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The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Furry Vengeance (2010)

The title alone alerts you that this will not be a pleasant journey. It’s 92 abusive minutes of watching a doughy Brendan Fraser act like he is being tortured by a conspiracy of woodland wildlife. Fraser is a land developer who wants to raze a forest to make way for houses, and nature doesn’t take too kindly. Raccoons, squirrels, birds, bears, and even wild turkeys all take their turn tormenting Fraser. The slapstick is at Looney Tune levels of manic absurdity. Even worse is the ham-fisted environmental message that still manages to be cloying, preachy, and completely naive. This lame eco message may actually encourage people to chop down trees out of sheer spite. After an hour of animals trying to kill him, suddenly Fraser realizes that the forest is their home too. For their furry families. Everyone has the same facial expression of barely concealed embarrassment. Even Fraser deserves better than this family film purgatory he seems to be stuck in while he waits for a phone call confirming another dumb Mummy movie. Furry Vengeance has the rank odor of failure from every frame, and yet the movie hits a new low when the end credits come around. Just when you think you’ve been given your freedom back, the cast breaks out into an end credit rap with snippets of movie parodies from “Furry TV.” It makes no sense except to add one last moment to hold your head in shame.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Cove (2009)

I never really wanted to watch the documentary, The Cove, and judging by its anemic box-office gross, I wasn’t the only one. A movie about dolphin slaughter felt like it was going to be a hard chunk of medicine, and I can’t really blame anybody who read about this acclaimed Sundance doc and said, “You know, I don’t feel like spending eight bucks to watch dolphins get harpooned to death.” I can’t argue with that and it was with great trepidation that I put the DVD into my player, hiding behind a blanket, dreading the animal cruelty and self-righteousness that would soon wait. And then a funny thing happened. In the first five minutes I really got into the movie, my nervous tension disappeared, and I was captivated by one of the best-edited and most thrilling movies of the year. For the squeamish, rest assured, the dolphin death footage isn’t graphic and used rather sparingly and tastefully. This is not just a PETA snuff film.

The Cove has two storylines at play that converge with a unified goal. The first explores the life of Ric O’Barry, the world’s premier dolphin trainer responsible for all those playful porpoises on TV’s Flipper (he even lived in the TV family’s house by the dock). It’s because of that popular TV show that the dolphin craze began where people wanted to see them do tricks and people wanted to swim with the cute dolphins. Sea parks sprouted up around the world and many dolphins were sold into captivity. O’Barry then drastically changed his mind about dolphins living in captivity after the death of one of the Flippers. Dolphins need to consciously breath, so they can actually hold their breath and die, which is what happened. The Flipper dolphin committed “suicide” in O’Barry’s arms, or so he says (he may be projecting a bit of his own guilt). He has been fighting ever since for dolphins to be freed and often O’Barry gets arrested for his activism efforts.

O’Barry’s biggest target is Taiji, Japan. It is this small coastal town that supplies dolphins to most of the world. Researchers and entertainment trainers will take their pick of the litter and the rest aren’t so lucky. The remaining dolphins get transferred to a small inlet where coastline bystanders cannot see and where large “Keep Out” signs are met with barbed wire. Then the waters run red. Tens of thousands of dolphins are slaughtered every fall and O’Barry has been trying to get the word out for years but has been stymied by the local fishermen, the meat corporations, and the Japanese government. Director Louie Psihoyos, a critical member of the Ocean Preservation Society, intended to make a film about depleting ocean reefs and intended to have O’Barry be one part of an overall bigger picture. Then, while traveling in Taiji, he became convinced that the real story was exposing the secret dolphin killings and why what goes on in that deadly cove matters to the rest of Japan and the world.

What hooked me was that The Cove is structured like a real-life espionage thriller. Psihoyos and his technical crew wanted to go the legal route but were blocked by opposing forces. So he assembles a team of experts to infiltrate the Taiji cove and document what exactly is going on there. He recruits the best deep diver who can plunge to record-breaking depths on a single breath of air. He recruits a model maker at special effects studio ILM to make convincing rocks that will house hidden cameras. They recruit a man who knows all about cameras and body imaging technology. They even get an expert on flying toy helicopters so they can plant a camera on one. The director says it himself on camera, that he was gathering a real-life Ocean’s Eleven team. The tone of the movie follows suit, making for some great suspense. As soon as O’Barry enters Taiji, he’s tailed by several police officers and they even interrogate him in his hotel lobby to ascertain the purpose of his visit (caught on hidden camera). The billion-dollar dolphin entertainment/meat industry hires people to do nothing else but to film O’Barry himself, keeping track of his movements and trying to provoke an emotional reaction to disparage his cause and boot him from town. We then chart how far the connections go, all the way through to Japanese government officials bribing other Pacific island nations to join their fight to overturn whaling laws. It’s fascinating and frustrating as hell to watch.

