Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Strange, unsatisfying, yet exceedingly well-crafted, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is a compelling and challenging film that will likely polarize audiences. Among the director’s previous work, film ranks a notch below Signs and a notch above The Village, and let’s all pretend that Lady in the Water never happened. Still, fans expecting another Sixth Sense will leave disappointed.
Picture starts out ominously in Central Park, with two young girls on a bench; one of them is acting strange, screams ring out, all foot traffic stops. In scenes of deadpan terror, people begin to kill themselves: one of the girls stabs herself in the neck with a hairpin, bodies drop from buildings, gunshots ring out. Something is amiss. Cut to Philadelphia, and science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) lecturing his class about disappearing bees. News of a possible ‘terrorist attack´ hits, and teachers and students are sent home. Elliot, wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend and coworker Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian´s young daughter decide to leave town and head for Julian´s mother´s place in the country. The event…continues to happen. Theories are devised. Julian decides to head to Princeton to look for his wife, leaving his daughter with Elliot and Alma. They head further West, and encounter groups of people just as confused as they (and we) are.
Two things will determine your appreciation of the film: the first is the journey it takes you on, which is riveting – most of the way, at least, before things bog down a bit towards the end; comparisons can and should be drawn to Spielberg´s recent War of the Worlds. It´s compelling stuff: you may not like the feeling of the director toying with you, but I dare anyone not to stick through to the end. The second is the ultimate explanation for the events, which is more difficult to defend, and revealed in such a slow and unexpected manner that you´ll likely leave the cinema not convinced of precisely what happened. Suffice it to say that I was satisfied with the explanation and the message it conveys, and compared to Shyamalan´s previous films, the revelation was handled in a refreshing manner. But I left wanting so much more (note: I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers – if you do go to the movie, don’t read up on it too much; I imagine the key revelation will be revealed in most reviews.)
The suicide scenes are filmed disarmingly straight-on, without a hint of subtext; the director never explicitly tells us what we should be feeling, and some audience members may not know how to react; indeed, even at a press screening, giggles crept through during scenes of construction workers tossing themselves off a high-rise, a man feeding himself to lions, and another lying down in front of a lawnmower. Some will (inaccurately) attribute these scenes to unintentional comedy, without giving much credit to the director. But there´s a lot of David Lynch at work at what Shyamalan´s trying to do here, which is challenge us to think: those who don´t know how to react will comfort themselves with laughter. For others, these scenes are scarier than any elaborate cinematic techniques could make them.
Acting is effective, nothing more; unfortunately, we never really get a chance to care for these characters. Betty Buckley nearly steals the show as a strange old woman they encounter late in the film. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto captures the rural Pennsylvania landscape beautifully. Music by James Newton Howard is ominous, effective, if not particularly memorable. While most of what the director does here is effective, there are a couple of slo-mo shots that don´t work, and two death scenes are handled – in direct opposition to the suicides – in an overly melodramatic fashion.
For what appears to be a deceptively straightforward film, Shyamalan toys with us more here than he has done in the past. The film is half brilliant. But the other half is very, very frustrating. Many will resent the experience; I enjoyed being pulled along for the ride, and appreciate what the director has attempted.
An inoffensive, sometimes affecting little trifle, director Kar Wai Wong’s first English-language feature My Blueberry Nights does well enough on its own accord, though it pales in comparison to the director’s previous films. Singer Norah Jones (in her acting debut) stars as young lost soul Elizabeth, who befriends NYC café owner Jeremy (Jude Law) after she splits up with her boyfriend. The two share an intimate moment, but Elizabeth, broken hearted, heads off on a journey across the US that will last the rest of the film, meeting the usual assortment of colorful characters along the way. She takes two jobs in Memphis, befriending an estranged husband (David Strathairn) and wife (Rachel Weisz) who both need comforting while saving up money to buy a car; she then heads to Nevada, and meets a compulsive gambler (Natalie Portman) who offers to double her savings – or give her a car – if Elizabeth will lend her the money for one last hand of cards.
The film is, to be charitable, ‘leisurely paced´; the fact of the matter is that there´s no driving force here, our lead character has no discernable goals, and thus there´s no compelling reason for us to be watching (unless you´re just waiting for the conclusion, which you should be able to decipher ten minutes into the movie). But I can´t really complain when the film looks so good: this cinematography here is (almost) as good as the director´s previous films (2046, In the Mood for Love), and includes the kind of artsy, noirish ‘rain soaked streets, neon signs reflected in windows´ shots of New York City that I haven´t seen in ages. It´s really quite beautiful to look at; slogging through the film, which is 90 minutes but feels considerably longer, is another matter.
Jones is good but I wish she had switched roles with Portman, who shows the kind of spunk and enthusiasm in her limited screen time that the film desperately needs; rest of the cast is fine, but this isn´t the kind of actor´s film the dialogue-heavy script may lead you to believe. While Wong can be commended for not becoming a studio casualty and sticking to his roots in his first English-language movie, I hope he´ll choose a weightier project next time out.