Ain't It Cool News (
Movie News


Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

I’d like to talk about two films today. I’m going to talk about them together like this because I saw them both on the same day, Wednesday of this week, and because my experiences with the two are now tangled up together in my mind, and finally, because they both perfectly illustrate why I don’t believe film commentary ever boils down to a number between one and ten, a series of stars, or a thumb pointed up or down. These are both films that are worth seeing, they are both films that I think are flawed, and they are both going to polarize audiences to almost violent extremes. In the end, I prefer Philip Kaufman’s wicked new QUILLS to M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE, but I would urge you to see both, to make up your own mind.

It was a year ago, when I traveled to Austin for the first Butt-Numb-A-Thon, that I read the script to UNBREAKABLE, and when I published my script review for the film, I was attacked right away. Ironically, I was attacked not because I hated the script, but because I had reservations about it. It seems that many of you believe that there are only two positions on any film. We’ve seen the polarization in Talk Back after Talk Back, and we see it in newsgroups, and we see it at the CHUD message boards or on Corona’s new boards, or on any of a dozen other fanboy forums. It’s the school of thought that everything either "sucks" or "rules." And as a way of creating a real dialogue about a film, it’s useless.

Is UNBREAKABLE worthy of that dialogue? Yes. Yes, it is. I think the reactions we’ve seen so far illustrate that clearly. This isn’t a film like THE CELL or WHAT LIES BENEATH or M:I2 or, god forbid, BATTLEFIELD EARTH. This is a film like DARK CITY or BABE 2: PIG IN THE CITY or Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO+JULIET. It’s a film that will attract passionate, dedicated fans. It’s also a film that will frustrate and infuriate viewers. I think it’s well-made in certain ways and totally misguided in other ways. There are things about it that I admire and respect, and there are things about it that I despise. My problems with the script really don’t have much bearing on how I felt about the final film, and I credit that to the fact that I can appreciate what Shyamalan is after as a filmmaker. The fact that I think his goal is confused and ultimately unsatisfying doesn’t change the fact that I think he brings a fair amount of skill to the table, and I can see him developing into a distinct and significant filmmaker.

My biggest problem with the film is the almost shocking lack of subtext. Starting right away with the portentious opening title card that spouts useless statistics about comic books, the film feels pedantic. We are lectured by Shyamalan about comic books and their role in our cultural life, but it feels to me like the writing of someone who has never purchased a comic book, who doesn’t understand the joy we find there. This is a real world superhero film. There’s no other way to describe it, and Shyamalan has made sure to eliminate all doubt with the way he constantly voices the idea, over and over. If that’s the case, then there’s one thing that’s missing, and it’s an important one to me as a viewer: there’s no joy. This is as dour and solemn and repressed as Woody Allen’s INTERIORS, and it’s a strange tonal choice that just doesn’t sit well with me. For my money, Kurt Busiek’s ASTRO CITY still strikes the best balance between light and dark in any of the "real world superhero" stories that I’ve read. Yes, there are terrible prices that must be paid when working with life and death. Yes, there is great weight that comes with the responsibility of these powers. But to be able to fly, to be stronger than anyone else, to have these enormous gifts... well, there’s joy in that, too.

There’s one moment in the film that works for me, completely, and it’s the closest M. Night comes to cracking a smile in the entire eleven and a half hour running time. It’s when David Dunn (Willis) and his son are working out in the basement of the house. I like the young actor, Spencer Treat Clark, and this performance proves that his good work in GLADIATOR was no fluke. His dawning awe at the idea that his father is someone special, the hero we all wish our fathers could be, is painted in this scene beautifully. As he keeps adding weight, then backing further and further away, watching, aching to believe, we’re with him. Shyamalan seems to have a real knack at working with young actors in a way that is reminiscent of Spielberg.

But it’s another major scene with Clark and Willis and Robin Wright Penn, who plays Willis’ estranged wife, that illustrates just how wrong this film can be. Instead of being an honest character step or a moment that’s earned, Shyamalan cheats us into a "big moment," the kind designed to show up on year-end Oscar specials. Clark’s desperate to prove that his father is the superhero that Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) keeps claiming he is, so he loads his father’s gun and decides to shoot him. On the page, it looked good, but in the film, it’s embarrassing. It’s completely unmotivated and false, and it actually elicited laughter from the audience I saw it with. Not the nervous tense laughter of release, either, but mood-ruining belly laughs at how shrill and false a note the scene struck. It defused what should have been a powerful moment. For me, it’s the end of any hope for the picture. From there, things just keep getting worse.

