Monday, October 20, 2008

The Happening, Or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Lemon Drink

It's hard to believe, but less than five years ago people were positioning M. Night Shyamalan as the next Steven Spielberg. His third feature, The Sixth Sense, had been a massive blockbuster that stunned and pleased audiences the world over. Impressive for a director's first widely-released effort, especially when you throw in its numerous Oscar nominations, including one for the coveted Best Picture award. While I never fully drank the Kool-Aid of the director's breakthrough film, I enjoyed it well enough. Perhaps if so many other better films hadn't been cast aside in that year's Oscar race I would have had a little more affection for it.

While I was never a huge fan of The Sixth Sense, I am to this day a staunch supporter of his fourth and greatest movie, Unbreakable. Perhaps its continuing status as an underrated, overlooked work has kept it even closer to my heart in the eight years since its release. The movie made decent money, but most viewers had gone into it expecting another Sixth Sense, which it obviously was not. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend doing so quickly and with an open mind. It's interesting that the film was released in 2000, at the very beginning of a decade that would soon be known for its splashy superhero franchises. Unbreakable, however, turned the comic book film on its head by showing us what is essentially a prequel to a superhero film that has not yet been made.

In Spider-Man we briefly saw Peter Parker as a goofy kid who chats with his school chums before being bitten by a radioactive spider and transforming into the title character. That's all well and good, and frankly I wouldn't want every superhero film to spend the majority of its running time on exposition. Maybe that is partially why many viewers never fully warmed to Unbreakable's unusual pacing and rhythms. It looks at its protagonist as a real person. Just a dad struggling to help raise his son and live his life, even as he begins noticing a series of increasingly bizarre changes occurring in his life.

Signs, released in 2002, was a bigger financial hit and overall crowd-pleaser than Unbreakable. Its tone most closely resembles Spielberg's work, not to mention its inclusion of alien life. The movie is not terribly brainy, but it's a lot of fun. Despite a slight lack of interest in his second movie, Shyamalan was riding high with three hits in a row. It seemed that Hollywood might very well have found an unlikely candidate to assume Spielberg's throne.

Then along came The Village. This Twilight Zone wannabe found Shyamalan scrambling so frantically for a thrilling twist that he forgot you needed to develop an intriguing story and pack it with memorable characters FIRST, assuming you care to give the twist any real weight or lasting significance. Some people really bought into The Village, but most people I know felt it was the director's first genuine misstep since achieving stardom in 1999. While I never cared enough for The Village to bother seeing it twice, it could not have possibly prepared me for the miscalculated nosedive into mundane fantasy and blatant egotism that is Lady in the Water.

His seventh film provided one of those experiences where you sit slouched in your theater seat wondering incessantly how the hell this thing got made and how no one told him how bad it was at some point during the production. If memory serves, the inspiration for this film came from a bedtime story Shyamalan used to tell his children. A similar scenario between Robert Rodriguez and his kids provided the foundation for The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl. That film isn't quite the cinematic bowel movement that Lady in the Water is, but it should provide a caveat to those directors who consider developing future projects from the stories they discuss offhandedly with their offspring at home.

Lady in the Water wasn't just a low for Shyamalan, but one for pretty much everyone associated with the film. That it cost almost as much as any of his other films, and a mere $2 million less than Signs, is inconceivable to me. Making matters worse is Shyamalan's insistence on giving himself roles in his own movies. This time around he went a step further, progressing from a mere cameo to a full-fledged supporting role. It only adds to the groan-inducing, head-shaking, eye-rolling nature of the movie. Had I not been reviewing the film for a local newspaper at the time, I'm not sure I would have wasted anymore of my vacation time sitting in that sparsely populated theater, its few patrons drowning in eerie silence for an interminable 110 minutes.

So last night my wife, her brother and I sat down to view a Blu-Ray edition of The Happening. I had already heard the stories of how bad it was, how laughable Mark Wahlberg's acting had been, and I had already prepared myself for the worst. Or so I thought...

M. Night Shyamalan has officially gone off the deep end. I don't know if the guy is doing drugs or batting around his ideas with a paid hooker, but he needs to be stopped immediately. It's true that Wahlberg's performance is ludicrous, and I'm sure he'll be rewarded handsomely come time for this year's Razzie Awards. But anyone who knows anything about filmmaking should realize that one of the director's primary responsibilities is to help his or her actors give the best performances possible. How could ANYONE sit through dailies of Wahlberg veering manically between wide-eyed and dopey and not bother to sit down with him and talk it out, do some reshoots, etc. And Wahlberg isn't the only one delivering a dramatic abortion. Zooey Deschanel, so likeable in films like Almost Famous and Elf, had me reaching for my revolver after a mere five seconds on screen. Her first scene in which she struggles to not answer a call on her cell phone is something straight out of high school Theater Arts class. Unfortunately, this time people are not getting graded for sitting through it. In fact, we're being asked to pay to witness these atrocities.

I could have stomached these Ed Wood-caliber turns if the story had been remotely intriguing. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the story made Lady in the Water look like Chinatown. NOTHING happens in this movie, despite its vague title...which, by the way, had to have been uttered at least half a dozen times throughout the course of the film. No real explanation is given for the stupid crap that happens in this movie, and it's not because it's supposed to be mysterious or up for our interpretation. It's because Shyamalan has become a lazy hack that's rapidly running out of ideas and logic. If I am going to watch Dirk Diggler being "chased" by the wind for half an hour I expect some thrills, spills, and chills along the way. Instead, I'm treated to one of the least scary "thrillers" ever to grace the silver screen. What makes it even more annoying is that I've seen multiple interviews that feature Shyamalan giddily talking about how scary the film is, and how he wanted to put some truly horrific moments on film, etc. He even had the gall to mention The Exorcist during one of these Q & As. Frankly, I'd rather watch a girl vomit pea soup for 90 minutes than sit through The Crappening ever again.

