Monday, 23 June 2008

Did You See That? That. Just. Happened.(ing)

On Saturday a group of intrepid cinemagoers, comprising myself, Canyon, baggylettuce and decca (these are all our real names, btw), risked brain death by seeing The Happening, the last installment in M. Night Shyamalan's Career Destruction trilogy. If I had to judge between them, it was not as horrible as Lady In The Water, which was deranged and mean and vindictive and crushingly stupid, whereas The Happening was just bad and silly. As a former fan of Shyamalan, it was kinda bittersweet to see this nonsense play out in such an insipid, half-hearted fashion, and I have to admit I'm worried that my feelings about it have been coloured by the outpouring of negative reviews since its release (I gather press screenings were rare to non-existent). I mean, I really liked the premise, and remember getting excited about it a while back even though I had recently seen Lady In The Water and had been appalled. Sadly, that premise might be great, but really it's only as good as the execution, and that is where the pain comes in. Pain like this.

I'll be going into spoiler territory from now on, so back away if you don't want to know what happens, but believe me, the movie doesn't actually go anywhere. Here's a quick unspoilery wrap up. The principals are all terrible. There's less blood than in most 12/PG-rated movies. It's short but feels long. Nothing much happens. Tak Fujimoto takes some nice shots of trees under an oppressive pale sky. Respected Broadway actress Betty Buckley turns up in the final couple of reels and gives a memorable performance with almost Fiona-Shaw-in-The-Black-Dahlia levels of WTF. It's great. Nothing else is. It just sort of runs out of energy at about the 80 minute mark, and wraps up not long after that.

---------Here be spoilers------------

So why does it go wrong? It's mostly the direction, though the script squanders that terrific premise at every opportunity. I'm not a knee-jerk hater of Shyamalan, though. I have greatly enjoyed some of his movies, and even his failures often have something to like (Lady In The Water's photography by Christopher Doyle is stunning, and Shyamalan's compositions are lovely). He can do mood very well, and he can do suspense, and he can do dread. In fact, at some points of The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable (my personal favourite Shyamalan movie, a film I absolutely adore), there are moments that are as creepy and unsettling as anything Hideo Nakata has put on film.

I think even The Village approached that kind of calm fear, but sadly by then he has begun to drag the timing of those moments out too far. It's all in the amount of time you leave the audience dangling, and while comic timing relies on microseconds of pause, horror deals in seconds approaching minutes, and Shyamalan started making the audience wait way too long for release. The longer you have to look at people standing stock still with a goofy look on their face while a man in a red cloak with twigs for fingers wanders around in the background (for example), the fear turns to laughter, and by now Shyamalan has accidentally reset the timer in his head so that he can't judge where the horror/accidental humour line is.

In The Happening, nothing is scary. The timing is utterly haywire, and even if it was working, the scary elements are already too dumb to work with. I salute the man for being willing to risk ridicule to create his weird vision, but sadly it can go horribly wrong. The doofy looking alien getting killed with water and baseball bats at the end of Signs, the Menacing Cloakman from The Village, and my favourite of all, Freddy Rodriguez With A Rubber Arm in Lady In The Water; they all go just a little too far and end up looking silly. Add to that the unfortunate slow pace, which also makes Shyamalan's movies look pretentious and self-important, and it's impossible to take them seriously, especially when he seems to give his characters Stephen-King-style mannerisms and phrases, of which the best has to be Wahlberg's self-immolating "Be scientific, douchebag!"

While Lady In The Water is worse because it is also a temper-tantrum disguised as a kid's movie, The Happening is sillier and funnier because Shyamalan has created a movie where the characters are scared of the wind, and where 20% of the movie is shots of trees being as threatening as, well, trees. And not even creepy trees, just normal trees. It's just not scary. I live near trees and a large patch of grass (which is apparently endangered, so we're talking about potentially angry grass), and yesterday it was windy. I walked to the shops yesterday, and did I suddenly think, "Oh God, please don't kill me, foliage!"? Nope. Litmus test failed.

