Seen at the Movies:

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s atmospheric, surprise-reliant modus operandi comes a cropper in The Village, a gimmicky, unpersuasive, and altogether disappointing piece of work. As ever, the filmmaker proves himself a master at conjuring a tightly controlled air of foreboding, and his collaborators, including director of photography Roger Deakins and sound designers Steve Boeddeker and Frank Eulner, provide incomparable assistance. The first part builds considerable interest—a group of 19th-century families have secluded themselves in a remote Pennsylvania village, cut off from the outside world of “the towns” by menacing, mythical creatures who live in the surrounding woods. It’s when the village’s not-so-startling secrets begin to be revealed that the movie falls apart. To make things worse, Shyamalan presents what looks like a hysteria-driven cult as some sort of muddled bastion of hope. The impressive cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody, and Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter), struggles with what sounds like Crucible-inspired dialogue. Production designer Tom Foden and costume designer Ann Roth both do first-rate work. But the movie’s a dud.

The Village Photo: Frank Masi/Touchstone Pictures

Not much better is Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which is the second Scott Rudin-produced film of the summer (after The Stepford Wives) to incoherently revolve around the concept of computer chip-controlled human behavior. It was so much better in the old days, when simple brainwashing or robotic replication did the trick. Demme directs the hell out of Candidate, aided by Tak Fujimoto’s virtuoso camerawork, Blake Leyh’s buzzing, intricate sound design, and Kristi Zea’s production design, which loads every set with scads of naturalistic detail. In fact, there’s too much detail in the film, leading one to believe that it’s meant to be taken seriously, and not a devastating satire in the manner of John Frankenheimer’s spare and absolutely outrageous 1962 version. What Demme and the screenwriters substitute is just another technology-fueled paranoid thriller, minus the humor, and minus the fun. The acting of Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber is above reproach, and Meryl Streep, clad in Albert Wolsky’s very canny power suits and Hilary Clinton-style hairdo, almost matches Angela Lansbury classic mother performance from the original. But sorry—another dud.

Manchurian Candidate Photo: Ken Regan/Paramount Pictures

Confusing technology (or maybe I’m just slow) also plays a role in Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, a futuristic story of two supposed strangers (played Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton) who meet in Shanghai and discover a strong, complex connection. This movie is a fascinating head-scratcher: weirdly remote, with an icy visual style (DPs are Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind, and the production designer is Mark Tildesley) and atmosphere that sticks in the head. So does Morton, a full-figured moonchild whose pronunciation of the movie’s invented multinational vocabulary (like “papelles,” which are all-important futuristic passports) is still echoing in my brain a couple of months after seeing the movie. I don’t know quite what to make of Code 46, or of Winterbottom, whose every film (from Jude to Welcome to Sarajevo to 24 Hour Party People) appears to have little to do with the last. But he usually leaves you knowing you’ve seen something.

Code46 Photo: United Artists

Finally, if you get your kicks from seeing two people stranded in the ocean and menaced by sharks for 79 minutes, Open Water is the movie for you. Full disclosure: I’m not a water person, and this low-budget digital feature by Chris Kentis (who co-photographed the film with producer Laura Lau) taps into some of my worst nightmares. Still, the movie strikes me as purely grim and sadistic, without the tingle of delight that accompanies the best horror films. Its big selling point is that the sharks circling the performers (who earned their undoubtedly meager salary on the basis of suffering rather than acting ability) are real, lured by “chunks of bloody tuna,” according to the production notes. I’m sorry, but give me Bruce the mechanical shark, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s good-humored entertainment sense, any day.--John Calhoun

Open Water Photo: Laura Lau/Lions Gate Films

Seen on Broadway: Last week’s Roundabout production, Fiction, suffered from too little scenic design. Its revival of Arthur Miller’s After The Fall has the opposite problem, though the setting is the least of the production’s ills. This fragmented memory play, first produced in 1964, unfolds in the mind of its protagonist, Quentin, a lawyer obsessively reviewing his failed relationships with his family, friends, and wives. [One of the former spouses, the alcoholic, pill-popping singer Maggie, is a transparent gloss on Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe; another character, who informs on his Communist friends, is clearly based on Elia Kazan, who was somehow cajoled into directing the original staging.] Michael Mayer, who directed the revelatory 1997 revival of Miller’s A View From the Bridge, has set this Fall at Idlewild Airport, in 1962—not an Idlewild of the mind, but a full-scale replica of a period TWA departures lounge, with swooping staircases and planes of platforms that would make Steven Spielberg, who set his last two films at the airport then and now, green with envy. It’s stunning stagecraft from scenic designer Richard Hoover, but impractical; the actors are uncomfortably blocked among the sleekly modernist bric-a-brac. I know the theater is the American Airlines, but this is ridiculous. And I’m told that at least one of the performers stumbled on one of its ramps. That would be the lead, Six Feet Under star Peter Krause, in a DOA Broadway debut.

