Friday, July 30, 2004

Movie Review: The Village

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 7/30/04
Running Time: 1:48
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Judy Greer, Alexandra Kyle

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Sam Mercer, Scott Rudin, M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Music: James Newton Howard
Studio: Touchstone Pictures

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After the surprising suspense debut of The Sixth Sense, the mediocre and slightly breakable Unbreakable, and then the superlative Signs, any fan of Shyamalan’s movies has come to expect an-anywhere-from decent to superb motion picture—never a disappointing cheap cheat of a film. The Village is, without a doubt, Shyamalan’s least effective film; it is the work of an egotistical everything (actor, writer, producer, director) that will even dishearten all of the Shyamalan purists out there. He has created high-quality pictures in the past, but this gimmick of a film is just a farce.

It is the late 19th century, in a small secluded village totally surrounded by trees. This village inhabits many townsmen including Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a daring young man who desires to test the boundaries laid before him and who has strong feelings for a sweet blind girl named Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard). Lucius’s mother (Sigourney Weaver) and the town leader (William Hurt) can sense Lucius’s fearless attitude, and, in fear of Lucius’s life, they both, along with the rest of the elders, try to convince him not to venture into the woods—for what lives in the woods are “Those We Do Not Speak Of,” meat-eating, spiky, scary creatures. (Of course, by giving them this name and talking about “Those We Do Not Speak Of” repeatedly, the townspeople are always speaking of them—creating quite a contradiction.) These woodland bogeymen are attracted to “the bad color” (red), so by hiding “the bad color” from them and wearing “the safe color” (yellow), the humans will be safe and the beasts will stay away. However, if the creatures’ woods are breached by a human foot, then their treaty with the townsmen is nullified, and once Lucius steps into their deep dark forest, all goes awry in the village/The Village.

Considering the setting takes place in the late 1800’s, the townspeople’s clothes accurately represent the times, as do their Old English tongues. With his first period piece, Shyamalan does well setting the Jeffersonian/Anti-Hamiltonian setting, but the dialogue comes off as more awkward than articulate. From its opening line of dialogue, “What mandible of a spectacle has captured your attention so splendidly?” you can easily be annoyed by the inane cheesiness behind their words.

After seeing the trailers for this film, one can expect yet another utterly suspenseful picture that will surely scare you half to death. However, in all actuality, there is only mild suspense and only two or three “boo” moments. Other than that, you are spending most of the second-half of the picture, not cuddled up in the fetal position from Shyamalan’s frightening beings, but rather wanting to throw something at the screen. The previews as well as M. Night’s name lure you into the theater, but by the midpoint of the picture, you feel like a fish caught in a net, unable to escape. By mid-movie the paranoia sets in (and that's not from the film’s suspense). Already feeling ripped-off from your initial $8 entry fee, you reach for your back pocket to check your tri-fold, making sure the theater didn’t somehow abscond with the remainder of your wallet’s contents as well. After paying to see this shoddy sham, you will certainly feel like the village idiot.

M. Night’s plot twists seem brilliant on paper, but the way they are unveiled to the audience, allows them to come across as despicable and makes everyone feel ripped-off. The main turn in the plot can best be described in Roger Ebert's words as "a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream."

Despite taking the silly route and allowing his picture to lose credibility, Shyamalan still maintains his composure with his use of first-class sound (although, James Newton Howard’s score is nowhere near that of Signs), his unique and somehow suspenseful camera angles, and his casting selections.

The Village’s mixed bag of names and faces add exactly that, just names and faces. The only performances worth mentioning are from Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) and Adrien Brody. Howard shows emotion with ease and was able to add some sympathy to the storyline, while Brody’s manic role of Noah adds another great character to his resume, alongside his Oscar-winning role in The Pianist. Phoenix, Weaver, Hunt, etc., all do absolutely nothing to stand out.

In general, this is not a standout feature from M. Night. In fact, I think he was influenced a little by the also initialed-name of R. L. Stine. This picture has the feel of one of R.L.’s child-oriented, meekly scary Goosebumps books, and at times it has the look of one of those tacky FOX Kids TV Goosebumps adaptations.

