The Happening

Scene: A man approaches a young couple and asks:

"You look like a happy couple. Are you?"

Woman: (smiling, nodding) "Yeah."

"So, uh, how do account for it?"

Woman: "Uhh.. .I'm very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say."
Man: "And I'm exactly the same way"

Annie Hall)

I've been thinking about this scene a lot lately. One of my favorite moments from one the great movies of all time. It speaks hilariously to a phenomenon which has surely only grown more widespread since Annie Hall's release in 1977: the sad, overwhelming stupification of the American masses. The Happening arrives on a mainstream American movie scene awash in a dead sea of mediocrity. Television shows and video games are the creative fodder for one in every three Hollywood hits, with the rest stemming from a soft but steady diet of sequels, prequels, and not-so-new stabs at old genres. Meanwhile, directors like M. Night Shamalan, claiming to be outsiders, sit idly by and bemoan "the death of the cinema." Positing itself as set apart from this tide of detritus, The Happening actually rests comfortably and depressingly within it, skimming the surface and settling in nicely with the rest of this summer's usual duds. The only thing distinguishing The Happening from the rest of the heap is that it also officially signals the end of one man's career.

Watching Shamalan's new film, I found myself scrutinizing all the things I ever liked about his movies in the first place, and discovered that very little holds up anymore. Right from the start, James Newton Howard's score, all angry violins and trumpet blasts, which to my ear used to evoke Bernard Herrmann, now just feels redundant and cheap. Before long, Shamalan's poking away at our fear of the unknown, another of his usual suspects. Then, as it always does, something "happens." Panic. Peoples staring at TVs. Staring at phones. Once more to the well.

Let me be absolutely clear: I fucking hate Mark Wahlberg. . so much. That being said, I have concluded with some disbelief that he has never been worse, nor has he ever had to play such an unlikeable loser of a character. John Leguizamo, playing his math teaching co-worker, honestly looks like the second coming of Olivier by comparison. His performance, the only one in the entire film which seems to express real, human emotion, is the Elmer's glue barely keeping the film from falling to the floor right from the start. But it doesn't last, which is to say (SPOILER alert, although they probably give it away in one of the trailers, anyway) the movie, like Leguizamo, dies in the first reel.

Zooey Deschanel, a reliable indie-flick face (and the bait that helped me get over Wahlberg when I heard about the casting) gets blindsided into playing Wahlberg's distant, immature and possibly unfaithful (who could blame her) idiot of a wife. Even the countless closeups of her gorgeous eyes can't save her from the vapidity of Shamalan's script. She gives a performance more awful and unfocused than I ever imagined she was capable of. And when the couples few moments of paper-thin, forced relationship drama unspool, they are laughable. Eventually, one must throw their hands up and realize that these are not even characters. They are caricatures of characters. Together, Wahlberg, Deschanel and a catatonic kid stowaway left over from Leguizamo's demise combine to form perhaps the most unappealing movie ensemble of this or any year.

By now you know the cockamamie nuts and bolts of the "terror"; it's being caused by plants. Maybe. At least that's what the hillbilly gardener they encounter on the road thinks, so the movie picks up and runs with it. The Happening's villain is the Earth. And while we all can surely grasp the concept of eco-terror and appreciate Shamalan's obvious point of view, a defensible concept does not a good film make. What I thought would turn out to be an extended poo-pooing of the disconectedness of people in the internet age instead becomes an incoherent mess of vague eco-babble designed to hammer home an idea that any sixth grader could already spew out verbatim: we poisoned the earth and now it's sad. Every point the The Happening attempts and fails to make has already been stated convincingly (and by better filmmakers) elsewhere.

