About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Happening

Seen Saturday evening June 28 at the Regal Kaufman Astoria 14, auditorium #13. 2 slithy toads? Or 0? Or 4?

So getting back to what I said about French films in my last post, here we have a movie from a genuine American auteur that's been totally dumped on and disrespected.

Is it a good film? Not sure that it is, or why anyone should see it. Is it a bad film? In an ocean of movies without craft or ambition this has plenty of both. Like A.I., it's a failed movie which no true student of American cinema should miss. It makes it very hard to know how many toads to give it.

So let's try and give this some of the serious (& spoiler-filled) analysis that too few of the reviews have had.

A. This is a clear departure for the auteur, M. Knight Shyamalan, whose Lady in the Water I have missed but whose work I've otherwise seen from Sixth Sense forward. There are no secrets at the end, no sudden reveals. The plants are doing it. It's a thing of nature. It can't entirely be explained. We're no more than a third of the way through and maybe even much less because all of this is made abundantly clear.

B. It isn't a horror movie, or is at least as much a horror movie as Kubrick's The Shining is a horror movie, only with even less blood. Kubrick bathes his masterpiece in the red stuff, while Shyamalan might even be too sparing with his. One reviewer I read commented on a line in the first few minutes "I think those people are clawing themselves," and hopped on the show v tell thing. Um, does this reviewer not notice that Shyamalan spends the entire movie showing less blood than he could? People kill themselves off the top of the frame or off-screen entirely. When it's established in one scene that the suiciders will pick up any gun at hand, all we get in the next scene similar is the sound of the gunshots. We can fill in the rest.

C. So as much as anything, it's a mood piece or a tone poem.

D. There's an entire other level of subtext beyond what everyone is noticing. On the main level, it's the plants. Humanity is getting to be too much for the plants, and they decide to do something about it, emitting something into the air that interferes with our self-destruction taboos. But... In the schoolroom scene in Mark Wahlberg's class, he harps on some matinee idol in the class. He's told to pay more attention in class because the nose will keep growing, the ears will keep growing, he might look perfect at 15, but what's he going to look like at 20? Is he sure he wants to just rely on his good lucks. This line is delivered by a totally deglamorized Mark Wahlberg. You know, Mark Wahlberg, aka Marky Mark, aka the guy in the Calvin Klein ads. Those were a long time ago, and he ain't gonna be that guy again, but does he have to look quite as common as he does here? The hair, the clothes, the hint of Rain Man. Wahlberg immediately hooks up with another teacher played by John Leguizamo, who was not too long ago a hot young Latino. Not here. It's like in Rocky, if Rocky had told Adrian to bun up her hair and put her glasses back on and reverse Pygmalioned her. Awful looking glasses, kind of like the ones Myke Cole told me I should stop wearing. And he spends pretty much the entire movie with his face all scrunched up as if he's trying to age himself even more than the attire. And then completing the triumvurate, Zooey Deschanel is a hot young actress who is totally not hot, who's also wearing less than flattering clothes with an expression that does indeed suggest "stilted." As do many of the line readings and actions of all of these people. This can't all be an accident. This 90 minute movie doesn't spend several minutes on the appearance issue for the heck of it. It doesn't take glamor men like Wahlberg and Leguizamo and totally deglamorize and have them sounding stilted and false like this was a high school play and the first five choices for the lead all got suspended for smoking pot in the principal's office. But for goodness sake, what? What! What is the connection between this appeance thing and the Plants Attack! centerpiece? I could probably think of lots of interesting suggestions, but I consider Shyamalan's failure to find a good tie between Thing 1 and Thing 2 to be the movie's biggest failing. Anyone have any ideas?

E. The Betty Buckley character is another something that I don't think is working quite the way it's supposed to. There are some connections I can see between her and the rest of the movie. When she slaps at Jess' hand for taking what isn't hers and then offers here a cookie a minute later, can the Mother Nature parallel be any more obvious? Mother Nature gives us all kinds of things, but we get a little greedy and the whole movie is in macrocosm what that slap on Jess' hand is in microcosm. But where do we go from there? Is Mother Nature as crazy as the Betty Buckley character? Was there a rewrite at the end, because I'd swear when Buckley goes out and talks to the plants in her garden that we were around eight seconds away from being told that this crazy bat had spoken to the plants and ordered them to attack, and then somebody said "no no no no NO, you can't do another one of those silly twist endings" and so the movie went off in some other different direction that really doesn't make sense.