After The Fall From left, Carla Gugino, Peter Krause, and Jessica Hecht in After the Fall. Photo: Joan Marcus

Quentin, a difficult, exasperating role, is entirely beyond his TV-smoothed inexpressiveness. The character must register as deceptive, manipulative, and cunning—moods not in his repertoire, which consists entirely of a blank, slightly constipated handsomeness. He makes Sean Combs look like Olivier. But, in all fairness, Combs starred in a neglected masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun. Miller’s play has a certain sordid fascination, particularly when Quentin and Maggie (another, better-equipped Broadway first-timer, Carla Gugino) spar in Act II. Mostly, though, it’s painfully overwritten, dragging in the Depression, the Holocaust, and McCarthyism; even with a less insipid cast (including a rote Jessica Hecht as Quentin’s put-upon, sneering first wife, Louise) and a few cuts and revisions made for this outing, it’s hard to see what made it worth exhuming.

LD Donald Holder gussies up the big, monotone set with occasional gusts of patterns and oranges, pinks, and purples that come out of nowhere; from the mind of Isaac Mizrahi, maybe, but not Quentin. Elaine J. McCarthy takes the blame for the overwrought concentration camp projection that looms monstrously over the set from time to time but I assume she was just following orders. The costumes, by Michael Krass, are impeccably, dully, period, with only Maggie allowed a little fun (for which the play punishes her brutally). Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier regularly assaults us with blasts from an airline engine, highlighting what’s already fiercely obvious. There’s nothing here that’s as insinuating as the back of the Playbill, a Visa ad that, coincidentally, uses a photo of Monroe. As it’s only August, I can only hope that After The Fall is the worst revival of the 2004-2005 season.--Robert Cashill

Seen Off Broadway: A picture is worth a thousand words, so make your way past the sea of hairdos and admire Christine Jones’ scenic design for Much Ado About Nothing, this summer’s Public Theater production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It’s a head-turner, all right, even before dusk dwindles and LD Michael Chybowski begins an evening of evocative shadowplay. Director David Esbjornson has set one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable mixes of moods in post-World War I Sicily, as anarchists fulminate and the era of Mussolini gathers. [His interpretation is broad enough to include period music and bellydancing, not to mention a motor scooter that crosses the stage and a bubble bath for Hero, but not too silly as to upstage the Bard.] Jones’ marble staircase set, adorned with warm-weather plants and trees, is a real beauty, as are the flavorful costumes of Jess Goldstein (the scheming Don John of Christopher Evan Welch cuts a striking, somewhat pirate-like figure). Charles LaPointe supplied Italianate wigs.

View of the set of Much Ado About Nothing Photo: Michael Daniel

One example of the unity of this design: The scene where constable Dogberry (the always amusing Brian Murray) and naval officers come ashore in Messina to investigate the tangled goings-on. Goldstein’s fine costumes, the watery tint and wavy patterning of Chybowski’s lighting, and the shoreline sound effects of Acme Sound Partners collaborate to all but put nearby Turtle Pond in your lap. The design complements a series of adroit performances: Jimmy Smits (in full comic mode, one I never knew he had) and a high-spirited Kristen Johnston are delightful as Benedick and Beatrice (their tussling with a well and a vat of grapes, respectively, in the charade sequences is hilarious), while Sam Waterston and his real-life daughter Elisabeth are gripping in the nightmarish wedding scene, where Leonato tears into Hero for her alleged infidelity. [Junior Soprano himself, Dominic Chianese, turns up as Antonio; fortunately, he and his co-stars, familiar from the small screen, act at more than a TV Guide level, unlike this week’s Broadway attraction.] Get in line, quick, though, for those free tickets: This Much Ado will vanish like a midsummer night’s dream after the final performance on Sunday, August 8. --Robert Cashill