldly woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a peculiar kind of sea nymph called a "narf," who has come from her home in "the Blue World." She is found in a swimming pool at an apartment complex called The Cove, which is managed by a troubled, middle-aged widower named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Dripping all over his couch, she announces that she has been sent to perform an important role in human history. But her quest is endangered by snarling wolf-monsters called "scrunts" that rise up from the grass to lurk around the property.
It quickly becomes evident that the real story here isn't about the sea nymph at all — it's about this stuttering handyman. Heep's a mess, a deeply wounded man, because, well, he's the central character in an M. Night Shyamalan film, which are always about wounded men who must be dragged kicking and screaming to confront their fears, overcome their deep hurts, and rise up to fulfill their destinies.
But this time, the film gets too tangled up in its own fanciful ideas and loses track of its redemption story, badly fumbling the finale. Preoccupied with riddles, Shyamalan forgets all about storytelling. Just as Story herself spends most of the movie stuck in the apartment, so the film's narrative never gets into action. The truth is that nothing much happens in Lady in the Water. Most of the film consists of people explaining things to each other. Even as Shyamalan celebrates the power of myth, his own myth is so burdened with convoluted fill-in-the-blanks and multiple-choices that it feels more like a crossword than a mystery.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Fairy tales work best when—either on screen or page—they suck you into their world and make you a part of the fantasy. … Lady in the Water is … a complex, fantasy-filled bedtime story—but told in a different and ultimately less effective way. It doesn't so much invite you into the world of the story as it displays people hearing about a story."
He adds, "Eventually, it feels like this is the longest bedtime story ever. Kids in the East apparently never get to sleep. There are just so many rules and details. … But there's just no childlike wonder or joy. It lacks the awe and giddiness of seeing life transform, like in Unbreakable. It lacks the heart that made you care when you realized Sixth Sense's secret. It lacks the connection with the characters that made Signs' ending feel so triumphant. And unlike those films, Lady in the Water's final legacy will be as an enjoyable tale that, in the end, is largely unmemorable."
Giving the film a "D," Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is disgruntled by Shyamalan's work. "Lady in the Water wants you to believe that if I don't like this movie, it's because I'm not willing to accept it simply, like a child. That is obviously false. Give me Babe or Bambi, and I'm six years old again. I'm hardly too jaded to accept a nymph in a swimming pool—I think it's a fantastic idea. My problem is that Shyamalan has absolutely no idea what to do with her."
He adds, "Shyamalan is far from a hack; the evidence of his genuine talent is still evident in this, easily his most spectacularly misconceived film. What he is, I suspect, is creatively paralyzed, twisted in knots by his own legacy and the legendary status to which he aspires. With every film, the knots grow tighter, and he slips further and further into impotence and irrelevance."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) isn't impressed either. "[T]his aquatic E.T. retread fails to grip, despite skillful direction and solid performances. … [S]orry to say, the murky, if well-intentioned, Lady in the Water comes up mostly wet."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) enjoyed the film enough to give it a measured recommendation. "The film is often inspirational, contemplating the worth of humankind, showing how those who are emotionally deadened can be reawakened by a power beyond themselves, and demonstrating how the bonds of a loosely knit community can be strengthened in a common cause. … [T]here's wonder in this story, which appeals to our hopes and aspirations, rather than to our fears and cynicism. Although not quite on par with some of the director's earlier work, Lady has its rewards."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) turns in a positive review: "Lady in the Water is an entrancing story with great messages about living up to your potential and seeing the good in everyone while acknowledging that evil exists. In other words, it's not a falsely Pollyannaish view of the world, but neither is it cynical."
He argues "As C. S. Lewis would say, it's part of a universal longing pointing toward the One True Myth. While there is magic and mystery here, there's nothing occult about it."
Many mainstream critics are more than merely disappointed. They think it's ridiculous.
Moviegoers have visited many haunted houses over the years. Up those broken stairs, across the cobwebbed front porch, behind that forbidding front door, and in the shadowed rooms beyond those battered window shades, monsters of all kinds have menaced naï ve trespassers and screaming captives.