Hopefully this Hitchcock wannabe can be forgiven for this near atrocity, and can revert back to the likes of The Sixth Sense and Signs. Even with his skilled technical approach and his underlying themes of: love is always worth the risk and crime and violence have no borders, he still falls short in comparison to his prior works. In comparison to the other summer blockbusters, if you want to get cheap scares for an expensive ticket price and want to feel cheated on your way out, then The Village is the film for you.

In all honesty, this entire review should be posted in red text to denote the overall bad and disappointing nature of the film. Heed the warning bell, and avoid this substandard Shyamalan charade. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Movie Review: Dirty Pretty Things

United Kingdom, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 8/1/03 (limited)
Running Time: 1:37
Rated: R (Profanity, drug use, mature themes, sexual situations)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong

Director: Stephen Frears
Producers: Robert Jones, Tracey Seaward
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Music: Nathan Larson
Studio: Miramax Films

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WARNING: This review contains minor plot spoilers. Do not continue reading if you would like to be surprised at every aspect of the film.

“The hotel business is about strangers, and strangers will always surprise you. They come to hotels in the night to do dirty things, and in the morning it’s our job to make things look pretty again.”

People do dirty things in hotel rooms—not only dirty in a sexual context, but also dirty in an immoral and disgusting way. Some have sex with prostitutes, while others perform painful surgeries on illegal immigrants. These dirty deeds may seem dissolute in their own right, but can these filthy actions be justified when something helpful, or in this case “pretty,” results?

Dirty Pretty Things is set in London, not only a city where they steer from the right side of a vehicle and drive on the left side of the road, but also one of the many cities where the populace of illegal immigrants is posing a problem. This picture takes a look at immigration through the illegal immigrants’ point-of-view; being viewed from their standpoint, it is easy to feel sympathetic towards their unlawful action. The sacrifices that they make in order to remain in hiding and to stay out of the hands of immigration services are superbly depicted here in a dark, grey, and gritty fashion—for they are just trying to make it in this world like everyone else. The intense struggling and degradation that the characters go through make this picture the Requiem for a Dream of immigration (not drugs).

At first, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejofor) appears to be a hard-working inhabitant of London. But, it is later revealed that this black Brit, who has been working full time (x 2), as a taxi driver by day and a front desk worker at the Baltic Hotel by night, is not a citizen of England after all. This man, who doesn’t sleep more than a few winks a night, is much more than a concierge and an employee with public transportation; it turns out, Okwe is actually a skilled doctor/surgeon who has emigrated from Africa in fear of his own safety. While in London, he lives literally with both eyes open— fearful to be found by the powers that be.

Okwe is being taken care of by Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish Muslim immigrant who is also being kept under a close watch—for she has not yet been granted her citizenship. Despite the small sparks between Okwe and Senay, they share a main objective: to avoid the authorities and to gain their own independence. Together they are in a fight for freedom, but just how far are they willing to go to get that freedom?

Dirty Pretty Things’ storyline unfolds ever-so-slightly to the viewer. As time passes, you know the players, but you can’t put together the big picture until all of the pieces of the puzzle are delicately revealed to you—causing a tremendous buildup of suspense. Not only is this Miramax BBC Films collaboration a high-tension thriller, but it is also a dramatic picture with an extremely talented and multi-cultural cast.

Chiwetel Ejofor, an actor whom I think looks a little too much like Andre 3000 and who can also be seen in the British romantic comedy Love Actually, shows off his acting ability here by playing a vehemently strained character. He plays this red-eyed, sleep-deprived role with intensity making it reminiscent of Al Pacino’s character in Insomnia.

Audrey Tautou makes her English-speaking debut, and even with her thick French accent she shows off her immense versatility as a bilingual actress who can fit any role. Here, she takes a step away from her usual cute, angelic roles seen in Amelie and Happenstance and plays an atypical damsel in distress. – This is by far the most unattractive Tautou has been in any film, and truthfully she looks more stunning on the film’s poster/cover art than she does at any point during the picture’s 97-minute running-time. This pretty-faced cover with Audrey all fixed-up and topless, yet hidden, was an ingenious marketing strategy showing off Tautou’s sex appeal opposed to the original faint-brown grimy-looking cover featuring Tautou and Ejofor with looks of disdain on their faces. – To add, Sophie Okonedo, Sergi Lopez, and Benedict Wong all have outstanding performances in this picture.

