Lady in the Water: Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) Seventh Feature

Lady in the Water is the seventh feature in M. Night Shyamalan’s career as a writer-director.

Shyamalan claims that it’s his most original and daring film to date, perhaps rationalizing the fact that Disney, the studio that had made his last four pictures, beginning with the 1999 internationally acclaimed and Oscar-nominated “The Sixth Sense,” had decided not to finance the new film and drop Shyamalan from its roster of house directors.

Nonetheless, “Lady in the Water” strikes me as the weakest, least engaging, and least commercial picture of the quintet of supernatural horror thrillers he has made: the aforementioned “Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Village.”

Part bedtime fairy tale that Shyamalan invented for his young daughters, part metaphysical supernatural saga, part routine horror flick, but not satisfying on any level, “Lady in the Water” shifts tone from sequence to sequence. Some will see these shifts as indication of the story’s rich nature, while others (like me) will dismiss them as rambling and lacking in dramatic focus, an indication of Shymalan’s lessening confidence as a visionary storyteller–and of spinning his wheels.

“Lady in the Water” is the first film with no bankable name cast, or major stars. “Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” were greatly helped by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in the latter; “Signs” by Mel Gibson; and “The Village” by a large reputable ensemble that included William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Adrien Brody.

Shyamalan has written the lead part specifically for Paul Giamatti, who gets to play one of his few major roles after a career of distinguished supporting parts (“Sideways,” “Cinderella Man”). The female lead is also played a relative unknown, Bryce Dallas Howard (who was in “The Village”). Neither actor is in top form. And it doesn’t help that for half of the movie, Howard is wrapped in a towel sitting on the bathroom floor. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to an ensemble-driven film that while including terrific character actors such as Jeffrey Wright (“Angels in America,” “Syriana”) also includes many unknown thesps.

The second male lead in “Lady in the Water” is played by no other than Shyamalan himself, as a would-be writer who lives with his sister (Sarita Choudhury) in the building. That he is not a particularly skilled or captivating actor is an understatement.

The film’s plot is verbose, convoluted, and senseless. Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a man living in quiet desperation, trying to disappear among the broken appliances of the Cove apartment complex. Nonetheless, he’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue, when he finds a mysterious young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), hidden in his building.

Running away from his past and from his purpose, Cleveland has suffered undeniable losses (that cannot be diclosed here). A former doctor, he has taken refuge as the superintendent of The Cove, a run-of-the-mill apartment complex in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he buries himself in the busy routine of quick fixes, and all but anonymous interactions with the world around him. Clevelands attempts to suppress his pain are manifest in a stutter; the other tenants regard him as a sad guy with a cloud over him.”

When Cleveland finds Story hiding in The Cove, he is jolted from his disconnected existence and is compelled to help this powerful and alluring creature make the treacherous journey back to her fabled home, The Blue World.

The yarn is full of symbolic characters and creatures that don’t make much narrative sense and are not intriguing either. If you thought that the red color was too symbolic in “The Village,” wait until you encounter the maze of obscure signs, characters, and creatures in this picture.

Take Story, for example, a nymph-like woman, a Narf as Cleveland discovers, a character from an ancient bedtime story who has journeyed to the human world to fulfill a sacred purpose. Temporarily trapped between realms, with her mission and fragile existence in jeopardy, Story has taken refuge in Clevelands building, living in the cool dark passageways beneath the swimming pool. Storys quest to return to her world is fraught with danger, inhibited by ferocious creatures whose attempts to stop her carry catastrophic consequences for the human realm.

The pool is not only Storys conduit to–and from–the human realm. It also serves as the nucleus between the rigid grid of the apartment complex, the organic world that is beginning to encroach upon it, and the mysteries of Storys mythological home. The pool is the symbolic and physical place where all the worlds meet and collide. On one side, there’s the man-made building, and on the other, there’s nature in the shape of the forest.

