TAKE THE LEAD. This is a film, based loosely on real events, about a man who one day walks into a crowded run-down school in a New York ghetto, and merely asked the principal if he can teach ballroom dancing to the ghetto schoolchildren. The principal, who is short handed, puts him in charge of the detention hall. I am normally unmoved by the "mentoring troubled teens" genre of film, but I fell head-over-heels in love with this one.
The main character, Pierre Dulaine (played with humor, verve and grace, by the absurdly handsome Antonio Banderas) is unfailingly polite: he stands up when a lady enters the room. He holds the door for ladies. Slouching teens mock him, and he continues to smile and continues to be courteous. He says "please" and "thank you" while the little barbarians around him talk in grunts and "yo's".
And this is the hero. In every other movie I've seen in the last twenty years, the polite guy was always Snidely Whiplash, an unctuous and supercilious fellow. Not here.
Here he is the herald of civility and civilization. When the cool hep teens all mock and sneer at him for his old-fashioned ways, when irate teachers and impatient parents wonder if he is wasting precious time and resources teaching a useless skill, he tells them how this formality allows lusty young men and nubile young women to interact, even to putting their arms around each other, while keeping the dignity of the young lady intact. Without such a lesson, when will youth learn to approach the opposite sex without either swaggering or fawning, without being an exhibitionist or an exploiter? This movie gives one of the best and clearest defenses of the fine things in life I have seen on the silver screen.
My only complaint is that the troubled teens in the detention hall needed more screen time to develop their characters. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise brilliant movie.
Dulaine is simply quietly heroic. Where the people around him are living lives of quiet desperation, he is quietly refusing to bend or break under the pressure. Contrast this in your imagination with Cassius Clay, or any other self-aggrandizing sports hero.
And the editing, especially of the dance scenes, was something to see. The fact that Antonio Banderas is very easy on the eyes is reason enough for any ladyfolk to go catch this film.
LADY IN THE WATER. I heard nothing but bad press about this film, and I was surprised when I finally caught it, because I think it is M. Night Shaymalan's best. It has an eerie fantastical flavor to it, and a mystery to the solved, which mystery depends on the solution of people discovering a hidden truth about themselves. The characters are quirky and memorable, and the acting jobs both by the leads and the character actors are superb.
We normally tend to think of things either falling into the mainstream, which follows the conventions of the mainstream, or into fantasy, which follows the conventions of fantasy. But there are a number of mainstream films with a fantasy element that do not fit into either category. Most TWILIGHT ZONE episodes are in this twilight area, and so are films like HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, or television shows like I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Such stories take place in the twilight of elfland, where a glimpse, but no more, can be seen of the Otherworld, the realm of magic, but unlike a Tolkien epic or a Conan film, it never steps fully into the light, never creates a fully-realized magical world. LADY IN THE WATER falls into this twilight.
The fantasy elements are present, but the story is really story-telling, and how life is rendering meaningful by the tales we tell about it, how we find our places in life. It is a story about courage and sacrifice and how a simple honest man rises to the occasion. There is a man who is inspired by the sea-muse to write a book that will have a world-changing consequence: he realizes he must give his life to do so, but he writes it nonetheless. Stories can change the world: look at UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
I am really puzzled how anyone could dislike this film. I suppose they were expecting something else because of the name of the director.
There are minor flaws to the film: the winsome naiad, played by the winsome Bryce Howard, for some reason, is called a "narf", perhaps the stupidest name in all of the realms of fantasy for a sea-elf. She is allegedly a character from a Chinese bedtime story, but neither her name nor the names of her enemies sound Chinese. Good grief, at least Shyalaman could have called the creature a "ningyo" which is a Japanese name for a sea-nymph.
One criticism I heard directed against this film was how a minor character, a book critic, is treated. Supercilious critics scoffed and said that this was the director's wish-fulfillment against critics. They are entirely missing the point. When something supernatural or something epic happens to us in real life, we have no means of dealing with it except what we have learned through stories. Myths are the soul of the civilization. When a war starts, for example, whatever the governing myth is in the society dictates how men will react to this epic circumstances: if Viet Nam is the governing myth of the society, we will react to all wars according to what that myth says, and we will call the war a quagmire. If David and Goliath is the governing myth in society, then we will root for the little guy. So the movie had to deal with the question of what happens to a man who over-intellectualizes his myth. What do you do when you do not have a myth ready to deal with things of mythic magnitude in life? The character, to make this point, had to be someone who knew stories backward and forward, but who was not himself a creative person: a critic, in other words. Someone who sucks the magic out of myth-making for a living. Of course he has to come to a bad end: the point of the story is that we need stories to live, we need the inspiration as a lantern in the dark. A man who throws that lamp away, according to the logic of the story theme, has to stumble.
So, don't listen to the critics about this one. This movie is for the fairytale lover in all of us.