Talking Movies

June 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Happening

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals the hesitant summer movie that saw Shymalan made a laughing stock of by American film critics.

Writer/director M Night Shyamalan’s last film Lady in the Water featured a pessimistic film critic as one of its minor characters. He got eaten by a wolf. The atmosphere at press screenings of The Happening could best be described as packs of wolves waiting to eat an optimistic film director…

Mark Wahlberg stars as high-school science teacher Elliot Moore who flees Philadelphia for the safety of the Pennsylvania countryside after New York City is devastated by a suicide epidemic triggered by a chemical attack on Central Park. The horrors that occur once the chemical flicks the self-preservation switch in the brain are the best realised sequences in this film and provide great suspense as the characters try to evade the rapidly spreading air-borne toxin. Running with Elliot are his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguiazmo) and Julian’s young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Shyamalan was severely burned by the critical and commercial disaster of Lady in the Water. The criticism, in particular, was far harsher than was deserved but it is obvious that it has rattled his confidence. As a devoted Shyamalan fan it grieves me to say that The Happening is almost a film which needs to be watched on DVD because there are enough bad lines to quickly turn cinema audiences hostile, especially after being primed by some American critics to laugh at the whole endeavour.

Lady in the Water was directed by a supremely confident man, nobody with a fragile ego would have extended such a slight narrative to feature length. The Happening, though, bears the hallmarks of a man who is not confident of his basic material. Shyamalan the visual stylist is still present and correct but Shyamalan the writer is all over the place. Contrast the failing marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening and you will see a level of emotional maturity in the scenes between Bruce Willis and Robin Wright that evaporates when it comes to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Previously Shymalan’s actors riffed off of little hints in the script but now they look lost, as if they’re not sure the writer himself believes these characters.

There are superb sequences in this film. A long take of a gun being used by person after person to blow their brains out is stylish and horrific. At his best Shyamalan approaches Hitchcock’s The Birds by making us scared of trees and the wind itself as paranoia escalates as to the reason behind the spreading plague. Is it chemical weapons or something simpler yet even more terrifying? At his worst Shyamalan provides wincingly bad dialogue and has no earthly notion how to use cult hero Deschanel. There is no gimmicky twist but the final scene is a nice indictment of complacency towards global problems. Worth seeing, just maybe not in theatres…

3/5

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August 19, 2015

M Night Shyamalan, The Visit, and the Lighthouse

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is coming to Dublin on Sunday 30th August for the Irish premiere of his new movie The Visit, followed by a Q&A at the Lighthouse. Tickets for the event are priced at just €12 and are available for purchase here.

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M. Night Shyamalan has not been having a good time of it since his glory days of The Sixth SenseUnbreakable, and Signs. His first feature since Will Smith’s blockbuster fiasco After Earth sees him team with the producer with the Midas touch Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Sinister, The Gift, Insidious) for Universal Pictures’ The Visit. Shyamalan returns to his roots with the terrifying story of a brother and sister who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a week-long trip. Once the children discover the elderly couple are involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home growing smaller every day… Shyamalan produces The Visit through Blinding Edge Pictures, Blum through Blumhouse Productions alongside Marc Bienstock (Quarantine 2: Terminal), and their cohorts Steven Schneider (Insidious) and Ashwin Rajan (Devil) executive produce.

In anticipation of the release of The Visit, the Lighthouse presents a weekend of Shyamalan’s celebrated triptych.

The Sixth Sense: 28th August, 8.15pm

Shyamalan’s breakthrough third feature as director was a ghost story with a twist, rather famously, and minted money for all concerned in the dying months of 1999. Bruce Willis is the child psychiatrist trying to help the literally haunted Haley Joel Osment, who sees dead people, while unable to salvage his own failing marriage to Olivia Williams.

Signs: 29th August, 4.00pm

The final appearance of Mel Gibson as major movie star was a low-key tale of alien invasion, with Gibson’s widowed preacher becoming convinced that his family were somehow ordained to fight this cosmic takeover in the oddest way. Indeed the peculiar oddness of their calling was the first sign people were tiring of Shyamalan’s twist tic.

Unbreakable: 29th August, 8.30pm

Bruce Willis re-united with Shyamalan for a comic-book movie with a difference, not least that it wasn’t based on a comics title. Shyamalan’s extremely measured pacing took imbuing seriousness into pulp even more seriously than Bryan Singer’s X-Men, also out in 2000, and the huge twist at the end was a satisfying pay-off.

Charlene Lydon, programmer at the Lighthouse, says “We are delighted to welcome M. Night Shyamalan as our guest here. I think it is an interesting time in his career as he appears to be in a state of transition, having moved from the mainstream to making a secret low-budget found-footage thriller. I very much look forward to hearing him in conversation and also enjoy the opportunity to revisit some of his earlier work on the big screen.”

Wayward Pines, the TV show Shyamalan produced and directed the first episode of, has received extremely wounding criticism. And that’s after the unmerciful beating After Earth took. Things started to go wrong with The Village, in retrospect, as it threw in a frankly unnecessary twist almost because Shyamalan felt he had to insert a twist. (Which made The IT Crowd scene in which Matt Berry throws out every possible twist he can think of while Chris O’Dowd tries to watch a film feel a very pointed jab.) But then came Lady in the Water… When I reviewed The Happening for Dublinks.com I couldn’t escape the feeling that Shyamalan had lost his nerve. Lady in the Water was drunk on confidence, stretching the thinnest of stories into a feature. The Happening, by contrast, made a mess of a proper feature. As visual stylist Shyamalan put together impressive sequences, but as a writer he seemed self-doubting and his actors’ performances suffered accordingly. Perhaps teaming up with Blum is just what Shyamalan needs: a return to pared-down horror, with grounded characterisation, and no grandiosity. We shall see…

Tickets for each screening are now on sale at http://www.lighthousecinema.ie. The Visit is in cinemas on 11th September 2015.

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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