Yes, if you've not heard already, the central idea is that Gaia is pissed at humans, and its minions, aka plants, are trying to send a warning to us to straighten-up and fly right by using deadly suicide-inducing toxins to kill off large groups of people in order to make us think twice about polluting the planet. Or something. As the toxins only appear on the US East Coast and, at the end of the movie, Paris, it's possible they also hate liberals, museum-goers, and people who eat croissants. Does this mean that people living in desert countries are safe? Considering how bad the pollution in Texas is, it's not the most verdant of states, and so it might be left off the hook. And what if Al Gore was visiting New York? Stupid plants!

As we're talking about a completely different species here, one that cannot communicate with us, the motivations are unclear, which works on one level, and fails on another, namely that the film seems to think that because science cannot answer everything, it's not really the answer to our problems, that some things are bigger than us. I'm not sure that was Shyamalan's goal, though his reliance on wishy-washy spiritualism tends to suggest he does. The finale, which features a scientist on TV having his theories of deadly plants dismissed by some gobshite pundit, was especially annoying. It's fair to say that it would be pretty easy to prove plants did it, but instead Shyamalan has a heavy-handed point to be make about post-9/11 paranoia and how it is making people irrational (a point made with much greater effect in The Mist).

So, that's silly, but what about the chilling effects of the toxin? There was real potential there for some creepy moments, but they only work once or twice (the weird headbutting attacks of the crazy old lady at the end of the film were half-horrible, half-hilarious). Some have asked why the toxins make people kill themselves and not just go on a rampage, which is more dramatic, but Shyamalan has to maintain that deathly pace, and 28 Days Later-style chaos would not work (plus we've seen stuff like that before, as far back as early Cronenberg and Romero films). The very very slow suicides we see here are in keeping with his usual style, even though his much-vaunted R-rated horror events translate into a bit of blood-spurting and quick cuts away from the actual moment of death, just in case we get mortally upset by the sight of nasty things. While I'm not saying the movie would have been improved by gore dripping from the lens, the cowardice of it seems to hint that Shyamalan has lost the ability to deal with adults and adult themes.

Compare the squeamishness here with Unbreakable, which featured a violent, murdering sadist, as well as a nausea-inducing scene with Samuel L. Jackson breaking most of his bones as he falls down a flight of stairs. That moment, with the brittle-boned Mr. Glass tumbling down an endlessly long staircase, was preceded by a shot of his glass cane hitting the floor and breaking into hundreds of pieces, and I suspect the current Shyamalan would have just shown that. An admittedly elegant way to avoid nastiness, but the original scene is incredible, horrifying, utterly visceral. Going with the single shot of his cane might let the scene work on the nerves of the audience by making them imagine it, but could they come up with anything as horrifying as what actually happens in the scene? It's something that critics agonise about, whether it's right to show the horror or not, but certainly in the case of The Happening, it really needs something more than the vanilla violence we get. Without a frisson of menace in the movie, a sense of the scale of what is happening and the toll it is taking on everyone, there is no movie there. The odd shot of corpses dangling from trees aside, it's devoid of power. Plus, the sight of groups of people walking slowly backwards would destroy even Hitchcock-level suspense.

Unbreakable also featured moments of relationship drama that seemed kinda stilted (in the way that Shyamalan's conversation scenes often do) and yet still real, as Bruce Willis' superheroic character tries to reconnect with his son and wife. The new Shyamalan now has Zooey Deschanel inexplicably being seemingly autistic, and having a torrid affair behind Mark Wahlberg's back with someone called Joey that drives her almost insane with guilt. Well, I say "torrid affair", when actually I mean "innocent meeting which involved eating some tiramisu". That's the extent of her infidelity. Oh, and who plays Joey? His one word of dialogue, on the phone, is spoken by Shyamalan himself. So, not only is he the most important writer who ever lived in Lady In The Water, he's also hott enough to make Zooey "Blank" Deschanel consider straying from Mark Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg, people! That's some hottness Shyamalan's got right there.

