A twist in the tale

 

The Sixth Sense (15) General release

Certain films, very few of them, pack such a deviously plotted twist in the tale that it necessitates writing around the movie rather than about it, in order not to spoil the surprise in store for the viewer. The Sixth Sense is one of those rare movies, like The Crying Game and The Usual Suspects, which is so skilfully structured that even those audiences who go expecting to be surprised will fall for a cleverly devised twist which triggers off an instant mental replay of all that has gone before.

It is not giving anything away to state the following. The Sixth Sense features Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe, a respected psychologist who is drinking wine with his wife (Olivia Williams) in their Philadelphia home one evening when a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) breaks in, shoots Crowe and then turns the gun on himself.

Moving forward in time to the next autumn, the film follows Crowe's interest in a nine-year-old boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who is described as "socially isolated". The boy lives with his divorced mother (Toni Collette), an uptight, unhappy woman who is baffled by the boy's paranormal powers. Cole eventually reveals his secret.

"I see dead people," he says, and he tries to comprehend why these people who departed this world leaving so much unresolved would want to communicate with him. One of these dead people, Kyra (Mischa Barton), leads Cole to a videotape which shocks the people at her funeral by exposing the circumstances of Kyra's death. Attending a school which used to be a prison prompts some alarming visions for young Cole, as the film ponders why such an innocent young mind should be burdened by so much of other people's pain.

This brooding drama exerts an hypnotic hold as it tantalisingly reveals its quite ingenious narrative with the sureness and capacity for creating unease demonstrated by Roman Polanski in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. Both those psychological thrillers have been cited as influences by the film's 28-year-old writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, a native of Philadelphia who had completed 45 short films by the time he was 16.

Born into a family of doctors, Shyamalan chose not to follow his family into medicine and studied film instead; mischievously, perhaps, Shyamalan gives himself a cameo as a doctor in The Sixth Sense. He made his first feature film in 1992 with the low-budget Praying With Anger, a personal story of an exchange student returning from the US to India, and followed it with another feature in 1997, Wide Awake, featuring Rosie O'Donnell and Denis Leary, although neither of those movies was released here. Shyamalan displays terrific assurance in bringing his quite ingenious narrative for The Sixth Sense to the screen, subtly building and sustaining a low-key but ominous atmosphere which permeates the picture and is heightened in the sombre lighting scheme employed by director of photography Tak Fujimoto.

Bruce Willis treats his role as the psychologist with a level of sensitivity and understatement never suggested by his work in the past, and he delivers arguably the most satisfying performance of his career, while the versatile Australian actress, Toni Collette, acutely catches the anxiety and desperation of young Cole's mother.

There is more than one revelation in this film, and the other is the astonishing performance from the 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment - who played the young Forrest Gump when he was five - as Cole Sear. A physically slight but remarkably expressive actor, he captures the haunted young boy in all his vulnerability and confusion. Try not to see The Sixth Sense on your own - not because it's terrifying (it isn't, though it is eerie), but it most likely will make you want to talk and talk about it afterwards and reflect on how logical it all seems with the benefit of hindsight.

- Michael Dwyer

Fight Club (18) General release

It's vicious, nihilistic, sometimes boring and often very silly, but, if you're at all interested in modern movies and popular culture, then you have to see David Fincher's flawed, brilliant satire on masculinity, violence and consumerism. Fight Club has divided audiences and critics wherever it's been released so far, and it's not hard to see why. Attacked as fascistic in some quarters, and as merely stupid in others, this is one of the most self-consciously confrontational movies released by a major studio in years. It's also one of the most visually beautiful.

