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Tuesday, April 23

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Lady in the Water

It's now been nearly two weeks since I watched writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, and I'm no closer to knowing exactly how I feel about it. I take breaks from thinking about it, but my mind keeps drifting back to this sometimes baffling but always fascinating work from a man whose films I essentially worship and thrill in dissecting without fail. It's not that I was confused by any aspect of the movie; it all made sense to me. It's not that I've forgotten what it's like to daydream or believe in fairies, or that I'm too old to "get it" (as that bastard Harry Knowles claims). What puzzles me, however, is what Shyamalan is trying to do here. The man has dazzled me by reinventing the ghost story (The Sixth Sense), superhero mythology (Unbreakable), alien invasion stories (Signs), and historical dramas (The Village). Sometimes he surprises me, but the man never fails to key into my emotional core. These are the subjects I was fascinated by as a younger man. And without realizing it until Shyamalan started making films, I was desperate for someone to recapture my enthusiasm for these things.

Maybe my problems with Lady in the Water stem from the fact that I don't have any clear memories of my parents reading me bedtime stories as a child — or more to the point, they never made up bedtime stories. The film feels like a parent telling a child a bedtime story over the course of several days or weeks, making up new plots and characters on a daily basis, and sometimes changing the rules because the story demands it and not for any logical reasons. As a result, Lady in the Water feels like it rambles, going off on tangents that never amount to anything, and eventually spinning out of the control until it ends abruptly and coldly. There are so many things to love about this movie, but those elements get bogged down in Shyamalan's fascination with his own narrative devices.

I'd hoped he would explore the darker corners of fairy tales. In this case, the plot focuses on a lonely and very sad man named Cleveland Heep (a moving performance by Paul Giamatti). Paul is an educated man who abandoned his life to become a maintenance man at an apartment complex called the Cove after his wife and son were killed. When the film begins, he is showing the building's newest tenant (a film critic played by Bob Balaban) to his room, meeting many of the Cove's residents along the way. Cleveland has a mild stutter — one we suspect was recently acquired — and he writes his sad thoughts in a journal that we assume no one else will ever read.

The craziness begins when Cleveland catches a pale young woman swimming in the Cove's swimming pool. She seems slightly hurt, and Cleveland brings her into his solitary apartment to nurse her back to health. It turns out that this girl's name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), and she is a Narf (not a mermaid, by the way, for those who thought Night was doing a remake of Splash). She's something like a nymph, who comes from the "blue world." An unnecessary opening sequence lays out the mythology concerning Narfs and the eagles that bring them to and from our world, and the evil creatures that hunt them. Lady in the Water is the type of film where the fantastical is questioned only briefly, not because Shyamalan is trying to keep things moving, but because characters in fairly tales rarely challenge such things. And the only proof Cleveland needs that Story is something remarkable is that his stutter disappears when she's near him.

For a time, I believed Shyamalan was using the fairy tale as a veiled excuse to introduce us to some truly fascinating characters: the men and women of the Cove. Jeffrey Wright plays a man who is obsessed with crossword puzzles and lives with his young son who sees patterns and images on the backs of cereal boxes. There is the group of stoners (led by Jared Harris) who sit around an apartment all day talking and theorizing about things that mean nothing. Sketches of characters (played by the likes of Mary Beth Hurt, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin and Sarita Choudhury) float in and out of Cleveland's life in his attempts to discover what Story's purpose in our world is and how to get her back to the blue world.

Many of the rules of the Narf world are given to us through an old Korean woman whose daughter translates for Cleveland her memories of bedtime stories from her childhood. These sections of the film feel forced and lazy. Put simply, there is entirely too much exposition between the Korean woman and Cleveland, and just when we think we've got the Narf story straight, she remembers something else about the legends and passes on more information to Cleveland at the exact time he happens to need that particular nugget of knowledge. During these scenes, my eyes started to glaze over, especially in the scene in which Giamatti is forced to act like a little boy to put the old broad at ease.

