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Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006 04:18 pm

Good Night Shyamalan

Few directors are as skilled at creating unique worlds

His obsessive fans have labeled him the new Hitchcock; his detractors vilify him as a hack who relies too heavily on tired old twist endings. M. Night Shyamalan, whose latest film is Lady in the Water, inspires extreme reactions on both sides, but neither side’s thinking is necessarily logical. The Hitchcock comparison is preposterous. Nothing in the two directors’ styles is remotely similar. Hitchcock’s films are firmly grounded in the real world; Shyamalan explores the realm of fantasy and all its various factions. To call Shyamalan a hack is off base: Few directors are as skilled at creating unique worlds on film, and his works are bathed in creepy atmosphere. Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s seventh film, is the director’s first misstep since the blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999) put him on the map. An apartment-building super (Paul Giamatti) discovers a sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the swimming pool and believes that she is a lost character from a bedtime story. The nature of the story is frustratingly doled out in bits and pieces, eventually taking on the complexity of The Lord of the Rings. “Bedtime story” must be taken literally, for it would certainly put any child to sleep. The greatest fault lies in the lack of a great payoff — and Shyamalan’s expert visual technique unfortunately doesn’t quite compensate.

One failure is far from fatal, though, considering the quality of his previous work. The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002), Shyamalan’s two blockbusters, need little help from me, but reactions to Unbreakable (2000) and The Village (2004) were less than stellar. Unbreakable is the director’s best and most distinctive film. Shyamalan took a common subject and approached it in an unconventional and abstract manner — in fact, he literally came in through the back door, but to reveal any more would spoil the surprise. Bruce Willis stars as the lone survivor of a train wreck, and the slow discovery of why he was able to walk away without a scratch is one of modern film’s greatest mysteries. The Village has been more problematic with audiences, who feel that its surprise ending puts it on the level of an extended Twilight Zone episode. If it works, that shouldn’t be a problem, and Shyamalan successfully expands the parameters of the classic television show. The ethereal beauty of the isolated and oppressed society enhances the twist ending, which makes more sense than many are willing to admit. The Shyamalan touch just didn’t work for Lady in the Water, but the director’s track record is far too good for audiences to give up on him.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Aug. 8):
Inside Man, Brick, Don’t Come Knocking, The Hidden Blade, The Lost City, and Cavite.

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