Psihoyos is a rather accomplished filmmaker in his own right, spicing up an intriguing tale with some visual pizzazz and a great sense of pacing. This thing just flies by. It’s strange to say that a documentary about killing dolphins is one of the most gripping thrillers of the year, but there it is. This is an impeccably crafted opinion piece with a dash of espionage excitement. The movie is indignant, yes, but refrains from being self-righteous or condescending. At no point did I feel beaten over the head with some activist propaganda, though the film is clearly one-sided. Psihoyos manages to weave in a lot of useful information. I was dreading the actual dolphin slaughter footage even though, from a structural standpoint, that was the climax of the movie people have been waiting for. The footage is mostly at long angles, though you do see Japanese fishermen repeatedly jabbing harpoons into dolphin shapes. The most disturbing moments are earlier when a mortally wounded dolphin spaces past the nets and tries to swim for freedom. It’s spitting blood and wildly trying to break free but it eventually drowns. The final image of the hard-won footage is the blood-soaked shores of the cove, which are a deep, unsettling red that reminds you of a full-on Biblical plague. An easy plea to emotional appeals, perhaps, but effective nonetheless. I have no shame in admitting that The Cove put me to tears on three separate occasions.

So is there really a difference here between killing and eating dolphins and the West’s industry of killing and eating cows? Is this all just a matter of cultural insensitivity? That’s a harder question. Which animals do we draw the line at eating? Is there a moral disparity between eating a hamburger and eating a dolphin, or eating a cat or a dog? I don’t know. Personally, given my Western biases and everything, I become repulsed when it comes to inhumane treatment to animals and when self-aware creatures are used for food. I am a content meat-eater but that doesn’t mean I want to snack on a dog sandwich. Certain animals are just more self-aware than others, which muddy the moral waters. When an animal reaches that sense of awareness then it becomes an even stronger ethical dilemma when it comes to killing them, because they are more cognizant of what is happening and the life being taken from them. It may all sound like semantics to some, but that’s my personal stance. To literally quote George Orwell’s famous novel: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” That may seem hypocritical to people but I’d argue it’s a reigning opinion among a majority of Americans. The counter argument is that Westerners know that cows are being led to the slaughter, whereas the Japanese are purposely kept in the dark about the nature of the dolphin massacres. To make matters worse, dolphin meat is incredibly high in levels of mercury and the meat is labeled as other fish. The majority of the Japanese do not know that they are consuming poisoned dolphin meat. Americans at least know what they’re biting into (the jury’s still out with hot dogs).

The Cove only gives you the Western perspective on the subject because that’s what fits its agenda. It does take a few swipes at the arguments for dolphin hunting. The Japanese government views them as pests needed to be dealt with and blames the porpoises for declining fish levels, which to any rational thinking person would sound absurd. Which seems like the more likely scenario: pollution and over fishing lead to declining levels, or the sea creatures that have lived on the planet for millions of years are now to blame? The other token argument is that whale and dolphin killing is a part of traditional Japanese historical culture. This might hold true for some people; however, upon some minor research you find that the whaling tradition goes back only a couple centuries, no further than it did for European countries that have given up the practice.

But what the movie really fails to explore is why. Why do the Japanese fishermen, when offered the same money NOT to kill dolphins, decide to keep killing them? What is the psychology at foot in Taiji that links the town with annual slaughters? It’s a shame that Psihoyos devoted the entire bulk of the film to getting the footage. The focus of The Cove is a bit limited but I understand why. There needed to be an attainable goal: get the secret footage and spread the word. The movie is too entertaining and harrowing to really knock its limited scope, but The Cove could have been a much fuller depiction of this bloody reality.