So it's bad. It's really really bad. But I still like that central idea, and think it could, somehow, have been turned into a better movie if not held back by the hubris and self-regarding idiocy of its creator. After seeing it, we ate some sausage and mash and came up with some ways in which it would have been a better movie, and this is what we reckon.

  • At several stages throughout the movie, Mark Wahlberg rattles on and on about his mood ring, which is what he used to woo Zooey all those years before. It goes nowhere, except to give them something to talk about later when reconciling. Instead, considering the plants are silently trying to kill humanity, Wahlberg could try to communicate with them by putting the ring on a tree branch and asking it what it wants, with the colours of the ring being the responses. (I actually thought this would happen, so clearly was it telegraphed).
  • When people get encrazied by the toxins, they sometimes repeat things or say nonsensical phrases, of which my favourite was, "Calculus! Calculus!" At the end, I was really hoping the French crazies would refer to, "Le Calculus!" Instead, Shyamalan uses his first grade French to have the guy say, "Mon bicyclette", which is not as surreal, and not in keeping with the film's peculiar anti-science slant (ironic considering Wahlberg saves everyone by using science, the douchebag).
  • Only one plant wants to help humanity; marijuana! The crazy old lady is growing it under hot lamps in her basement, and our heroes smoke up a big bag of it, thus making them immune to the toxins.
  • The weird hotdog man has hotdog trees in his greenhouse, like in Pee-Wee's Big Top.
  • Change the title to "Did Gaia Just Fart On My Face?"
  • As soon as Wahlberg has decided it really is the plants killing humans with deathcooties, he should liberally use the word "Grassassins".
  • Trees and shrubs = boring. Ents and triffids = awesome. More of that, please.
  • Zooey Deschanel's reveal of her "torrid affair" with Joey and his elaborate desserts is obviously meant to be a big deal, though all it does show is that our heroes have the emotional maturity of Smurfs. Wahlberg's response to her reveal, that he had recently bought cough syrup from an attractive woman in a pharmacy even though he didn't even have a cough, is cloyingly vanilla (certainly in the middle of a ZOMG R-Rated movie!!!), so it might have worked better if, when Zooey Deschanel asks, "Is that true?" Wahlberg said, "No. Actually I went back behind the counter and banged the shit out of her for three hours straight, and it was awesome, and then we covered ourselves with cough syrup, and we was humping and just rollin' around in 'Tussin! It was so much better than all that cuddling we do. However, ironically, I've had a cough ever since."
  • Most importantly, what about explaining why John Lequizamo hates Zooey Deschanel so much. He's relentlessly nasty and hostile just because she's a bit distant? I can agree, it annoyed us a lot, but still, we wouldn't be nasty to her. She has such a lovely singing voice, after all.
  • That said, why were her pupils so small? Canyon wondered if she has glaucoma or something. Hopefully she'll have that seen to.
  • The actual Happening itself ends with the plants deciding to stop being deadly at a specific time, thus making the events of the movie nothing more than a warning, a prelude to another, deadlier attack. That only even slightly works because our heroes, who are separated from each other in different buildings but able to communicate thanks to a tube running between them (a tube that is mentioned earlier with the clumsiest exposition of the year), decide to end it all by walking out into the deadly grass, even though they have an innocent child with them, only for the Happening to stop happening, thus saving them at the last second. Bullshit. If I'd made this movie, an enormous rock head would have risen from the ground, a manifestation of Gaia that just happens to look exactly like James Lovelock, and as our heroes watch, terrified, its huge stony mouth opens, and says, "Don't tread on me, man!' Whoa.

