Tag Archives: D

THE VILLAGE

Grade: D

I see a dead movie. At one point fairly early on in M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller, a woman asks her son, “What nonsense are you speaking?” She might have better addressed the writer-director a similar question: “What nonsense are you filming?” Because the fact of the matter is that “The Village” is a very silly movie. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s also poorly structured, clumsily staged, heavy with awkward dialogue and, despite a talented cast, very badly acted. Given that Shyamalan’s previous films, however farfetched their narratives, have been solidly crafted, that’s a terrible disappointment, and it turns “The Village” into a cinematic stiff.

Of course, Shyamalan has become known as the master of the twist ending, and maybe that’s become his curse. Be warned upfront that if you want to know the ending to “The Village,” you’ve come to the wrong place; there will be no spoilers here. The Disney people at Touchstone have asked all writers to refrain from revealing too much about the movie’s last reel, and supposedly they’ve even extracted non-disclosure agreements from some critics promising not to tell anyone how it turns out. So it would be churlish not to comply. (In the North Texas area, they went further to prevent comment on the picture from appearing before the first weekend: the studio actually canceled press screenings that had once been scheduled, holding the picture back for print press until two days before opening, making it difficult even for newspaper notices to be up by Friday morning, and excluding internet writers from all showings before Thursday.) These unusual actions were taken, we were told, “to prevent the film’s secrets from getting out early.” But that’s ridiculous, because though it’s designed as one of Shyamalan’s trademark puzzlers, the only real surprise in the movie is how stilted and hokey it is. Yes, there are twists toward the close–more than one, in fact–but they’re telegraphed too far in advance and prove much less organically “right” than those in the director’s previous work; the inevitability one felt looking back in retrospect at “The Sixth Sense,” for example, is utterly lacking here. (It’s an especially bad sign that Shyamalan has to toss in a couple of verbal asides toward the close to cover gaping implausibilities in his scenario.) “The Village” is easily Shyamalan’s worst picture, from “Wide Awake” on.

The film’s premise has been splattered all over magazine and TV screens for months now. In a small Pennsylvania village in 1897, the townspeople are prevented from going into the surrounding woods by monsters that dwell there. Though the elders warn the younger residents to abide by the wooded limits, which are guarded by rows of burning torches and a watch tower, one of them, the serious, soft-spoken Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) tests them despite his mother’s (Sigourney Weaver) efforts to dissuade him. His actions bring grief to the settlement: the much-feared creatures descend upon it, kill and skin the livestock, and mark the houses with slashes of red (which is what the villagers refer to as “the bad color”). While all this communal commotion is going on, trouble also arises of a romantic sort. Lucius is approached by Kitty Walker (Judy Greer), daughter of chief elder Edward Walker (William Hurt), but he rejects her, having always silently loved her blind, tomboyish sister Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clearly adores him, too. When, after Kitty’s marriage to another man, Lucius and Ivy finally reveal their feelings for one another, their engagement causes Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), the mentally troubled young man who has always been Ivy’s special friend, to react violently. A serious injury to one character leads another to venture into the forest to search out much-needed medical help in the nearest town. The journey leads to revelations about the monsters and the village as well.

The problems with “The Village” are legion. The scenario is full of holes which Shyamalan’s ponderous pacing fails to conceal even while the film is unspooling, and which seem gargantuan in retrospect; and the twists that eventually occur are utterly absurd and unsatisfying. The film is also derivative, as “Signs” was of “The War of the Worlds,” because although it’s never spelled out in detail, there’s a low-tech “Stepford” feel to what Shyamalan is trying to get away with, and one should remember how poorly this summer’s remake of Ira Levin’s thriller fared. “The Village” isn’t appreciably better, its gloomy seriousness coming off no more effectively than the earlier movie’s dumb farce. The cast seem understandably dispirited under the director’s heavy hand (and the distinctly unflattering wardrobe, which includes some goofy-looking yellow cloaks). Phoenix stares and pauses like one barely alive (just as Bruce Willis did in “Sense”), delivering his dialogue in a halting, deadpan fashion that he abandons only in his one big monologue to Ivy. Brody is more animated, but proves that’s not always a good thing; he makes Noah an almost goofy simpleton, when the character might have been an imposing Jud Fry. Howard, who’s making her debut here, is easily the best of the youngster leads, projecting both strength and vulnerability even though some of Ivy’s actions belie her supposed sightlessness (and Howard’s own inexperience occasionally shows). Neither Hurt nor Weaver can do much in their stock turns, with the former taking his characteristic recessiveness to extraordinary lengths. The picture has been handsomely mounted, with the village set impressively realistic, although the absence of a religious establishment, in terms of either church or minister (unless Walker is intended to be the equivalent of one), is a curious omission. Unfortunately, the cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins uses jerky hand-held camerawork too often, and some of the compositions are unaccountably clumsy, especially in the final section within the woods. The score by James Newton Howard effectively pumps up the suspense even when the story doesn’t; indeed, some of the most notable “gotcha!” moments are more sound than sight.