In other words: The Happening is irredeemably bad. Shamalan writes dialog like an eighth grader, and the deaths he comes up with are equally childish and lame. Given his first chance to play with an R rating, Shamalan clearly has no idea what to do with it. He somehow finds a way to make even gratuitous death seem uninteresting, and panic seem fake. Cautionary tales tend to work best when the teller can actually explain why there is a need for caution. But Shamalan seems content simply to make up a silly story and try to force it down your throat as realistic and scary. It comes off as trite and funny instead, and (worst of all,) unentertaining. He loves to write dialog for newscasters, which is the cheapest method of exposition imaginable. And he directs actors like a retarded Roger Corman, which is to say, he doesn't. This is the worst kind of empty exploitation. When the movie arrives at one of it's final resting places (an old farm house with a strange inhabitant,) and the three refugees, having just pilgrimaged bedraggled through miles of rural Pennsylvania, still manage somehow to produce a change of clothes, I just felt insulted. Part of my brain would like to know what you were thinking, Night. But part of me just doesn't care.

With The Happening, Shamalan at last completes his epic nosedive from Time Magazine wunderkind to complete and total irrelevance. I have cautiously stood by his side since Unbreakable, but this movie alone deserves all the vitriol that has ever been spewed at him and more. Damn you, sir. I will no longer be your sole surviving apologist. You are challenging, no doubt, and that is good. But your challenges no longer deserve to be met. You insult me with your upper-class, holier-than-thou suburban bravado. I took those science classes, too, pal. We all did. Turns out I actually liked you better when you didn't have the balls to stick to your guns. Now instead of pulling the big punches, you pull none. Oh, except for the ending, which is more painfully gutless than anything that has come before it. Turns out the punches you throw are all whiffs. Maybe you should work in TV or something.

The only thing I can remotely connect with in this film is the hopeless, apocalyptic feel it manages to convey. That something horrible is approaching. That humanity has doomed itself. This is another in a growing list of films which plumbs this milleau (see also: Encounters at the End of the World,) and Night's version is surely horrifying and effective, but perhaps for reasons that he did not intend. For only the emptiest heads could be convinced by this cheap, phony stab at an Inconvenient Terror. Only people as dim and hopeless as his cast of characters could manage to see eye to eye with this story and it's hokey, spineless methods. Is Night awkwardly pandering to these fools, who (perhaps not coincidentally) still go to see his films? Or, more likely, is he revealing himself as one of them?

Even humanity's worst moments of helplessness and failure bring with them a faint glimmer of newness, and of queasy new beginnings ahead. But in the end, all Shamalan's yarn leaves us with is the same dead souls inhabiting the same dead world, the same newscasters squawking on the idiot box, the same trees, the same grass. Our resilience is false, he says. We are doomed. I'm not ready to buy into that just yet, but for everyone who is, The Happening is just for you. Have fun awaiting your inevitable demise. In the meantime, M. Night Shamalan will surely dump a few more films of homespun, hopeless (and pointless) advice into theaters for your enjoyment.


LOG: Casa de Lava

What a beguiling and completely fascinating movie. This was my second time through, still no closer to deciphering very much, but having an easier time not caring. It's like if David Lynch made a movie in Portuguese, maybe with a shot of Von Trier or something else equally challenging and unforthcoming. First remembered hearing about this as "a very personal remake of I Walked with a Zombie." The two perhaps share a lot of their moodiness, but little else.

What I can say for certain is that the look of this film is appropriately bewitching and isolating, and that it is memorable and gripping, for reasons mostly unclear.

A beautiful little puzzle.

Read Rosenbaum's extensive thoughts.


Caché (Hidden)

ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 1 (reprinted without permission)

You can only go so far when writing about a film like Caché (Hidden). Traditionally, a suspense film (a la Hitchcock, De Palma) is built mostly around a promised great "reveal," a final visual gut-punch from the screen which at last relinquishes that final crumb of information and provides the viewer with a satisfying, if often contrived, "answer." Making that compari­son, Caché's final shot has more in common with Citizen Kane than it does with Rear Window. In fact, by virtue of it's plot device, Caché comments directly on the "whodunit" genre as a whole. Austrian director Michael Haneke has built a career out of expertly subverting the preconceived notions of his audience. As a director, his skill lies in removing himself from the spotlight, and allowing his camera to observe "what is happening," rather than "what the director is showing us." His camera does not guide or force our eye, nor do his stories steer our brains. In Caché, there are trails for us to follow, but what we follow and what we dismiss along the way remains our responsibility.