In the animated feature Monster House, there's a temperamental old man (voiced by Steve Buscemi) named Mr. Nebbercracker with a face as haunted as Gollum's and a tendency to shout "Get off my lawwwwn!" at curious neighbors. But Nebbercracker's not the real threat to trespassers. That's what young DJ, his chubby friend Chowder, and their shared schoolboy crush Jenny learn the hard way. It's Nebbercracker's house that's really dangerous, snatching those who get close with its carpeted tongue, gnashing teeth made of splintered timber, its windows flaring like fiery eyes.
There are other dangers as well—especially for parents who think this is just another harmless animated movie for all ages.
I saw the film in a theater packed with families. The animation was inconsistent—dazzling in one scene, sub-par in others. DJ and his friends have distinct personalities, and they live in surprisingly detailed, realistic homes, while that shadowed property across the street is more like a Tim Burton nightmare. At times, the spooky developments recall summer movies of the '80s by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis (The Goonies), but the film never quite reaches those same imaginative heights.
Kids in the audience laughed a lot, shrieking at the sinister structure's aggressive behavior. Adults chuckled at adolescent awkwardness of the young teen characters, but also sometimes laughed in surprise at some rather adult humor. And a couple of children were ushered out in tears because of the intensity of the jolting scares.
Perhaps the most troubling element of the film is its conclusion. How will the heroes stop this wrathful work of architecture? It's difficult to avoid spoilers here. Let's just say that the film has comes to rather alarming conclusions about how to deal with a resentful social outcast. Should we seek to understand the aggravated party and the source of their anger? Should we strive to calm a fiery temper and make some kind of "repair" to a damaged heart? Monster House doesn't consider these options. Instead, the children team up to respond with aggression and deadly force. "Oh, come on … it's just a house," some readers may say to themselves. That's where things get tricky—it's not just a house.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) agrees that the movie "shows a remarkable lack of sympathy for the marginalized outsider, plus it is a little unnerving to see a children's film in which one character celebrates the violent end of a bad marriage, and the children go on to hope that this character will find someone nicer, now." The movie's violent conclusion, according to Chattaway, is "not exactly a healthy or mature message to send to kids, no matter how much growing up they've done."
Jenn Wright (Looking Closer) offers a commentary that includes blatant spoilers, but she's very concerned about the film's conclusion. "I know I'm in the minority here, and I'm more than willing to admit that my take on this is extreme, and not likely to be on many people's radars. … I left the theater wondering, Is this a movie about assisted suicide? Commentary on methods of dealing with mental illness? Assisted homicide? … What it says about the soul and mental illness is not just disturbing … it's really, really scary."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Monster House is more trick than treat. At first glance the impressive computer animation and involvement of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis would seem promising. But don't be fooled … . Despite the clownishness of several characters, this nasty little nightmare-inducer maintains a dark, occult edge and follows the typical horror-movie template. Think Stephen King, not Steven Spielberg."
Christa Banister (Crosswalk), however, enjoyed the film, calling it "silly, frightening fun … a movie that's far more enjoyable than its trailer."
And David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Monster House … has a touch of pathos as we learn the reason behind Nebbercracker's petulance which is fueled by misunderstanding rather than malevolence. Like all good fairy tales the film is, at its heart, a love story … ."
Mainstream critics are similarly impressed with the film's wicked wit.
First, Matt breaks up with his girlfriend. Then, Jenny decides to break apart Matt's whole life. Matt knows she's a strong-willed woman. He just doesn't know how strong. And when he starts romancing his co-worker Hannah, Jenny focuses all her powers—which turn out to be super-powers—to wreak havoc.
