Friday, December 19, 2008

The Happening: A ten-minute review

Note: If you haven't read the blog entry prior to this one, please do so, as it contains important information and requests.

Now, on to kicking around a man who should not be employed in his current jobs: writer, editor, director. I'd start a petition on this matter if I knew how.

I'm talking about M. Night Shyamalan. In case you missed it when I mentioned it before, "Night" is not his middle name. His actual middle name is unpronounceable by humans. . . . Oh wait. That's Spock's middle name.

This is a "ten-minute review" not because it will take me ten minutes to compose or because the average reader will get through it in ten minutes. Rather, ten minutes is all I could stand to watch of this movie.

That's saying something. Look, I knew the reviews for this film were bad, but I figured I knew what I was in for. The reviews of Sunshine were pretty mixed, and my impression in the very first minutes was that that movie would not be well done (and indeed, my first impressions were never trumped), but I sat through Sunshine (in front of my computer, over the course of several sittings), even when it moved from not-well-done to an "Iceberg-dead-ahead!!-shaped catastrophe, because, except for the very end, it wasn't unbearably bad. 

The Happening is unbearably bad. If you did not think so, I am here to instruct you. Part of education is the shaping of taste. We won't share the same tastes, of course, but those aspects of taste that touch on quality of work, seriousness of craftsmanship, attention to detail, intelligence, a good eye, a good ear, and common sense are aspects we should come pretty close to agreeing on at the end of the day. Otherwise, discussion about film becomes nearly impossible.

The credit sequence told me right away that mediocrity had met its master. Fast-motion shots of clouds forming played for the duration of the credits, which themselves had no particular visual interest. The music was mildly suspenseful. But, really, clouds? That's all you could come up with? Since (spoiler, if you care) the film is about the trees sending out some sort of toxin to attack people, why not some interesting, active camera shots tracing the lines of different types of trees? It wouldn't give anything away, but would give the audience a motif that would recur. Or, since the film actually starts in Central Park, the camera could do something with the motion of trees while people move about in the background. Smarter still, the people could be in focus, as if we were watching them, while the trees are foregrounded and out of focus, used to frame the shots or shape how the camera moves. My point is, start the story. Why are you wasting my time with what looks like stock photography from a television movie?

After the fast-motion clouds, we see people walking about in what is identified as "Central Park, New York City." (Who in the United States is unaware that Central Park is in New York City, I dare not speculate.) It's something like 8:30 in the morning, per a title. After one or two lazy establishing shots, we see two young women on a bench, reading books. One says, "I can't remember where I am." This is meant to foreshadow the confusion people feel when this toxin hits them, and in fact, "Night" should simply have gone straight from there, with her partner confused by the other's confusion, but instead her friend says, "You were at the part right when they found out who the murderer was," or some such thing. "Oh, right," answers the other, who then turns one page and seems satisfied. Whew! I guess nothing was wrong with her after all! Except that she and her friend just had the most unrealistic exchange of dialogue you're likely to ever hear! In what world is this conversation possible? A series of shots then go back and forth between the second woman, who is looking around the park, and the actions of various pedestrians. We see one guy walking backwards. The woman says, "What are those people doing? Are they scratching at themselves? Is that blood?" but we don't see that. We see shots instead of people standing still. Finally we get an interesting shot, the camera drifting above the first woman's head and coming in tight on the rod in her hair bun; she removes the pointed rod and, dramatic music letting us know what's coming, she shoves the rod into her neck. The first woman, who is sitting at an angle which actually doesn't allow her to see the rod going in (point of view being a common screw-up in "Night"'s direction, fails to react (the point being that she is now also afflicted by something odd). 

Next we see a construction site. A worker is telling a curiously clean joke to his fellow workers standing on the ground. We see, in the background, a body smash into the ground. The men turn. Though we can't see the face, the apparent foreman identifies the man by name. The men all rush over (well, not exactly rush) and the foreman gets on his walkie-talkie. Smash. Another body falls back where they were standing. He can also tell who this guy is, though his face is also obscured. Now, you tell me: When would you look up to find out what the heck is going on? I mean, two guys have just dropped from the building you're standing next to, just barely missing you. But no, "Night" is saving that shot, so instead we get the foreman wandering about, the camera tight behind him, while more bodies drop: into the street, all around . . .   At last he looks skyward. Then we see what he sees (and its a good shot, but they showed it in the trailer): from several stories up, men, stiff-legged and dark against the sky, step off the building and plummet to their deaths. A good shot would have been, after the second body hit, a whip-around camera going from the ground to, as the foreman spun about, a shot of what was happening above. Maybe he couldn't figure out the logistics for such a shot, so we get these separate shots that don't feel like they're occupying the same space.

The scene now becomes Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, you know . . . in case an establishing shot didn't help) and we move to the least authentic high school classroom I've ever seen. It's around 9 o'clock. (So let's be clear: Those young women of working age, why were they sitting around reading at Central Park on a weekday? Not to mention all the other young should-be professionals who walked through the shots of the Park. Hmm.) Again, the dialogue is hilariously bad. Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher who sounds like a sub. He gives maybe one sentence raising the issue of massive bee death, then asks for reasons why this has occurred (having given his students no other information or even explaining the situation well). The students are both too interested and too bored. They sit as if attentive (no one is doodling or even moving much), but they look inattentive--because the director hasn't given them anything to do. Wahlberg mercilessly picks on one good-looking kid (in a style so free of irony, there's no way in a Philly school he wouldn't fired or knifed afterward), then shows he was just joking around. Somehow, though he is a total stiff, treating the kids as if they were little children, they like him. He pretends to hide from the assistant principal when she comes in the room, even shutting out the lights. My god.

Actually, the good-looking boy gives the theme, if you will, for the film, when he says that the reason for the disappearance of honeybees is "something we'll never know." Wahlberg raises further doubts about his scientific acumen when he declares that this is the best answer, because even when science comes up with answers, they're just theories. (Okay, so add biology to the list of classes "Night" didn't pass in high school.)

Finally called out of his classroom--to mild (and clearly dubbed-in) "Ooooh"s from the students, who we don't even see in the shot--by the assistant principal, he is told that an emergency is going to send everyone home. The teacher is surprised, since "The superintendent keeps us working even in a foot of snow." Why does Night frequently set his films in that part of the country if he doesn't really know that part of the country? Philadelphia-area schools shut down when even a few inches of snow arrive! Anyone who has lived there, as I have, knows this. The place never gets a foot of snow. In fact, the light annual snowfall is the reason people tend to panic and go into emergency mode whenever any snow at all comes down.

The teachers gather in the auditorium. It's far too few teachers for a school this size, obviously, but I guess the director's budget for extras was trimmed. The principal gives the laughable line, "We have news that an event is happening" (Wow, what would it mean if an event didn't happen, or if something happened that wasn't an event . . . and isn't a "happening" a really cool event to which people like this director were never invited when they were in college?) People standing closest to him, extras all, react in utterly unconvincing ways, while Wahlberg, now joined by John Leguizamo, merely listen farther back (though in the center of the shot). They learn that the first step in this "happening" is confused speech (really? that's not quite what happened to that woman), the second is a cessation of movement, and the third step is fatal . . . which is an adjective, unlike the first two steps. The word, Night, is "death." And boy, is that vague, or what? 

Following this, Wahlberg and Leguizamo phone their family members. Leguizamo informs Wahlberg that his mother has heard about what's happened in New York, but he has calmed her fears that it might spread to Philly "by throwing some statistics at her." Um, like what? "Disasters in one city only spread to other cities ten percent of the time?" He then points out how valuable it is to be a math teacher at such times.

My patience was at an end. 

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