The Happening(6/13/2008)

            When The Sixth Sense came out in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s style was like a breath of fresh air.  In an age of ADD pandering filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, Shyamalan was a young director who had great success with a more patient style of filmmaking.  He followed this up with Unbreakable and Signs, which were both very strong continuations of this new cinematic voice.  Everything looked great for Shyamalan, but then everything suddenly went to hell.  Shyamalan’s next film, The Village, was well crafted but it was also an exercise in futility complete with a lame twist and a predictable ending.  Still, The Village had its moments and may have simply been a small stumble in Shyamalan’s career had he not followed it up with the abominable Lady in the Water, an incoherently bizarre film which seemed to be the work of an absolute madman. 

All this time I continued to be a Shyamalan apologist simply on the basis that he had only made two bad films and three good films, which seemed to still be a decent average.  For that reason I decided I was still going to give his next film a chance, especially since it had an intriguing trailer and a good concept.  Unfortunately, The Happening, is not the comeback I was hoping for, in fact it might just be further confirmation of what I had feared, that M. Night Shyamalan has completely lost it.  

The film doesn’t take long to get into its premise; it opens in central park on a clear morning.  All of a sudden all the people in the park stand still, suddenly a woman pulls out a hairpin and stabs herself in the neck.  Elsewhere in New York an entire construction crew jumps off the top of a building to their deaths.  Shortly thereafter in Philadelphia a high school biology teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is interrupted in the middle of his speech about the disappearance of bees and is informed that this wave of suicides is spreading throughout the entire Northeast, and is thought to be the doing of a terrorist attack.  School is dismissed early and Elliot’s colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) invites his to flee with his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) on a train to Harrisburg.  Elliot brings his estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) along as the four try desperately to outrun this strange outbreak that is causing mass death.

I’ll start with the positive here, as bad as this is, it isn’t nearly as non-sensical or boring as Lady in the Water.  Unfortunately this is probably still worse than The Village and isn’t anywhere close to being as good as his first three films.  Shyamalan does at least seem to have the germ of a very good idea here.  The mass suicide scenes are very well made and effectively creepy especially in the first ten minutes or so.  These scenes incorporate a level of violence that has previously been unseen in Shyamalan’s work (the film’s R-Rating has become a major point in its advertising campaign) and this occasional gore is an interesting addition to Shyamalan’s somber style.  The catch is, that everything around these few set pieces is absolutely god-awful.

Interestingly, this is a film that manages to fail in a way that is the exact opposite of how The Village and Lady in the Water failed. Those two movies were both very well crafted and acted, but were let down by misguided and/or insane stories.  Here the story really could have worked, but the acting and dialogue is shockingly bad.  I’m not entirely sure why the acting here is so bad; Wahlberg, Deschanel, and Leguizamo are all talented performers and Shyamalan has traditionally been something of an actors director, getting great work out of Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Paul Giamatti even when his films don’t generally work.

Here every performer seems to have no idea how to dial their work back at all, there’s massive overacting all around.  Wahlberg speaks through the whole movie like in an oddly confused tone and often comes off really whiney, Deschanel is just as unnaturalistic and neither is able to create really effective characters.  John Leguizamo just seems completely miscast and none of his natural wit is able to really come through.  I don’t think I can really blame any of these actors for this mess, as all of them are uncharacteristically weak, as are the supporting characters.  I can only assume that it was Shyamalan’s neglect that lead to such wild overacting in this thing.

I’m sure the actors weren’t helped at all by this messy script’s terrible dialogue.  This script feels like a first draft to me, the dialogue is incredibly unpolished here.  The actors are frequently forced to try and make ridiculous lines like “If you take my daughter’s hand you better mean it” work.  The exposition here is also quite bad, with the marriage problems of the two leads handled in the most awkward way imaginable.  Compare the handling of this couple’s back-story with the careful prose used to explain Bruce Willis’ past in The Sixth Sense or the family’s situation in Signs and you’ll get an idea of just how far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen. 

The film is in many ways an inferior retread of Signs, as both are movies dealing with troubled families (in this case a surrogate family) dealing with a mass crisis situation.  This in itself is a disappointment, as crazy as the Shyamalan’s last two films were, they at least were trying different things and didn’t feel like recycled stories.  The film mostly avoids the general insanity that characterized Lady in the Water, but he gets damn close to that level of confounding silliness in the third act where the group find themselves in some really strange encounters with hillbillies.  Particularly strange is the sudden and jarring appearance of an old hillbilly woman named Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley).  The behavior of this character defies any type of conventional action by a member of the human species and Buckley is forced to give one of the most over the top performances in recent memory.  Even stranger is how long the group puts up with this clearly disturbed person.

