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Ah summer...
…what power you have to make us suffer and like it."
Russell Baker
Selected capsule-reviews from a lacklustre Hollywood Summer (including a slightly more detailed look at M. Night Shyamalan's coming down to earth) by Camus
 
"He did what in the cup?"
Mater the tow truck mis-hearing his friend, Lightning
McQueen's 'Piston Cup' announcement in Cars.

 

Ah, summer. Why summer? It's when the biggest, and therefore the most important demographic slice of us is looking for ways to release its parents' money into 'amuse-me' outlets and fill its time before academia snatches the whole slice back off the streets. There is an irony to be mined - seasonal sunlight is usually cinema's destroyer. Who wants to sit in a darkened auditorium on a fine Summer's day? Well, I do actually but I am up way past my demographic. Hollywood duly obliges with fare it hopes will be teen-magnets. Here's a round up of four likely suspects starting with the "Hurrah!" stories and miserably dribbling down to serious money haemorrhages… Warner Brothers may have their super men (still under-performing according to industry pundits) but they also have ladies in water, water-logged boats and another pointless remake of The Wicker Man which I believe is floating no one's boat… And Disney clean up with a waking Kraken (more water!) and a little red sports car (in the desert, phew)...

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest – Depp impact

This movie is about to hit the billion dollar box office mark which is somewhat baffling. Yes, it's a hugely enjoyable romp and Disney is cheering the smart decision to shoot 2 and 3 back to back. But what's it like as a movie and not merely the Black Pearl flagship of a merchandising behemoth? It's not flawless by any means. It's a huge tottering thing way out of character and narrative balance and here's another irony. What over-balances it is precisely what made the first one so damned enjoyable.

Imagine (if you will) a box of chocolates. No, no, no. No Forest Gump allusions. No. An ordinary box of chocolates. Will's romance and the Black Pearl's quest were the majority of the tasty treats on offer. The two were literally the good guy trying to win the girl and the bad guy wanting to kill him. The truffle sitting on the edge (of which there were only one or two) was Depp's Sparrow. Even though he was a vital strand of the movie, his performance and charisma made it seem to punters like it was Depp's show. The film-makers have thusly (and not mistakenly, financially speaking) elevated Depp to 'star' and relegated Will and Elizabeth to very minor support. In effect the sequel is too much truffle. For some, nothing is too much truffle. I'm not sure Sparrow is fleshed out enough and interesting enough as a character to hang the entire two sequels on but hey, people are loving it so what do I know? His presence was designed in the first movie to integrate the absurd supernatural narrative. He had his finger on the tying plot knot so to speak. In the sequel, and one suspects in the second sequel next year, Sparrow shoulders and will shoulder the whole kaboodle. Too much of a good thing?

The slapstick is fun in the most overblown, unbelievable and absurd fantasy manner but then when your villain is a tentacle-faced Bill Nighy, you have a licence to go anywhere and do anything you like - which the film-makers do and most of it pays off. The near perfect CG is in place and the dialogue sparkles with gems like; "It's a mythological creature, I can call it what I wants!" in an argument over pronunciation of all things. The movie is also a product of our times. It's knowingly smart but never smug. Ah, hell. I may be tempted to catch it again just for the fun of it…

Cars – top gear

The second star performer of the Summer had a curious reaction, a backfire critically speaking, for a company with the most impressive run of critical and commercial hits. Pixar, as readers of this site will know (so why am I reminding you?) have honed the computer animation art to a buff shine. You can feel the work that's been lovingly poured into their movies and Cars is obviously a labour of love. But - and this seems to be the big point quite across the board of why it has been received well but not that well - fish? Check. Toys come to life? Check. Bugs, monsters and superheroes? Check. Cars?

Hmmm. I didn't react well to the Teaser because I'm not into cars because they are, well… cars. Directors John Lassiter and the lamented Joe Ranft (the latter dying in a car crash of all things almost exactly a year ago) are/were obviously big car buffs and it shows. They have created an extraordinary world where human beings do not exist and cars do all the things humans do (I mean, the bugs are VW Beetles with wings and planes leave tyre tracks in the clouds). But it's a world that is not light years near our own. We can't quite invest as heavily as we could in their previous big hitters. Monsters Inc. may be set in a strange world but ours was attached to it by a simple door. There is no such way back to us in Cars.