Perhaps the saddest thing one can say about “The Village” is that the wretched SciFi Network mockumentary about the shoot was worthy of it. And if you want to know about the twisty last act without sitting through the dry, dusty picture itself, just check out the current issue of Creative Screenwriting magazine. The script review found there is quite accurate. And since it wasn’t me who wrote it, I haven’t broken the embargo.

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY

TV journalists of less than stellar intellect and inexhaustible vanity are nothing new as figures of fun–one need only think back to the classic character Ted Knight played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s–but it’s a sign of the precipitous decline in the intelligence quotient of American comedy that this crude, moronic vehicle for “Saturday Night Live” expatriate Will Ferrell is the new century’s contribution to the mini-genre. MTM’s Ted Baxter earned more laughs in thirty seconds than Ron Burgundy generates in an hour and a half. It’s an even sadder commentary on the state of contemporary standards in cinematic humor to recall that when James L. Brooks, one of the creators of MTM, decided to train his eye on the TV newsroom for the big screen, the result was 1987’s “Broadcast News,” a sly, subtle satire from which “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” couldn’t be further removed. The difference is between high comedy and low farce; this smarmy, silly, witless bit of crassness is about as low as you can get, and what’s really depressing is that it will probably be a big hit.

As befits a vehicle for a former SNL cast member, “Anchorman” is nothing more than an extended, repetitive and decidedly sophomoric sketch in which Burgundy (Ferrell), a totally self-absorbed dolt who’s the number one news readers in San Diego during the 1970s, has his chauvinistic pomposity punctured by the addition of a woman to the all-male team. By presenting it as a period piece the makers obviously hope to feed into the popularity of the “Austin Powers” franchise, while by treating it as a fable of a woman breaking through the glass ceiling (with the ultimate aid of the dullard who becomes romantically involved with her), they’re trying to make it palatable to a female audience as well as the potty-minded males at whom its sexist, gross humor is obviously directed. And they’re likely to succeed.

For those of us who find the picture close to intolerable, there are two big problems with “Anchorman.” The first is that it’s unrelievedly stupid. And the second, very closely related to it, is that it stars Ferrell. The reason that Ted Baxter was so funny is that he was surrounded by smart people, who set off his idiocy and could react to it with a sort of dumbstruck awe. But most of the characters around Ron Burgundy are even dumber than he is. That’s especially true of his male “news team”–Stetson-wearing sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), doofus weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and stud-in-his-own-mind reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd)–who spend most of their time drooling over how horny they are and generally demonstrating their numbskull nature; but even female interloper Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, in a very arch turn) proves none too bright despite her obvious superiority to Burgundy (after all, she does fall for him). To be sure Koechner will get plenty of laughs from the easily amused as an utter dimwit who happily informs us that he has an IQ of 48, but the others are really quite boring–a terrible disappointment in the case of Carell, who’s shown real promise elsewhere. Even old reliable Fred Willard makes little impression as the news director, no Lou Grant figure. The biggest drawback to the picture for many, however, will be Ferrell, who’s doing the same loud, bizarre, abrasive shtick as always; once again he’s like an unleashed id, a boorish 12-year old in the body of a flabby 35-year old, oblivious to anything but his own lust, and all too willing to show off his unattractive body (though happily he doesn’t go quite as far here as he did in “Old School”). A lot of viewers seem taken with his dim-bulb obnoxiousness, but others of us find him more creepy than amusing, and that’s certainly so in this case. There are a score of cameos by the likes of Jack Black, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughan scattered throughout the picture–most notably in a weird “rumble” among rival news teams in the city, which tries to milk laughs from death and dismemberment–but the only one that evokes even a smile, surprisingly enough, is by Tim Robbins, who plays the tousle-haired, pipe-smoking anchor of the PBS squad. Perhaps that’s because he alone radiates a smidgen of adult intelligence in this sea of repetitive frat-boy goofiness. Visually “Anchorman” is as in-your-face as it is humor-wise; it has an overbright, chaotic look that’s as hard on the eye as the picture is on the brain, and Adam McKay’s direction is sloppy and undisciplined.

To be fair, there are a few laughs in “Anchorman.” One involves the (totally surrealistic) treatment of Burgundy’s beloved dog–a moment that’s obviously intended to outdo the famous canine episode in “There’s Something About Mary,” but still worth a chuckle. Another is an easy jab at the Bush administration in the obligatory “where are they now” summing-up at the close (Bill Kurtis gives his professional reputation one more wound by narrating, but at least Larry King doesn’t appear). But for the most part the picture is a coarse, one-joke affair; Ron Burgundy might not have actually been a SNL skit, but “Anchorman” sure feels like a movie based on one.