The Sixth Sense


This is what people look like when they see dead people.

This is what people look like when they see dead people.

(1999) Supernatural Drama (Hollywood) Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Torn, Lisa Summerour, Firdous Bamji, Samia Shoaib, Hayden Saunier, Janis Dardaris, Sarah Ripard. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

People who see a lot of movies, like I do, are like chocoholics in a candy store – after a while, it all tastes the same. Then again, once in a while something comes along that surprises you, makes you remember what it is you love about chocolate – or movies – in the first place.

The Sixth Sense is such a movie. The marketing campaign was ingenious. It was really meant to set your expectations to a certain level and it did so very effectively. Ho hum, another fright flick in a summer that saw Deep Blue Sea and The Haunting ad inconsistium. Stars Bruce Willis, you say? The Man With the Iron Smirk never seemed to get tired of playing the Bruno character he invented in Moonlighting and hadn’t varied the character much up to the time this came out.

He plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychiatrist (haven’t we seen this one before?) for children who as the movie starts is celebrating a mayoral award for his sterling service to the community. Unfortunately, his celebration is ruined by a former patient (Wahlberg) with a chip on his shoulder and, more importantly, a gun in his hand. Faster than you can say “plot complication” Willis is lying on his back, wondering what hit him. It turns out it was a bullet, which can really ruin a nice evening.

Time passes as it often does in grade-B thrillers and eventually Dr. Crowe is back at work, trying to reach a child who is taunted by his classmates, who suffers from extreme panic attacks and Hides A Deep Dark Secret and yes, there always is one in grade-B thrillers.

At first reluctant to share it with the kindly doctor after a particularly hideous episode at a party (and a few very spooky encounters beforehand), he finally confesses what’s on his mind: little Cole Sear (Osment) can see dead people, and not just ANY dead people – he sees really grisly ghosts who’d met gruesome fates. As the encounters become more and more chilling, the at-first skeptical psychiatrist comes to believe that there may be more than just your garden variety psychosis at work here.

The plot description hardly does the flick justice. It reads like a Direct-to-Home Video turkey just waiting to be plucked. But an astonishingly good performance by Willis (who carries his wounds not so much in the body but in his eyes) and the once-in-a-decade plot twist that will leave you literally gasping in your seat, wondering why the heck you didn’t spot it coming. You will want to see the movie AGAIN so that you can see it from a fresh perspective. Well, that makes it first-rate in my book. And lest we forget, Osment turned in one of the best performances ever by a juvenile actor. Although his juvenile career was brief, Osment is still one of the standards we judge preteen actors by.

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan proved himself an exciting new talent, able to tell a story simply without resorting to cheap clichés or lavish effects, creating a wonderfully tense environment that sucks the viewer in without asking him to leave their brain in the popcorn bucket. Although there are some genuinely gruesome moments, and more than a few leap-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-out-loud shocks, The Sixth Sense never sinks to excess, becoming in effect a poster child for less-is-more. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the lessons to heart; his movies since then have become exercises in excess. His star has fallen so completely that his most recent movie, After Earthhis name wasn’t use in the promotion of the film at all for fear it would keep audiences away.

In an era of much-ballyhooed, effects-laden disappointments, it’s comforting to know that the two best movies of that summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense met with a great deal of commercial success as well. They remain even now, nearly 15 years after their theatrical release beacons of hope that a new breed of horror movies that are intellectual instead of (or at least as well as) visceral may be on the way to multiplexes that are still cluttered with too many movies about teens making bad choices.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing twist that sets the standard for plot twists. Terrific performances from Willis and Osment. Subtly creepy without resorting to over-the-top effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The twist is so good that most people will assume you’ve seen it and tell you what it is.