Break-ups are always messy. But this one is so unpleasant that critics are hoping audiences dump My Super Ex-Girlfriend and move on to other affairs.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Ivan Reitman directs with the requisite light touch, the colorful film looks good, and the leads are quite engaging (Thurman and Wilson being likable and accomplished farceurs), but too much of Don Payne's dialogue is witless, and many of the gags are needlessly vulgar, with the situations less genuinely funny than they could have been."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "If only Reitman (and the film's screenwriters) could have resisted the temptation to add so much sexual content, from the characters' proclivity for jumping in bed together to nonstop innuendo. Indeed, the sheer volume of sexual content in this film, while not R-rated, is still overwhelming."
Mainstream critics are super-disappointed.
When Kevin Smith's Dogma stirred up a storm of controversy among Christian moviegoers with its witty and wise observations about faith and culture—as well as its avalanche of profanity and crass dialogue—it seemed that Smith had taken a bold step into more ambitious moviemaking.
His next move was even more surprising. Having cultivated a large fan base with films like Clerks and Chasing Amy, which were populated by talky, smart, and relentlessly crass characters, the director moved on to Jersey Girl, a warm-hearted comedy about family. The film seemed surprisingly sentimental, and he readily admitted that when I interviewed him for Christianity Today Movies upon its arrival. Granted, it still contained some unusually frank conversations about sexuality and misbehavior, but it suggested that he might be tiring of films about slackers and foul-mouthed kids.
Alas, Jersey Girl bombed at the box office, and Smith has apparently responded by returning to what worked. Clerks 2 is another movie that could cause cardiac arrest with those who sit counting cuss words. But Smith's affection for these reckless, irresponsible characters still shines through, and the film suggests that he can see some value and promise in their relationships and ideals.
Christian film critics are disappointed, to say the least.
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "I know Smith has garnered something of a fan base for his uneven film output over the last decade or so since the low-budget Clerks put him on the map. And, yes, I know I'm not in that target audience. I even realize that those fans may find here plenty of the material that worked for them in the past. I'm OK with the fact that I just don't get the appeal of this relentlessly crude, blasphemous, degrading experience. What surprises me, though, is just how many people do get it—and love it."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "There is an occasional wisp of wit, but for the most part the writing is utterly sophomoric and smutty. There's also a message about friendship and staying true to yourself near the end and a pinch of sweet romance … but that hardly excuses the wall-to-wall vulgarity, much of which redefines distasteful, that precedes it. At one point Dante asks Randal why he enjoys indulging in such juvenility. The same question could be posed to Smith."
Mainstream critics, on the other hand, are divided, many of them finding it to be a worthwhile, observant perspective on a community of cultural rebels.
Director Edward Burns made a splash with his comedy The Brothers McMullen several years ago, drawing audiences into a convincing depiction of life in an Irish-Catholic community in Long Island.
Now, several films later, he's doing it again with The Groomsmen, a story about a group of fellows trying to encourage a troubled groom about the responsibilities that come with his pending marriage to his pregnant bride (Brittany Murphy). Each of the groomsmen is in turn wrestling with different struggles in relationships and employment, and when a friend (John Leguizamo) returns from being missing in action for several years, he brings a secret that thickens the plot considerably.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "an intermittently engaging drama that could have been called The Slightly Older Brothers McMullen. … Burns does a good job at eliciting fine performances and creating believable bonds between the friends, and the movie—with its shades of Barry Levinson's Diner—has moments of honest emotion. But the talky script lacks focus and much of the banter is banal."
Mainstream critics are divided as to whether this return to McMullen territory works.
More reviews of recent releases
The Devil Wears Prada: Ken Morefield (Looking Closer) writes, "The Devil Wears Prada can't quite decide if it wants to be a farce about Andy trying to deal with Miranda or a serious social commentary about Andy trying not to become Miranda. It hits on enough hot button topics and addresses enough issues that its careful observations almost pass for penetration. In the end, though, it's one of those films that keep you waiting for insight while it is busy pointing out connections you made twenty minutes ago."
A Scanner Darkly: Josh Orendorf (Relevant) says, "The work was easily worth the time invested … as the finished product is, undeniably, an aesthetic masterpiece. Unfortunately, the visual strength of Scanner exhausts itself by the end of the film, proving unable to bear the brunt of a sub-par storyline."
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