Sunday, June 15, 2008

Movie Review - The Happening

Love them or hate them, M. Night Shymalan movies always manage to generate strong reactions from critics and audiences, which is one of the reasons I look forward to them in a world of cookie cutter horror films and action hero stories. I can honestly say I've never met a Shymalan movie I didn't like in one way or another (yes, I even enjoyed parts of "Lady in the Water"). His latest, "The Happening" is no exception. In fact, this one deserves a place among the best of his movies with its disturbing mix of fear, paranoia and good old fashioned scariness as the northeastern portion of the United States suddenly experiences a terrifying, mysterious phenomenon in which people become disoriented and then commit suicide with whatever happens to be at hand. At first it's assumed that terrorist attacks are responsible for the rapidly mounting death toll as incidents begin popping up in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Princeton and then smaller and smaller towns throughout the area. Gradually it becomes clear that some sort of natural phenomenon is responsible for the devastation. The opening scene in Central Park is a zinger, setting us up nicely for some serious fright as it's quickly followed by a very disturbing incident where construction workers begin walking off the top of a building and crashing to the ground.

Mark Wahlberg stars as an appealing every man, a science teacher namd Elliot, who leaves Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as hundreds flee the city in a blind panic after hearing about the rapid spread of the phenomenon. As usual, one of Shymalan's slyest and most effective weapons is his ability to make his characters human beings with whom the audience can become involved. Elliot and Alma are a somewhat bickering couple whose marriage is shaky. One of the people who gives the group a ride after their train leaves them in the middle of nowhere (Filbert, Pennsylvania) is a nursery owner (Frank Collison) who goes on at length about his choice of hot dogs as the perfect road trip food. Betty Buckley makes a very scary appearance as a woman whose isolated farmhouse becomes a brief haven for Elliot, Alma and Jess. There's plenty of good, dark humor throughout the movie, and we need it to balance out the increasingly grim reality the story dishes out. The musical score is also used to great effect, although there were a couple of times when it was a bit overdone for my taste. It's difficult to go into much detail without giving away plot points, but suffice it to say that Shymalan is back on his game in a big way. Like the best horror movies, "The Happening" leaves us with plenty to think about and one more scare up its sleeve.

Things to love about this movie: Shymalan has managed to recreate that group paranoia feeling that Hitchcock used so well in "The Birds"; the ecological message of the film is awesome; Mark Wahlberg gives the typical "leading man" role some extra fun, as does Zooey Deschanel as "the wife"
Things to hate about this movie: Without revealing too much, an annoying event involving the couple (Elliot and Alma)
Pleasant surprises: The ending I wanted to see (though maybe not a big surprise or plot twist, it had a nice punch just the same)
Unpleasant surprises: The always great John Leguizamo could have used more screen time

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Movie Review - The Fall

Falling for "The Fall": Sorry for the pun, but there's no other way to describe the dizzying, heart wrenching effect this film delivered for me. Yes, the visuals in "The Fall" are truly dazzling, which was to be expected from director Tarsem who specializes in creating unforgettable sights and colors on screen. What was unexpected, though, was the emotional punch the movie produced with the sweet, magical yet sad connection between an injured stuntman named Roy (the gorgeous Lee Pace) and a little girl named Alexandria (adorable Catinca Untaru). The two characters meet in a Los Angeles hospital during the 1920s where Alexandria is recuperating from a broken arm suffered in a fall while picking oranges and Roy is trying to deal with paralysis of his legs after a fall during a stunt. Roy is angry and suicidal, Alexandria is curious and full of imagination so its a match made in heaven. From his bed Roy begins telling Alexandria the epic tale of 5 mythical warriors, all of whom have been horribly wronged by the terrible Lord Odious and seek revenge. Like the little girl, we are mesmerized by the story and fascinated by its 5 wildly divergent characters: Luigi, an explosives expert (Robin Smith), the brow-stroking Indian (Jeetu Verma), the escaped slave Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), a guy named Darwin (Leo Bill) who travels with a cute monkey companion named Wallace and the Bandit who changes form from Alexandria's dead father (Emil Hostina) to the storyteller himself (Pace) as Alexandria imagines the heroes of the story while it progresses. The characters in the stuntman's story are enthralling, but the real hook is the way in which Alexandria manages to bring Roy back from the dead, at least for awhile. We may wish for that fairytale wrap-up, but as Roy so eloquently states, "There are no happy endings with me" (a statement that made me love him all the more).

Lee Pace is very impressive as Roy, fluctuating from kindness to rage while looking mighty good doing it. I'm not usually a fan of child actors, but Untaru completely stole my heart, playing Alexandria as an old soul without a hint of preciousness or pretense. All five of the actors cast as the warriors in Roy's tale are excellent with faces and costumes that are storybook ready. This movie really made me cry, wonder, smile and simply marvel at the kind of magic I've been missing so badly during this lean season for film. Leaving the theater was like waking from a dream, blinking in the sunlight and wishing you could go back to sleep and dream it all over again.

Things to love about this movie: Mind blowing visuals; exciting locations (everywhere from India to Argentina to South Africa to China to Italy, etc.); the amazing Catinca Untaru; the beautiful "Blue City"; a thrilling underwater swim with an elephant
Things to hate about this movie: Darling little monkey Wallace is shot and killed (always a bummer for me as an animal lover)
Pleasant surprises: Good looking Lee Pace playing a very negative character; the strong, effective human element that was missing from Tarsem's previous film "The Cell"
Unpleasant surprises: No disclaimer about animal safety (hopefully only due to the fact that the film is not American produced and therefore the statement isn't required, but still bothersome)