30 June 2008


To be sure, the setting in which I viewed this formulaic film (a nearly sold-out stadium seating screen with teens who also managed to simultaneously carry on full-volume conversations and text absent friends) did not help my opinion of it. There were actually elements that made me think at some point a real writer had his hands on the script. (There are three credited - which could mean several more who were not). I cannot decide whether it began as a fairly good script and was stripped or if a writer was brought in to stitch some dangling pieces back together. If the former is the case, it would explain how they signed Freeman and McAvoy to the project. But it seems more likely that the latter is true, since the basis is rather silly to begin with.
In true Star Wars rip-off fashion, the audience is introduced to nihilistic father who has a son he's never known. The two lead opposite existences - The father as cutthroat assassin and son as a account management specialist with a hungry cat and an annoying girlfriend. His father is killed on a rooftop ambush and the league of assassins to which he belonged recruits his son, played by James McAvoy. The lure is his father's assets, which are quite substantial, and the sultry stare and tattooed arms of Angelina Jolie, who looks pretty much like a Gap ad the whole time (white shirt, khakis, too much eyeliner).
Morgan Freeman plays the head of this secret society, which has its roots in the ancient Weavers clans from 1000 years ago. Then the attempts to tie this story together can no longer hold. It turns out that these assassins are working on the information given to them by the "Loom of Fate", a giant machine of Industrial Revolution era that is fed by a web of strings from somewhere in the ether. This loom produces a coded message, hidden in the patterns of weave which equal 1s and 0s - a binary code - which when translated equals a person's name, who is next on the list to be killed.
There is training and heartache and distrust and learning and all the feel-good things that go along with being thrown into a new environment. The only thing that makes these standard scenes watchable is McAvoy. He stunningly manages to find footholds in the precipitous script. Yet even he cannot save the last of many Star Wars scenes badly referenced. McAvoy learns the true identity of his father too late and after dangling by one hand, chooses to fall down a massive chasm rather than face the lie. Really, we had to go to Empire Strikes Back for this? He does as the script insists, but I couldn't help but notice a hint of reluctance.

18 June 2008

The Happening *** Spoiler Alert ***

Try to forget what you already know about M. Night Shyamalan.  Forget his tropes, his types and patterns.  Look at this film on the face of it.  Like any horror movie, "the terror" is a simple, basic thing, with consequences that affect humanity.  But the presentation of the 'facts' is muddled, and the intelligence of the main characters is questionable.  Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher who is among the first to deduce the source of the lethal 'happening.'
With his wits about him, he traverses the Pennsylvania countryside, managing to make correct decisions that keep him and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and friend's daughter alive.  Yet when the three of them have survived over 24 hours in this increasingly hostile environment they throw it away for one last quick hug (they have been separated by this point, but can speak to each other) so that they die in each other's arms (they don't die, after all).  A romantic notion, perhaps, but completely unrealistic for these characters.  After fighting tooth and nail for survival, there is no way they would give up in their current circumstances.  They were safe, they had food and/or water, and they could communicate.  If it had been weeks in that situation, maybe, but not after only a couple of hours.  
As you may have guessed from the previews (like I did), or from Wahlberg's non-veiled comments on Conan O'Brien, The Happening refers to a simultaneous release of plant and tree spores with neurotoxins that are detrimental to humans.  This is in reaction to pollution and population density and is centered in the northeastern states.  Actually, this is plausible enough with scientific details based in fact.  What gets a bit out of hand is that this neurotoxin doesn't just cause brain damage or kill the inhaler.  It causes you to 1) repeat yourself; 2) halt then walk backwards a few steps; and 3) kill yourself in some horrifying and unimaginable way.  
Here is where Shyamalan's past belies this film.   He hit the jackpot, not only financially but with audiences when he told the story of a little boy who could talk to ghosts.  The scares of "The Sixth Sense" were not based in gore or cheap thrills.  Instead he took a minimal approach of suggestion.  In the first major fright of the film he has three shots in succession: a scared boy standing at the end of a hallway, a thermostat drop temperature quickly, and a housecoat flap by.  It was at this point I left my skin, and my seat, along with the two friends I was with.
"The Happening" using none of this economy of image.  Shyamalan decides to show a girl puncture her neck with her own hair stick, a man fly through a windshield and splat on the ground, and a man turn on a lawnmower and lay down in front of it.  Perhaps he was relying on the fact that these are uncommon paths to destruction and therefore more meaningful to view.  Perhaps he intended to shock the audience into the horror that awaits humanity if they refuse to alter their ways.  If so, he missed the mark.  It made the film more schlocky, unrealistic.  It took it out of the realm of believable and into the world of cheap zombie flick.  
Neither did Shyamalan get the usual performances out of his actors.  He discovered Haley Joel Osment, revived the career Bruce Willis and showcased Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti.  Here, Mark Wahlberg is not up to snuff, and neither is Deschanel, who are both very capable actors.  Leguizamo plays a smaller role and is even more sniveling than usual.  There is some nice camerawork by veteran DP Tak Fujimoto and moments where Shyamalan's old stuff shines through (i.e. when the camera is trained on two, peaceful old trees while we hear toxin victims shooting themselves one by one).  
This is not a great film by any standard and is certainly no where near Shyamalan's best.

09 June 2008

Son of Rambow

This little gem will sit and rot out in the multiplex for a week before being swept aside for the next big blockbuster. But if it came to your town, do go see it.
It's a sweet, nostalgic tale of childhood, imagination and growing up. Set in 1980s Britain (rural, not London) two school boys become unlikely chums. Lee Carter is a clever troublemaker, and Will is quiet and helpful -- and forbidden to watch TV, along with other strictures due to his neo-Puritan upbringing. Quite by accident, Will sees Rambo: First Blood and is completely enchanted with it. Lee, who had already decided to enter something into the BBC's young filmmaker's contest, pairs up with Will and the two make their our version of the action classic, dubbing it Son of Rambow.
The film follows the ups and downs of friendship between the two unlike companions, but more impressively, it views the world from a child's perspective without reducing it to naivete. Both of these characters are dealing with very stressful situations in their family life and do so with admirable maturity. The film also weaves subtle details into the plot which surround a child's imagination. Things mentioned earlier, arrive later, in a more colorful and outrageous form. As it should, it reminds one of their own childhood and the strange things they used to do to amuse themselves.
The only shortfall is about three-quarters of the way into the film when Lee and Will's friendship is on the rocks. There are three contiguous scenes which deal with one apologizing to the other and vice versa. Theses are strung together with nothing in between where we might understand what was being apologized for, or what had transpired to induce the other to seek forgiveness. It does pick itself up and get back on track, however, for a lovely final scene.
Both young men are very good actors and the supporting cast was also very strong. If only there were more films like this, to remind us of ourselves when we had no idea how to be embarrassed or afraid of being thought silly.