Cars is obviously planet Earth bound (check out the American west in all its CG glory) but it feels strangely tangential and therefore way off the bull's eye (yes, as tangents often are, I know). The cast are fine and Paul Newman stands out, angry and then supportive towards Owen Wilson's almost too self serving Lightning McQueen, the young rookie racing car destined for glory and major sponsorship. The sequence in the farmer's field is a particular joy. If some cars are people, then some tractors are barnyard animals. This is sophisticated humour, all the funnier for the appearance of Frank which I'll leave as a surprise. There is also an all too familiar voice as Lightning's manager. I can't imagine it not being re-dubbed for the US market (as I suspect Jonathan Ross's stint in Shrek 2 probably was) but who should be trotting out the agent's clichés with a natty little performance but Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson. It's a nice moment, a gathering of men's men, a sort of cultural and communal flashing of headlights at the testosterone T-Junction. I mean cars are men's things, right? Speaking of which…

There is a romance - of course - and there is something faintly perverse about imagining how a buck sport's car and a lady Porsche would actually… uh - well, kiss for the very start. Where do the Minis come from? Sorry, but all other Pixar worlds could stand up to a certain well defined and absurdly believable internal logic. The logic in Car-World is just clever detail, immaculate design and affectionate human parody. But as with Pirates, it's scoring quite high with over $400 million globally tallied but - and only to Pixar - this must seem like a tiny disappointment. Slarek mentioned that the movie reminded him too much of Thomas The Tank Engine. I shudder. But then Thomas and his chums had human masters who kept the damn thing faintly accessible. For all of its visual majesty, Cars never convinces that it's connected to us.

Poseidon – wave goodbye

Oh God. So how does it work in Hollywood? If there's a big wave in the script, give it to Wolfgang Peterson? I mean he directed Das Boot. What on earth would make him stoop so low? I bet it's the six figures sending his kids and grand kids through university - seven maybe? Troy didn't do that well, did it? For those of you blissfully unaware, Poseidon is a remake of The Poseidon Adventure. The latter had some 70s charm, some 70s cheese, some real character and Gene Hackman as my kind of priest, surly and unrepentant. It was the movie Father Ted Crilly turned to in his hour of need in Father Ted's rather lovely Speed 3 episode. Incidentally, it was of no help. Well, how would the tale of a freak wave overturning a luxury liner have anything in it to help Father Dougal trapped on a milk float that will explode if he goes under four miles per hour? I'm smiling at the memory.

The new cast of stock characters on the Poseidon luxury liner (look at how lovely it is as we CG swoop around it like a bug over a corpse) is just that - stock. The wave (CG of course) is impressive on a big screen and the resulting mayhem quite mean spirited (we see people hitting the deck and being fried alive in tunnels). What hell we mete out to what's known as synthespians is taking the edge off dramatic empathy a tad. We know it's fake so it's OK to show 'people' dying horribly? I preferred the stuntman's role, risking all for my entertainment. So the boat takes a little while to turn upside down (or as Mad Magazine had it in their lovely parody - The Poopsidedown Adventure - uh, poopsidedown) and we join a group of stunned party revellers who believe the Captain when he says they should stay put. Uh. Hello!!! You're standing in a chandelier - with the ocean straining at windows built to keep the wind out… You are upside down. Everyone, up, now and keep climbing!!! But no, only a ragtag group of stock characters attempt to escape (stock being good for stew, which is what this movie is - and it's cold, salty stew at best).

As soon as the "ooohs" and "aaahs" subside and the ship settles, the entire movie feels like it's underwater with a cast blessed with lungs the size of Karriemoor Rucksacks. I mean there's water everywhere. Yes, there is some suspense (lift shafts always get me) but it's all so fecking pointless, so silly, so without redeeming character pay offs. We don't care. In a big nod (head butt more like) to smartarsism (post-modern bollocks), the entire cast are stuck in a shaft with the screwed on grille preventing escape. In passing a crucifix pendant up to Kurt Russell to be used as a screwdriver, Jilted gay architect, Richard Dreyfuss asides "That would be ironic…" Jesus saves but not this turkey. Christ.

