"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." -- Herman Melville

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August 11, 2006

Lady in the Water
US 2006, Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
(*) of four

Embarassingly self-absorbed and relentlessly pedantic, Lady is a complete failure and Shyamalan's first box-office disaster. To be honest, after the torrent of atrocious reviews, I normally wouldn't be seen anywhere near this one. I've never been a fan of Shyamalan's work and didn't even bother seeing The Village after it was put through the ringer. However, in June, I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Michael Bamberger's wonderful book on the making of the film, The Man Who Heard Voices. It's a fascinating portrait of the disparate personalities working on Lady, from humble and self-effacing Paul Giamatti to flower child Bryce Dallas Howard to legitimately-insane DP Christopher Doyle. Skip the movie and read the book instead.

Anyway, I felt an obligation to see the movie after reading the book and despite preparing myself for the worst, it was even more awful than I anticipated. Shyamalan has crafted the film as a fable or bedtime story, but instead of using a well-known tale as a framework, he's imagined his own, boxing himself in between letting the fable speak for itself (potentially confusing the audience) and explicitly detailing the parameters of his vision. Sadly, as a result, Shyamalan lets the film degrade into an onerous, nonstop discussion of nomenclature. Literally the entire movie is Paul Giamatti's character walking around to everyone in the building asking, "Hey, can you explain the plot to me?" After persons x and y shrug their shoulders, it's back to the All-Knowing Elderly Asian Woman Stereotype, who doles out tiny snippets of plot every five, ten minutes (halfway through the movie I wanted to scream at her, "Just tell us the whole goddamn story!") Or maybe we'll turn to the Stuck-Up Asshole Movie Critic Stereotype who spouts jaw-droppingly pretentious, faux-clever meta-dialogue. I won't even touch Shyamalan's casting of himself as the martyred writer whose work will "change the world." Avert your eyes before his ego blinds you. And so on the film goes trying so fucking hard to explain what's going on without for a second letting the experience wash over us so we can decide for ourselves. The worst part, though, is that even after all the endless exposition, I still can't explain to you what happened. Lady won't destroy Shyamalan's career, but the stink from it is going to dog him for a long time. Stay away.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
US 2006, Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell
(*** and 1/2) of four

Do you really need a review of this? If you've seen the ads or trailer, you know exactly what you're getting yourself into (hell, I laughed the first time I read the title). It strictly follows the McKay/Anchorman formula of pointing a camera at funny people, letting them bullshit for a while, then figuring it out in the editing room. For what it's worth, I thought Anchorman was shockingly unfunny when I saw it in theatres (one exception: the amazing, epic street brawl). That said, now that it's shown every 20 minutes on an HBO channel, I keep finding myself going back for quick bursts of silly stupidity, so it is warming on me. Armed with a juicier subject, Nights is much more consistent. If you quote Anchorman incessantly, well, I'm sure you've already seen Nights. For everyone still on the fence, in lieu of getting into the "plot," let's just take a look at the tremendous cast list and maybe you'll be convinced:

---Ferrell does his Bush imitation straight-up as Ricky Bobby. Pure gold.
---Personal favorite John C. Reilly plays best bud Cal. Reilly's already in the Sidekick Hall of Fame for Reed Rothchild/Chest Rockwell, so toss in the ridiculous accent and this one's a no-brainer.
---Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G./Borat) plays rival racer and gay Frenchman Jean Girard (with Andy Richter as his lover).
---The always reliable Gary Cole (Office Space) and Jane Lynch (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) star as Ricky's parents.
---The luminous Amy Adams (Junebug) plays nebbishy executive Susan.
---For flavor, add in Michael Clarke Duncan, Greg Germann, Molly Shannon (as Germann's drunk-off-her-ass wife), David Koechner, and Ian Roberts.

Wow. If you laughed just reading this list, go see the movie. I'm not one to turn down some brainless comedy, so if you agree, it's time to shake and bake!

Who Killed the Electric Car?
US 2006, Written and Directed by Chris Paine
(*** and 1/2) of four

The answer? No shockers here. The auto industry, under intense pressure from Big Oil and with the full cooperation and legislative might of the Bush administration (itself made up of numerous former oil executives), hypocritically undermined its own technological advances to throw the public off the scent and allow the corporations to fabricate a so-called "lack of consumer interest." This enabled them to wipe the electric car off the map in favor of gas-guzzling, profit-pumping Hummers while all the while paying lip service to the environmental movement with pie-in-the-sky "fuel cell cars" that will never make it out of the theoretical stage. Everyone loses. Chalk another one up to the Forces of Evil.

Once in a Lifetime
UK/US 2006, Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower
Written by John Dower and Mark Monroe
(***) of four

1977 New York. Blackouts, riots, Studio 54, Son of Sam, and amidst the chaos exploded the Cosmos, the headline-grabbing soccer team that galvanized the nation. Lifetime is straight from the Kid Stays in the Picture handbook, with hyperactive editing, flashy graphics, and blaring '70s music. It makes for a ripping ESPN doc you catch on cable one night, but not exactly something you need to rush out to your local arthouse to see. In true New York fashion, the owners decided to buy a championship team (and if you think I'm still bitter about the recent Phils/Yanks Abreu salary dump/screwjob, you're right), so there's a veritable who's who of '70s soccer stars on the roster (and when I recognize a soccer player's name, you know you're a superstar). The interviews are fun (even if Pele declined), particularly since no two people remember the rise and fall of the Cosmos the same way--something the directors wisely use to tweak a few of the participants. Giorgio Chinaglia is painted as the villain and he clearly relishes the reputation, flashing an evil smirk as he knocks back the various allegations. If you're a soccer diehard or fondly remember the Cosmos's halcyon days, it's a must-see, but for everyone else, if the mood strikes, enjoy.