Monthly Archives: August 2004

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

This British import was described as a “rom-zom-com” (something tells me that genre is rather spare). Director Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg plunk down an assortment of typical British sitcom characters and then throw zombies into the mix. Shaun of the Dead is hilarious from start to finish. Pegg and his batch of survivors go through the strange scenario with wit, grit, and a genial sense of irrelevance. It’s as if even flesh-eating zombies can’t ruin their day (Shaun devises a plan that involves killing his zombie step-dad and drinking a cup of tea). Shaun of the Dead gives a knowing wink to the Romero films but also tweaks the zombie genre’s rules and clichés. Wright has a clever sense of visuals and the film does provide some sticky, gory goods for horror fans. If more films were this much fun I’d probably never see natural light again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

No other actress stood out to me this year as 23-year-old Catalina Sandino Moreno. She plays the movie’s Maria, a Colombian woman who agrees to carry 60-something condoms filled with heroin in her gut to the United States. The first half of the film is unjudegmental and nerve-racking, especially when Maria gets snagged by U.S. customs. The second half revolves around Maria trying to land on her feet in an unfamiliar land. The greatness of Maria Full of Grace relies on debut writer/director Joshua Marston framing his story like camera is an invisible voyeur. The film suggests that Maria is only one of thousands that have turned into drug mules to make ends meet or seek better lives. Maria Full of Grace is startling, immersive, delicate and quietly touching as Maria rediscovers the promise of the American dream.

Nate’s Grade: A

Euro Trip (2004)/ Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

In 2004, there was a gold mine of smart but crude comedies. I cannot fathom why people have ignored both Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Not only are both movies extremely funny, they serve as perfect examples of a great teen comedy. And both had characters that weren’t idiots or stoners. A trio of former Seinfeld writers penned Euro Trip and the fast-paced wit and love of the absurd is evident. The leads of Harold and Kumar are Asian-American and Indian-American, which gave and smart intriguing ethnic point of view to teen comedies. Harold and Kumar were studying to respectively become a doctor and an accountant. These characters aren’t dumb, just in over their heads as they hunt all night for those tiny White Castle burgers. Harold and Kumar has many laugh-out-loud moments that won’t make you ashamed for doing do. Neil Patrick Harris’ lurid cameo is a highpoint. Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar are intelligent, crude, and blisteringly funny. Rent them if you can.

Both Grades: B

Open Water (2004)

What a summer it has been for independent films. This summer’s most talked about movie wasn’’t Spider-Man 2; no, it was Michael Moore’’s Fahrenheit 9/11. This summer’’s greatest triumphant underdog wasn’’t Shrek; no, it was Napoleon Dynamite. And this summer’s scariest movie wasn’’t The Village or the Exorcist prequel; no, it was Catwoman. A fine runner-up, though, is the 2004 Sundance smash, Open Water.

Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are a couple vacationing in the islands. They sign up for a scuba diving voyage, but due to a counting error by the boat’s crew, are left stranded in the middle of the ocean. Susan and Daniel at first seem nonplussed, but as the hours wear down they begin to question how they’’ll ever be rescued. Panic really starts to set in as they realize they have no control over where the current decides to take them. They turn to each other for support but that also doesn’’t pan out. Sharks pop up here and there and Daniel tries to use what he learned on Shark Week to asses their danger. As the hours pass, and dehydration sets in, the sharks become more numerous, and Susan and Daniel’s’ fears become overpowering.

Writer/director/editor Chris Kentis creates a solid, tightly wound mood. His film was shot on a shoestring budget and sometimes it shows in the picture quality. He knows how to effectively draw out a scene and cut it to build tension. The plot could have been written on a napkin, and the characters are somewhat bland, but that doesn’’t stop Kentis from masterfully drawing us in and making us care. Open Water is only 79 minutes long, and about 10 of that is the opening vacation footage, but Kentis makes the most of his time.

The acting by the two relative unknowns is passably good. Ryan and Travis never trip up and become actors wading in water; they feel like real people. This is a testament to the writing and proximity to actual sharks, but Ryan and Travis should also be credited for keeping the illusion together. Early in the film, Ryan also bares all in a surprising full-frontal nude scene that I doubt few going to see Open Water ever heard a whiff about. I guess when you go on talk shows and all they ask you is, “”What was it like being around real sharks?””

One of the reasons that Open Water is so effective is how realistic it is. The film is based on a true incident at the Great Barrier Reef in the 90s. A scuba-diving couple was left behind by their tour boat and eventually died of thirst days later. Their bodies washed ashore. Now, slowly dying of thirst won’t exactly ratchet up the terror, so one must forgive the inclusion of dangerous sea life this film brings to the table.

Open Water succeeds in creating a taut atmosphere. The greatest trick to establish tension in thrillers or horror films is to make the audience afraid of what they don’t see. To a lesser extent, The Blair Witch Project tried this with rocks, stick figures, and an anticlimactic sit-in-the-corner ending. Open Water will succeed where Blair Witch failed for some (like me) because the fear of the unknown involves ferocious animals that can rip you apart, that are always just below the surface. Once a character starts openly bleeding, we dread the gruesome inevitability. That’’s a whole lot scarier than rocks.

I do not get scared by movies easily. When a jump scare occurs onscreen, and I can see the audience leap in waves, it registers nothing with me. Perhaps my body has just grown to predict them and register them as nothing special. I mean, can you remember one jump scare from a scary movie (the bus in Final Destination notwithstanding)? Jump scares are lame. Open Water, however, builds tension effortlessly. Your fear simmers the longer the couple bobs in the water. As time passes by, and they drift further and their chances of rescue diminish, the more helpless things become. When sharks begin to circle the couple, our fear is starting to strangle us. There’’s a fantastic moment late in the film set at night. The screen is pitch black except for the occasional glimpse afforded by strikes of lightening. This is a film that really makes you uneasy and stays with you long after you shuffle out of the theater to your land-locked home.