Kurt Russell plays hero and manages to do something extraordinary. He dies and then presses the right button to save everyone - see it on DVD, he does. He dies and only then saves the day. Brilliant. But not. So some die, some survive and there is an almost existential question posed. Try this. Richard Dreyfuss, is about to commit suicide - he's on the railings ready to jump - when he sees the giant wave approaching. What, in the imminent arrival of a giant tidal wall of water, persuades a suicidal man to suddenly grasp onto life? Water as symbol of women? He's gay. A rush of fluid. I could go on all day. I'll stop now. But that bugged me throughout. Now to the one with again more water but this time more baffling than fourteen baffles at a Harley convention…

Lady in the Water – director in hot water

Earth to M. Night, Earth to M. Night… There is something profoundly upsetting about great, early success. It wouldn't upset you at first (second directorial effort, The Sixth Sense, made Shyamalan a household name and enough money to buy many houses - all in Philadelphia of course). No. At first it would make you giddy with the enormous trust audiences and critics afforded you and your baby. Sense could have been greatly damaged if the twist had been revealed but people wanted others to share the movie in the same way they had experienced it. If the producers were biting their nails wondering if the twist, once in the public domain, would kill Shyamalan's baby, the grosses put their minds at rest. The upsetting part starts with great success because unless you are extraordinarily and perhaps inhumanly level headed you will form a belief system around what you believe to be one undeniable fact: "I'm special. Look what I did!" It is said that whom the (Movie) Gods wish to destroy, they first reduce their grosses.

The Movie Gods launched Shyamalan and like the puddle of water who thinks the hole was made for him because he fits it so snugly, he started to formulate ideas. He said in an interview he knew how Spielberg did what Spielberg did and was about to follow the same magic formula. He began to wonder about his place in the world (I do not know if the director has a religious calling) so he made Unbreakable - a movie about finding out what you are here for. It's a nice conceit - that we all have a role to play - but it's all nonsense really however much we'd like to believe otherwise. We are lucky to be here (mathematically the odds are against us) and the world is indifferent to our 'role' and our suffering. Unbreakable was not huge (let's face it, The Sixth Sense was an aberration and Shyamalan should have shrugged, smiled and not concluded anything from its success except perhaps "I got lucky."). But the auteur was loose and the ego was whipping the creative juices into flowing. I know a lot of people didn't like Signs (I loved its climax and the music was undeniably superb) but it didn't help Shyamalan because it gave him a further taste of being the puddle in the hole. It made more money than Unbreakable. But the sun started shining and the puddle got smaller but it was still vociferous in the confidence of its own talent. The Village had a lovely idea - how far do we go to protect our children? But it promised much and ended up as a fairly damp Twilight Zone "Da daaaa…" It was not a resounding success.

Disney famously demanded changes to Shyamalan's next screenplay and bank and client fell out rather spectacularly, detailed in a book which Shyamalan endorsed. My copy of "The Man Who Heard Voices or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairytale" arrives tomorrow but I've seen Lady in the Water and I'm beginning to think that Disney had a point… It pains me to say that of course. We could start with the Narfs and the Scrunts but let's go back a little further. Shyamalan is not an outsider. His success has granted him a level of creative freedom that few enjoy in Hollywood. And as a talented writer and director, he's determined to fulfil some sort of destiny he's mapped out for himself.

The Lady in the Water is a fairy tale supposedly made up by Shyamalan and told to his kids. Fair enough. I like fairy tales. The movie starts with a basso profundo voice over telling us that once upon a time, the water people stopped communicating to the land people because the land people were greedy for land. Uh, OK. Visually over this, is a crude animation looking like characters derived from the LucasArts Video game logo (stick man with Weetabix body). So the set up is that there are sea nymphs who want to talk to human beings and make them listen to their watery vision of the future and wisdom about things past… in the fairy story. George Pal forgive me but when worlds collide, we need some internal logic to help us through here. Story (the nymph's name, don't blame me) comes from the Blue World - which in the movie looks like an encrusted swimming pool waste vent. There are no breakthroughs, physically to what must be Story's homeworld. She steals bits and bobs from the side of the swimming pool of The Cove, a Philadelphia apartment block. Escaping from a traumatic past event, Cleveland Heap (now, that's better) now looks after the Cove and its residents. It's a testament to long time collaborator James Newton-Howard, that his sublime and heartfelt score almost makes the movie click but as grand as it is fanciful, it never manages to address and paper over logical inconsistencies.