F. And the movie doesn't make sense. We need to find out more about the attack. How many people are immune? There's the CNN lady who's doing news from NYC after the attack has started, so is she immune or just not infected yet? There are lots of hints that not everyone would be taken under by this. And does the attack really go down so far as to be on groups of only one? If not, the Buckley ending makes no sense. If, then the "off to school" ending makes no sense. Because who is going to live in any of these cities in the Northeast after everything that's happened, where every park bench and every street and every swath of sidewalk is a killing ground.

G. So it's a failure, but one that deserves a lot more serious attention than it is getting. It's a movie I expect to be thinking about for rather a long time to come, and most of the movies I see you can't say that.

H. & 3 Cheers to Shyamalan and James Newton Howard. As with Indiana Jones, this is a movie that relies on instrumental scoring entirely. It's not as good as the score for The Village with its haunting violin solos by Hilary Hahn, but it's a companion piece to it with some wonderful solo work on cello by Maya Beiser.

I. & seeing this movie on the last Saturday in June 2008 can't help but turn me back a little teary-eyed to that last Friday in July when I saw The Village on the final opening night at my beloved Loews Astor Plaza. A lot of people didn't like The Village; I liked it quite a bit and not just (I don't think) because of the circumstances of my seeing it. But that being said, I don't think there was ever a movie I saw at the Astor Plaza that didn't become a little bit better for being seen there. Shyamalan's Unbreakable was also the last movie to play the UA Syosset; I made a special trip out to Long Island to see the movie there because I liked to do that every once in a while, and didn't know at the time that it was the Last Picture Show for that modern movie palace. I only wish that The Happening were the last movie I'd see at the godawful miserably designed execrescence of a movie theatre called the Kaufman Astoria 14. But we're four weeks and a few days shy of four years that the Loews Astor Plaza left my life, and I still miss it terribly. James Newton Howard and Hilary Hahn let its tweeters and woofers go out with style.


Lisa Iriarte said...

Well, I haven't seen The Happening, and after reading your review, I probably won't, not entirely because of what you said, but it reinforced my suspicion that it wouldn't be as good as some of Shyamalan's other films. I loved Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. I sat in the audience thinking, "I wish I'd written that." The Village wasn't my favorite, but I enjoyed it. If he is tending away from the twist ending, then I am losing interest.

I think the biggest clue I had that this one wouldn't be as good as his other work was the ad that marketed The Happening almost entirely on the merit that it was, "The first R-rated film from Shyamalan." The commercial said nothing about suspense, plot, or character development, just that it was rated R. Oooooh. An R rating can mean a lot of things. It doesn't necessarily make a film a good one.

Lisa Iriarte

EB said...

I agree with a lot of what you said. It definitely wasn't his best film, but it was thought-provoking, and I think the overall effect of the movie was more significant than the ins and outs of the plot.

As for the acting, this is where we disagree. I thought the cast succeeded in removing any element of glamor or exceptionalism from the characters. These were normal people, and we could have been in their position. They had problems with their marriage. They looked every bit as clueless about what was going on as we might have. Mark Wahlberg didn't stop the event from happening; he wasn't a hero. He got lucky, and that's why the three of them survived.

The characters looked and acted normally, and I thought that translated well onto the screen.

Tim Akers said...

I'm going to highjack your thread and ask you a question about books. Curious how that happens. Curiouser still is that you can just ignore it if you want, but whatever.

I was at my local B&N yesterday, and noticed a bunch of Mass Markets that were a good inch taller than the rest of the books. I asked ye local staffer, and she said that it was mostly happening on reprints, not so much on new titles, and looked to done so that they could get more words in fewer pages.


The Brillig Blogger said...

These are known as "premium edition" mass markets and have been around perhaps as long as 3 years. The larger size allows a slightly larger font size, which may make the books more attractive to some readers. The net effect is to have a product that can fit in mass market racks while offering some of the advantages of a trade paperback.