Open Water’‘s two leads have a certain blandness to them, but instead of being a detriment, this allows the audience to easily place themselves inside the characters. We become involved because we see ourselves and our own harried reactions. The dialogue in Open Water also feels 100% authentic to the situation. The characters stick to tired optimism, trade in gallows humor, discuss what they know about sharks and sea life, and eventually bat blame around for being in this incredible situation. Nothing about the way these characters speak feels ironic, or snappy, or fake. The characters feel real, their dialogue feels real, and the danger feels very real.

Open Water is a minimal, suspenseful, smart, and scary exercise in reality. Some people will be bored by the plot, complaining of endless scenes of people bobbing around the ocean and the series of climactic near misses. Fans of mainstream horror may not feel compelled by the minimal efforts of Open Water. However, for those out there who like scary films they can place themselves inside, Open Water is a low-budget chiller that will get under your skin. Think of it as The Blair Witch Project with sharks . . . but good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Village (2004)

When saying director names you can play a fun little game of word association. Someone says, ““George Lucas,”” and things like big-budget effects, empty storytelling, and wooden dialogue come to mind. Someone says, ““David Lynch,”” and weird, abstract, therapy sessions dance in your head. The behemoth of word association is M. Night Shyamalan. He burst onto the scene with 1999’’s blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, a crafty, moody, intelligent thriller with a knock-out final twist. Now, though, it seems more and more evident that while The Sixth Sense was the making of M. Night Shyamalan, it also appears to be his undoing. His follow-up films, Unbreakable and Signs, have suffered by comparison, but what seems to be hampering Shyamalan’’s growth as a writer is the tightening noose of audience expectation that he kowtows to.

With this in mind, we have Shyamalan’s newest cinematic offering, The Village. Set in 1897, we follow the simple, agrarian lives of the people that inhabit a small secluded hamlet. The town is isolated because of a surrounding dense forest. Mythical creatures referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of” populate the woods. An uneasy truce has been agreed upon between the creatures and the villagers, as long as neither camp ventures over into the other’s territory. When someone does enter the woods, foreboding signs arise. Animals are found skinned, red marks are found on doors, and people worry that the truce may be over. Within this setting, we follow the ordinary lives of the townsfolk. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of the town’s self-appointed mayor (William Hurt), and doesn’t let a little thing like being blind get in the way of her happiness. She is smitten with Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), a soft-spoken loner. Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man, also has feelings for Ivy, which cause greater conflict.

Arguably, the best thing about The Village is the discovery of Howard. She proves herself to be an acting revelation that will have future success long after The Village is forgotten. Her winsome presence, wide radiant smile, and uncanny ability to quickly emote endear the character of Ivy to the audience. She is the only one onscreen with genuine personality and charisma, and when she’s flirting and being cute about it you cannot help but fall in love with her. And when she is being torn up inside, the audience feels the same emotional turmoil. I am convinced that this is more so from Howard’’s acting than from the writing of Shyamalan. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, both in features and talent.

It seems to me that Shyamalan’’s directing is getting better with every movie while his writing is getting proportionately worse. He has a masterful sense of pacing and mood, creating long takes that give the viewer a sense of unease. The first arrival of the creatures is an expertly handled scene that delivers plenty of suspense, and a slow-motion capper, with music swelling, that caused me to pump my fist. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautifully elegant. Even the violin-heavy score by James Newton Howard is a great asset to the film’’s disposition.

So where does the film go wrong and the entertainment get sucked out?

What kills The Village is its incongruous ending. Beforehand, Shyamalan has built a somewhat unsettling tale, but when he finally lays out all his cards, the whole is most certainly not more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ending is so illogical and stupid, and raises infinitely more questions than feeble answers, that it undermines the rest of the film. Unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist of The Village does not get better with increased thought.

Shyamalan’’s sense of timing with his story revelations is maddening. He drops one twist with 30 minutes left in the film, but what’s even more frustrating is he situates a character into supposed danger that the audience knows doesn’t exist anymore with this new knowledge. The audience has already been told the truth, and it deflates nearly all the tension. It’s as if Shyamalan reveals a twist and then tells the audience to immediately forget about it. Only the naïve will fall for it.

Shyamalan also exhibits a problem fully rendering his characters. They are so understated that they don’t ever really jump from the screen. The dialogue is very stilted and flat, as Shyamalan tries to stubbornly fit his message to ye olde English vernacular (which brings about a whole other question when the film’’s final shoe is dropped). Shyamalan also seems to strand his characters into soap opera-ish subplots involving forbidden or unrequited love. For a good hour or so, minus one sequence, The Village is really a Jane Austin story with the occasional monster.

The rest of the villagers don’’t come away looking as good as Howard. Phoenix’’s taciturn delivery seems to suit the brooding Lucius, but at other times he can give the impression of dead space. Hurt is a sturdy actor but can’t find a good balance between his solemn village leader and caring if sneaky father. Sigourney Weaver just seems adrift like she’s looking for butter to churn. Brody is given the worst to work with. His mentally-challenged character is a terrible one-note plot device. He seems to inexplicably become clever when it’s needed.

The Village is a vast disappointment when the weight of the talent involved is accounted for. Shyamalan crafts an interesting premise, a portent sense of dread, and about two thirds of a decent-to-good movie, but as Brian Cox said in Adaptation, “”The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws and problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”” It’’s not that the final twists and revelations are bad; it’s that they paint everything that came before them in a worse light. An audience going into The Village wanting to be scared will likely not be pleased, and only Shyamalan’s core followers will walk away fully appreciating the movie. In the end, it may take a village to get Shyamalan to break his writing rut.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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