There's an almost throwaway element to a story that should feel timeless. The actual story is told by a Chinese OAP (why doesn't Heap just sit her down in one go to get the whole story, annoying oversight) and so it's a 'real' story, like Goldilocks within this, our world. And it's encroached as the nymph rises from the pool to save herself by saving all the inhabitants of the apartment block. But it's all so muddled and baffling. Things happen for no other reason than the OAP lady has said they do 'in the story'. No mention is made why Story can see the future or why everyone just accepts her at her own and Cleveland's word.

But the kicker, the one that really makes me think Shyamalan's puddle has nearly dried up is the casting of himself in a key role. Get this. The writer/director of Lady in the Water plays Vick, a writer who's not published yet but whose masterwork is called 'The Cookbook'. It's a book all would-be writers and professional writers are desperate to write, right now - the book that makes sense of our fractured world (bound to offend some) and a book that will be a departure point for a future leader to bring peace to the planet. Please. Shyamalan is even told by Story that he will be killed because of it and with true messianic stoicism, Vick doesn't so much as take a zippo to the manuscript fearing for his life. He just nods and looks solemn… He knows his role is to be killed for the sake of peace and truth… Puh-lease. Night saves the day…

Well, the Narfs and Scrunts and Evil ones do battle, pain is relieved and - can I afford to be this flippant? The Lady in the Water sank with lead weights and Shyamalan's future is, if not up in the air, then certainly brought back to earth with a scrunt. Will it work its magic the way the score has done once I see it on DVD? I'll keep you posted.

Busy now. Must get that manuscript in shape…

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

USA 2006
150 mins
director
Gore Verbinski
producer
Jerry Bruckheimer
screenplay
Ted Elliott
Terry Rossio
cinematography
Dariusz Wolski
editors
Stephen E. Rivkin
Craig Wood
music
Hans Zimmer
production design
Rick Heinrichs
starring
Johnny Depp
Orlando Bloom
Keira Knightley
Jack Davenport
Bill Nighy
Jonathan Pryce

Cars

USA 2006
124 mins
directors
John Lasseter
Joe Ranft
producer
Darla K. Anderson
screenplay
Dan Fogelman
John Lasseter
Joe Ranft
Kiel Murray
Phil Lorin
Jorgen Klubien
story
John Lasseter
Joe Ranft
Jorgen Klubien
editor
Ken Schretzmann
music
Randy Newman
production design
William Cone
Bob Pauley
starring
Owen Wilson
Paul Newman
Bonnie Hunt
Larry The Cable Guy
Cheech Marin
Tony Shalhoub
Katherine Helmond
John Ratzenberger
Michael Keaton

Poseidon

USA 2006
99 mins
director
Wolfgang Petersen
producers
Mike Fleiss
Akiva Goldsman
Duncan Henderson
Wolfgang Petersen
screenplay
Mark Protosevich
novel
Terry Rossio
cinematography
John Seale
editor
Peter Honess
music
Klaus Badelt
production design
William Sandell
starring
Kurt Russell
Josh Lucas
Richard Dreyfuss
Jacinda Barrett
Emmy Rossum
Mike Vogel

Lady in the Water
USA 2006
110 mins
director
M. Night Shyamalan
producers
Sam Mercer
M. Night Shyamalan
screenplay
M. Night Shyamalan
cinematography
Christopher Doyle
editor
Barbara Tulliver
music
James Newton Howard
production design
Martin Childs
starring
Paul Giamatti
Bryce Dallas Howard
Jeffrey Wright
Bob Balaban
Sarita Choudhury
Cindy Cheung
M. Night Shyamalan

reviews posted
8 September 2006