Unlike “the Village,” which was historical and remote, “Lady in the Water” is more contemporary, reflecting the new cultural diversity that defines American society. The movie was shot in sequence on location in Leavittown, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia

The characters in “Lady in the Water” include Afro-Americans, Koreans, Jewish, Latino, and other racial groups. But diveristy aside, the eccentric residents one-dimensional. Take Reggie (Freddy Rodriguez of TV’s “Six Feet Under”), a guy who like to exercise only one side of his body, or Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright), a wordsmith known for his crossword puzzles skills.

With the excpetion of one tenant, a nasty film critic named Mr. Farber, a snob who doesn’t socialize with anyone, the other residents co-exist harmoniously (more or less) and, in the end, they even take a collective action. As Cleveland and his fellow tenants work together to unravel the mystery of Story’s destiny, they discover that they too are fated to play integral parts in the story unfolding in the “real” world.

Since the destinies of the complex’s residents are tied directly to Story’s, they must work together, putting their lives at risk, to decipher a series of codes that would unlock her pathway to freedom. Cleveland has to face the demons that have followed him to the Cove, and the other tenants must seize the special powers that Story has brought out in them, if they are to succeed in their dangerous quest to save her world and ours.

In the movie, a whole ecosystem of creatures exist outside the apartment building, but the tenants have to go back centuries in their thinking to become like children again and believe that anything is possible so that they can connect with the other world that coexists with theirs.

My movies are an expression of who I am and where I am emotionally, Shyamalan recently said. Each film has questions that Im wrestling with at that time.” However, “Lady in the Water” strikes me as a personal story that will mean less to the general public than to the director. Of Shyamalan’s films, including the weaker ones (“Unbreakable” and The Village”), this one resonates the least, lacking the original scheme and poignant texture of his good works.

Exploration of faith has been a key theme in Shyamalan’s movies, most notably in “Signs.” “Lady in the Water” continues to examine the significance of finding ones purpose in life. In this picture, Shyamalan asks the audience to consider the human condition, and more specifically, their relationship with the universe.

Biggest problem is the movie’ verbosity without being engaging. This is particularly evident in the second reel, in which Vic Ran (Shyamalan) relies on a Korean girl named Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung) and her mother, Mrs. Choi (Jane Kyokolu), who’s an expert on Narfs. Since Mrs. Choi doesn’t speak English, Vic asks the girl questions (often on the telephone), which she translates to her mom, and then translates her mom’s answers into English. Now, how exciting is that to watch

In the past, Shyamalan didn’t rely on graphic violence or visual effects to tell his stories. However, in “Lady in the Water,” the nasty creature, a cross between a dog and a hyena, with sharp wet teeth, spiky grass for fur, and red eyes, features prominently in the plot, but in more conventional ways, appearing out of nowhere, or attacking those who “deserve” it (first and foremost the film critic!).

Unbeknownst to the tenants, living in the untamed meadow at the edge of The Cove is the Scrunt, a fierce beast determined to stop Narfs like Story from moving safely around the human world–and prevent them from returning home. Spiky blades of grass protrude from its back and help the Scrunt camouflage itself in the lawn. A mere scratch from a Scrunt infects its prey with deadly poison called Kii that slowly saps the life from its victim.

Scrunt is afraid of the Tartutic, three simian-like creatures forming an invincible force that maintains law and order. These three beings are so evil, they killed their parents on the night they were born. Their bark-and-branch-like exterior enables them to conceal themselves in trees. No living creature has ever seen the Tartutic, because if you see them, it means youve broken the law and are going to be killed.

“The Village” expressed the anger that Shyamalan felt at the time, grappling with questions of how far would a man go to protect his family Would he run away from society In contrast, the resolution of “Lady in the Water” reflects Shyamalan’s more hopeful view of his life and the surrounding world, even if it negates almost everything that precedes it.

Shyamalan encourages the audience to have faith in something greater than themselves, to believe in a world of possibilities beyond those seen or fully comprehended, to abandon cynicism and become children again. But credibility aside, whether this notion is progressive or retrogressive, let alone realistic in today’s climate, would depend on viewers’ personal belief systems.

With “Lady in the Water,” Shyamalan has tried to create a mythic fairy tale in the vein of such classics as “Little Red Hood, “The Princess Bride,” “E.T.” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Judging by the results, however, he has totally failed.

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