Based on the novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club stars Edward Norton (threatening to become typecast as the Angry White Male of his generation) as a twentysomething white collar wage slave, his blank life left unfulfilled by the purchase of regulation designer labels and Ikea knickknacks (the Scandinavian furniture manufacturer doesn't come well out of Fight Club - the worst insult one can hurl is "Ikea boy"). Norton can't sleep, and he finds the only way to cure his insomnia is to attend victim support groups, where cancer patients weep on his shoulder and he finds a grim, cynical peace. It's when he encounters the charismatic outsider Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) that Norton finds a meaning to his life, in the underground fight clubs the pair set up, where men gather in dark basements to beat each other up with their bare fists. As the fight club phenomenon spreads across the country, Norton and Pitt become the leaders of a shadowy terrorist organisation intent on smashing consumer culture, as represented by everything from coffee bar franchises to credit card companies, but Norton discovers he's drifting apart from Pitt, and events are slipping out of his control.

Narrated with laconic wit by Norton in film noir-style flashback at the moment of his impending death, from its opening shot Fight Club is studded with bravura sequences unlike anything seen before in cinema. Fincher is one of the most interesting directors working in the Hollywood mainstream today, and here he incorporates technology in ways which hint at the directions movies may take in the future: a continuous track out of a man's brain and down the side of a 40-story building; a digital nightmare of Ikea blandness; a scarifying plane explosion . . . Indeed, it's not implausible to see Fincher as the rightful inheritor of the mantle of Stanley Kubrick, another master craftsman and stylist with a talent for brilliant set pieces and black comedy. Like Kubrick, he somehow succeeds in getting the most misanthropic, uncommercial and (some would say) objectionable ideas on screen. He still has difficulty in making a completely coherent film, and Fight Club has its problems - Helena Bonham Carter, as the chain-smoking, suicidal Goth who forms the third part of a romantic triangle with Norton and Pitt, seems to have wandered in from another, less interesting movie. The rather clunky twist towards the end suggests that the whole thing has been a masturbatory fantasy, and the terrorist underground is more Pythonesque than terrifying. But Norton is excellent, while Pitt is perfect for the role of the narcissistic, egocentric Dearden. In a sea of movie mediocrity, Fight Club shines out as a blockbuster-scale film which isn't afraid to take risks. Oh, and by the way, it's often very, very funny.

- Hugh Linehan

After Life Club IFC, Dublin

Many film-makers have been attracted to stories about Judgment Day, and some of the resulting movies have become classics (many others have turned out as unspeakable rot). Hirokazu Kore-eda's remarkable meditation on memory and life's experiences ranks with the very best. Shot in a beautifully economical, naturalistic style, After Life is set in an un-named, rather drab institutional building where a team of slightly weary officials is preparing to process 22 new clients. It gradually becomes apparent that the clients are dead, and that the functionaries' role is to assist them in each choosing one single memory from their lives, which will be the only thing they carry with them into eternity.

This proves to be more difficult for some than for others - one man can think of nothing worth remembering from what he thinks was a meaningless life, another defiantly refuses to make a choice. But over the course of one week, the 22 look back over their lives, some changing their minds, others happy with their first decisions.

After Life is a work of remarkable delicacy, humanity and humour, which unfolds its themes with striking originality. Hirokazu's masterstroke is his envisioning of the next world as a humdrum, very mundane place, where people must still go about their day-today tasks of boiling kettles, eating breakfast and getting up for work. This downbeat, deceptively simple tone - at times, one almost feels one is watching a documentary - gives added weight to the film's preoccupation with the artificiality and selectivity of memory, and the importance of small things. In its own quiet, unassuming way, a modern masterpiece.

- Hugh Linehan

A la place de du coeur Club IFC, Dublin

Robert Guediguian's film transposes a 1974 James Baldwin novel from Harlem to present-day Marseilles, telling the story of a young mixed-race couple and their efforts to stay together in the face of institutional racism and a miscarriage of justice. Laure Raoust is Clim, a teenaged girl engaged to be married to her childhood sweetheart Bebe, by whom she is pregnant. Bebe has been accused of raping a Bosnian refugee, and his future looks bleak. Guediuian explores the effects of all this on the couple's respective families, both of whom are from poverty-stricken working-class stock.

A la place de du coeur is an oddly meandering parable, with moments of some charm and solid performances from all its key cast. However, it lacks the coherence of Guediguian's last film, Marius et Jeanette, and at times its dialogue and storyline seems forced and contrived.

- Hugh Linehan