A friend commented to me today that the film played like an elongated version of the first act of THE DEAD ZONE, and he’s right. In Cronenberg’s masterful adaptation of one of the best Stephen King thrillers, the film kicks into high gear when Johnny (Christopher Walken) shakes hands with a Presidential candidate, only to recognize evil in him. In this movie, David somehow manages to avoid even brushing Elijah for the entire running time of the movie, only to have Elijah shake his hand deliberately at the end, setting off the visions that reveal Elijah’s true nature to David. Far more than THE SIXTH SENSE, this is a film that relies on convenience and artifice to move the plot forward, slight as it is.

I think that the technical departments in this film did a superb job in executing the wishes of Shyamalan. His hand is evident in every element of what we see in the picture: the costuming, the cinematography, the set design, even the performances. He has boundless control, evidently, and is able to communicate his desires and find collaborators who are able to execute those desires to the letter. This time out, I think his ambition has overwhelmed him, and we’re left with much sound and fury about nothing. He lays the visual symbolism on with a trowel, making his point obvious with the way he dresses characters, the use of dual imagery (reflections in mirrors and upside-down imagery are recurrent themes in the film), and even in things like giving his main character a name that starts with the same letter, both first and last. David Dunn. Peter Parker. Bruce Banner. It’s all right there on the surface. You don’t have to dig to figure out what he’s after. And I resent being spoon-fed like this. There’s a point at which an artist seems to be coddling the audience, refusing to let them do the work and have the fun and figure it out.

I think Sam Jackson’s work in the film is weak, but I don’t know how he could have done anything else with the material. Shyamalan is fond of saying that he writes his material for certain actors, and it certainly feels like it here. The problem is, he’s written dialogue that sounds like other Jackson dialogue, that calls to mind other Jackson characters immediately, and we’re left with mannerisms, that familiar Holy Fire routine just set on smoulder, never really igniting into anything interesting or new. Willis fares somewhat better, continuing along the same line he’s walked with roles like 12 MONKEYS and THE SIXTH SENSE, but wearing the shtick well. I like Bruce bald and confused in films. He gives good sad. I wish the whole movie hadn’t been pitched at his volume and rhythm, though. I buy it in SIXTH SENSE; the kid’s afraid of the ghosts he sees, Bruce doesn’t know he’s dead, the mom’s at the end of her rope, and the wife’s in mourning. Everyone’s got a reason to talk in whispers. In this film, though, everyone but Jackson seems to be sleepwalking, still afraid to speak up. It’s the wrong energy for the film, and Shyamalan doesn’t help things by directing with his long, slow, single camera takes. They’re showy and they slow things down. By relying on these long uninterrupted shots and not allowing himself any closeups or cuts, Shyamalan makes the pace of the film deadly. In a few places, it pays off. There’s one shot, in the hospital where David wakes up, that actually uses both foreground and background to communicate, that pays off with a gruesome image that underscores just how remarkable David’s condition is. That’s visual storytelling working on a couple of levels at once. The interminable opening scene, though, shot between two seats on a train, just lays there, limp and langorous. Compare that scene to the marvelous "Gary and Celeste" moment in Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT and tell me which one communicates the energy and the kick of flirting more clearly.

Another thing that didn’t sit well with me was the way David ends up killing the guy near the end of the movie, choking the life out of him. As I explained my objections to the moment to Harry and Father Geek the other day, they both brought up the idea that David just puts the guy in a sleeper hold, that he didn’t kill him. Either way, it’s a problem. If he killed him, then I don’t consider that heroic. It makes him no different than Elijah, and it cheapens the beat at the breakfast table the next day. If he just put him in a sleeper hold, it raises a million questions that Shyamalan failed to answer in any way.

