HPPUB MOVIE REVIEW of Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Dreamcatcher, The Core, Phantoms, Soul Survivors

 

Title:  Signs

Release Date: 2002

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 120 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Buena Vista, Touchstone, Blinding Edge Pictures

Director; Writer: M. Night Shyamalan

Producer: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast:  Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, M. Night Shyamalan

Technical: 1.8 to 1, THX Digital

Relevance to HPPUB site:

Review:

 

Well, what if….  Your kid comes into the room and says every television station has the same show and it’s about crop circles all of the worlds, then UFO’s. Well, UFO’s going into restricted airspace would get shot down, but then there are sightings of aliens.

 

So, if you are a widower raising two kids with your brother in a Bucks County, Pa. farm. You’ve found crop circles in the cornfields on your farm, strange little noises on a walky talky, seen your dog go crazy.

 

Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) likes to take a potentially complicated premises and spin a simple, chilling story in a relatively simple setting. The dialogue is simple, and he shows rather than tells. The clues mount. The fact is, most of us probably get “signs.” They may be tragic, or sinister, or just perplexing. In my own life, there was a series of bizarre events (and dreams) in the few weeks before 9-11-2001, leading right up to the last night. A lot of us know a lot more than we realize. Shyamalan plays an important character (Rex) in this film, involved in a tragic accident that sets up one of the ironies of the story.

 

He uses “home miniDV video” shown on the family’s TV to document the complicated going on in the outside world, on CNN, where at first the crop circles sound like they will lead to another 9-11, but it gets much worse. This is a pretty effective and simple way to tell a “documentary” story that is external to the events directly affecting the characters on the farm, so it bifurcates the film. Well, then all the television stations go off. The fatalities will be very high on the Outside. The family makes a goal line defense, much as Rod Steiger did in The Birds. The aliens, well, are Hormel-like. The film does pay homage to great stories in movie heritage, including War of the Worlds.  The film is part Hitchcock and the story as much Daphe Du Maurier as it is H. G. Wells. 

 

As for aliens, I have seen the grays at least twice: once in Minneapolis, once in Arlington, Va.  Dressed in overcoats in the winter time, they can pass in the crowd as human unnoticed. And they provide Signs.

 

The Village (2004, Touchstone/Blinding Edge, 108 min), presents more virtuoso direction by Shyamalan, creating great tension out of the simplest things in a rustic 19th Century environment, a kind of “Colonial House” but not quite that bad. The film itself is fascinating in its colors, hues, and VistaVision-like detail (but not full wide screen). It is a bit like a high end “Blair Witch” until – well, you find out that this is a bit like a Twilight Zone episode. In fact, the premise is something like an inversion of my own 2004 Project Greenlight entry, Baltimore Is Missing. Here, the town is Covington, PA, isolated, the people kept pent up by their arrangement with the creatures (Those We Do Not Speak Of) in the woods. Well, the creatures look like the red-capes “Traveler” from a Smallville episode (“Slumber”). Well, New Covington shares something in common with my New Baltimore in my screenplay, or with New Salem in Days of our Lives. Joaquin Phoenix is the resilient rebel hero, Adrien Brody (The Pianist) plays Noah – not the virile Noah of The Notebook, but here a laughing, gangly MR person who is easy to set up, as is the blind girl Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard)—you wonder why. Michael Pitt (who “got it” in The Dreamers, as well as Murder by Numbers) is the handsome bridegroom who needs to worry about more than getting his shirt wrinkled (by an invasion). But the way characters are used sets up the payoff, delivered by Mr. Shyamalan himself in a sleazy cameo. He is still master of the New Universe, particularly one controlled by right wing plots.  

 

Lady in the Water (2006, Warner Bros/Blinding Edge/Legendary, dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 110 min, PG-13) is supposed to be a layered fairy tale, almost like something you could ask high school kids to write in an AP English class. At The Cove, a 5-story walkup garden apartment that looks like an Econo Lodge in suburban Philadelphia, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a gawky super who finds a lady – not a mermaid (like in “Passions”) but a narf, a creature of bedtime stories who came from the “Blue World” (the ocean, that mammals left), rather like a cetacean, but she is chased by wolf-like monsters. The issue, though, is where the bedtime story comes from. There is a breakout writer Vick Ran (a boyish looking Shyamalan) who lives with his sister and doesn’t know how to fold laundry. He has an unpublished manuscript called The Cookbook, which he claims will be a book that links together all knowledge and wisdom. That’s an odd title, as I have discussed cookbooks on my own website (that is, books of recipes) as non-literary. Ran has left a handwritten note “DO NOT READ” on the manuscript when the Cleveland fixes a light fixture above his desk. Sure. Now, here, notice that the movie has typewriters, walkie-talkies and television programs from the Vietnam era. You’re not sure why this in the past, when the obvious thing for Ran to do is post his stuff on the Internet and let Google find his audience.  There is a “new tenant” (Bob Balaban) for whom Heep throws a massive pool party. That’s another thing—most of the movie takes place in the claustrophobic space of the motel-apartment. (The film is shot flat, without anamorphic wide screen, which Shyamalan usually shuns.) The red-eyed monsters are the only thing from the outside world. They keep coming, and there will be victims. But the results are endogenous. (The newbie at one point says that any story with no previous violence will let a millstone off the hook when approached by a monster—the oaf will escaped by a single leftover leg hair.)  Ran seems to have created a trinity to publish his story in real life. He doesn’t need modern technology. 

 

 

 

The Sixth Sense (1999, Buena Vista/Touchstone/Hollywood, dir, Shyamalan, PG-13, 107 min) is now considered a horror classic, although the story is basically like that of Jacob’s Ladder. In the opening scene a psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), in the presence of his wife (Olivia Williams) watches his Philadelphia row house get broken into, and catches the intruder, a former mental patient played by Donnie Wahlberg. Naked, he looks ghastly (something is really wrong with his chest, too). The patient shoots Crowe. We fast forward to the main movie, where Crowe treats a boy Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who, in one chilling scene from the bed, announces, “I see dead people.” He sees them or remote views them all the time. I think by then we know what is happening and what the payoff of the story will be. I have wondered if, in one’s last moments, time freezes, as one knows one is dead—unless one is saved. The film was not shot in widest screen. Shyamalan uses his splashes of color—especially red—with great virtuosity.

 

Unbreakable (2000, Touchstone, dir. Shyamalan, PG-13, 106 min) takes us into the world of super-heroes, explored now often in television series. Bruce Willis plays David Dunnm a security guard who never gets sick or hurt. On a train wreck on the way to New York, he walks away without a scratch. (I would have liked to see more of the wreck). He meets a curator (Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson) of a comic book art gallery (here we see the connection to shows ranging from Smallville to The O.C.), who is crippled by a degenerative bone disease. Price thinks that Dunn has his powers (and gets to be a superman) at Price’s expense, an interesting moral theory about why those who are “different” face ostracism from others.  This film is in scope.

 

Dreamcatcher (Warner Brothers / Village Roadshow Pictures / Castle Rock), with Morgan Freeman (Col. Abe Curtis), Thomas Jane (psychiatrist Henry Devlin), Jason Lee (Beaver Clarendon), Damian Lewis (Jonesy), Timothy Olyphant (Pete), Donnie Wahlberg (“Duddits” Cavell) based on the monumental novel by Stephen King (2001, Pocket Books). This early 2003 movie provides a counterbalance to Signs in one sense: What happens if we were to have an alien 9-11? Well, that’s one problem right off the bat. In this film, the aliens land in Stephen King’s Maine, somewhere north of Mt. Kidtadhin, west of Kineo, possibly in potato-land, Aroostook County. Never mind that the spectacular winter (pardon, late fall – November Woods) cinematography seems to be shot in British Columbia, where the dollar goes farther. Well, it seems like this has been happening sporadically ever since Roswell, in remote areas, with the government (Col. Curtis) quarantining infected people, then exterminating them without the press ever finding out (unless you really believe that CNN is really part of a super right wing cabal). The political stuff could have been developed better, but perhaps it really can’t work. (In the book, slightly past the middle, King offers his theories about how the government could still talk its way out of this one. Later, the “Florida President” offers a reassuring speech as to how things are under control and the aliens and their germs—turd weasels and telepathy-inducing byrus-- are dying out, kind of like The War of the Worlds. Of course, this could have gone in other directions—instead their infection could spread less visibly at first (The Stand), or repeated invasions in less remote areas than northern Maine.)

 

From the point of view of plot construction, though, the novel and film are intriguing. The film starts slowly and builds up, with the lives of the four male friends, demonstrably straight according to well-placed lines about girl friends, but capable of a certain affection bordering on homoeroticism. At the very beginning, the psychiatrist is treating a fat patient who will eat himself to death (remember Seven) feels guilty about his own rough talk and pulls out a pistol to put to himself, when another friend calls, to talk about seeing Duddits, and the chain starts. Duddits is the developmentally disabled young man whom the four men saved from bullies in Derry, Maine twenty years before as morally together (Clark Kent – like) teenagers; the incident leaves them with strange psychic interconnections that frankly are more satisfying than sex. Well, Jonesy, the College Professor who is a bit like me, honest to God; he catches another student cheating (just like I did as a grad student instructor), and in the sequel develops a mind with so many opportunities to duplicate himself, that he will survive being hit by a car that may be driven by a Gray.