Georges lives with his wife and son in a small flat in France. Someone is watching him. Someone is leaving videos of him and his family on his doorstep. Who? Why? The information on the tapes begins to suggest things. It leaves the viewer clues. Georges follows these clues. What will he find? There is a very powerful undercurrent of paranoia running throughout Caché, which gradually evolves into the film's central and unnerving theme. Scenes and events are presented ambiguously. We are very often shown an image, but given no context.. What are we looking at? Flashbacks are shot and appear almost identical to the main narrative scenes. Haneke brazenly challenges us to know the difference, to break apart from his influence as director and find our way to the conclusion ourselves. And even then, Haneke denies you the satisfaction of knowing if you are right. Caché comments grandly and with cold force on the horrifying sensation of paranoia. Is Haneke making a broader statement here? That we can't always trust the images we see on the screen? Georges seems to be very content in taking the tapes as a real document of a place and time.. And yet they remain unexplainable and mysterious. Dig deeper, into what may lie in George's subcon­scious, into what even HE may not know, and perhaps there we find a plausible solution to Caché's buried secrets.


NJAFBIT: Baghead


Actually, I don't know exactly. This movie could be many things. For one thing, it hasn't really opened yet, but it's got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And the Michelle character looks a lot like the chick from High Tension. I guess I am completely intrigued by the ambiguity, which the reviews would indicate exists in the film as well. It's not a horror movie, not a comedy, not a drama. What is it? Even the trailer keeps you on your toes.

I haven't seen The Puffy Chair (mostly because it looks extremely good in a wrenching, non-feel good kind of way,) but I probably should. And Mumblecore is as stupid a non-word as emo, if not worse. Yes, the shaky cam is getting really, really old. But we should all be prepared to deal with it in the event that it enables actual "indie" film making (i.e. low cost, high concept.) If it's good, then it's good. Right?

PREDICTION: Scary? Funny? Awesome?

RELEASE DATE: 7/25 (limited)



ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 1 (reprinted without permission)

Brick is director Rian Johnson's first feature, and damnit it nearly every single frame of it isn't all his. He wrote it, shot it himself in his hometown, and cut it himself (reportedly on a home computer,) all for the price of less than a million dollars. It's a detective story; Brendan's former lover is in trouble. She calls him, frantic, looking for help. Looks like Brendan's on the case. And away we go. Consciously, and superficially, it's a genre film. A Film Noir, to be exact, and basically it's all been done before. But it's never been done like THIS before. How so? Well, because Brendan's no Humphrey Bogart. He's just a kid (albeit an unusually smart and savvy kid). The characters in Brick are all in high school. Other than that, the genre remains intact; heavies, fall guys, informants, femme fatales, and everything else you might :expect are the story's components. But Brick is not quite as by-the-numbers as it might lead you to believe. I expected he tension and the mystery. What I didn't expect was the photography, the subtle humor, and the acting. Somehow, these players keep the film's conceit believable.

It's hard to be completely comfortable watching the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as some kind of hard-boiled teenage gumshoe on the prowl. In between the fist-fights and the phone calls, Brendan chews on lines like: "Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you." Thus, one's enjoyment of the film hangs on the not-so-small contingent that you can put that fact aside and have fun listening anyway. Now ten years out of film school, director Johnson is poised to take a place somewhere between Richard Kelly & David Gordon Green among the new young directors making smart movies for smart young people. It's damn entertaining and intense fun, even if you can't pull down every single thick chunk of detective-speak as fast as Johnson dishes them out. Watch it twice; first for the thrill of it all, and again to let the whole thing soak in. Never mind that kid at Hollywood Video who said it's the best film of the year. Young folks are excitable. Don't watch it because you liked Donnie Darko. Watch it because you liked Chinatown.


The Fall

Here's a depressing (if fairly obvious) diagnosis: Hollywood hates fantasy films. For a heaping dose of proof, look no further than the life's work of Terry Gilliam, one of the few "major" directors around who still has the balls to attempt it, over and over, even as forces bigger than himself doom him again and again. Poor, poor Terry, who's struggles with the fantastic have inspired no less than three separate books (one each on Munchausen, Brazil and The Brothers Grimm,) all of which were deemed failures by the critical masses and wrongly held up in the industry as examples of the archetypal "crazed auteur," spending too much and bending too little, awash in as much madness as his characters.
Maybe some of that is fair, but Gilliam has been invited back enough times into the fire that both producer and director would seem to be at least somewhat content with the inferno he manages to repeatedly ignite. Gilliam's countless sagas of defeat are breathtaking, most recently culminating doubly in his failed Quixote picture (chronicled in Lost in Lamancha,) and now in the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who was to be the star of his Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, only to die tragically before shooting was completed. And so, perhaps, it is in fact the universe that has doomed fantasy..

Still, American producers occasionally grudgingly agree to fantasy projects, selfishly (if correctly) noting that "they're expensive, and they take too long." Not surprisingly then, many of the best examples of fantasy in recent years have been imported, Pan's Labyrinth being a notable, successful example. But good as Pan is, as fantasy it is diluted and impure, infusing the story with copious moments of in-your-face realism. It's theatrical success and Oscar win would seem to indicate that American critics (and perhaps audiences) desire fantasy only when it is coupled with this realism, a correlation which, though sometimes appealing, is hardly a prerequisite for success in the genre.

Into this hexed pantheon now comes The Fall, a new project by director Tarsem (formerly Tarsem Singh,) who had last directed the now largely forgotten The Cell, a disturbing and visually inventive thriller starring Jennifer Lopez in one of her few non-cringe inducing roles. The back story of the making of The Fall is not surprising, given the genre; the director financed the film mostly himself, using money from his many commercial projects and shooting on the fly in a myriad of countries when his budget would allow it. Now, courtesy of Spike Jonze and David Fincher (two similarly hyper-visual directors,) the film receives its theatrical release. On it's surface, The Fall would seem to have much in common with Pan: in both, the wild imagination of an adventurous young girl is the genesis of the fantasy. But comparing these two films is a lesson in how to make this type of story more marketable, and why that may or may not be necessary.

The Fall mostly omits the copious realism of Pan, which (not rightly or wrongly) spends a great deal of it's running time in character development with the three leads: the Captain, his new wife Mercedes, and her daughter, the curious Ofelia. Instead, it spends no more time that is minimally necessary to introduce it's main players, then cuts quickly to the adventure, signaling that, for Tarsem, the fantasy here is the main attraction. It's two different approaches, nothing more. But it seems many critics refuse to accept this, dismissing the film as "all style and no substance." On the contrary, the film is full of ideas. So what if they're nearly all visual?

There is a troubling critical double standard that goes along with this. The Fall is criticized for it's lack of story, while being praised backhandedly for it's interesting images. Where is it written that a film must have both? More specifically, that a film is not a success if it does not do both well? Haven't other films succeeded completely with only one of these elements? No one ever calls the camera work in a Will Ferrell movie "empty," even though it is. If they call it anything at all, they call it "competent." In this case, we have a perfectly successful film with a competent story and some brilliant, inventive and beautiful camera and directorial work. Yet it's as if these images are worth nothing if they are not attached to something emotional. Some might fool themselves into thinking that Pan somehow "had more to say." But even if it did, in the end, all you're going to remember is the monster with the eyes in his hands. The Fall's real sin would have been tacking on a convoluted storyline that it couldn't pull off, and I respect and applaud it for doing simply what it clearly set out to do: deliver some pure fantasy moments. I think Tarsem is not so foolish as to believe that he is doing anything other than exactly what you see. And in The Fall, what you see is everything.

And so with this film we now perhaps find Tarsem joining the ranks of the other mad fantasy men who have come before him, alongside Gilliam and perhaps Welles and others. Those who had a expensive, difficult story to tell in their hearts, and who found a way to tell it, Hollywood and critics and all else be damned. And, despite The Fall's chilly reception and all its lack of concern for story or structure, Tarsem will be hired, again and again, by Hollywood producers looking to capture that energetic visual style and force it onto a bad story with tired ideas. And Tarsem will resist, and the film will fail, and so on. But if we see his movies, and we remember them, then he is, like Gilliam, another in an ever-growing list of lonely victors.