By the final act of the film we were just laughing at the TV, especially during the completely randome segment featuring the wacky old lady who allows the weary travelers into her home. When she suddenly looks up at Wahlberg's dimwitted Science teacher character and barks, "Why you eyeing my lemon drink?!" I realized it was well beyond time to keep taking Shyamalan seriously.

Hopefully by now he has read the increasingly widespread hostile reactions to his films and will take some of these words to heart. I'm not saying that a filmmaker should always react to public opinion, but when you're obviously making popcorn flicks for a wide audience you might want to take some time to reconnect with the humans paying to see your work. Shyamalan is reportedly working on pre-production for a live-action version of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although he has been commissioned to write as well as direct, I'm hoping that adapting from someone else's source material will help keep the gun barrel away from his foot this time. While I rarely hope filmmakers fail, I will say that I am no longer expecting anything impressive from this gifted yet deeply lost auteur. Should his next film be an intelligent, invigorating piece of work I'll be the first to sing its praises. But until that day, I'll just sit back and quietly wish for another Unbreakable.

M. Night Shyamalan's Widely-Released Filmography :

Title..................... Est. Budget..... Domestic Gross

The Sixth Sense.......... $40 million........ $293
Unbreakable............. $75 million......... $95,011,339
Signs.......................$72 million......... $227,966,634
The Village................$60 million........ $114,197,520
Lady in the Water......$70million......... $42,285,169
The Happening.........$48 million........ $64,506,874

Monday, October 6, 2008

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Don't let the title and subject matter fool you. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is one of the finest short films I've ever seen. Whether you loved or hated the syrupy duo's music is beside the point. Todd Haynes, the superbly gifted filmmaker responsible for challenging fare like Safe (1995) and last year's schizophrenic ode to Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, first displayed tremendous promise with this experimental short from 1987.

Superstar begins with an eerie re-staging of Karen's mother finding her daughter dead from an overdose of Ipecac. It then flashes back to the mid-1960s, shortly before the picture-perfect siblings were discovered by the music biz. All of this may seem fairly Movie-of-the-Week, except for one thing: Haynes chose to tell the story of Karen's rise and fall using Barbie dolls. Such a concept may seem cruel on the surface, but as you watch the film it becomes clear that the filmmaker feels for his subject's plight. What could have been a crude mockery instead becomes a uniquely effective look at how societal, media, and even familial pressures can turn even the girl next door into a shell of her former self.

As Karen's condition worsens Haynes uses increasingly emaciated dolls to show how dangerous living up to the Barbie image can be for so many women in these image-obsessed times. While some of the montage clips and on-screen text are hard to see, it is the scenes with the dolls that are the most revelatory. Haynes' attention to detail is evident even in this early work, with the doll clothing and furniture being "of the period." During one party scene, we see a male doll in the background leaning against a wall, towering suggestively over a female doll that he's obviously trying to woo. It's touches like that which make this such a compulsively watchable short.

Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy to see this mini-masterpiece for many years. Richard Carpenter has made it his mission to keep this film off video store shelves, claiming that the songs were used without permission. While this is technically true, viewers of the film can probably assume that Richard didn't like the way he was portrayed in it. To date, the the short was only allowed to be screened in film schools and medical centers that deal with weight issues. Of course, as time went on, bootleg copies turned up in independent video stores and finally the Internet. Haynes' work often polarizes viewers, because his films are not passive experiences. However, it's nice to see a director working today who is willing to stay true to his vision, even if it means appealing to a limited audience.

But enough yapping. Here's the film itself:

Superstar (download)
Superstar (streaming)

Here's also a link to a Todd Haynes fansite.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Payne's World

I wrote the above article years ago, shortly following the release of Alexander Payne's outstanding comedy Sideways. The real highlight, however, was my wife's wonderful artwork that accompanied the piece. If you like the illustration, it's available on a variety of well-made items (shirts, mugs, etc.) at this website. Be sure to click on the article for an enlarged version.

Astral Weeks: 40 Years Later

More than 40 years after emerging from Ireland to become one of pop music's most influential troubadours, Van Morrison still seems to have two kinds of fans: those who will forever associate him with the still-catchy "Brown-Eyed Girl" and those who are die hard fans of his seminal 1968 album, Astral Weeks. It would be an understatement to declare that I belong to the latter category, though I enjoy his lighter, more mainstream fare as well.

There's no need to go into details about the album, because either you're already well aware of its power and influence or you simply haven't heard it at all. It wouldn't be surprising, given that despite its consistent ranking near the top of countless "Best Albums" lists, it has only sold about a half million copies in the past four decades. All I will say to those who might not yet have heard it, is that "hearing it" simply isn't enough. You need to go buy yourself a copy (or download a high-quality rip, if that's your thing) and take it home with you. Crawl into bed with your best pair of headphones, dim the lights, and let it wash over you. Such a suggestion sounds cheesy in today's iTunes universe, but it's also because music that truly demands and deserves your undivided attention is rarely made anymore.

The album's rapidly-aproaching 40th anniversary (I believe it was released Nov. 1, 1968) is not the only reason I wanted to post about it today. It was brought to my attention a couple of days ago that Van Morrison will actually be performing the album live, from start to finish, at the Hollywood Bowl next month. As a relatively poor Texan I won't be able to make the commute, but luckily a live DVD of the event should be released in the near future. And to be honest, I'm just not sure seeing him perform it now, in a live setting, could come close to packing the emotional wallop delivered to me by the album so many times over the years since I first heard it in 1997. At any rate, tickets should be available starting Oct. 5th.