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

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Charlie St. Cloud


Charlie St. Cloud

Zac Efron responds when asked if there are any High School Musical alumni out there.

(Universal) Zac Efron, Amanda Crew, Charlie Tahan, Donal Logue, Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger, Dave Franco, Jesse Wheeler, Matt Ward, Augustus Prew, Miles Chalmers, Desiree Zurowski, Adrian Hough, Jill Teed, Valerie Tian, Grace Sherman, Brenna O’Brien. Directed by Burr Steers

One of the most difficult events we can go through in life is to watch a loved one die before their time. This can only be made worse by having that loved one be a child and feeling responsible for that child’s demise.

Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a golden boy. He’s wicked good-looking and a fantastic sailor, so much so that Stanford has given him a scholarship to be on their sailing team. His mom (Basinger) pulls double shifts at the hospital so that he can achieve his dreams, although I have not a clue how a working class kid can afford a racing sloop; it’s probably best if you try not to think about such things.

Charlie has a very close relationship with his little brother Sam (Tahan) who is devastated that Charlie is going to leave, in a sense just like their dad did. “I’m not dad,” Charlie says a bit crossly when Sam voices that fear. I can imagine that the comparison occurred to Charlie too.

Sam is a huge Red Sox fan and wants to play baseball; Charlie is only too happy to coach him every day. He’s just graduated (and the principal expects Great Things from this young man; to be sure, Charlie answers somewhat immodestly “So do I, sir”) from high school and has the entire summer in their coastal Washington town to teach Sam how to throw a slider.

Of course, being that it’s graduation time, Charlie wants to spend some time with his friends, particularly Sully (Franco) and Green (Wheeler) who have joined the military and are shipping out to the Middle East in a week. However, mom has landed another shift at the hospital, putting Charlie on Sam duty, which interferes with his plans. Thinking that Sam has fallen asleep, he tries to sneak out but Sam catches him and demands to be taken somewhere where he can watch the Red Sox game – apparently quite a few of them are broadcast in Washington.

Sam gives in and perhaps he shouldn’t have. On the way to wherever it is they are going, Sam is rear-ended by a drunk driver who pushes Charlie into oncoming traffic where they are T-boned by a rather big truck. A paramedic (Liotta) brings Charlie back from the dead, but Sam isn’t as lucky.

Charlie is devastated. At Sam’s funeral, he can’t bring himself to leave Sam’s mitt and ball in the casket, so instead, having glimpsed what he thought was Sam leaning against a tombstone, he runs into the woods, only to come up to Sam’s apparition, petulantly whining that Charlie and he had a deal. They do indeed; and at sunset when the town’s yacht club conveniently fires off a cannon to signal that they are fully capable of warding off pirates, they will meet in the woods and play catch.

Fast forward five years. Charlie has put his life on hold and works as a caretaker where his brother lies buried. He has but one friend, an obnoxious Englishman named Alistair (Prew) and yes, he has fulfilled his promise to his brother each and every day, rain or shine, come hell or high water. Mom has moved on to Portland, but Charlie remains in a stasis of his own grief.

That’s when Tess (Crew), an old high school classmate of Charlie’s returns to town, apparently having become a pretty fair sailor herself. She has entered herself in an around the world yacht race, and her coach Tink Weatherbee (Logue) thinks she’s got a good shot. She’s back in town, apparently to just take her boat on a trial run, but really she’s there to run into Charlie and fall in love with him. She does both admirably.

Charlie’s deepening relationship with Tess is putting a serious crimp in his meetings with his brother Sam. Sam is terrified of being deserted by his brother and that he will fade into nothingness if Charlie moves on; However, Charlie doesn’t want to exist in this half-life anymore. Will Charlie choose Tess over Charlie, or will he remain tied to his dead brother, doomed to remain a slave to his own grief?

This is based on a best-selling novel by Ben Sherwood and was originally set in Massachusetts. Quite frankly, the novel screams New England what with prep schools, Red Sox, yachting, old cemeteries and ghosts. Unfortunately, the production (in order to save money) chose to film in British Columbia instead and perhaps realizing that the Pacific Northwest doesn’t look anything like New England, set the action in a small town in Washington state. Unfortunately, many of the New England trappings remain and their presence makes the movie look a little bit ridiculous. For example, rather than having Sam be a Red Sox fan, couldn’t he be a Mariners fan instead?