The Cove builds a compelling, if one-sided, case condemning the ongoing actions of Taiji, Japan and the greater government. The conspiracy unfolds layer by layer and the movie ends up rallying others to action (O’Barry says you’re either an activist or an “inactivist”). I don’t know if anything will actually change now that the footage is out there, but at least people can be more aware of the annual dolphin slaughter. And after a year of wrangling, it appears that The Cove will be released in Japan this spring. Let’s see what kind of response comes out then and whether the Japanese are willing to pay the yen equivalent of eight bucks to watch dolphins die.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still is considered a sci-fi classic for a reason. Versatile director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) used a robot and an alien invader to help hold a mirror up to the world, asking how humanity was treating its brethren. The technology is easily dated and the tone a bit stately, but the movie is a complex, thoughtful, and relevant tale that begs for caution and kindness. It still holds up much better than most sci-fi chestnuts from yesteryear. And of course anything that film audiences have warm feelings for will be repackaged by Hollywood into a new more mass-appealing product. That means that big-budget Day the Earth Stood Still remake is likely to have no real improvement over the original. Well, it is in color. That’s an improvement for some.

A giant glowing spaceship lands in New York City’s Central Park. A glowing figure exits the craft and enters our world. This figure is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) who is an alien creature in the guide of a human body. He has been sent by a community of planets to judge the inhabitants of the Earth. You see, the universe is an awfully large expanse of space but it has a limited number of habitable planets. The rest of the universe is taking note of how human beings have treated their home, and they may just decide that the planet is better off without us. Klaatu is helped out by a sympathetic scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Eventually the alien escapes and the entire U.S. government is on high alert. Helen is trying to convince Klaatu to not rush to judgment. She’s also trying to connect with her angry step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith) after his father died in war. He’s not very trustful of Klaatu and, like plenty of other people, wants the alien dead.

Whereas the original was a cautionary tale about the Cold War and mutual destruction, and Klaatu was a peaceful Christ-like figure, the new version skips all this. It would rather recycle a message that human beings need to be nicer to Mother Nature. Now, this is an important concern but it’s harder to take seriously when the movie pretends it’s all about doom and gloom and then basically wimps out on an ending. The film is ready to wipe humanity off the globe and even gets a head start with what looks like swarms of microscopic metallic locusts. But then Klaatu looks out at mother and child, embracing as the world they know may come to an end, and concludes that human beings deserve yet another chance because they have the ability to “change.” That’s all it takes? This kind of cop-out ending reminds me of The Happening, another eco-horror movie that wanted to kill off all those pesky humans but then decided they could walk the Earth a tad longer and hopefully wiser. I’m sorry but this is weak. Profess an environmental message but do something with it, don’t thump your chest about taking personal responsibility and then skimp on repercussions. Remember filmmakers that this is fiction. You have the ability, nay the right, to destroy mankind on screen while I safely watch and consume popcorn.

You know what else keeps hurting the weight of the environmental message? The lousy relationship between Helen and her step-son Jason. This entire storyline needs to not exist. I recognize that the original movie had a substantial storyline where a single mom and her precocious son befriend Klaatu, but that doesn’t mean this remake has to reignite old storylines if they just simply won’t work in this retelling. Every time the movie spends significant time with Helen and Jason I felt like the Earth was standing still. This storyline just does not fit. The kid comes across as bratty and dumb and I actually wanted him to be micro-locust food at some points. He’s angry because his father died and that makes him argue that “Kill them all” is a serviceable foreign policy position. Whatever. This storyline is handled so terribly that every moment of drama it is intended to evoke hits with a resounding thud. When the little kid suddenly turns on a dime and helps his alien fugitive, there’s no explanation. He says he’s afraid of being alone. Well what did you think would happen when you called the U.S. government to come and abduct you? I swear that I do not have a heart of stone, and I love children, but every moment of this character felt false and annoyingly so. That’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still grinds to a halt whenever it switches back to this kid. It makes the whole alien threat a lot less menacing when we spend more time with this kid. Don’t we have far more significant things going on in this story than one kid working through his grief and learning to be less bratty?

Director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) doesn’t have a firm handle on how to establish an exciting action set piece, and he also makes his points very bluntly, though that’s also due to the script by David Scarpa. The beginning is the best part of the film, as scientists are whisked away by government authorities who can only say that the threat to the planet is grave. Interest is piqued at this point, as we, like the scientists, try and discover with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety what exactly the Earth is facing. It doesn’t much improve after the 15-minute mark. The movie just looks so drab. There is a discerning lack of action or excitement in a movie that threatens to eliminate the human race. The movie has long boring stretches that almost kill all momentum, and then the movie tries to compensate with an avalanche of special effects.