 

 This sets up their November Woods hunting trip six months later. It is snowing in November, long before Christmas, even Thanksgiving, as the year winds down. They are staying at a cabin called “Hole in the Wall,” and sleep under a native American artifact called the Dreamcatcher (it could have come from Cronenberg’s film Spider). Another hunter stumbles into camp, belching, farting, oozing, vomiting, bleeding from orifices like he had Ebola virus out of Robert Preston’s The Hot Zone, his flesh dissolving into mush. All hell breaks loose in the sequence, as animals in pairs start fleeing from an unknown force (maybe toward Noah’s Ark, perhaps). The men get separated and some are picked off by alien beings, who are a bit complicated in life cycle. There are the humanoid Grays, who may be robots, castrated on their home planets (Krypton) in some kind of break dancing ritual (Childhood’s End) designed to turn them into Starship Troopers without individuality but maybe capable of reproduction by budding, with no genetic diversity desired. (No, the Live and Let Live policy of my DADT didn’t work.)  Their larvae look like moray eels (Alien) without clear heads but rows of embedded incisors good for tearing off fingers and also for disembowelment (Hannibal). Of course, the government provides a diversion when it captures infected civilians and them bisects the statuesque Grays (Final Destination II – remember when the fat guy is cut in half by a trip wire) before blowing up the space ship with a MOAB intended for Baghdad. (In real life, the military would have used a small nuke, no questions asked).

 

So we have the classic horror novel problem of a fascinating premise, that suddenly goes off in too many directions to be credible, and leaves too many ends loose. Literary agents can debate this one (and I know that the movie critics don’t care for this at all). The Duddits character, played warmly as a leukemia patient by Donnie Wahlberg (a far cry from his virility in Diamond Men) tries to bring the men back together, but some of them (with less in the way of their own psychic resources) didn’t make it through the carnage, and that is good. This movie does not want a happy ending. Will we have a Dreamcatcher II, or a The Thing II? Oh yes, the bodysnatchers will invade again. And the next time maybe we will see human heads transplated onto tendrils and scuttling across cellar floors like rats in Willard, waiting for the D-con.  We all come from the insects.

 

Another movie that invokes 9-11 is The Core (Paramount, 2003, directed by Jon Amiel, with Hilary Swank, Aarom Eckhart, D J Wuallo, Delroy Lindo). Here a black-ops project “Destiny” designed to pre-empt a future super Osama (to destroy civilization, of course) kills the magnetic core of the planet, and the heros (led by a wiry professor played by Eckhart, the Thin Man who, rather unusual for Hollywood these days, actually acts proud of his chest hair) has to drill to the core of the planet like an endodentist doing a root canal to remove an abscess, with suitcase nukes, of course. The disasters include the destruction of Rome and San Francisco (starting with a particularly bizarre sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge where microwaves burn the hair off a motorist’s forearm as if he were testing Christmas lights)—but then, you want to see how the media and government would really handle such an incredible disaster (like Armageddon (dig Ben Affleck driving a rental car on an asteroid) and Final Impact in 1998). But what is really striking is the teenage computer hacker geek, whom the government conscripts (as an alternative to prison and life sentence banishment from computers) to “hack the planet”—that is, deface any website (anywhere in the world) that mentions Destiny or the secret dental mission. Is that what happened to my website in early 2002 when I speculated about terrorists with suitcase nukes, smuggled from Russia or the former Soviet republics?

 

I guess any of these movies could come across as right-wing fantasy material, in this time of War with Iraq.

 

The adaptation of Dean Koontz’s novel Phantoms in the Dimension Films 1998 release presents a plot a bit like Dreamcatcher, but more rudimentary. Here lost female skiers find a Colorado town beleaguered by an underground blob. It seems that, just like flatworms or planaria in biology lab, this creature absorbs all the information that it has “eaten.” Shades of King’s Tommyknockers. Ben Affleck is the good-guy sheriff, and Peter O’Toole is the mad scientist, who could have been played by Colm Feore (“give me what I want….”) This does call to mind (1982) The Thing.  After all, who is “the Thing?” Or, for that matter, remember the film The Blob.

 

We migrate more into plain horror with Artisan Entertainment’s Soul Survivors (2001, 85 min, dir. Steve Carpenter), with Casey Affleck (Gerry) well clothed, and Wes Bentley (American Beauty) less so—in a story (like Jacob’s Ladder) that you can recycle and interpret several ways as a near death experience for college student (Melissa Sagemiller) who mourns the loss of her boyfriend (Affleck) in a DWI accident and starts seeing ghosts (Luke Wilson is a bit creepy as a priest).

 

Related reviews: Storm of the Century   Jacob’s Ladder   The Happening

 

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