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July 27, 2006

'Lady in the Water'

5 out of 5

Well into July, I've seen a good movie this summer. Last week, a feature film was released that breaks the mold of the overlong, overdone, calculated-to-make-money box office blockbuster. Never mind that this film more closely resembles fall movie-going fare; it would be excellent at any time of year and is particularly refreshing after the record lows to which we sunk last weekend.

I'm talking about "Lady in the Water," the latest film from writer-producer-director M. Night Shayamalan. He's created some crowd-pleasing movies in the last seven years ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs" and "The Village"), but this is without a doubt my favorite.

For me, it was more natural or organic; less forced or structured to surprise its audience. In fact, Shayamalan strays from his trademark twist-ending and instead lightly peppers the twists throughout. In doing so, he's made a more thoughtful, mature film.

From the first frame, something caught my attention, and it was held rapt throughout the 110-minute running time. Besides the masterful control of the filmmaker, I've got to give almost equal credit to actor Paul Giamatti. He's earned critical acclaim for his performances in "American Splendor," "Sideways" and "Cinderella Man," but has not struck my fancy until now. Here, he gives a deeply emotional performance as Cleveland Heep, the lonely superintendent of a Philadelphia apartment building. The climactic scene showcases his talent as an actor and had me crying like a baby.

Everything about "Lady in the Water" is haunting and beautiful, particularly "The Lady" herself.

Bryce Dallas Howard surfaces from the swimming pool as a sea nymph on a mission to jumpstart humanity toward its next sociological change. But when she tries to return home, complications arise. Giamatti must rally the other tenants and figure out how to help her, guided only by a generations-old bedtime story, while at the same time avoiding a monstrous creature whose sole purpose is to destroy her.

One of the many unique qualities of "Lady in the Water" is that the characters all believe in "The Lady" without question. The plot gives an explanation for this phenomenon, but I think it's more important in demonstrating the film's originality.

Any other Hollywood movie would spend half its time with the main character trying to convince everyone else that he is not crazy (I think the trailer even indicated such). However, by avoiding the familiar angle, the action can focus on the true themes of the story.

In "Signs" especially, Shayamalan's message was a little heavy-handed. Here, the concept of self-awareness and realizing our potential (or recognizing it in others) is essential to the story, but is not forced down our throats.Again, by spreading it throughout the film rather than piling it all on at the end, it's much more effective.

I loved every minute of "Lady in the Water." The score by James Newton Howard is lovely. The cast of oddball tenants is funny and surprising; Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, an unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt, and Shayamalan himself bring individual life to what could have been stereotypical characters. And an equal number of unknown actors match their peers' talents.

Cinematography by Christopher Doyle is effectively creepy and turns "The Cove" apartment building into a character itself.

There has been much publicity about Shayamalan parting ways with Disney when they didn't support this project. Indeed, he made "Lady in the Water" for Warner Brothers instead. And critics in large part do not like his movies.

Shayamalan himself admitted on "The Howard Stern Show" that critics review him, not his movies, and that they would not like his latest. But in focusing on the man instead of his films, these people are really missing out on something wonderful. You'd have to have a pretty cold heart not to be moved by "Lady in the Water."

Ouch! I'm just now reading that "Lady in the Water" pretty much sunk at the box office. But I wouldn't panic. Word of mouth could maintain consistent audiences and eventually produce substantial returns. This is definitely one time to not listen to the critics. Except, of course, for me. And I say don't wait an hour after eating to jump in this "water." Rush out and see it as soon as you can.

  • Jeff Owens is co-owner of Couch Potato Video in De Soto and an avowed movie buff.

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