Quite frankly, even though they were filming in BC I think the movie still should have been set in New England. I might have found the movie a bit more believable (as believable as a movie about a guy who sees his dead brother can be anyway) and more palatable.

The movie took was flayed by critics when it was released; quite frankly, I think most critics dislike any movie that makes you cry. After all, in order to weep you must have a heart that can be broken and most movie critics have cast iron hearts. I will admit that the movie is quite manipulative in that regard, but quite frankly it can be awfully cathartic to have a good cry at the movies.

Efron is pretty solid in the lead; he has to be because he’s in nearly every scene. He has improved by leaps and bounds since his High School Musical days and is quite likable; he might have a long career ahead of him if he doesn’t make bad choices. Tahan is actually quite likable in his role; there are few really good male juvenile actors out there (Josh Hutcherson comes to mind) compared to the female ones, so it’s nice to find one that doesn’t ACT like he’s in child actor 101. His relationship with Charlie seems very natural and close in the way that brothers are, and forms the heart of the movie.

This is a good looking movie with plenty of sunsets, sun-dappled forests, and quaint town shots, as well as beautiful boats knifing through the sea. It doesn’t particularly add much insight to life – I think it’s fair to say that most of us are aware that there comes a time that we all must set aside our grief, no matter how intense and overwhelming it may be, to pick ourselves up and move on which is what the movie’s central theme seems to be. There’s a nice little twist I won’t spoil that elevates the movie past the realm of the mediocre. Had they not made the critical tactical error of setting this in the Northwest, I think I might have been even more charmed by the movie than I was. As it is I can give the movie a recommendation – a surprised one to be sure but a recommendation nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Efron is making satisfying progress as an actor and Tahan handles his role without reverting to typical kid-actor clichés. There’s some beautiful cinematography here.

REASONS TO STAY: There are quite a few logical lapses that had a lot to do with transplanting the story from New England to the Northwest. It’s also a little too over-the-top manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild language concerns and a fairly intense auto accident depicted; certainly should be okay for most teenagers and mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the book was set in Marblehead, Massachusetts, unfortunately it was too cost-prohibitive to film it there so the action was relocated to the Pacific Northwest and filming took place in British Columbia.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I thought this might be best served by seeing it at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pride and Glory

The Lovely Bones


The Lovely Bones

Don't go into THIS light.

(Paramount/DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Roman, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver, Amanda Michalka, Reese Ritchie, Jake Abel, Nikki SooHoo, Carolyn Dando. Directed by Peter Jackson

Nobody really knows what happens after we die. What we do know is that the living must make peace with the dead; those of us who lose a loved one must learn to let go. What if the dead have to do the same for the living they leave behind?

Susie Salmon (Roman) has a lovely existence. 14 years old, beautiful, vibrant and surrounded by a family that adores her, she has all the self-doubts that a 14 year old girl has, and that terrible, crushing feeling that the handsome boy she has her eye on – Ray Singh (Ritchie) – doesn’t know she’s alive. She yearns for the first kiss, the one her Grandma Lynn (Sarandon) has said is special, and maybe the best kiss she’ll ever have. She has been given a camera for her birthday and in the way of 14 year olds, is obsessively taking pictures of everything.

That all comes to an end on December 6th, 1973 when she is lured by a neighbor she barely knows by the name of George Harvey (Tucci) into an underground clubhouse and chopped into pieces (we don’t actually see the deed; we only surmise the means of her demise through what occurs later).

For her parents, Jack (Wahlberg) and Abigail (Weisz), they only know she hasn’t come home. After a few days, the police led by sympathetic Detective Len Fenerman (Imperioli) discover the remains of the clubhouse, which Harvey has filled in. They also find a sizable amount of blood but no body. While it isn’t certain, it seems unlikely that their little girl is coming home.

As for Susie, she has ascended into a bright place of fields and forest, seashore and sunshine, moonlight and magic. It is, as she explains, her perfect world; not heaven exactly – as she is told by Holly (SooHoo), a young Asian girl who acts as a kind of a guide to Susie, meant to lead her from this place that Susie calls the “in-between” to heaven, which is apparently a tree. At least, that’s what we see; it’s possible Susie sees more.