Shyamalan's fatal plot flaw is not giving us enough of Story. She often sits quietly huddled somewhere while the humans buzz around her attempting to extract the tiniest bit of information from her. She is able to see into their futures, which is a terrifying concept but one that is only briefly explored. And then there are the scary dog-like creatures that roam the grounds, blending in with the grass around the pool and waiting for a moment to strike and kill the Narf. These bad boys are genuinely scary, and they give us a glimpse of the M. Night we are more familiar with.

Using what they know about the creatures of the blue world, the tenants discover that some among them must perform certain tasks in order to get the poor Narf girl back home. Using the advice of the film critic (who is, of course, well-versed in plot devices), Cleveland gathers his fellowship and attempts to prepare everything required to get Story her air mail pick-up from an eagle. The turn the plot takes from this point on is curious but hardly the stuff wonderment is built on. There is no surprise ending, and that's OK; I think that device is well past its welcome from Shyamalan. But what he gives us instead is so ordinary and colorless that I couldn't help but be more than a little disappointed.

And let's talk about the Narf's name for a second: Story. Subtle, right? Shyamalan is driving home the point that this film is about the act and art of weaving tales. He's doing it and so are several of the characters in the film. It's as if Night is telling us that people have lost the gift of oral gab, and this film is an attempt to restore interest in the practice. Every chance he gets, Shyamalan adds layers and facts to his original premise for Lady in the Water, but instead of feeling like a flower blooming, the story feels like a weighty brick wall, slapped together without nearly the craftsmanship to let it stand on its own.

I'm assuming that most people will feel compelled to withhold judgment on Lady in the Water until the very end of the film, as it should be. But my gut tells me that most will abandon interest in it much earlier. Some will jump ship the minute they realize that Shyamalan does something in this film he's never done before: he casts himself in a lead role. Those of us who pay attention know that Night has always had cameos in his film, but here, he takes on the part of a would-be writer who ends up being arguably the most important person in the movie. I'm not knocking the guy's performance in any way; he's actually pretty damn good in the role. But when you find out (through Story) what his character's role in the future is destined to be, you will probably laugh. If you don't know what Shyamalan looks like, this more than likely won't bother you in the slightest, but it was a major distraction for me in a film that already had too many distractions.

There's a small part of me that wanted to be the guy who championed this film against an onslaught of naysayers claiming Shyamalan has lost his mind and/or his talent. While I certainly don't believe either is true, Lady in the Water is a film that is as thematically splintered as it is visually radiant. This movie tore my brain apart trying to understand what this gifted writer-director was going for. And sitting here now, I think I know what he was going for; I'm just not sure I cared. And when you stop caring about the characters and the story/Story, well, that's the deathblow of any film. So, now we know M. Night Shyamalan is not perfect. I have no doubt he'll continue to make exceptional films, but Lady in the Water is not one of them.

Clerks II

It was a wise move on writer-director Kevin Smith's part to put the sexy and lovely Rosario Dawson at the center of the otherwise all-male poster for Clerks II. Although she doesn't get quite as much screen time as the boys, she acts as the emotional core of this testosterone-laden follow-up to Smith's 1994 no-budget hit that, along with Pulp Fiction, set ablaze a new wave of dialogue-heavy indies that painfully copied these two films without really getting what made them so good. With Clerks II, Smith revisits the original film's two core characters — Jeff Anderson's flagrantly foul Randal and Brian O'Halloran's eye-rolling counterpoint Dante — remembering what made this duo so hilarious but also acknowledging that the two are fast approaching their mid-30s. Framed in an outrageous deluge of bad language, wildly taboo conversations and wonderfully disgusting situations, Smith asks questions about responsibility, growing up, starting a family, and plain and simply acting your age. Needless to say, this last point is the hardest for these two to embrace.

The film opens with Dante arriving at work at the same convenience store he and Randal have been working in for 10 years. He opens the security gate to find the place is ablaze. Jump ahead one year, the pair are now working at the McDonald's-like fast food joint Mooby's. (Fans of all of Smith's other films will find this name — and many other things about the film — comfortably familiar.)