Throughout the film characters continually find themselves acting in strange and illogical ways.  For instance, mid way through the movie a crowd realizes that the outbreak mainly attacks areas with large numbers of people, and that it’s beginning to target increasingly small groups of people.  So the first thing these geniuses do is decide to “Stay together” which would be great advice in most slasher movies but which is completely illogical given that A. there isn’t a single thing that teamwork can do to save anyone from a poisonous gas and B. that’s clearly just going to make them more of a target.  Later Wahlberg finds himself behaving in a very Lady in the Water kind of a way by deciding to base his decisions using the scientific method, which means he sits and says he’s sorting out the variables before coming to the obvious conclusion that he needs to run as fast as he can.

Spoiler Warning, skip ahead a paragraph if you don’t want to hear about a twist that emerges early in the film’s second act.  About half way through, Shymalan reveals that this wave of violence is the result of plants deliberately giving off chemical pheromones to defend themselves from the polluting humans.  You read that right, this is a heavy handed message about environmentalism.  Firstly, that’s stupid.  Secondly, the message is handled in a remarkable inelegant way.  The film begins with Wahlberg conveniently setting up the theme is a direct way via a lecture to his high school class.  Throughout the film Wahlberg slowly decides that this is the reason for the attack without doing a single test.  The logic is never clear, why is it only attacking groups when it seems these plants could just as easily just let the poison loose everywhere at once.  Also why are certain people, like the woman at the beginning, seemingly immune for the purposes of looking scared as everyone around them is dying?  The environmentalist message is just silly.  At least The Village kept its heavy-handed message as an (obvious) allegory; this film just bludgeons the audience with Shyamalan’s message of “respecting nature.”

I’ve tried to support Shyamalan for so long, I had hoped he had learned his lesson from the horrible reaction to Lady in the Water, but this is another disaster.  He at least rid this film of some of the problems he usually has, there’s no director’s cameo and there isn’t really a twist ending, but the bigger problems of hubris is still in full swing.  Shyamalan just needs to quit making these high concept twilight Zone episodes and try something new because this well is getting really dry. 

* out of four

DVD Catch Up: Live Free or Die Hard- Unrated Edition(12/30/2007)

   

 

            Late in the summer of 2007, a fourth sequel to the 1988 classic Die Hard was released.  Earlier in the year I was excited to see the franchise make a comeback; after all, 80’s action movies are a real guilty pleasure of mine.  However, I began to be worried when I heard Len Wiseman was chosen to direct.  This filmmaker who brought us such in-essential cinema as Underworld Evolution was hardly my idea of a perfect director for a Die Hard film.  Then it was revealed that Justin Long (of “I’m a Mac” fame) was chosen to co-star I really became nervous, and the insane title of Live Free or Die Hard didn’t ease my tensions. 

            The straw that broke the camel’s back however was the revelation that the film would receive a PG-13 rating and that John McClane’s famous line would be obscured.  This was all the proof I needed to know that this film would be a massive sell-out, I firmly decided to boycott the film during its theatrical release and wrote an angry commentary on my blog about it.  What was really infuriating was the generally accepting pass it received from a number of filmgoers who seemed way to forgiving of this film’s obvious sellout.  Finally, after someong online said the unrated cut was “fucktacular” I decided to rent that version on DVD.  To my shock, I found that I was not only right about each and every one of my concerns, but that they were only the beginning of this movie’s problems.

            It’s been twelve years since the last Die Hard film, 1995’s imperfect but fun Die Hard with a Vengeance, and John McClane (Bruce Willis) seems to finally be having a fairly normal police career.  That is until he receives a call from his chief telling him to escort a computer hacker (Justin Long) to Washington D.C.  Upon arriving at this hackers apartment he is greeted with an all out attack by a group of assassins.  McClane soon learns that this hacker is a target because he recently wrote a code that is about to be used to create all out havoc across the eastern seaboard because an evil hacker (Timothy Olyphant) wants revenge against the government.

            With McClane having to escort an unwilling sidekick, a large rather than enclosed stomping ground, and a villain trying to act like a terrorist only to distract authorities from a heist; it is clear that this entry was modeled after Die Hard With a Vengeance rather than the original or its sequel Die Hard 2: Die Harder.  While the third film in the series was able to generate a compelling entry by subverting the formula; that trick only works once.  The second time this trick feels less like subversion and more like abandonment. 

