I hate to be one who jumps on a bandwagon, but some films and filmmakers leave you no choice. If M. Night Shyamalan continues down his current path without acknowledging and addressing his limitations and failings as a storyteller, he will not have a career in movies much longer. The guy is obviously talented and has a unique cinematic voice that deserves to be cultivated. He's proven that when given the right material he can really captivate an audience's attention like few others. I personally found his breakout feature The Sixth Sense overrated, but it was an effective showcase of his talents bolstered by a tight narrative that he's been unable to replicate since. His follow-up Unbreakable had an intriguing concept and stylish direction, but already started to show the signs of his weakening grasp of story structure. Everything he's made since then has rocketed on a downward slide into absurdity and awfulness. You'd think he might learn a lesson or two after the drubbing he took for The Village. Not so much. Sad to say, his latest picture Lady in the Water is Shyamalan's worst yet, a complete waste of both his directorial skill and an impressive cast.
Promoted as a "bedtime story", the film is the type of haphazard fairy tale that an exhausted father might make up on the spot to appease a whiny child who refuses to go to sleep. Cobbled together from bits and pieces of other famous children's stories (a mermaid, a big bad wolf, scary monkeys, and a magical world just on the other side of our own), the product is a sloppy, ridiculous, and borderline incoherent mess told with deadly earnestness. The likeable Paul Giamatti stars as the cutely-named Cleveland Heep, building superintendent at The Cove, an apartment complex supposedly located in Philadelphia but which looks suspiciously like a motel in California or Florida. A sad wreck of a man who once suffered a terrible tragedy, Cleveland slogs through his dreary days hoping to be noticed by no one. One night he discovers a weird-looking naked girl named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, Opie's daughter) in the complex pool after hours. Rather than call the cops, he develops a fatherly urge to care for and protect her, and in learning more about her discovers the strange tale of her otherworldly origin, which he instantly believes without questioning, as does everyone else.
You see, the girl is a Narf from the Blue Word on a mission to awaken the Vessel. However, it turns out that she's not just any Narf, but a Madame Narf. Oh my! She's being followed by a malevolent Scrunt who's supposed to leave her alone, but is willing to risk punishment from the Tartutic to prevent her from getting home. Uh oh! Story's only hope is to seek protection from the Guardian, the Healer, the Symbolist, and the Guild, none of whom are aware of their identities. It's up to Cleveland to help her find these comrades so that she can get home to the Blue World on the Great Eatlon before time runs out.
Does any of that make a whit of sense? Even if it did, would you care? No, I didn't think so. It's even less interesting in execution.
Paul Giamatti is a fine actor and deserves better material than this, as do the rest of the supporting cast including Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, and Mary Beth Hurt. Shyamalan has popped up in cameos in all of his other movies, but here gives himself a key supporting role as a writer working on a political manifesto that we're told will be the most important document in the history of mankind. That ego of yours getting a little too inflated, Night? In addition to its silly mythology, the film has a number of meaningless subplots involving the building's quirky residents, such as Rodriguez's turn as a spaced-out jock who only works out one half of his body, a goofy conceit for which we're offered no payoff. Even basic things like the physical layout of the apartment complex make no sense; the building super lives in a house on the other side of the swimming pool which is never shown in connection with the rest of the building and is obviously on a completely different set. What purpose that's supposed to serve is never made clear.
The movie is awful, just awful in every respect. This may be the first time that Shyamalan has resisted the urge to tack a twist ending onto the final scene of one of his movies, a small consolation. Even as a fairy tale meant for children, Lady in the Water is just a lot of dull and pointless nonsense that Shyamalan's trademark atmospheric direction can't save. It may not kill the filmmaker's career outright, but films like this sure do poison it.
The HD DVD:
Lady in the Water debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. The disc is one of those annoying and overpriced Combo releases with a standard DVD version on the flip side. A (non-Combo) Blu-ray edition is also available.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (except in cases like this where the disc specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Lady in the Water HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
The production was photographed by the very talented Christopher Doyle (Hero, In the Mood for Love), who seems in this case to be experimenting with how dark he can shoot a movie and still produce a usable image. I'm sure that in a pristine first-generation print struck directly off the internegative this may have looked lovely, but when you go any further out than that the results tend to lose their original luster. The HD DVD transfer looks only fair, without much of the visual pop people expect from High Definition.
The picture is reasonably but not exceptionally sharp. Colors are well represented, though only jump off the screen in a select few cases such as the vibrant cerulean blue of the swimming pool. Mild film grain is present but well compressed and not noisy. The image has good black levels, however shadow detail is often a struggle to discern, and the entire movie (even during bright daylight scenes) looks kind of dim and lackluster. I'm not going to be as critical of this transfer as I've read in some online discussion forums, because I understand the intent behind the photographic style, but it's true that this isn't the type of HD DVD that you'll pull off the shelf to show off the format to your friends.
The Lady in the Water HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 EX or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats. If the option is available to you, the lossless track offers a modest but noticeable improvement in clarity and fidelity.
Like all of Shyamalan's films, the sound mix is a critical component in developing his eerie sense of atmosphere. The track is subtly enveloping without being aggressively overwhelming. Much of the dialogue is spoken in hushed tones, always reproduced clearly. Surround activity is present in the scarier scenes without calling attention to itself during the rest of the movie. The soundtrack also has a very satisfying amount of deep bass, especially the growling from the wolf-like monster. The director overuses stinger shock effects that are an order of magnitude louder than the rest of the sound mix whenever the lawn sprinklers pop up (seriously, he does this about a dozen times), which quickly grows annoying. Otherwise, the auditory experience of Lady in the Water is exactly what you expect and want from a Shyamalan movie, effectively creepy but not overtly showy.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Spanish or Quebecois French DD+ 5.1 EX.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The supplements are duplicated on both the DVD and HD DVD sides of the disc.
The DVD side of the disc also has some ROM material for your computer, but there's basically nothing in there except a link to the studio's official web site for the movie.
- Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story (5 min.) – The director explains the story's origins and then plugs the tie-in children's book by reading some of its embarrassingly poor text.
- Reflections of Lady in the Water (35 min.) – A typical promotional making-of piece (divided into six sections) featuring a nauseating amount of fawning praise for Shyamalan and the script.
- Auditions (2 min.) – Apparently it tooks dozens of auditions to find just the right "Puking Guy at Party". Huh.
- Gag Reel (3 min.) – Not funny. At all.
- Deleted Scenes (5 min.) – Six unexciting scenes just as dull as those that made it into the movie.
- Teaser Trailer (2 min.) – Plugs the "bedtime story" aspect of the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) – This one plays up Shyamalan's involvement and misleadingly implies that it's a scary horror film.
Lady in the Water is another debacle in the declining career of M. Night Shyamalan, his worst film to date. The movie is too slow and dull to engage children, and too insultingly dumb for adults to tolerate. Decent picture and sound don't make up for the movie's shortcomings. Keep this one to a rental only, if you're morbidly curious.
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