M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable , from his own screenplay, turns out to be a more ambitious exploration of the occult than last year’s runaway word-of-mouth hit, The Sixth Sense , and will, as a consequence, probably be less successful with the moviegoing public. No matter, except to Touchstone’s accountants. With Unbreakable , Mr. Shyamalan establishes himself as a distinctive auteur with a very personal style. This is to say that I was engrossed all the way through to the film’s surprise ending, but I felt also that the writer-director had bitten off more than he could chew in his attempt to endow comic books and their creators with moral, cultural and metaphysical importance in the context of two medical freaks played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
Mr. Willis appears here as David Dunn, a security guard at a college football stadium, and Mr. Jackson as Elijah Price, a creator and collector of action comics in Philadelphia. Both David and Elijah come to us with unusual back stories and medical histories. They converge in the present after David is publicized as the only survivor in a train wreck that takes the lives of everyone else on board. Not only does David survive, he also realizes that he has never been sick a day in his life.
Elijah, who operates a limited-edition shop specializing in esoteric comic-book illustrations and covers, is David’s opposite. From his birth, he has been afflicted with a fragile, easily breakable bone structure that has left him increasingly incapacitated.
Elijah attaches mystical significance to David’s abnormality with a vision of his own. David’s wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and his teenage son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), become insidiously implicated in David’s growing awareness of his strangeness. We are well into the movie when we learn that David and Audrey were victims of an automobile accident during their college days. We learn also that David had been a star football player, and Audrey had been his adoring girlfriend. Yet, as Audrey confesses to Elijah, she would never have married David if he had remained a football player. Elijah shrewdly deduces that David faked his injuries from the accident because he decided that he would prefer to be married to Audrey for a lifetime than play football for another 10 years tops.
This is romantic stuff indeed, and I happen to groove on it, but it indicates how much in the way of subplot and subtext is loaded onto the characters, making them unusually complicated for a suspense thriller. David’s tangled relationship with his hero-worshipping son is even more problematic, and it leads to tense confrontations that evoked ominous giggles from the audience.
David eventually finds his personal destiny as a comic-book superhero seeking to save the innocent from the depredations of evildoers. Mr. Shyamalan’s vision of the world seems to focus on the random wrongs superheroes are called upon to overcome. But in the process the director contributes, however creatively, to the unsettling paranoia with which we are bombarded by the media. He also tends to lump together genuinely accidental disasters with criminal and terrorist acts.
Mr. Willis’ David never becomes entirely understandable from his opening scene, when he makes a clumsy pass at an attractive female sports agent named Kelly (Leslie Stefanson) sitting next to him on the ill-fated train. When she is prompted to change her seat, David is immediately remorseful, though we have seen him slyly pull his wedding band off his finger before launching his badinage with Kelly and then guiltily restore it after she has left. This is a peculiar way to introduce a hero, particularly one who seems too perpetually preoccupied to function as a make-out artist.
From the extensive cast list in the production notes, one might surmise Mr. Shyamalan has cut out some of David and Audrey’s college scenes, making their relationship in the present more cryptic and unexplained than was the original intention. Still, the acting of Mr. Willis, Ms. Penn and their expositional interlocutor, Mr. Jackson, is expertly charismatic enough to fill any gaps in the story.
Ultimately, I suppose, Unbreakable must inevitably be compared to The Sixth Sense and found wanting, for both good and bad reasons. Admittedly, The Sixth Sense is trickier and more clever in working within its limitations. Unbreakable tries for more and winds up with less. But it is still an impressive piece of work, and Mr. Shyamalan remains a director to watch for in the future.
One Wedding, Two Exes and a Funeral
Edward Yang’s Yi Yi ( A One and a Two ), from his own screenplay, was honored at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Best Direction, and for once I thoroughly agreed. If ever form enhanced as well as embellished content, Yi Yi is a prime example through all its three-hour running time. I must confess that I groaned at the thought of such an endurance test in the midst of a busy schedule, particularly since Yi Yi is not an epic in the usual connotation of that term.
