"The Happening" - Review

From promising ingénue to critical pariah, the rise and fall of public perception towards M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker has been a fascinating story over the past few years - a kind of Shakespearean tragedy as if it were recounted by Jacqueline Susann.

Why does he generate such vitriol? The man flaunts an arrogance that borders on self-deification, yet so has many an acclaimed filmmaker from fanboy concubine James Cameron to existential ice queen Stanley Kubrick. One also can't deny that as a director he has a natural talent with his craft - composing and editing shots and set pieces in ways the oft-employed but dubiously talented Brett Ratner or Shawn Levy could only dream about.

Yet a few early warning indicators in the otherwise well-crafted "Unbreakable" and "Signs" showed that something was beginning to slip. The laughable period mystery "The Village" led to the simply atrocious fairy tale "Lady in the Water", two films that still demonstrated often impressive directorial technique but were hampered by his increasingly transparent, self-absorbed and often defensive scripting. Fleshed out characters and fascinating setups had devolved into amateurish essays into the structure of storytelling, rote caricatures and banal dialogue even George Lucas could improve on.

"The Happening" in many ways is a make or break film for the man. It's a return to the paranoia thriller genre that gave us "Signs", his familiar set up of a broken nuclear family being brought back together by a Twilight Zone-esque experience, and yet another homage to one of his mentor Hitchcock's most famous works - in this case "The Birds". It doesn't work. In fact, excluding a few moments of chilling effectiveness, this could fairly be called his worst film yet. Even his usual saving grace of keen directorial acumen for the first time visibly loses cohesion on screen, ultimately yielding a film that would've been considered one of the year's most notable disappointments had there actually been any moderately-sized anticipation for it.

The problems lie all over the place, starting with career worst performances from Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Admittedly Wahlberg has never been considered one of the next great award-winning young talents to have emerged on the scene, nevertheless he's amply demonstrated strong work in the past and proven a quite amenable protagonist even in some very dodgy material. This is the first time however where he delivers a performance of Heather Graham sexual thriller caliber, the kind where on NUMEROUS occasions he sighs a tepid 'oh no' in situations where everyone around him is graphically killing themselves.

It's astonishingly flat work - whether it be his attempted 'I'm a hip teacher' schoolroom banter, to this film's "fridge surviving an atomic bomb" moment of incredulity where he calmly tries to negotiate with a pot plant. His only strength is that he does fit with Zooey Deschanel's oddly distant and perpetually stoned role as his estranged wife. The two have no chemistry and consistently fail to convey the gravity or urgency of their increasingly dire situation which undermines much of the suspense. An overly talky John Leguizamo is the only one who seems able to at least display a sense of personal jeopardy in his few fleeting moments.

None of the cast, which doesn't include the helmer himself this time, are helped by atrocious dialogue and a storyline which never really goes anywhere or with any specific direction in mind. It's a shame considering the strong start to the film with people in New York's Central Park suddenly freezing in place and one girl calmly stabbing herself in the neck. A few minutes later workers hurl themselves off a construction in the film's single most chilling shot. A good 10-15 minutes of the film's short runtime is devoted to these grim suicides which take place throughout the film.

Some hit with brutal effectiveness, even a jaded filmgoer like myself was shocked by one sequence involving the brutal slaying of two kids. Other deaths however (one at a zoo, another involving a gardening tool) are so overplayed as to be almost laughable. With a few obvious 9/11 parallels, the Western world still overly paranoid about the threat of terrorism and not concerned enough with environmental issues, and a lot of people still unsettled by the topics of suicide or euthanasia - one can see these scenes still proving effective with portions of the audience.

An early attempt to scientifically explain why people are doing what they do sadly only serves to point out the ridiculousness of the situation - going from neuro-chemical suppression of self-preservation instincts to proactively committing suicide in various elaborate ways is a very large leap of logic. Yet the potential cause revealed very early on in the film, that of Mother Nature being the world's most effective biological terrorist, could've worked brilliantly had they tried for something more reasonable (a simple airborne fatal poison) or something far more elaborate such as a "Day of the Triffids" scenario.

Instead we get a few action set pieces with our characters ridiculously trying to out run gusts of wind, wind with an astonishingly slow pace, flat front, and inability to blow through the many cracks and holes of houses in a state of disrepair. At 91 minutes the film is mercifully brief, tech credits from James Newton Howard's score to the production design and location shoots are solid.

It's an unengaging and ultimately uninteresting ecological thriller that oddly enough might've worked better had Shyamalan relied on his usually more ambitious twists and elaborate back story mythology instead of this restrained low-key approach. His clumsy bluntness may have been ingratiating and even infuriating, but it was at least passionate and gave his earlier work much more energy, genuine visceral tension, and showed a ballsy ability to manipulate the audience. The only thing 'happening' here is a film imploding with a whimper instead of a bang.

Hulk Review

Not the home run that they hit the first time around with "Iron Man", this second effort of the new Marvel Studios is good enough that it fixes some of the key problems brought up by Ang Lee's generally dismissed first attempt at adapting Hulk for the big screen.

