[Movie Review] The Happening

The HappeningStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo

Director: M Night Shyamalan

Genre: Sci-Fi

Cert: 15

Released: 2008


My only ambition for “The Happening”, having failed to sit through director M Night Shyamalan’s previous outings “The Village” and “Lady in the Water”, was to see the closing credits roll .  The decreasing level of entertainment derived from Shyamalan’s work (which started so well with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”) has been utterly alarming.  But with a strong cast on board for “The Happening” and a mysterious premise (as is typical) my hopes were a little higher than in recent years.

Science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is teaching his classroom about “unexplained acts of nature” when news breaks that people in New York’s Central Park have started committing suicide in broad daylight.  As the unexplained phenomenon starts spreading across the city, Elliot, his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow-teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), board a train to Philadelphia only for it to stop permanently in the tiny town of Filbert because the conductor has lost contact with “everyone”.

The train passengers learn that the phenomenon has continued to spread across the north-east so everybody starts to flee.  Julian decides to get a lift to Princeton where his wife has headed so he leaves Jess with Elliot and Alma.  They meet a colourful couple (Frank Collison and Victoria Clark) who suspect that it is the plants, trees and bushes that are attacking man because they have the ability to do so (apparently).  It soon becomes clear that they are running out of places to go and after meeting several more groups of refugees they start a trek across the countryside on foot in an effort to escape this “act of nature”.

To offer any more plot synopsis would really be stretching my own patience.  The basic premise of this movie is that something unexplained is happening and the onus seems to be on the constantly-confused looking Mark Wahlberg to use his grounding in science to figure it out (it’s a good thing the main protagonist wasn’t a gym teacher or deli counter salesperson or else we’d have gotten nowhere).

I admire Shyamalan as a director but his writing has left a lot to be desired recently.  Just because he writes science-fiction doesn’t mean the film has to be devoid of logic and fact.  Mark Wahlberg is done over twice by being badly miscast and being given some absolutely ludicrous dialogue that is more about pushing the writer’s spiritual agenda than making a believable movie.  How many science teachers talk about the different “energy” colours that can be recorded by camera or “acts of nature” that we’ll never fully understand?   This flies completely in the face of what science is all about.

Then there’s the neuroticism of Alma, distant from Elliot and distracted by constant phone calls from someone called Joey.  The ensuing focus on her relationship with Elliot predictably becomes the tool that Shyamalan uses to drive home the central message.  It’s all very poorly acted and full of improbable scenes.

By the end (which somehow feels empty in spite of being well-crafted) your complete indifference for the central characters only amplify what a poor, unfocused mess this movie is.  Shyamalan made two cracking films (plus a slight nod of the cap to “Signs”) before strangling his visual ideas with ludicrously boring scripts.

How good was it to see Alan Ruck though?

1halfstar

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[Movie Review] Signs

Signs

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama
Cert: 12
Released: 2002

After a tepid start to his movie career (1992’s “Praying with Anger and 1998’s “Wide Awake”), director M Night Shyamalan was afford the chance to make his breakthrough with 1999’s surprise hit, “The Sixth Sense”. When his audience failed to acclaim his under-rated follow-up “Unbreakable” with the same awe, Shyamalan did not veer from his blueprint for movie-making, and subsequently his latest supernatural release, “Signs” has been eagerly anticipated for some time.

Graham Hess (Gibson – “What Women Want”, “Braveheart”) lost his faith when he lost his wife (Patricia Kalember- “Jacobs Ladder”, “Fletch Lives”) in a car accident. Now the former Reverend lives on his farm with his two kids Bo and Morgan (Breslin and Culkin) and his brother Merrill (Phoenix – “8MM”, “Gladiator”). One morning he discovers crop circles on his land and immediately suspects that someone in the town is responsible. Within hours the TV is full of similar scenes from around the world and it soon becomes clear that the episode is a prelude to an alien invasion. Feeling unsure in an uncertain time, and defenceless without his belief system of the past, Graham attempts to reassure his family that everything will be ok with or without God. But will it?

Although it is a familiar celuloid blueprint at this point, Shyamalan’s movies continue to impress. While the story might not be quite as strong as his previous two outings, the film-making itself is becoming more intricate and thought-provoking. The characterisation is notably strong here, carried forward with wonderful subtlety by Gibson and re-inforced through the helplessness of Phoenix and the determined vulnerability of Culkin and Breslin. It’s actually Rory ‘Brother of Macaulay’ Culkin who surprises the most here, showing a lot more potential than his older brother did at his age. Credit again to Shyamalan who seems capable of making child stars on demand.

If the supernatural subject matter of his previous movies scared you, then the aliens should work similarly. News of the alien arrivals are shown through live TV footage of lights in the sky and an eerie home video of a hideous creature captured in South America. The only actual news outside of these jumbled newsreels comes via hearsay, opinion and theory – the end of the world is coming.

The tension is interspersed with helpings of comedy, occasionally out of place but a welcome angle from Shyamalan. The usual flashbacks, especially in the last ten minutes, help piece together vital information at the right times, and when it all falls into place you smile knowingly. If the twists do not quite have the impact of “The Sixth Sense”, you can forgive Shyamalan for creating such lofty heights for himself.

Although some viewers probably won’t read beyond the alien invasion story, Shyamalan’s work is once again deeper than it appears. He has investigated most supernatural themes at this point, so one wondes what the director will try next time. Too popular to be a cult favourite, Shyamalan is due to be remembered for simply a maker of clever and entertaining pictures.

3halfstar

[Movie Review] The Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense

Starring: Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 15
Released: 1999

Willis plays award winning child psychologist, Malcom Crowe. In the midst of celebrating his achievement with his adoring wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), he is confronted in his home by former patient, Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg) who claims that Crowe failed to help him at all and actually ruined his life. Grey then commits suicide in front of them.

Struggling to cope with the guilt, and desperately seeking redemption for his mistake, Crowe undertakes to help another young patient, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who shows similar symptoms to Grey. Malcom finds though that standard psychology training can not prepare him for helping Cole, whose problem proves not to be of the world that Crowe knows, and he is forced to take a leap of faith in order to help not just Cole, but himself.

M Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller is nothing short of brilliant.  The horror elements of the story, of which the backbone of the movie is built on, are not elaborated on by using special effects or gore but rather by the power of dialogue, direction and suggestion – your mind does the work.

5star