There are plenty of intriguing concepts and conflicts that fall by the wayside. In the original Klaatu hid among human beings and came to understand people, but in this new version he’s on the run from the start. I don’t necessarily need some tired fish-out-of-water comedy with Keanu, but seeing him learn about humanity before making a judgment is vital to his character. The remake opens in 1928 with aliens taking a DNA sample from a mountain climber (also Keanu Reeves) and then they use his blood to create a human host. What if that guy is still alive and sees his face on the news? What about his family going through and wondering what connection they might all have to the fate of mankind? Wouldn’t it have been easy just to swap Connelly’s character into this role and thus she is the descendant of that mountain climber and has to look in her grandfather’s face as he proclaims humanity’s end? That storyline would be more interesting and playful than anything with the step-kid.

Occasionally sci-fi movies can be partially redeemed by superior special effects. The Day the Earth Stood Still has some pretty shoddy effects that didn’t look much better when I watched the film in IMAX. The aliens have scrapped the older model flying saucers and decide to travel in giant glowing spheres, which may be awe-inspiring to see in person but it’s mostly lame to watch on screen. It’s not even that hard of a CGI effect to perform. The new likeness is completely wrong for Gort, one of the most famous movie robots of all time. In the 1951 original, Gort was a teen foot tall robotic guardian for Klaatu. Derickson has made Gort 40 feet tall and he looks weirdly like an Oscar statuette. The awesome robot is ridiculously captured by the U.S. military so that they can try and drill into it, which makes no sense at all. Then the robot transforms into that swarm of robo-locusts and that’s the last we see Gort in action. That’s just dumb. I would much rather see a giant robot wrecking havoc than a swarm tear apart Giants Stadium. The filmmakers decided that a hazy cloud would be more visually interesting than a giant robot. Give me more Gort!

I must say that hiring Reeves was the smartest move that the movie made. Reeves’ naturally stiff and aloof line delivery works nicely as an alien trying to some to grips with his new flesh and blood body. Reeves consistently entertains and adds a dash of fun that is mostly missing in this humorless and stubborn remake. Connelly works with what little she’s given, and man can she make her eyes glisten in the most beautiful manner, tearing up at a moment’s notice. Most of the other actors are wasted in stock roles, including Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense and Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm as a man who only serves to spout exposition. That’s the dashing Don Drapier, and you give him exposition? I won’t belittle Smith’s performance because in all honesty the kid is a fairly good actor. It’s not his fault he got stuck playing a dumb character that routinely hijacks the movie.

The newest Day the Earth Stood Still does little to justify its existence. This remake would have been better served either cribbing more of the superior original film or just cut off all ties. The remake tries to incorporate plot points that don’t work while also trying to tell its own environmental tale with bigger effects, which also doesn’t fully work. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a plodding and unnecessary remake that fails to stumble into an exciting scenario despite the fact that it involves aliens threatening the planet. But hey, it is in color.

Nate’s Grade: C

WALL-E (2008)

At this point, is there anything Pixar can’t do? They’ve explored the secret life of toys, what’s under the sea, the pains of rearing a family of super heroes, and of course a rat that dreams of becoming a chef. Seriously, anyone that can make that last one not only work but one of the most sparkling, imaginative, enchanting, and poignant films of the year deserves every accolade in the book. Pixar’s newest film, WALL-E, is certainly its most ambitious and potentially its most rewarding yet.

The year is 2700 and the planet Earth has long been left behind by mankind. Humans have exhausted their resources and left behind a planet that looks like one never-ending landfill. Skyscrapers are being built out of garbage cubes. The Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class (WALL-E) robots have been left to toil away and clean up mankind’s mess. There is but one WALL-E robot left and it leads a solitary life of routine. It gets up, it compacts trash into cubes, and it assembles those cubes into eventual giant structures. Then one day a probe lands called EVE. This floating capsule-like robot is easily frustrated and quick on the trigger and WALL-E falls completely in love with his unexpected new companion. The two become close and then EVE is taken away unexpectedly. WALL-E hitches a ride on the ship that collects his beloved and journeys through space to save her.

I was having reservations citing certain words of praise but this film deserves every ounce of praise; WALL-E is a masterpiece. This is a beautiful story told in a beautiful way in a beautiful looking movie. I imagine kids will be tickled by the funny robots but I really believe that this film will play much better for adults, and when was the last time a mainstream, American family film did that? Most “family” films are an excuse to do something lowbrow and cynical to make a quick buck, like the atrociously cringe-worthy trailer I saw for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (seriously, a civilization of singing/rapping Taco Bell dogs?). Pixar, and God bless them, are proving with each new release that family films need not be brain-killing hours. That reliable Pixar quality touch is never more present than with WALL-E. If you told me that a film that takes place on a trash-filled Earth, with minimal dialogue, and a romance between two robots would be the most thrilling, moving, and wonderful film of 2008, I would have scoffed.

Writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) relies on a universal visual storytelling language to tell the bulk of his tale. WALL-E plays like a gloriously enjoyable silent movie where body language and physicality advance the storyline and provide surprising depth; ignoring brief TV clips of Fred Willard and Hello Dolly, the movie doesn’t have actual dialogue until the 45-minute mark. And it is fantastic. The character of WALL-E is immediately empathetic and the audience will see slivers of themselves inside this independent robot that finds another reason for being. It’s a simple love story told in simple strokes, but it just so happens that Stanton has provided great emotional heft to those strokes. The film has such a huge and vibrant heart. More is said in indecipherable robot bleeps than in much of the tripe Hollywood calls dialogue. Watching WALL-E court EVE, a bit unsuccessfully at first, begins as cute, moves into being adorable, and ends up being greatly touching and flirting with the profound. How many other movies, let alone romances, end with the long-desired climax of two characters merely holding hands? This movie is a delight from beginning to end and a classic example of the power of expert storytelling.

When the film transitions into space is when the potent environmental message, and subversive satire, emerge. Beforehand we have witnessed the awe-inspiring landscape of Earth littered with garbage and empty shopping centers. Humans left the Earth to wait for the robots to do all the work and make the planet hospitable for life once again. For the last 700 years humans have been living in a heavy-duty luxury spaceship. Humans have grown to be fat, lazy, and completely self-involved; people only communicate with others through video screens, even when the other person is inches away. The movie also manages to satirize consumer culture, and in the future one corporate behemoth essentially dictates life’s choices; I found it highly amusing that the former president of the future (a live-action Willard) is also the CEO of the super corporate conglomerate. Business and government have merged completely. The social commentary isn’t as merciless as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, nor is the environmental message subtle in the slightest, but the satire is sharp enough and blunt that some viewers might be offended, and I think that is genius.

Being a Pixar film, naturally WALL-E is resplendent to look at. The animation is superb and the imagination on display seems limitless. This is one of those films I’m certain I could watch again and again and find something new every time. I don’t really need to say much more about the visuals because they are breathtaking to behold (Roger Deakins, by the far the greatest living cinematographer, was even consulted to help with the look of the film. How awesome is that?).

And yet even though WALL-E is primarily a love story the film also manages to be greatly exciting and equally funny. Stanton’s screenplay nimbly assembles characters and reintroduces them at key points to push his story onward. I loved that WALL-E is introduced to all sorts of unique robots on the mankind’s space ship and that he even stumbles into, more or less, a group of malfunctioning robots that come to his aid (think the Island of Misfit toys). Stanton manages to reconnect his storytelling threads so that every moment in this movie matters. The last third of the film is a back and forth cat-and-mouse struggle that manages to pump up suspense in smart ways. Stanton lays out his scenario for action and then builds organic complications. I am deeply satisfied when a filmmaker has a firm command of action that they can setup a situation, establish the rules, and then naturally construct obstacles and surprises that feel natural and germane to the story. Pixar has always been able to craft exciting action scenes that felt fully realized and WALL-E is no different.

If there is but one minor quibble I have with this near-perfect film, it is the missed opportunity to explore the mortality of robots. While WALL-E is going through his day-to-day duties he passes by older versions of other WALL-E models. The movie could have pushed just a little harder with the concept that this tiny robot is going to live to collect trash and then die like all the rest, becoming another piece of forgotten garbage. I think if Stanton had only explored this idea a little more it would have made his robo-love story even richer considering that both robots are going against their programming because they have found something that completely changed their world — love. The idea of mortality was explored to excellent effect in 1999’s Toy Story 2, so perhaps the Pixar folk didn’t want to fall into a philosophical repeat.

WALL-E is a wonderful love story, a heartfelt and immensely charming character piece, and a thrilling sci-fi tale that soars to broad heights of imagination. It’s timeless while still being rather timely thanks to its environmental message. Moments after the movie was over I wanted to see it again. I think I’ll feel the same way after the second viewing and the third. This is a phenomenal movie that will stand the test of time as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Happening (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan is still reeling from the beating he took over 2006’s Lady in the Water, a colossal misguided attempt at a modern fairy tale. The man is trying to retain his cozy relationship with audiences that adored his earlier works like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Shyamaln’s latest, The Happening, isn’t going to dissuade the detractors. This man is a talented filmmaker and I think it’s finally time that he starts thinking of focusing on one creative job and one job only, either writing or directing.