  • I also thought about creating a Happening drinking game, but it seems Film School Rejects has beaten me to it, but there is scope to expand it a bit. Take a gulp of booze whenever:
  • Tree moves (two gulps if it is plastic and inside a house with no visible draft).
  • Someone is improbably mean to someone else for no reason (two gulps if no one does anything about it). This includes Deschanel's relentless snippiness towards Wahlberg.
  • A vaguely scary moment gets dragged out too long and ruins the suspense (two gulps if someone half opens a door and waits to open it the rest of the way, just to drag it out longer).
  • Someone unleashes a stream of ugly exposition because the writer/director has forgotten how to tell a story visually.
  • Mark Wahlberg uses science like a douchebag (two gulps if no one listens to him).
  • Someone is about to die horribly, and the shot cuts away right at the last second (four gulps if you actually see something unpleasant).
  • Someone says they can't contact anyone anywhere, which is a great trailer shot that makes it seem like the world is ending, but in actual fact the majority of the world is just fine and contact is re-established in the next scene.
  • Mark Wahlberg says, "Event," or, "Happening" in a sentence (this might actually overload your liver).

  • Three gulps if:
  • Mark Wahlberg's voice goes weirdly high for no reason.
  • Hotdogs are mentioned.
  • John Leguizamo uses math, douchebag.
  • A child talks like an adult.
  • Someone on TV overacts terribly.

  • Finish your drink if:
  • Someone screams at the camera and waves their fist at it.
  • You realise you could be watching The Birds or Spielberg's War of the Worlds instead, as this is practically the same film, except neutered and stupid.
  • A character, who knows plants are deadly, has plants in her house just so there can be some contrived tension in the final scene.
  • You realise Stephen King has written a dozen books that are just like this, but you enjoyed those even with his weird authorial quirks.
  • You expect that the negativity surrounding this film severely dents the chances of Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of the novel Blindness making money in the US as it's kinda similar.

  • Finish all the drinks in your house if:
  • You find out that even though it has a terrible reputation, and people thought it would fail horribly, it's actually well on its way to becoming profitable, mostly because it's relatively cheap for a summer film and groups of people are going to see it because they heard it was this year's Wicker Man. Which it almost is. Though there are a notable absence of BEES! BEES IN MY EYES! GRARGLE BLURG FLUMF!

  • That's right, people. Looks like we'll still be getting a very very slow-moving version of Avatar: The Last Airbender after all.


    sjwoo said...

    The last Night film I saw was The Village, which I actually didn't think was so bad. (Yes, it was bad...but not horrible...right?) Seems like what's been happening with his films is that even when they aren't so terrible, they get beaten down. It started with Unbreakble (which I also liked a lot -- all those extended, continuous shots; it's also probably the quietest superhero film in existence). With every movie, people expected him to screw up, and it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

    The Sixth Sense was a great movie, from start to finish, and that's probably hurt Night more than anything else, that on his first big-budget film, he hit a grand slam.

    Night needs to hook up with a good screenwriter. He needs to get away from himself. I thought he might make that choice himself, but from the way things are looking, the choice may be made for him by the studio.

    Admiral Neck said...

    I've written yet another post about Shyamalan, which I was in the middle of doing when you posted, so some of your points are covered there, if tangentially.

    The Village was not such a bad movie, other than the fact that the surprise at the end is blatantly obvious even from a quick precis, which makes the journey to that finale even more of a humourless slog than it already is. That said, I didn't hate the first half of it, Bryce Dallas Howard is wonderful, and with King Deakins on photography, it's better looking than almost every other film ever made. It's just that it amounts to nothing. Though, compared to Lady In The Water and The Happening, it is a much more attractive proposition.

    I also liked most of Signs, until the final act (an opinion I've heard elsewhere), but after that, I've got big problems with his movies. I like his style, and I like his way with visuals, and I even like the pace, when it's not stretched out too much, but that's not enough. He has no impulse control, his timing sucks, his ideas are getting flimsier, his storytelling is becoming more and more laboured.

    So why keep watching his films? Mostly because I have enough residual fondness for his earlier films to last a while longer, and also because, as I said in my more recent post, he still has some talent, as the original script for The Happening proves (to me, at least). Whether he can get past his self-indulgence and create something truly great again is another thing, though.