There’s at least a dozen other scenes in the film I could name that bother me in one way or another, and it’s that accumlation of annoyance that finally tipped it for me. No matter what I think about individual bits and pieces of the film, the whole never comes together. Like STARSHIP TROOPERS, this is a film that will earn rabid fans, fans who will defend it using the "you didn’t get it" argument. Well, I got it. I just didn’t like it. I have no doubt that M. Night Shyamalan will continue to be a major player, and I still have faith that he’s a talent worth paying attention to. My disappointment with this film stems largely from the sense of frustration. I expected more. When someone has proven themselves capable of greatness, why shouldn’t that be what I expect of them?

It’s certainly what I expect when Philip Kaufman steps up, and he’s rewarded me with all manner of delights over the years. THE RIGHT STUFF, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, and HENRY & JUNE are all smart, adult pictures that have a distinct voice. This time, Kaufman’s working from a script by first-time screenwriter Doug Wright, who’s adapting his own play. The result is a sharp, sometimes even savage exploration of the way ideas can be weapons, the way words can wound, and the very nature of the responsibility that we as artists have to the world around us. Does art merely mirror the world in which its written, or does it shape that world, influence it? Is there such a thing as dangerous art? Can it spur someone to violence? And if so, should it be silenced?

These are all provocative questions, and the cast comes ready to play. Joaquin Phoenix is Abbe Coulmier, the man in charge of the French asylum where the Marquis De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is being held. He believes he’s making progress with the Marquis by allowing him certain favors and privileges. What he doesn’t know is that chambermaid Madeline, played with a naughty gleam in her eye by Kate Winslet, has been smuggling manuscripts out of the asylum so that they can be published. Napoleon is so outraged at what the public is reading that he orders Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to go to the asylum and crack down, to silence the Marquis for good. It’s a simple set-up for a battle of wills, and there’s really nothing to complicate the situation along the way. Dr. Royer-Collard finds himself stirred by the writings he’s trying to silence, and he goes to claim his promised bride Simone (played by the stunningly cute young Amelia Warner) from the convent where she’s being raised. As soon as the Marquis catches wind of the situation, he creates a satirical play that firmly rips Royer-Collard. This draws the battle lines quite clearly and paves the way for the film’s horrific finale.

Not once in the entire film is the word "censorship" spoken, leaving the larger discussions about the significance of what we’re watching to us, the audience. It’s apparent that Kaufman and Wright are making big points about big topics, but they never turn the film into a dry classroom lesson. Instead, the film has a rowdy, filthy sense of life to it, and it’s surprisingly fun in the first half. There’s a great deal of shock value to the writings of the Marquis, and theyr’e used strategically to illustrate the action that’s going on. They were very clever in terms of what they used. Like Larry Flynt, the Marquis has more value as a symbol of free speech than he does as an actual writer. I mean, this is the guy whose name was the eventual basis of the word "sadism." I’ve tried reading some of his actual work, and it’s not cute or coy or slighly naughty. It’s genuinely filthy, and Passolini’s SALO perfectly captured the almost inhuman quality of the work, rendering the film fairly unwatchable.

As with HENRY & JUNE, Kaufman’s made a film that seems informed by both the art and the artist. QUILLS is a clever mixture of fact and fiction, a way of using a real figure to tell a symbolic story. Some viewers will be bothered by the idea that this isn’t all fact, that it’s not "true." I think that what Kaufman and Wright have done is create something that gets at truth, that honestly deals with the issues raised. There are problems, to be sure. I think the very ending of the film is the weakest material, and part of the problem is that Joaquin Phoenix is given an unrealistic ending, a place that he has to go that isn’t earned. It feels like it’s hammering home points that have already been made, and it’s a shame. By pushing it too far, Kaufman actually undermines some of the great ideas that he’s already presented. Even with those flaws, though, I think this is important stuff, and it must be seen and discussed right now. As we continue to see the fallout from the recent Federal Trade Commission reports about film marketing, the questions that are raised by this film become even more vital. The answers to those questions are up to you, and we’ll see what effect the film has on the national dialogue.

UNBREAKABLE is, of course, open in theaters everywhere now, while QUILLS is going to be rolled out gradually in limited markets around the country. In both cases, I expect I’ll hear both negative and positive reactions from readers after they’ve seen the films. I’m fine with that. At least we’re finally getting films released that are worth discussion again instead of the dreck we’ve suffered through for most of the year. I’m looking forward to the next batch of movies I’m seeing in the weeks ahead. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus