The Village

These days, mentioning the name M. Night Shyamalan while in line at the cineplex is a good way to get a punch in the mouth. Over the last five years, the man named after an orbital phase has become synonymous with insulting, navel-gazing movies like The Last Air Bender, The Happening, and of course, the unforgivable Lady in the Water. People especially hate him because the worse his movies get, the more in love with himself he seems to fall. The reason producers keep giving him chances has to be that his first few films were true masterpieces. Critics and Audiences alike called The Sixth Sense (1999) one of the best movies ever made. Unbreakable (2000) was less impressive, but definitely fit the mold of “both new and good.”  By the time Signs  was released in 2002, Shyamalan had his own genre.

And then, in between these gems and Shyamalan’s crimes against humanity, there was … this. The Village (2004) occupies an odd spot in history; Shyamalan’s pivot-point between greatness and sucking. Some loved it. Some hated it. It definitely isn’t your conventional movie, but then Shyamalan was always anything but conventional. On which side of the fence does it fall? Is it more like Shyamalan at his best, or his worst? Let’s find out.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

It must be acknowledged that the biggest selling point in the way this film was marketed turned out to be a total sham. A village full of apparently colonial people lives isolated from the rest of the world, oppressed by the fear of “Those We Don’t Speak of,” creatures that lurk in the forest around them. Good ominous beginning. As you might expect, there is a twist toward the end. But while the twist in The Sixth Sense  made us re-think everything that happened in the movie, and increased our enjoyment of the story, the twist in The Village  is a massive let down: the creatures are fake. Yep. That’s it. They spend 1:45 scaring you with these things, only to tell you what anyone over 5 knew walking into the theatre: that they are people in costumes. From this, and the dialogue that follows, it’s not hard to figure out the other twist: that this is actually happening present day, and the town elders have attempted to create a utopian world by isolating themselves from the rest of civilization, using the creatures to scare villagers from exploring beyond the village outskirts.

So this one must be a turd, right? Not so fast. I first saw The Village when it was newly made and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Some months later I found I was dying to see it again, so  I rented it. Obviously, I knew the twist, but I still was caught up in the story and the passion that the actors put into it. A young Bryce Dallas Howard and Jaquin Phoenix light up the screen as the primal couple, who only slowly begin to realize their love for each other. The older members of the cast include a number of actors who have had more glorious rolls, such as Sigourney Weaver, former slayer of aliens, now cast as a humble, devoted house wife, and Brendan Gleeson, who reveled in badassery in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, and  28 Days Later, now confined to a small roll as a man too old to do much more than smoke a pipe. You might think these post-stars would be a little bitter, but what they bring to the screen reminds us that there are truly “no small parts; only small actors.”

This film probably repulsed a lot of viewers on a first viewing just because of the obvious gaff discussed above, but it merits a second and third viewing. As I watched it a second time, I came to understand that the gaff doesn’t harm the film because it isn’t a film about monsters. It’s a film about the community on screen and the people in it. The power of the movie comes home as boys tease each other with dares and girls dream about boys. We are drawn deeper in as their utopian society is suddenly, unexpectedly shattered by the crime of murder. And, despite suspension of belief, we are on the edge of our seats as a young, frightened, and blind girl (Howard) is forced to trek alone through the forbidden wood to save the boy she loves. And of course, even after the “twist,” there are some scary surprises waiting in the wood.

As good as the cast is, they might be outperformed by the score. Composer James Newton relied mostly on the solos of violinist Hillary Hahn to enhance the picture. It serves well to reflect the isolation that the characters feel in many scenes. This is one of the few movies that is worth checking out just for the soundtrack. The music excites, builds tension, and carries emotion just as well as what we see. A great deal of effort was also put into the costumes and the set design, both for authenticity and beauty, and it makes for a lot of sumptuous visuals. And I have to say, Shayamalan’s directing was still pretty good at this point. One scene in particular comes to mind, in which Those They Don’t Speak of attack the village (below). The boy on the watchtower sounds the alarm, and there are several minutes of people scrambling to gather the children, get inside, and get into their hiding places. This can’t have been an easy scene to pull off, with the amount of fast activity that had to be captured, the number of child actors, and the number of plot points that have to be hinted at, but Shayamalan did it brilliantly. Not only is the story told, but it’s a truly beautiful scene. Even on a second viewing, when I knew there was no real danger, I was caught up in it. When the rubber meets the road, Shayamalan really can do it — when he’s not jerking us around, that is.

Even as early as Signs, some of Shyamalan’s annoying habits were beginning to come to light. He loved to have something really important happen, such as an alien attacking someone, at point A, and, for no reason, point the camera squarely at point B. Or else, force us to look through some distorting piece of scenery, or look at a poor reflection. There’s a lot to be said for not showing too much, especially if you want to build suspense or scare the audience, but in order to do those two things, you also have to make us feel with the characters. For example, in Signs, when the main family has retreated to the basement, an alien hand reaches through the coal chute and grabs Morgan. A scuffle ensues as Grant and Merrill try to pull him to safety. Shyamalan chooses this moment to wave the camera around incoherently, showing us nothing. The characters see what’s happening! Why the hell shouldn’t we? The next morning, Morgan is again grabbed by an alien. This time, for the first time in the movie, we get a really good look at one of these things. Merrill then kills the alien with a bat. And then Shyamalan treats us to one more bad reflection, in an over-turned tv, of the alien’s chest rising as it struggles to breath. What is the point of this? We’ve already seen the alien!

The Village takes this a step further. Some of the most crucial scenes are interrupted by completely meaningless things. For example, near the end, when one of Those They Don’t Speak of (who seem to get mentioned a lot) chases Howard’s character, Ivy, we see the creature lunge at her from behind a tree. She runs. Then, for no reason, we see an empty rocking chair in front of a grove of trees. Then we see the creature chasing Ivy. Then we see a close up of a weather vane, over looking a hilltop. Then we see Ivy running. Just when it looks like something’s about to happen, we see another grove of trees. What is the point of this? These cut away shots don’t even match the main scene, or each other; they were obviously shot on different days, in different weather at different times of the year, and they serve no purpose whatsoever.

Of course, Shyamalan went on to commit atrocities like Lady in the Water (2006), where we almost never see anything except as a distorted reflection. All in all though, The Village is well worth checking out. It’s not without its faults by any means, but when the dust settles, what you have is a series of great scenes, beautifully shot and beautifully acted, perfectly capturing the emotion of the moment, all with a haunting score playing in the back ground. Much like in Van Helsing, the power of the performances smooths over the imperfections in the plot.

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Lost: Season 2

Lost: Season 2After the whirlwind ride of Season 1, the second season of the hugely popular ABC drama/sci fi series goes a long way in answering many questions from the first outing, while raising entirely new ones that hint at a much larger plot and much deeper rabbit hole than ever seemed possible.  (Spoiler Alert: Having only seen through the first two seasons, I can’t give anything away about the rest of the show. But be forewarned–if you have not watched the show through the end of Season 2, you might be hit with some information you might not want.)

As any high school English student knows, the first part of any story is the exposition:  the introduction of characters, conflicts, setting, and plot.  And while the first season of Lost was engaging and entertaining in its own right, all the events set up in those original 25 episodes were really just about laying the groundwork for the rest of the show.  Season two expands on much of the original framework while giving fans all sorts of new twists and turns to speculate about around water coolers nationwide.  The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 begin to segregate into a few distinct groups, each discovering clues that served to unravel many strands of the larger mystery of the island.  In what at first seems like an unnecessary subplot, Michael, Sawyer, and Jin find themselves washed ashore with the survivors from the tail section of the plane.  But as the show’s tagline says, everything happens for a reason, and it’s not long before we realize how interconnected these people are with the rest of the survivors.  Meanwhile Jack and Locke, while spending much of their time in the hatch, spend a good deal of time figuring out their own answers while also dealing with a man Rousseau caught in one of her traps who may or may not be one of the Others.  Topside most of the regulars from Season 1 are back to form new relationships, embark on journeys to different parts of the island, and search for answers to some of the long-burning questions about the island.

Lost: Season 2, Jack and Mr. Eko

Jack and Mr. Eko, looking for answers and a clean pair of shorts.

It’s a fantastic testament to the brilliance of the writers that various events which seemed trivial and innocuous throughout the first season turn out to be of the utmost importance during the second season.  Rather than throw distracting red herrings at the audience, there is hardly a single character, event, or object that is not steeped in meaning.  Perhaps more than any other serial drama I have ever seen, Lost treats its audience and subject matter with the utmost respect and care, rarely resorting to cheap tricks such as killing off characters to solve a case of writer’s block or inventing contrivances to link current events to past plot points.  There are much deeper themes at work here too, and every person on the island must deal with skeletons in his or her closet, confront personal demons such as drug addictions or marital conflicts, or rise to challenges of leadership and personal sacrifice.  For instance Locke, who used to operate on blind faith alone, begins to question everything he once knew while virtually trading places with newcomer Mr. Eko, a priest who is sure of what he hopes for and certain of what he cannot see.  It’s this multidimensional characterization, along with a seamless blending of science fiction, religion, and traditional drama that separates Lost from other dramas, and these ideas continue throughout Season 2 in masterful form.

Lost: Season 2, Ana Lucia

Michelle Rodriguez stretches her acting ability by playing a tough-as-nails ex-cop with an attitude.

There are a couple of low points of the season, though–particularly some strange choices made by Sawyer and Charlie in “The Long Con” that seem uncharacteristic and are never met with much follow-through.  A few episodes seem like outtakes from Days of our Lives, and the he-said-she-said dramatic tension that surfaces a few times feels forced and out of place.  The pacing is a bit slower this time as well, since much of the action takes place on the beachfront camp or inside the hatch, and the exploration is more of a personal than environmental nature.  I am also a tad disappointed that Shannon and Boone were jettisoned so early on, to be halfheartedly replaced with the altogether uninteresting Rose and Bernard.  But nitpicking these missteps is like dismissing the grandeur of Yellowstone National Park because of the mosquitoes.  The hallmark of Lost is the way each answered question (Where did the other plane come from? Who is Rousseau? What’s the deal with Henry?) leads to a host of new questions, and while the character drama isn’t as interesting this time around, partly because the backstories of many of the survivors have already been explored, the new questions raised are as compelling as ever.

By the end of Season 2, which takes place over roughly three weeks on the island, the survivors aren’t in much better shape than they were at the end of Season 1.  They are still stuck on the island, still scared of The Others, and Jin still can’t speak a lick of English.  But they have far more food thanks to the hatch, and their attitude has shifted from trying to find a way off the island to finding a way to dig in for the long haul.  And in a sense, so are we.  At this point it’s clear there are far greater forces at work, with stakes that are infinitely higher, than what we knew when the show began.  I’m not frantically wondering what will happen next like I was during the middle of the first season, though Season 2 does have its share of nail-biters to be sure, but I am simply awed at the spectacle that is beginning to unfold and eagerly awaiting the next season to see another chapter in how it will all play out.


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