Mr. Yang explains the peculiar title in the production notes: “The film is simply about life, portrayed across a spectrum of its span. In my view as the writer, simplicity is what’s at the bottom of the whole lot of complications at the top. Therefore, the Chinese title of the film is Yi Yi , which literally translates to ‘One-one,’ and ‘one-one’ means ‘individually’ in Chinese. This signifies the film’s portrayal of life through each individual member at each representing age from birth to death. ‘A One and a Two and a …’ is what is always muttered by Jazz musicians before a jam session. This is where the English title of the film came from, to signify that what’s following the title is not something tense, or heavy or stressful. Life should be like a jazzy tune.”
Yi Yi begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. In between, we come to know two families, one headed by NJ Jian (Wu Nienjen), the other by his comparatively irresponsible brother A-Di (Chen Xisheng), who is being married a second time. The ceremony is marred first by the stormy intrusion of A-Di’s first wife, and then by a stroke suffered by NJ’s mother-in-law. The camera stays at a discreet distance from the swirl of characters still unfamiliar to us. NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), is hysterical over her mother’s misfortune. She tries to get her children to speak to their comatose grandmother as if she could hear them, a procedure the doctor has recommended without much hope she will ever recover. Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is guilt-ridden because she did not take out the garbage on the night her grandmother collapsed by the Dumpster, and asks in vain for forgiveness. Fifteen-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) flatly refuses to talk to his granny because there is nothing he knows that she doesn’t know as well.
Meanwhile, NJ meets his old high school sweetheart, Sherry Chang-Breitner (Ke Suyan), at the hotel where the wedding is being held and takes her card. Now 45, NJ is frustrated with his personal life and his struggling computer company. He is tempted by the prospect of starting a new life with Sherry, who is unhappily married to an American businessman. NJ and Sherry agree to meet during his business trip to Tokyo. At about the same time, Min-Min flees to a religious retreat to avoid a complete nervous breakdown. The two children barely notice the unrest in their family because of their own private obsessions. And so life goes on, from Taipei to Tokyo and back again, with little changed and nothing resolved.
It is too late for NJ and Sherry to start a new life. Min-Min returns from her retreat sadder and wiser. Ting-Ting has her first disastrous love affair, and Yang-Yang finally speaks to his grandmother at her funeral. Life goes on in the fullness of time, and Mr. Yang follows it with his camera from a merciful distance. Yi Yi is worth your time, all three hours of it.
Not So Dazzling
Harold Ramis’ Bedazzled , from a screenplay by Mr. Ramis, Peter Tolan and Larry Gelbart, is a remake of Stanley Donen and Peter Cook’s 1967 Bedazzled , but beyond the title and the basic campy Faustian concept, there is very little resemblance between the two films. All I remember from the original is the send-up of Sound of Music with Mr. Cook and Dudley Moore dressed up as jumping nuns. The new Bedazzled is more of a romance, with Brendan Fraser and Frances O’Connor projecting both charm and comic flair as they play out Mr. Fraser’s six wishes, maliciously misinterpreted by Elizabeth Hurley’s mischievous Devil until an unselfish seventh wish gets Mr. Fraser off the hook and lets him keep his soul. Ms. Hurley’s performance has been somewhat overrated simply because she shows herself as technically capable of more than cleavage, just as George W. Bush’s debate performances were wildly overrated simply because he did not come across sounding like Elmer Fudd.
Mr. Fraser and Ms. O’Connor are something else again, a funny comedy team who make even the patented happy ending richly satisfying. Mr. Fraser has been around a while in good movies and bad, but he has never been less than likable, and he has occasionally been hilarious. Yet he doesn’t have to be hilarious to be bearable, as does Jim Carrey; Mr. Fraser can play straight without being mean or sarcastic. As for Ms. O’Connor, I have been waiting to see where she would go after she bowled me and Jane Austen over in Mansfield Park last year by making Fanny Price vivacious. After Bedazzled , there doesn’t seem to be anything she can’t do. All in all, the year 2000 is turning out to be a lousy year for movies, but an increasingly interesting one for actresses-or do I really have to say “actors” not to be accused of sexism?
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