Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few filmmakers whose films have gotten consistently worse throughout his career.

The Sixth Sense, his feature film debut, was a phenomenon. It scared and it shocked. It was genuine, original and practically demanded repeat viewings. His follow-up, Unbreakable, was equally good but suffered from a flat, half-hearted ending. Signs, a box office smash, had its creepy good moments, but its convenient, lackluster ending frustrated viewers. Now we take a turn for the worst. The Village was tired, boring, predictable and way to into itself; Shyamalan’s ego began to get the best of him. Similar with Lady in the Water, the what-the-hell-are-they-talking-about, PG-13 rated children’s mystery.

Now we have The Happening, by far Shyamalan’s most bizarre, egotistical feature. Its interesting premise is shot to shit by overacting and (again) convenient sequences. The beginning begs to lead to a promising feature: on a crowded Central Park morning, people suddenly became disoriented, lose speech, then kill themselves. This happens again at a construction site (our first hint that this film is not going to deliver, due to untactful echoes of 9/11). But then we cut to a science classroom in Philadelphia, and all is lost.

Mark Wahlberg, a tremendous actor, is simply terrible in this film. His voice never leaves that high-pitched, perplexed state, his face has only one emotion no matter the scene and his believability is completely absent. My only guess, given his stellar performances in Boogie Nights, Three Kings and The Departed, is that Wahlberg was directed poorly. I believe Shyamalan told him to act like a lost, confused little puppy throughout the entire shoot.

Similar to virtually everyone else in the cast. Talented Zooey Deschanel looks like she doesn’t know where she is, John Leguizamo (why cast him in the first place?) isn’t convincing in the slightest, and Ashlyn Sanchez (the girl with the invisible cloak in Crash) is nearly mute.

With every Shyamalan film, you have to be willing to accept what he is giving you. You have to believe that a kid can see dead people, or that a man is invincible, or aliens exists and so on. But The Happening has so many plot holes, that you won’t even bother to play along.

Shyamalan ditched his trademark twist-ending after The Village flopped, but that is no cause for the characters figuring out the entire film 25 minutes into it, offering a lame explanation that’s just thrown out there and never contested.

With a film this preposterous, you’ll think you’re watching an old B-movie or a campy Twilight Zone episode (which probably would’ve worked if Shyamalan played his cards right). But The Happening wants you to take it very seriously. But believe me, you won’t care less. D-

The Incredible Hulk

The first 20 minutes are pretty cool. A white man (Edward Norton) is hiding out in a City of God-like place. He is trying to develop a cure for a disease rooted in his blood. The military tracks him down and we are given a breathtaking, rooftop chase a la The Bourne Ultimatum.

But we all know what’s going to happen next, and in fact, once the Hulk comes out of his shell, we wish Norton would come back. As Bruce Banner, Norton gives yet another consistently thorough performance. No matter the genre, Norton has proved that he is one of our best living actors. His face full of complexity and turmoil, his believability stunning through his yearning for lost love.

The Incredible Hulk directed by Transporter vet Louis Leterrier has thrilling action scenes and solid performances, but it may not live up to the hype. Liv Tyler, her career getting a boost with The Strangers and now this, is a good match for Banner as Betty Ross. Her father, the general, played by William Hurt carries a convincing scowl, as does Tim Roth, who develops an envious hatred for Banner.

The effects are good, and the setting (like a college campus) is refreshing in its destruction. But the question everyone wants to know is if this Hulk is better than that other Hulk a few years ago. The simply answer is yes.

Ang Lee’s much more talkative Hulk suffered from okay performances and a comic-book narrative that never really paid off. It had its decent moments, but its flaws got the best of it. Similar to Leterrier’s version, because the third act of his film takes a turn for the worst.

I’m not sure what the hell is going on here, but once Tim Blake Nelson’s manic doctor gives Roth a little hulk boost, the film completely switches gears. It begins to doubt itself and resort back to clich├ęd action-film faux pas.

Much has been made about the controversy surrounding the final version of this film. Norton and Leterrier didn’t get the final cut they wanted (they wanted it longer) but the studio wanted something faster. I’d be curious to know how much of a difference the long version would make. Would it fill in those monstrous plot holes left by the third act? We’ll have to wait for a director’s cut DVD to judge.