Now, instead of insulting customers and intellectualizing about Star Wars at a Quik Stop, they do so in the company of other employees slinging burgers and fries. The two welcome additions to the Smith family are the aforementioned Dawson as the sweet Mooby's manager Becky, who engages in what appears to be an innocent flirtation with Dante; and relative newcomer Trevor Fehrman as the Lord of the Rings-obsessed virgin Elias. Dante is now engaged to the Emma (Smith's real-life wife Jennifer Schwalbach), who, 10 years earlier, would have been way out of his league. Having played the field with a succession of good-looking men, she has no settled on a guy she believes will try a little harder. The film follows Dante's final 24 hours in New Jersey before uprooting himself to Florida, where Emma's parents live and where they'll be married.

Also returning from Clerks (and from nearly all of Smith's films) are Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith. The very existence of this film has a lot to do with a promise Smith made to Mewes about re-examining their characters one more time on film (after apparently shutting down the franchise with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) if he kicked his drug habit. The pair are still drug dealers and have relocated to outside Mooby's, but Smith now includes a few choice comments about rehab into his script. Smith seems to instill a fierce loyalty among his actors, as is evidenced by cameos from the likes of Ben Affleck, as well as Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee (both of "My Name Is Earl"), and there's something so reassuring to see so many familiar faces.

As with all of Smith's films, the jokes range from the gut-bustingly funny to the sound of crickets. Seriously, how many times can the line "Shut the fuck up" make you laugh? But Smith's observations about everything from the prospects of a Transformers movie to religion to "inter-species erotica" to trolls protecting the chastity of young women by hiding in their orifices are the stuff of legend. And naturally the ongoing battle about which trilogy is the best (Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings), well that just never gets old. Beware all LOTR fans: Randal's one-minute reenactment of that sacred trilogy, as well as his take on racial slurs, is as sharp and cutting edge as anything Smith has ever written.

But the scenes that surprised me the most were the less outrageous. There are some genuinely sweet moments in this film that are in no way indicative of Smith growing soft in his old age. Instead, they show that he has gained just enough maturity, sensitivity and knowledge (as well as a wife and child) in the last 12 years to make us care about these characters and not just laugh at/with them. Of course, he's also smart enough to realize that there isn't a red-blooded American male who won't be won over by Dawson's bouncy dance on the roof of Mooby's to the Jackson 5's "ABC" while trying to teach Dante to dance at his wedding.

Let's face it. You either love Smith's work or you never quite liked him (at least not past the first Clerks). I fall squarely in the first category; hell, I even like Jersey Girl. And this film is a worthy successor to a modern classic and well worth checking out. Clerks II is loaded with equal parts charm and rude (but damn funny) antics. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Smith has given us something for everyone, without going too much in any direction. The film manages to give us romance and vomit-inducing acts, sometime simultaneously. What more could you want?

Monster House

I really want you to like this film. Scratch that. I really want you to love this film, and quite frankly, if you give Monster House a shot, I don't see how it's possible that you won't love it, maybe more than any other film you see this summer. Filled with fantastic, child-friendly scares, a healthy dose of subliminal adult humor, and some of the most inventive animation I've seen in a very long time, Monster House may actually have more to offer grown-up kids than the little ones. I've seen it twice now, both times with audiences made up of adults and younger people, and in both cases the older folks were laughing and reacting far more than the kiddies.

This film will astonish you with how good it is, which strikes even me as surprising since it's from a first-time feature director and it's being released by Columbia, a studio that doesn't exactly specialize in animation. And I'll add this up front: if you get a chance to see this film in 3-D (in which it is being offered on a handful of digitally projected screens), make the trip to see it that way. This is the best 3-D I've ever seen.

Strangely enough, the fact that Monster House is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis doesn't really make any difference to me. The last film Zemeckis directed was the creepy Polar Express, a film I thought failed on a couple different levels. Monster House has very little in common with that Christmas adventure. First and foremost, it's set on Halloween. While shooting hoops, DJ (voiced by Michael Musso) and his best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) debate over whether the pair are too old to go trick-or-treating. After catching his own rebound with his face, Chowder realizes that his brand new ball has landed in the yard across the street from DJ's house. The lawn and rickety house attached to it are owned by one Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi, in classic "you kids get off of my lawn" old man mode). The boys and Nebbercracker have a brief exchange about the perils of being on the old man's property when he suddenly keels over, apparently from a heart attack.