None of what made Die Hard a classic is present here at all.  None of John McClane’s attitude is present here, he never even feels overly surprised or angry about his predicament.  Rather Bruce Willis is completely phoning it in here and mostly looks bored throughout.  Additionally, even on the “unrated cut” this movie feels really tame.  The violence is still almost bloodless and even when a villain falls into a meat-grinder there is very little gory goodness.  When compared to even the relatively tame third installment (which had a throat slitting villainess, a man split in half by a wire, and a really violent gunfight in an elevator), this film simply doesn’t deliver on the intense action fans have come to expect.  Also the swearing is still very restrained, yes there are a handful of f-bombs now but none of them are very well delivered, in fact they feel a little bit like outtakes. 

This film has bland and uninteresting dialogue, poor editing, and an extremely forgettable villain.  But the real black hole at the center of this film is Justin Long.  This is an even bigger problem than I thought he would be.  I knew long would be annoying, but I had hoped he would also be fun to hate, unfortunately he’s bland and just plain annoying.  Additionally Long has absolutely no chemistry with Bruce Willis. 

This is a ridiculous film with cartoonish action scenes.  There is a particular moment involving a Harrier Jet that was so ridiculous that all I could do was roll my eyes.  The film has no idea how computers work and frequently has people hacking simply by typing on a keyboard without so much as touching a mouse.  Also laughable was a scene where the film’s hacker villain talks to his henchmen in English while they communicate back in a foreign language subtitled and both parties seem to understand the other.  I’d be able to suspend my disbelief if the henchmen had been wookies, but not for Europeans.

Live Free or Die Hard is an embarrassment to a once great series of action movies.  Even in its “unrated cut” this is a lame and boring film.  Those who made it should be ashamed by the way they blatantly sold out for this production.

* out of four

 

Halloween(8/31/2007)

   

 