There’s a pandemic sweeping across the Northeast United States. It first starts with disoriented speech, then moves to disoriented movement, and ends with people committing suicide. Nobody knows what is officially going on. High school science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) tries to flee Philadelphia with his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). They travel out into the suburbs when their train stops. The conductor says that they’ve lost contact with everybody. Eliot eventually theorizes that what’s causing this pandemic isn’t terrorists, or the government testing some biological agent, but plants. Yes, plants. In their defense, the plants are releasing an airborne toxin that flips a neurological switch in human brains. Instead of self-preservation the brain is pushed toward immediate self-destruction.

The Happening is no Lady in the Water, thankfully. The premise is pretty interesting in a feature-length Twilight Zone kind of way. Shyamalan does know how to spin an interesting idea and watch social paranoia explode. The best moments of The Happening take place during its beginning where confusion and panic reign. Shyamalan then takes a page from 2005’s War of the Worlds and follows the perspective of a handful of normal folk as the experience an apocalyptic event. We even spend the third act hiding out in the home of a crazy person (the creepy Betty Buckley). Unfortunately, we in the audience feel no involvement with the poorly written main characters. Once again Shyamalan utilizes a horrific and unique encounter as the impetus for reconciling the pains in a marriage. At a scant 99 minutes, there isn’t much time set aside for building characterization. There is not a whiff of personal connection to this tale.

Shyamalan doesn’t seem to explore the psychological ramifications of his premise. Suicide is very traumatizing and it would have swept over the East Coast in waves; millions would be dead. Yet the characters and Shyamalan never seem to focus on this point. Perhaps they’re in shock but no one seems to actually react realistically to the possible end of the world. Normal people would be freaking out. I would be freaking out. The idea that the country goes back to normal after three months is preposterous. Would anyone want to live on the East Coast again after all that death? People would be finding bodies for many months after the “happening;” just look at the slow recovery of New Orleans. Never mind the hit the economy would take from millions of people expiring.

The ecological message can also be incessantly heavy-handed. Characters run past a sign for a housing development that advertises the slogan, “You deserve this.” Oh, gee, I get it. A TV host at the very end interviews a scientist theorizing that what happened was a warning from the environment to shape up and change our ways. The TV host is so incredulous that he actually says, “Well, I’d like to believe you doc, but maybe if it just happened somewhere else again, maybe then I could believe you.” You idiot, millions of people died and there are how many witnesses? I know exactly what message Shyamalan is trying to say (wake up, we can’t ignore the signs) but having a character denying the obvious is too ludicrous given what happens in the story.

But the story does invite further inquiries. How exactly do the plants communicate with each other? I can understand root structures but how does a bush talk to a tree unless they share root structures? Do plants speak different languages? Can a bush talk with a tree, and do French bushes speak differently than their English brethren? The plants seem to react to large numbers of people, but how do they know when there’s say enough folk running around to kill? Do they smell people? That toxin seems to not affect animals but I don’t see how that could be possible given that, as far as I know, animals inhale the air as well. Of course, if all surrounding animals and insects were to keel over then that would irrevocably harm the ecosystem and endanger the plants. This must be why the “happening” lasts a little over a day, coincidentally ending just when our protagonists are about to give up. And if Mother Nature, as a form of population control, triggers this toxin release then wouldn’t it stand to reason that some place like China or India would be hit first instead of the Northeast United States? Shouldn’t a science teacher know that still air would be filled with more toxins than when the wind blows? I’ll give Shyamalan this — he was able to make me fear a tree. There was one moment where a little girl was on a swing that was bolted into a tree limb and the constant creaking made me nervous that they would anger the tree.

Despite the flaws in storytelling, this narrative still could have worked as is if it just had a better director at the helm. Shyamalan lets everyone down on this one. Much of the marketing angle was how The Happening is Shyamalan’s first foray into R-rated material, but you can tell he doesn’t feel comfortable showing more than implying. One sequence follows a police officer’s gun as different individuals take turns shooting themselves in the head. Shyamalan shoots this sequence like the camera weighed 800 pounds, so the shot never rises above people’s feet. We see the gun fall on the ground, feet walk over to the gun, hands pick it up and lift it off screen, then a very unconvincing gunshot sound effect, then the process repeats. By not actually seeing the deadly aftermath Shyamalan risks the sequence becoming unintentionally funny and it almost happens. This directorial technique does not raise suspense, and in fact, Shyamalan botches most of the potential suspense in The Happening. Given the premise, Shyamalan doesn’t find too many sequences that make the audience squirm. A man wandering around in a lion’s cage is so fake and played in the wrong tone that it just becomes goofy even when his arms get ripped off. There’s only one protracted horror sequence that shows true gore, where a man lies down in the path of a giant lawnmower and we start to see the machine ride over him and whirl its blades. However, even this scene could have gone longer to fully draw out the shock and terror. Shyamalan just doesn’t have the temerity for R-rated material, and as a result the movie could have been a lot more terrifying had the man embraced the gruesome potential of a more mature rating.