DJ's parents (voiced by the Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) have just left for a dental conference, and just as the ambulance takes Nebbercracker away, the beat-up car of DJ's babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), shows up. Filled with guilt for the death of Mr. Nebbercracker, DJ assumes the worst thing that will happen to him on this day is getting confined to his room by Zee, whose rocker boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) shows up for an evening of misbehavior with the easily impressed babysitter. But after watching Nebbercracker's house from his bedroom window, DJ starts to believe that the house is not only alive, but inhabited by the ghost of the old man, who is none too happy with DJ for killing him.

Monster House is filled with some of the most spectacular visuals you're likely to see all year, but the film is so much more than its animation. There's a quite moving story behind the haunted house that eats anything that steps within its property line. The film also serves as a sweet preteen coming-of-age film as DJ and Chowder team up with a cute prep-school girl named Jenny (Spencer Locke) selling cookies around the neighborhood. Both boys fall for her, and their attempts at seeming just a little more mature around her are hilarious failures. The movie is also extremely funny. There's a fantastic scene where the boys seek help and guidance about their haunted house problem from an older kid named Skull (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder), who must be approached cautiously as he plays an arcade video game. Some attempts at humor are geared more toward younger audiences. A pair of bumbling police officers (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) have their moments, but the broad humor in their scenes doesn't always work.

I particularly loved the sequence in which the three kids manage to get inside the house and explore. The house holds many secrets to Nebbercracker's past, including the fact that he was at one time married to a circus fat lady (voiced by Kathleen Turner... insert joke here). The final act of the film is non-stop action as the house literally rips itself from its foundation and chases the kids to a nearby construction site. It's a phenomenal sequence that is made all the more eye-popping in 3-D. You can't help but be impressed by newbie director Gil Kenan, who has a flair for capturing an authentic tone in the interactions between his characters, while really creeping us out with his PG-rated horror antics. Above all else, Monster House is pure entertainment. This is a movie about packing in a tremendous amount of fun and creativity into 85 minutes, and it's impossible to resist. Quite frankly, if Monster House doesn't work for you, you may need to see a doctor.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

There is nothing more embarrassing than an old person trying to appear young and hip; and there's nothing worse than a once-great comedy director who is at least 10 years past his prime surround himself with young actors and hope for the best in a story that is way out of his element. I am a huge Ivan Reitman fan. Many of his films (Meatballs, Stripes, the Ghostbusters movies, Dave and even Kindergarten Cop) never fail to make me laugh when I catch them on cable or revisit the DVDs. But let's face facts: Reitman has become horribly out of touch with what makes people laugh these days, and it pains me to watch his films. Anybody remember Father's Day, Six Days Seven Nights or the cosmic abortion that was Evolution? That's what I thought.

With his latest, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Reitman doesn't exactly redeem himself but at least the film made me laugh a few times. With a somewhat intriguing script from Don Payne (who worked on "The Simpsons" for a time and has written the screenplay for the Fantastic Four sequel), Reitman keeps things moving but can't quite dig himself out of the cliché-filled hole that he's been working in for more than a decade. To him, people with professions that in the real world would lead you to believe they were intelligent, rational individuals are reduced to stammering imbeciles. With him, a declaration of love in the most public of venue is pure gold. After all, can love really be called love unless a group of strangers is surrounding you to clap when you finally kiss? It's the same school of thought that believes that a shot to the nuts is good for a laugh no matter how many times you do it in one film.