FAMILY MATTERS: A fair amount of violence and gore. Some very disturbing images and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie opened on director M. Night Shyamalan’s birthday.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: On the original DVD release, there was a short super-8 horror movie Shyamalan made as a teen (which sadly wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray or Vista edition DVD), plus interviews with audience members who’d just seen the movie, as well as a featurette on the rules and clues that signified the supernatural elements. A Vista edition DVD also added a featurette on paranormal investigations as well as a look at the storyboard process. All of the above (other than the super-8 footage) are also available on the Blu-Ray release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $672M on a $40M budget; this was a massive blockbuster by any standards.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Big Bang

Notting Hill


A dear in the headlights.

A dear in the headlights.

(1999) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe, Rhys Ifans, James Dreyfus, Dylan Moran, Roger Frost, Mischa Barton, Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Emily Mortimer, Alec Baldwin, Omid Djalili, Lorelei King. Directed by Roger Michell

The world of the rich and famous can be fascinating for the rest of us, who live vicariously through the tabloids, glimpsing a lifestyle we will never lead. The romantic in all of us pines for a chance encounter with a charming prince or beautiful princess who sweeps us off our feet and into a life of wealth and privilege. Of course, this rarely happens in reality, but the tale is as old as our collective imaginations and Notting Hill tells it smartly.

Anna Scott (Roberts) is the world’s most famous and glamorous actress (now, that’s a stretch) who for reasons that are never explained, finds herself in the Notting Hill bookshop of William Thacker (Grant). The two don’t hit it off immediately; guarded and wary at first, they gradually grow warm and even affectionate as their feelings begin to manifest.

Their attempts to sort out their feelings face nearly insurmountable odds. Scott is surrounded by a phalanx of publicists and agents that make it difficult for the two to meet. Thacker is surrounded by a coterie of quirky but supportive friends and family who are warm-hearted all, which of course bends reality to the breaking point, right?

Circumstances continue to conspire against the couple. Scott’s boyfriend (Baldwin in an uncredited turn) unexpectedly shows up, ruining what could have been an intimate encounter. When they finally do get together, loose lips alert the media, which turns the whole thing into a circus and kills the relationship before it starts.

This being a Hollywood love story, we know how it’s going to end, but even though we do, we still enjoy the ride. Grant, perhaps the greatest stammering aw-shucks romantic lead since Jimmy Stewart, is completely endearing as the ordinary Joe. Roberts pokes a lot of fun at her own image, while employing her own charisma to her advantage. Is there a more likable actress in Hollywood?

Notting Hill is the real star of the movie. One of the most charming neighborhoods in London, it reminds me of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, only with a British endurance. It feels solid and eternal while showing a homey, quirky face to the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that real estate agents in Notting Hill got a lot of business off of Notting Hill.

Usually with these kinds of movies, Da Queen is my barometer of success. If she is tearful in the right places and ends up in a sentimentally romantic mood, it’s a winner. With Notting Hill, she wouldn’t let go of me for at least five minutes after the closing credits. Likable leads with real chemistry, a sense of charm and English accents plus a plot that is pure fairy tale … who could ask for anything more? As chick flicks go, this is pure gold and a perfect choice for a date night at home on the couch with microwave popcorn and someone to share it with.

WHY RENT THIS: Grant and Roberts make a charming couple but the real charmer is Notting Hill itself. Perfect date night movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very chicky as chick flicks go. Stretches believability a bit thin at times.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexual content and a bit of pretty strong language briefly.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The blue door to the house William lives in was auctioned off and the replacement door painted black so that the owners of the home didn’t have to deal with tourists; however the home and the door, at the time of filling, actually were in Notting Hill; writer Richard Curtis used to live there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a cute little comedic bit as Hugh Grant explains how actors should properly behave on set. There’s also the ability to jump directly to scenes in which particular songs are playing on the soundtrack (nine in all). There is also a travel book which points out the actual locations that filming took place at, for those wishing to visit Notting Hill themselves. The Ultimate edition adds a couple of music videos and a featurette on how the four seasons walk down Portobello Road was done.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $363.9M on a $42M production budget; the movie was another blockbuster for Roberts and Grant.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Four Weddings and a Funeral

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Impossible

Assassination of a High School President


Assassination of a High School President

Reece Daniel Thompson has an unusual medical condition in which he is unable to see pretty girls, which amuses Mischa Barton no end.