Shyamalan’s visual storytelling is pretty rote. I kept thinking to myself how poor everything seemed to be looking. The cinematography is lackluster and the shot compositions are rather bland. Part of what makes a horror movie effective is clever visual setups that slowly leak tension like air from a balloon. Shyamalan’s idea of drawing out tension is to watch tress blow in the wind. After a while, when you realize this is the one trick Shyamalan has, it gets old and extremely boring. The Happening would have benefited from a stronger visual storyteller who could also goose the narrative with better-constructed scares. It’s disappointing because Shyamalan was able to elicit top-notch suspense in 2002’s Signs with simple sounds and the imagination. Now, when he’s given the chance to show terror he falls on his face.

Another dent to Shyamalan’s direction is the fact that the actors all give bad performances. Wahlberg and Deschanel have given great performances in other movies so I know they are capable of more, and the blame must lie at the feet of Shyamalan. They overact with gusto and always seem to never be fully immersed in the reality of the drama. Even Wahlberg’s first line delivery raises your eyebrow because it seems too amateurish and flat. Deschanel is even worse and whatever emotion she is playing in a scene is the wrong emotion. She’s whiny and overly childlike when she should be reflective and contemplative, she’s wide-eyed and weepy when she should be tender, and she’s bad with just about every line. Alma is a weak character and seems to turn everything back to an injustice against her, even when people are killing themselves en mass. Part of the actors’ woes is complicated by Shyamalan’s wooden dialogue, which includes gems like, “We’ve just got to stay ahead of the wind” (how exactly does one do that?) and, “We’re not going to stand around like uninvolved bystanders” (who says that?). The most shocking aspect of The Happening is that Shyamalan totally betrays the trust of his very competent actors.

M. Night Shyamalan would be best served in the future by focusing on one role. He could direct someone else’s material or he could write and have someone else direct. If he had gone the latter route I’m convinced that The Happening would have worked even with a flawed script. The movie is too timid to push the horror boundaries available to a mature rating, the suspense is minute, and Shyamalan completely leaves his actors hanging out to dry. There is some laugh out loud moments of unintentional hilarity (like when Wahlberg calmly says “Oh no” upon hearing suicidal gunshots), but the movie also has moments of intrigue amidst its heavy-handed environmental message. Statistically, if there were a killer toxin there would be those who would be genetically immune to it, much like the scenario in I Am Legend. I have to say that if I was fortunate enough to survive I would whisper some threatening words to some choice flora and then I would set lots and lots of fires out of revenge. Take that, you stinking vegetation!

Nate’s Grade: C

Evan Almighty (2007)

This big-budget sequel goes heavier on slapstick and poop jokes but also crams in environmental messages. I was wondering how the filmmakers were going to angle the whole Noah flood thing without it being world destroying, because nothing says funny like everyone drowning to their deaths. Steve Carell tries hard to make the material work and I give him points for trying. This sentimental comedy has some moments of lively levity, mostly from Carell being bewildered at what is happening, but the film eventually succumbs to some weak, half-hearted messages about treasuring family and producing acts of kindness (I won’t bother spoiling the regrettably inane acronym of ARK). The supporting cast is wasted, none more than Lauren Graham as Carell’s underwritten wife. The Lord works in mysterious ways and so too do movie executives. Upping the budget doesn’t mean the laughs have been super-sized as well. Evan Almighty is passable entertainment thanks to Carell. It’s hard to be preachy when you have so many jokes about poop.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

The answer should be pretty obvious. However, this is not a slapped together bundle of liberal outrage. This is a lucid and refined argument that car companies, oil companies, and other interests essentially turned back the clock on invention and progress, something that is deeply upsetting. The market for an electric car was here and continues to be here, and this film shows that the car companies would rather destroy every electric car and pretend it never existed. This documentary relies on a lot of talking heads, many in the auto industry or former electric car drivers, but the information is easy to grasp and does not overwhelm the viewer. All I can say is, thank God for the Japanese. When the electric cars were up and zooming, car companies proposed their own cleaner-air alternative, the hydrogen car, something we’re told is never going to happen. But the Japanese were so scared by the amount of talk American car companies made that they themselves developed a hybrid car while their American competitors were just twiddling their thumbs idly. Well done, nation of the rising sun.