I know there are many of you out there that will flock to this film because Uma Thurman plays superhero G-girl, a heroine with pretty much all the same powers as Superman and an emblem on her chest that seems to indicate that she plays for the Green Bay Packers. But she's a 21st Century heroine, which means that every time she flies off to fight crime, she's wearing a different semi-hot outfit. Her real name is Jenny Johnson, an insecure, possessive, manipulative woman who can't hold down a man because they're all scared to death of her. And this brings up the first of many things wrong with My Super Ex-Girlfriend: the titular character isn't very likeable. Granted, a lot of revenge-driven behavior she aims at her latest ex-boyfriend Matt (the hapless Luke Wilson) is pretty funny, but instable stalking isn't that funny in this day and age. Although I did like the scene where she throws a live, thrashing great white shark into a room with Matt.

Perhaps Reitman's biggest crime with this work is the casting of Eddie Izzard (as G-girl's nemesis, Professor Bedlam), "The Office's" Rainn Wilson as Matt's best friend, and Wanda Sykes as Matt's boss. These are three very funny and entertaining people who are given next to nothing funny or entertaining to do. Sykes, in particular, is unforgivably wasted here, and having just seen her wonderfully funny cameo in Clerks II, both roles seem like retread of what she does so well on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." She just walks in the room whenever Matt and his coworker Hannah (Anna Faris) are in a compromising position, says something sassy, and offers a variation on "I've got my eye on you" to Matt.

The two actors who fare the best here are Wilson and Faris, despite the fact that the outcome of their relationship seems painfully inevitable. Wilson's reactions to both finding out that his mousy Jenny is really G-girl and what she puts him through when he breaks up with her are genuine and amusing. Their first time in bed together is arguably the film's best moment. Faris is just plain cute, and she provides something of a counterbalance to the totally unhinged Thurman, who spends much of the film with her eyes bugged out and her volume control set on 11. I love me some tall, Amazonian Uma, but she's just not very good in this.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend won't be the worst time you'll have in a movie theatre this summer. Like many an ex-girlfriend, there are things to like about it/her, but you'll probably make an effort to speed up the forgetting so you can move on to the next one.

Two Drifters

Oh, dude, this is one messed-up movie and maybe one of the best ever made about the nature of obsession and how sometimes it's possible to obsess over someone you've never met. The Portuguese Two Drifters is about two very lonely individuals whose lives cross thanks to their common interest in a dead man.

Rui (Nuno Gil) is a strapping young gay bartender whose lover, Pedro (Joao Carreira) is killed on their anniversary in a horrible car crash. Coincidentally, the stunning Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira) lives in the same apartment building where Pedro and his mother lived. Shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend, she spots the commotion going on around the building on the day of Pedro's viewing, and she decides to attend, even though she never knew him. At the viewing, Odete sees the desperately emotional Rui looking at his lover in his plain coffin, and something just... snaps in her mind. Shortly thereafter she begins spending her days at Pedro's grave believing herself to be pregnant with his baby.

Eventually, Odete takes her pregnancy story to Pedro's mother, who at first can't believe this it (it's never clear whether the mom knew Pedro was gay, but I'm guessing she did), but eventually becomes so excited at the prospect of having a grandchild that all reason leaves her. Odete sincerely believes her own story, which comes complete with a long, detailed history of their love affair and a hysterical pregnancy.

Meanwhile, Rui misses Pedro so much that he can't even look at photos of him, let only visit his grave. When he finally does so, he spots Odete there and confronts her. Although he knows her story is bogus, he still finds himself drawn to protect and comfort her. The film's final scenes of Rui and Odete... um... bonding are probably going to freak a few people out, but they are a strangely natural extension of everything that has come before. Odete is one of the most disturbed characters I've ever seen on film, but since she's only really a danger to herself (and her non-existent baby), she doesn't seem all that crazy. The fact that the actress playing her is so devastatingly gorgeous makes her insanity seems all the more tragic (yes, I said it!).

Director Joao Pedro Rodrigues' last film, O Fantasma, was also a disturbing psychosexual drama, but it existed in a world of violence and chaos. With only a handful of characters in Two Drifters, intimacy is the key ingredient in making this film far more gripping and troubling. By filling his movie with attractive actors in such unsettling situations, Rodrigues has made a minor masterpiece exploring the nature and extent some people will go to to make a connection in a world that seems to be dismissing them at every turn. Two Drifters is mesmerizing, haunting, and unforgettable. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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