            When it was announced that Dimension films was planning a remake of John Carpenter’s 1979 slasher classic Halloween, I among many others just sighed at the folly of the enterprise.  The original Halloween was one of the most influential horror movies of all time.  The movie still holds up today; aside from some 70’s style clothing, hairstyles, and slang one would hardly realize it was old.  The original is still watched annually by me every October 31st, I didn’t need a new Halloween and I was ready to miss the remake when it hit theaters.  Suddenly though I was struck with a ray of hope, Rob Zombie was going to be sitting in the director’s chair.  Rob is a director who has had a certain integrity and creativity during his horror movie career, I didn’t see why he would be making this if it were the debacle I had envisioned.  Unfortunately, Rob Zombie has completely disappointed me, the remake of Halloween is just as bad as I feared.
            The film begins in 1989 where a young Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) is a troubled youth living is a deeply dysfunctional redneck family.  His father (William Forsythe) is clearly abusive, and his loving mother (Played by Rob’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper.  Michael finally snaps and murders a school bully, his father, his sister Judith (Hanna Hall), and her boyfriend.  Following this quadruple homicide Michael is put into a maximum security psychiatric ward.  Michael’s mother commits suicide, leaving behind a baby girl.  Psychologist Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) tries to work on Michael for seventeen years without any success.  The adult, and mysteriously buff, Myers (Tyler Mane) naturally escapes from prison seeking blood.
            Rob Zombie (real name: Robert Cummings) began his entertainment career in music, as the lead singer of the groove metal band White Zombie.  Zombie, who had been interested it kitch horror movies since a child, brought a sense of macabre theatricality to his music, especially in is live performances and music videos.  In 2003 Zombie expanded his work into film directing with The House of 1000 Corpses, a movie that ultimately failed but had its moments.  There was promise in Corpses, but I was completely unprepared for how good its sequel The Devil’s Rejects was.  Rejects was a rollicking good time of violent kitch, not a true horror movie, but a violent tribute to everything Zombie seems to love.  Rejects was actually a movie that owed a lot to Quentin Tarentino of all people.  The film actually did the same thing Tarentino does: borrow from a whole lot of other movies the director loves and mix them interestingly into an original story.  Rejects wasn’t for everyone, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable movies of its genre in a long time.
            The Devil’s Rejects is the one thing that convinced me this remake would be worthwhile.  Zombie seemed to know what he was doing, the casting of Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Loomis seemed perfect. I defended Zombie even when it was announced he was going to be revealing additional back-story about Myers, a move many (correctly) thought would de-mystify the character.  Unfortunately my initial instincts about this project were correct, a remake of Halloween has proven to be completely unneeded.  The project is also unsuited for Zombie, whose previous work was effective because it embraced a certain campy fun that is completely absent from the original Halloween.
            The remake makes a futile attempt at telling the back story of Michael Myers.  This is futile first because everything here actually was covered in the original, just in a much faster and far less boring way.  Michael’s childhood murder for example, was taken care of during a five minute sedi-cam shot.  Here it is covered by a twenty minute sequence, but what new does this twenty minute sequence accomplish?  Well there are four victims instead of one, which helps the film’s blood quotient, but otherwise doesn’t change the Myers character one iota.  Additionally it turns his family into a completely dysfunctional entity in a futile attempt to explain Myers behavior.  But isn’t it more frightening for Meyer’s behavior to come out of ordinary circumstances?  The original managed to avoid all this by writing off Myers as simply being the personification of evil, this not only moved the story along but also added a creepy aura to Myers that contributed far more to the fear the character evoked than his butcher knife.  The remake is robbed of this aura and is completely slowed down by this new material.  Also boring, is the extended period Myers spends in prison, which again, slows down the story and takes away Myers aura.  The movie does get a little better once we get to the contemporary story, if only because it follows the original’s story more closely.  
            The casting of both the young and the old Michael Myers are poor.  Daeg Faerch is boring and one note as the young Michael Myers , his line readings are poor and his “spooky stare” needs work.  I don’t want to be too hard on a ten year old actor, but we’ve seen dozens of better “creepy kids” throughout horror movie history.  Tyler Mane as the adult Michael Myers is even more problematic.  Many would assume that the role of a masked killer could be played by anyone regardless of talent, and that’s true, the original Myers was basically played by an unpaid intern and has been played by various stuntmen ever since.  Mane isn’t to blame for his presence, he’s simply miscast, this former pro-wrestler is a huge behemoth who more closely resembles Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series than the Michael Myers we all know and love.  This Myers is more of a brute force than the original who seemed to have a more stealth oriented approach to things.  
            For what it’s worth, the rest of the cast isn’t half bad.  I rather like the girls cast as Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends Annie (Danielle Harris) and Lynda (Kristina Klebe), in fact I think they are about the only improvement here over the original.  It may seem like heresy but I don’t really think Jamie Lee Curtis was all that good in the original, she gives a lot of bad line deliveries and despite only being 21 at the time, didn’t look at all like a teenager.  The new trio of friends however did feel like a real set of teenage girls. Some may find the way these teens act and talk annoying, but it really is authentic way modern teenage girls act and talk.  Malcolm McDowell felt like perfect casting as the crazy old man Dr. Sam Loomis, his performance however is a bit of a disappointment.  McDowell is all right, but he doesn’t live up to Donald Plesence’s take on the character in the original.  The rest of the cast is made up of cameos by the cast of The Devil’s Rejects each of whom brings brief, fun, presences in their scenes.
            The violence in the original Halloween is surprisingly restrained in retrospect.  It’s R-rated stuff, but it was also mostly bloodless.  Knowing Rob Zombie’s body of work I knew that wasn’t what we were in for here.  This movie is incredibly bloody and violent; this alone isn’t a problem, I am a fan of The Devil’s Rejects after all, but it doesn’t work at all here.  Those seeking the kind of over the top, almost fun gore seen in 80’s slasher films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street provided will be disappointed.  The violence in here is of an extremely brutal nature.  The first kill for instance involves a young Myers beating another child severely with a log, pausing to listen to the boy plead for his life, only to finish him off.  There are twenty one more brutal killings to go after that, I wasn’t remotely scared or even put in a state of suspense by any of this, it was simply disturbing for the sake of being disturbing.  It really wore me out by the end.  
            The movie is amazingly dark, in the sense of lighting that is. At least 80% of this movie must take place at night.  My eyes began to strain by the end of the movie.  Between this and the unrelenting violence I was quite relived to walk out of the theater into sunlight.  The story amounts to nothing, the violence is needlessly sadistic, it fails completely to live up to the original, and it is also devoid of any suspense.  With this disaster I have lost a lot of faith in Rob Zombie as a film maker.  I’ve always felt he deserved better than to be lumped into the so-called “splat-pack”, but I’m beginning to think The Devil’s Rejects was a fluke.  Remaking Halloween was a massive lapse in judgment from someone I once had a lot of respect for.  Rob Zombie should have known better than to make it, I should have known better than to see it, and unless this movie ends up being the fluke of his career I may soon be turning in my “Rob Zombie apologist” card.

* out of four