The best part of this film is the cameos. Old TV Hulks Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno have spirited moments. But it’s Robert Downey Jr. briefly reprising his Iron Man, Tony Stark character that gets us excited. Watch the way Downey Jr. strolls into a seedy bar, lifting his leg up with an effortless, playful bravado. For a moment we’re reminded of his revolutionary performance a view months ago, and given a glimpse that there may be more to come. B-

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Strangers

Much in the way of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, The Strangers is a non-conventional horror film about maniacs who like to terrorize people and give no motive what so ever.

Forget the blood and guts garbage that is Saw and Hostel, this is the shit that really sends chills up your spine.

From the opening disclaimers, “true story, date and setting, events unknown” the film wants you to know that it is not just a movie, that this could, and has, happened before. How much of it is true I couldn’t say, film’s take liberties with the “based on a true story” tagline. Director Bryan Bertino has said that he took the plot from his own life experiences and mixed them with the stories of Charles Manson’s “Family”. Either way, The Strangers plants a seed of haunting familiarity.

Kristen (Liv Tyler) and her boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman) go to his reclusive, darkly lit summer home after a wedding reception. The interest of this film is what Bertino reveals through emotion. A tear down Tyler’s face hints that this is not a romantic, weekend getaway. This is not a perfect, fairy tale couple, they have real human problems and are about to be forced into real, yet hellacious, circumstances.

As the first act slowly (yet marvelously) develops, we sit in cold anticipation for the terror to begin. Unsettling camera work from Peter Sova keeps us on edge when suddenly a bang (not a knock) on the front door startles us out of our seats. James tells the blonde-haired girl that she has the wrong house. She leaves, but we know she will soon be back.

If you’ve seen the preview, then you’ve seen too much. In one bravado shot, Tyler, temporally alone in the house, smokes a cigarette in the living room as a masked man steps into frame, watching her move about the kitchen, waiting patiently for his moment of attack, only to retreat back into the unknown.

The three masked stalkers do everything in their power to haunt the couple. They bang, scrap, break glass, cut the lights and phones, anything to further the mayhem. Tyler, and Speedman in particular, are fantastic. The small details (Speedman doesn’t know how to assemble or load a shotgun) are completely believable causing us to sympathize for them.

So, why would you want to see this? Because it is something new. The blood is little, but the terror is thorough. Sure it retreats to some familiar, horror-movie antics (why does the female always fall down while running away?), but at 90 minutes, first time director Bertino keeps his film fast, fierce and refreshingly scary. B+

Sex and the City: The Movie

Let’s talk about Sex. Those of you (mostly women, I’ll assume) who swore by HBO’s hit series can find comfort in the latest emotional ups and downs of Carrie and Co. It’s been four years since the show ended and the film wastes no time catching us up.

Where we left off: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her longtime flame Mr. Big (Chris Noth) proclaimed their undying love for one another. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) moved to Brooklyn with companion Steve and their son. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) found a lasting love in television actor Smith (Jason Lewis), and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) was living happily ever after with husband Harry and their newly adapted baby.

Where we are now: In the four years since the show ended, Carrie is now a published and popular book writer. She is still with Big and they are still happy. Miranda is still working too hard as a lawyer, taking her work home with her far too often (like… no sex in six months too often), Samantha lives in Hollywood working as Smith’s manager, and Charlotte, well, she lives happily ever after with husband Harry and their now older adapted child.

Where the conflict is: Carrie and Big get a swank, 5th Avenue pad, and decide to get married. Steve tells Miranda about a slip, Samantha misses New York and is sexually frustrated (“We’re going to be one of those couples that only has sex three or four times a week.”), and Charlotte, well, she gets what she’s always wanted in her happy ever after fairy tale life.

The good news is that fans of the show will like getting more of the same. The bad news is that it is just too damn long. We are used to watching a 22 minute episode, and when that is bumped up to a two and half hour movie, well, it can wear and tear at your patience. The film is basically five episodes viewed back to back, spanning a year in the lives of your favorite women.

Series writer Michael Patrick King directs the film with the same sensibilities as the series; meaning, the women are great, particularly Parker who has never seemed more comfortable as an actress than playing Carrie in Milanos.

Sex and the City the TV show was full of spunk and raging wit. The film has that, but in a dragged out, endurance -testing format. Where the show thrived on unique storytelling, the film boils down to basic chick-flick formula, not too many surprises are given; even the most dedicated fans could find themselves wanting more.

Given the film’s monstrous first weekend box office gross ($55.7 million for an R-rated film is amazing, $55.7 million for an R-rated chick flick is unheard of) I expect that you will be seeing a lot more Sex, sooner rather than later. B-