(2008) Faux Noir (Yari Film Group) Mischa Barton, Reece Daniel Thompson, Bruce Willis, Michael Rapaport, Kathryn Morris, Melonie Dias, Josh Pais, Luke Grimes, Patrick Taylor, Zoe Kravitz, Aaron Himmelstein, Joe Perrino, Tanya Fischer. Directed by Brett Simon

Teenagers are kind of stuck with a raw deal. They have little life experience but the pressure is on them to be cool, conform – and yet stand out. Of late, there have been a few movies here and there that have attempted to make teenaged film noir – movies like Brick and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys come immediately to mind – complete with world-weary tough guy narration, albeit hipped up to sound somewhat semi-authentic although usually by the time the film is released the jargon is hopelessly out-dated.

This falls in that school, although with considerably less polish. In this film, Bobby Funke (Thompson) – whose last name is pronounced “funk” but is consistently pronounced as “funky” throughout the movie – is an ambitious sophomore at the prestigious Catholic school St. Donovan. He is looking to nab himself a spot in Northwestern University’s summer journalism program, despite the small issue that he has been unable to finish a story to date.

His editor Clara (Dias) has him do a piece on the student body president Paul Moore (Taylor). Moore’s a basketball star and like many of the students at St. Donovan’s finds enjoyment in bullying Bobby. When Principal Kirkpatrick (Willis) discovers that SAT tests have been stolen from the school safe, he rounds up a bunch of the usual suspects, including Paul.

Paul is essentially ready to give up but at the urging of Francesca Facchini (Barton), one of the most beautiful and popular girls in school, he begins to dig into the case of the stolen SATs. All of the evidence points to Paul being the culprit. Bobby finally completes an article which prompts Principal Kirkpatrick to open Paul’s locker where the missing tests are found.

Clara submits Bobby’s article to Northwestern which wins him the coveted scholarship to the summer internship. Bobby goes from zero to hero, but his nature is to take nothing at face value and as he begins to dig deeper, he discovers a deeper, more sinister conspiracy going on.

This is one of those movies that takes itself far more seriously than it deserves to. While Thompson gives it a game effort, much of the dialogue and characterization makes him look and sound like an arrogant prick, not exactly an ideal way to get the audience to identify with him. Barton, taking on the role of the femme fatale, has the look down pat but not the sensuality quite yet. Don’t get me wrong – she’s a beautiful, sexy woman – but there is a difference between being beautiful and sexy and being a femme fatale; it’s beautiful and sexy on steroids.

Willis is fun to watch here; not only is he the school principal, he’s a one-legged ex-Marine who bleeds red, white and blue and no doubt has an American eagle tattooed on his tush. There are roles that call for excessive scenery chewing and Willis chows down with gusto. Make no mistake; Willis can go over-the-top with the best of them and so his casting here could only be called inspired.

Too bad the filmmakers didn’t take Bruno’s lead. Movies that turn out to be hip are generally efforts that don’t try to be, and you can tell this one is trying real hard. I don’t have an issue with teens doing noir – I just have a problem with teen noir done badly. There are some moments here that are enough to redeem this somewhat (generally the ones with Willis in them) but by and large this is one that you haven’t heard of for a reason.

WHY RENT THIS: Willis has a good time with the movie. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Regards itself as being much cooler than it actually is. Hard to get behind characters who are arrogant and spoiled. 

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of nudity, a good deal of sexual content, a whole lot of bad language and a fair amount of drug and alcohol use, the lot of it done by teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was to have received a wide release on February 27, 2009 but the distribution company’s bankruptcy prevented it. It was released direct-to-DVD on October 6, 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $69,564 on an unreported production budget; there is absolutely no way this movie made any sort of profit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat

The Oh in Ohio


The Oh in Ohio

Danny deVito and Parker Posey have just found out they're supposed to make out in their next scene.