Despite a lot of outright hostility towards it these days, the 2003 "Hulk" remains a textbook example of a noble failure. Superhero movies are like the James Bond franchise - variations on the same formula. Those that truly succeed push the boundaries, but also stick to and make best use of certain pre-set structural rules. Lee's "Hulk" abandoned them altogether, crafting an odd blend of morose 'Jekyll and Hyde' melodrama and ridiculously flamboyant action-fantasy antics. Visually it was bold, even innovative, but in terms of storytelling it was a fascinating jumbled mess - distant, bloated, ambitious, arty and often impenetrable.

In contrast Louis Letterier and Edward Norton's new incarnation of the green meanie has no such lofty ideals or hidden depths. This 'Hulk' is designed purely for fast, formulaic mainstream thrills by mixing a chase thriller across the Americas with a few key set pieces of Hulk smashing up things. It's derivative to be sure, various scenes cribbing off better efforts of the genre along with other recent hits, but the script balances its disparate elements enough to likely satisfy fans.

It may be more of a crowd-pleaser, but that certainly doesn't make the new 'Hulk' a roaring success. At 106 minutes its quite short and sharp, yet there's some awkward lulls in the pacing and very notable gaps in the logic and story. On several occasions some almost savage editorial cuts throw you out of the film's flow, yet each of the three big action scenes with the creature are dragged out several minutes longer than is needed - and in doing so it lessens their impact.

The first and strongest act by far may as well be called "The Bourne Irradiation" with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding out as an employee of a bottling plant in the mountain-side slums of Brazil. The ensuing half-hour has him researching his condition, chatting online with a mysterious source called Mr. Blue, and generally outrunning bad guys through a maze of alleyways and rooftops. The superb cinematography makes great use of the location, turning the rainforest-enclosed makeshift city into an eerily beautiful yet sinister place.

It also works because it smartly sets up the situation, taking time to learn Banner's motives and actions to control his Hulk-side both in the long and short term. The film certainly requires foreknowledge of the character and his relationships as the origin element, very different to Lee's "Hulk", is hastily skipped through during the opening credits. What sells us though is Norton delivering his usual committed work as a much more proactive and sympathetic Bruce Banner than Eric Bana's tortured geek or Bill Bixby's mix of camp and anal retention.

It's not a definitive performance by any means for a superhero character, much less the actor, but its lends enough credibility to balance out the various underwritten supporting roles that surround him. Of those Liv Tyler fares the best, her more comfortably-paced scenes with Norton during the middle of the movie providing a much needed breather between the increasingly bombastic quick-cut set pieces that devolve into the final videogame-like brawl.

Tim Blake Nelson's brief role as a scientist and potential future villain is an ultra-goofy letdown, a stark contrast to Ty Burrell's quietly strong but painfully slim and muted role as Betty's current love interest (he's in such few scenes that this relationship to her is never made clear). The usually reliable likes of William Hurt and Tim Roth disappoint as they overplay their one-dimensional villains of the piece into pure ham territory - Hurt at least seems to be having fun though, despite a few notable character inconsistencies.

In regards to the action it's Hulk's first appearance that is the most creative. Time is taken to build up to it, and for the most part he's kept in shadow where he terrorises his potential captors from the dark corners within the plant. Subsequent rampages across a college campus and the streets of Harlem become increasingly silly, over-edited, and too reliant on the adept but uninspiring visual effects which trade quality for sheer quantity. Skin texturing may have improved drastically since the last Hulk, but the character still looks like a big cartoonish sprite - at least this time they keep his size consistent.

The film does do a good job with the niggling flaw of the clothing shifts, Norton spending much of the film half-naked clutching the remnants of some much-abused pants. The scant humor is well-placed, only one joke really misfiring, whilst the cameos by the aforementioned Ferrigno, Marvel stalwart Stan Lee, and a certain fellow superhero are by far the most clever yet for a Marvel film. A lot of references are also made to a WW2-developed serum and 'Super Soldier' program, hinting about a certain Captain appearing in the near future.

It'll be interesting to see how this is received as with superhero movies we've become used to a mix of stellar efforts that transcend their pulpy origins (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Iron Man), good intentioned but sadly flat disappointments of different calibers (Superman Returns, the first Hulk, Spider-Man 3), and just plain awful wastes of space (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra). This incarnation of "Hulk" fits none of these categories, rather it settles on being good enough for its fans and a decent enough actioneer for the rest of us.

There's a definite feeling of a much longer and more substantial movie in here which has been truncated, and talk of Edward Norton's unhappiness with the final product is understandable if many of the deeper character scenes have been left on the editing room floor. What remains, though certainly not the dud many were expecting, is not good enough to justify the need for such a restart. Unless you're a fan, the new 'Hulk' isn't one to rush out for, but it is worth catching eventually.

Christian Bale Is Robin Hood?

Here's a very interesting casting rumor. Ridley Scott is keen to cast Christian Bale as Robin Hood in his upcoming reinvention of the legend "Nottingham". The new version pains the Sheriff of Nottingham (Russell Crowe) as a more noble character forced to work for a tyrant, whilst Hood himself will be portrayed as a much darker and dangerous personality than previous incarnations. Sienna Miller was cast earlier this week to play Maid Marion who becomes the center of a love triangle with Hood & the Sheriff. Vanessa Redgrave, William Hurt and young "Atonement" actress Saoirse Ronan will also apparently appear in the project which begins costume fittings next week.

 
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