However, she can’t bring herself to move forward into heaven. She is haunted by her murderer, who has gone undetected and is at large. She is suffused with a sense of outrage and just plain rage, wanting the man who robbed her of her life to pay with his own for the deed. From where she is, she cannot affect the living although she is detected from time to time by her little brother, a somewhat clairvoyant girl named Ruth (Dando) and her grieving father.

She watches the grief of her parents begin to tear them apart, despite the best efforts of her Grandma Lynn, who has come to stay and help in her own besotted way. She sees her father trying to piece together the identity of her killer. She sees her mother unable to cope with the enormous loss. She sees her little sister Lindsey (MacIver) growing into the role she once held in her family. And she sees her killer, preparing to take another victim.

This is based on a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, one which I admit I haven’t read yet (although I understand it is wonderfully written) so I cannot compare this movie accurately its source. I can only review it on its own merits, which are considerable. This is a dark tale, one in which happy endings are not a guarantee. This is a world where bad things happen to good people, and where bad people act badly with impunity.

And yet I found myself drawn into this movie. We are told early on who the killer is, but the movie isn’t about the capture of the killer. This isn’t George Harvey’s story, its Susie Salmon’s and in order for the movie to work, the actress who plays her has to be special and Roman is indeed that. An Oscar nominee for her performance in Atonement (which came after she was cast for this), she is innocent and beautiful and poetic all at once. Her sadness is palpable; she misses her family. Her rage is undeniable; her future was stolen from her. Her innocence is a joy to behold; everyone should have a daughter like her.

Wahlberg also gives a powerful performance as her dad. The bond between her and Susie has to be strong, and Wahlberg conveys it well. Even though he is grieving, the movie isn’t about his grief per se; it’s about moving on and his grief becomes a peripheral element of the movie, but it is central at certain points as well.

The movie’s best performance, however, belongs to Tucci. He will make your skin crawl in a way no actor has since perhaps Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. You, like Susie, want to see him struck down and caused pain. You don’t merely want to be brought to justice, you want him punished and punished hard. This is Oscar-caliber work and a good reason to see the movie all by itself. Sarandon does a fine job in a role which is largely comic relief; I would have liked to see it developed a bit more but in a two hour plus movie, that may not have been possible.

Jackson’s vision of the afterlife is very lyrical in places, with dancing leaves, flocks of colored birds and roses that bloom in the ice. Some of the effects are downright breathtaking. However, it also must be said that his depiction of the darker aspects of the movie are as well executed. The scenes of Susie with her eventual murderer in the place of her death are gut-twisting; you may find yourself turning away from the screen, unwilling to watch this bright life snuffed (which thankfully we’re not shown).

I must also give a shout out to Brian Eno, the movie’s composer. He is best-known these days as the producer of U2 and other great artists, but he has a long and distinguished career first as a member of Roxy Music and later as an originator of ambient music in his own solo works. This is perhaps the best score I’ve heard in a movie this year and it has been sadly ignored in most of the reviews I’ve seen, as well as in the awards that have been handed out. To my mind, no score has augmented a film as well as Eno’s. Jackson also did an amazing job of picking out period songs to supplement the score.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t always a nice one. This is a movie not about life and death but about moving on. The events that surround it are tragic and sad, but there are also moments of joy to behold. This hasn’t gotten the kind of reviews I expected it to get and having seen it now, I can understand some of the criticism even if I don’t agree with all of it. At the end of the day, I can say this is a movie worth seeing because of the performances more than because of the subject matter, because of the style more than the substance. Still, I look forward to seeing some of the extras on the Blu-Ray because I’d certainly like to hear how the process worked in making this ultimately fascinating film.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci gives a creepy and stomach-turning performance as the serial killer and pedophile. Roman gives a remarkable performance of her own. Jackson’s images of the “in-between” are breathtaking. Brian Eno’s score, as well as the use of period music, is inspiring.

REASONS TO STAY: The murder of Susie Salmon, while never directly witnessed, is nonetheless a very difficult and wrenching sequence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing imagery and subject matter, some of which may be too much for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Peter Jackson makes a cameo as a customer in a camera store, looking through the lens of a Super 8 movie camera.

HOME OR THEATER: This is very much a big screen experience.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 10 Items or Less