(Cyan) Parker Posey, Paul Rudd, Mischa Barton, Danny deVito, Heather Graham, Liza Minnelli, Keith David, Tim Russ, Ed Brigadier, Miranda Bailey. Directed by Billy Kent

We have a thing about sex. It fascinates us, intrigues us, titillates us but ultimately makes us uncomfortable when we try to discuss it with one another. Even the thought of talking about our orgasms and our masturbatory habits can bring a blush to our faces that would put Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to shame.

Priscilla (Posey) is an uptight executive who has been married, comfortably by all accounts, to Jack (Rudd) for ten years. He’s a teacher in a local high school whereas Priscilla works as a shill trying to lure business ventures to relocate to Cleveland.

To say the spark has gone out of their marriage is like saying Hurricane Katrina brought a little dampness to the Gulf Coast. Priscilla you see has never experienced an orgasm, even though she and Jack have tried valiantly – 1428 times, not including this morning by Priscilla’s own count. This woman is completely anal in a different context than you’re probably thinking about right now.

This has put a strain on the marriage and not to put too fine a point on it, on Jack’s feelings of masculinity. He’s literally tried everything to stimulate his wife and has essentially given up on trying. While the two are polite and civil to one another, there is a kind of awkwardness between them, like a couple of blind people trying to talk about the elephant in the room with no real context to work from.

Priscilla’s co-worker Sherri (Bailey) recommends New Age sexuality guru Alyssa Donahue (Minnelli) who does things like having the ladies in her class draw pictures of their vaginas, and then examine the real thing in a pocket mirror for comparison. Donahue recommends masturbation and plenty of it, leading Priscilla to a sex toy store where a helpful clerk (an uncredited Graham) dissuades her from purchasing a vibrator the size of Pike’s Peak and instead steers her towards something a bit more realistic.

Priscilla’s self-stimulation leads to – wonder of wonders – her first oh Oh OH OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGODYESYESYESSSSSSS which, predictably changes the dynamic in her marriage. She becomes almost obsessively addicted to her vibrator, using it at every turn possible.

That essentially marks the death knell of her marriage, driving Jack to an apartment (in the lovely Manly Arms, an apartment complex for single men – oh Cleveland I never knew you were so cosmopolitan!) and into the arms of a sexually aggressive student (Barton) which is illegal even in Ohio, but seems to make sense here; after all, if I was a teacher with a student that looked like Mischa Barton, I might consider throwing my moral compass overboard, at least for a while anyway.

Priscilla soon begins to feel lonelier than ever and finds she needs more than self-stimulation. She begins an unlikely friendship with Wayne the Pool Guy (deVito) who at first is only after putting a pool in her yard so that he can make an advertisement that he put a pool in every single home in the neighborhood, but eventually reveals a deeper side to him that you wouldn’t think was there…yes, I know a deep end for the pool guy, how droll.

This got widely panned by the critics when it was released in 2006 and I can see why that is; the humor is a bit forced and juvenile at times, but there is also Posey’s stellar work as Priscilla, playing off her reputation for playing ice queen-type characters and turning Priscilla into a sympathetic figure instead. Her relationship with Wayne the Pool Guy is one of the movie’s high points, even if on the surface the romantic relationship seems unlikely as all get-out.

The insights here into human sexuality mock its importance in relationships even as it does seem to infer that it is an important component indeed. It seems that Priscilla isn’t in a complete and healthy relationship until she begins to pleasure herself, which leads to actual sex, which she finds she likes even better – despite having had it 1,428 times previously without the desired results.

This isn’t going to change your life in any particular way, but it does make for a nice way to pass the time, even if some of the laughs are more like uncomfortable giggles. Although on the surface it seems to be an unsuccessful sex farce, I found it works better if you look at it more as a study on the place of the physical element in romantic relationships. American Pie this ain’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice insight into human sexuality. The deVito-Posey romance is surprisingly believable and sweet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is sometimes too quirky for its own good and occasionally the filmmakers try to force laughs that aren’t there.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, a bit of drug use and a moderate amount of foul language. In other words, fine for most adults but a trifle much for immature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Cleveland setting is well-earned, as most of the filming took place there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Of Time and the City