In addition to a noteworthy cast, there are numerous scenes, quotes, and situations that stand out. Senay’s religious ties make for a splendid sequence with the other white meat; the religion run-through with the sewing up of the dead man’s pockets is quite profound; and the “good at chess, bad at life” analogy is a tasteful excerpt from the solid screenplay. Also, the climatic quote, “We are the people you don’t see,” provides for a powerful burst of sentiment as all of the singled out characters band together.

Dirty Pretty Things is not your run-of-the-mill suspense thriller. With its well-written screenplay and its solid lead performances, it ensures that you leave with something. Fortunately, this movie doesn’t crap-out after a commanding hour-and-a-half of emotion with a cheesy Hollywood ending. Its conclusion is actually realistic and believable, which makes the overall film all-the-more bittersweet. Dirty Pretty Things is not only a picture that has the potential to stir up new notions on immigration, but it also has the muscle to sock you in the stomach. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Friday, July 09, 2004

Movie Review: Happenstance

France, 2000
U.S. Release Date: Winter 2002
Running Time: 1:37
Rated: R (Nudity, sexual situations, profanity)
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Faudel, Eric Savin, Eric Feldman, Lysaine Meis

Director: Laurent Firode
Producers: Anne-Dominique Toussaint, Pasqual Judelwicz
Screenplay: Laurent Firode
Music: Peter Chase
Studio: Lot 47 Films
In French with subtitles

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The chaos theory states that even the slightest detail, gesture, or occurrence can upset the entire order of the world. For example, it is said that “the beating of a butterfly’s wings over the Atlantic can cause a hurricane over the Pacific." This type of thinking provides the concept and theoretical basis for the more recent The Butterfly Effect, a film that toys with both the chaos theory and time travel. But sometimes, just under the awesome powers and inter-workings of the universe, a random chain of events can lead to something grand.

Happenstance is a picture that depicts how tons of tiny and seemingly insignificant happenings have the capability of culminating into a blissful sense of fortuity—that is, without mixing in or tinkering with any elements of science fiction.

The film shows six main characters and how they act, interact, and how each of the six’s actions relate and effect everyone else’s lives. At the beginning both Irene (Audrey Tautou) and Younes (Faudel), who are sitting near each other on the train, hear their same horoscope (Pisces) read aloud to them by another passenger; it reads that tonight they will encounter their soul-mate and fall in love under the stars, the full-moon, and the visible planet Venus. After their horoscopes are announced to them, a random and chaotic series of events takes place--mainly between the six central characters. Each and every event ultimately leads up to the predicted and predestined contingency between the two star-gazing and star-crossed lovers.

While Happenstance may appear at first glance to be a romantic comedy, it is not; it is simply an artistic look at how the succession of events and interactions can result in determining one’s unknown fate and fortune. The film’s ensemble cast of characters all undergo quirky, seemingly minute, and inventive affairs with each other throughout—creating a picture that will make you ponder at some points, and simply smile at others.

This film definitely would not have had the same majestic and charismatic feel to it if Audrey Tautou was not included as part of the cast. Her fine acting talent here earned her the role for which she is most known for, as Amelie; she can also be seen in the more recent He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not and Dirty Pretty Things. Audrey is a petite and pretty brunette who I could watch on screen for hours regardless of her role or of the film’s storyline. This cute, curly-haired, sweet and simple actress radiates with charm and exuberance. Both the subtle soundtrack, equipped with smooth swelling strings and marimbas, as well as the overall aura of the picture, do well in matching Tautou’s magical and marvelous looks and manner.

Although the idea of incidents occurring by mere luck and chance – which then result in life-changing connections and revisions – is nothing new (seen previously in Sliding Doors, The Family Man, and Serendipity), Happenstance is a step above the others. While some may think the film goes overboard with ostensibly, extraneous actions and coincidences, I think it cleverly combines its contingencies of love, luck, and fortune together with panache, making this picture almost just as fascinating and unavoidable as fate itself. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004