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Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Dark Water, a supernatural thriller directed by Walter Salles, the man behind Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, does more to tug at the heart than tingle the spine.

Location, Location, Location

Gade matches the aplomb of Haley Joel Osment
Gade matches the aplomb of Haley Joel Osment

Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly, Beautiful Mind) is striking out on her own. Separated from her husband and in search of the best for her daughter, she finds affordable housing on New York’s tiny Roosevelt Island, conveniently situated next to Manhattan Island.

As her realtor, Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly, Chicago), describes it, the architecture was done in the “Brutalist” style. He’s a smooth talker who knows how to prey on the innocent and the desperate, both of which Dahlia is.

At first her daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade, Envy), wants nothing to do with the place. But her views mysteriously turn to the positive with the discovery of a Hello Kitty backpack and the possibility of Ceci taking ownership if it remains unclaimed.

Given her daughter’s favorable disposition and falling for the ol’ “there’s another interested party coming in 15 minutes” trick, Dahlia snaps up the dank “sub-penthouse” apartment on the 9th floor of a 10-story complex.

In reality, the place is a dump that’ll set her back $900 each month. Even a fresh coat of paint can’t overcome the solemn surroundings and Spartan hallways. Nonetheless, Dahlia and Ceci strive to start anew and settle into a schedule that accommodates schooling, work, and visitation rights with Ceci’s father, Kyle (Dougray Scott, Enigma), over in Jersey City.

Upstairs, Downstairs

There are some bizarre events that transpire in the apartment right above Dahlia’s. Water is mysteriously left running, flooding the entire top-floor apartment and leaking through Dahlia’s bedroom ceiling.

It’s murky and, yes, dark water. Quick to tire of Mr. Murray’s lackadaisical handling of her problems, Dahlia seeks the assistance of her new-found lawyer, Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth, Rob Roy) and, true to form, the pipes are quickly fixed and the ceiling patched up.

But the repair job doesn’t last and there’s still something not right about what’s going on upstairs. Even more troubling for Dahlia is the strange behavior of her daughter, who’s claimed to found a new, albeit imaginary, friend.

Dahlia would soon learn, though, that Ceci’s little friend holds the key to unlocking the mystery upstairs.

The Seventh Sense

Given the ghostly elements of its storyline, Dark Water is at times reminiscent of The Sixth Sense, both in terms of thematic elements and the central role given to a young, relatively unknown child actor. Matching the aplomb of Haley Joel Osment, Ariel Gade turns in a stellar performance as an adorable little girl trying to adjust to a new life with her parents living apart.

Also like The Sixth Sense, there is an underlying theme of love and loss. In Dark Water, though, that theme is taken even further, with the chills and spooky moments taking a back seat to the film’s real focus: the lasting, damaging effects of abandonment and abuse.

More than a simple creep tactic, the dark water serves as a metaphor for displaced lives, something the main characters can identify with tremendously. Dahlia is the daughter of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother who abandoned her as a child; her mother would go so far as to repeatedly tell her daughter she hated her.

Dahlia, now facing another displacement with her broken marriage, wants to make sure her own daughter knows she is loved and that strong sense of love causes tension – and jealousy – with the upstairs neighbors.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

At first glance, Dark Water is an oddball movie.

It’s the first English language movie from director Salles since the obscure 1991 film Exposure. It seems an unlikely choice for a Brazilian director — it’s a remake a Japanese movie, Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara, which in turn was based on a Japanese novel of the same title. Then again, the language of abandonment and fear is universal.

Working with a screenplay adapted by Rafael Yglesias (From Hell), Salles finds plenty of room to indulge in his ability to create interesting characters and draw memorable performances from his cast.

As previously mentioned, Gade is a star in the making, but her more seasoned cast mates are also in fine form, particularly Roth, who is simply excellent as Jeff, Dahlia’s bespectacled lawyer of the no-name variety, living and working out of his car.

While Dark Water doesn’t overflow with ghostly thrills, there are still plenty of goose bumps to be had, particularly for those unfamiliar with the source material. The ending, while not a zinger on the level of The Sixth Sense, is indeed surprising.

In the end, Dark Water leaves traditional supernatural territory behind for something some viewers may find even more scary: artistic expression.