Nate’s Grade: B

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Al Gore is possibly the least likely movie star in the history of movies. The former Vice President and 2000 presidential candidate has been making the scene with An Inconvenient Truth, a potent documentary warning about the impending perils of global warming. Gore has traveled all over the globe giving a well-honed Power Point presentation on the topic. An Inconvenient Truth is a 90-minute big screen version of this presentation. Consider it more concert film than documentary. An Inconvenient Truth is equal parts spellbinding and terrifying. Best of all, it’s that rare film that could quite honestly change the world for the better.

This is like sitting through an impassioned lecture by your favorite college professor. Gore smartly turns the issue of global warming from a political issue to a moral issue and asks how can we let this happen to our planet. He delivers a highly persuasive science show that should shake everyday Americans out of complacency and galvanize them to action. But what’s best about An Inconvenient Truth is that it doesn’t crush you to death with data. Gore explains the perils of climate change in general, easily graspable terms and uses choice pictures to service his message. It’s downright startling to see photos of glaciers and lakes that have gone dry in such a short span of time. As the film continues, Gore gains momentum and the facts, graphs, and charts multiply, and you’ll be hungry for even more. An Inconvenient Truth is a great learning tool because it really whets your appetite for knowledge and follows through on its convictions. Gore climbs an elevated lift to illustrate on a chart where carbon dioxide emissions will be heading. The moment is both grand theater and a stupendously straightforward visual demonstration that there will be far, far, faaaaaar greater carbon dioxide emissions in the near future than there has even been in 650,000 years.

Gone is the hectoring, emotionless Al Gore that people seem to recall from his political days. An Inconvenient Truth displays a Gore rich with humor, command, and most surprising of all, guile and charm. Old Gore might have harrumphed at his critics and come across like a walking stiff, stick firmly entrenched in rear. The Gore on display here seems candid, spirited, and easily engaging, plus he never comes across as preachy. It helps when he’s presenting on a topic he’s devoted much of his life to being a cheerleader for. Nevertheless, he’s a disarming speaker and it’s easier to swallow his spoonfuls of science when he’s turning on the charm.

Gore presents an overwhelming case for the existence of steady global climate change. But why then is there still much hand wringing about whether scientists can even agree? An Inconvenient Truth seems to have the answer. We see a ten percent sample, around 900 peer-edited scientific reports, concerning the topic of global warming. Not one of the 900 reports concluded that the proof of global warming was inconclusive. However, we then see that over 50 percent of all media reports mentioning global warming cite scientific wavering, saying the jury’s still out in the scientific community when it is anything but. Perhaps this is why people still see global warming as inauthentic hippie alarmism. Gore tackles his critics and presents very levelheaded reasoning. You can tell this man believes strongly and genuinely in the topic.

Let me put aside my film critic hat, if I may for one moment. I am getting fed up with how flippantly people dismiss science when it conflicts with their own belief system or agenda. There was a time when people looked at scientific findings and accepted them, saw their extensive testing and recalculating, and chalked it up to truth. Nowadays we have people trying to define their own versions of science, whether it be a new opening to slip religion into a classroom (Intelligent Design), a new way to control behavior (suppressing FDA-approved birth control studies), or simply a way of turning back time and civil rights (erroneous abstinence only sex ed). This stuff really irritates me. Let’s trust the science to the scientists, not Pat Robertson when he says he knows condoms are unreliable. When I get a cold I don’t consult my pastor, do you? That’s why I too am frustrated by what Al Gore sees. There’s a cabal of special interests trying to turn the issue of global warming from fact to theory, and in the process delaying serious response because it affects their cash flow. Okay, rant completed.

The science side of the equation is open and shut. Global warming is taking place but what can we do about it? We learn in the movie that the United States is the biggest polluter in the world. Thankfully, An Inconvenient Truth actually suggests ways of cutting down on energy that the average American can do. The end credits are full of helpful do-good aphorisms and suggestions to combat climate change. One of those suggestions just happens to be telling your friends to see An Inconvenient Truth. Surely the makers of this film get nothing out of that option.

Less effective are the minor asides the film takes to look into Al Gore’s personal and political past. The point I suppose is to show how we can turn personal tragedy or setbacks into a rallying point to save the planet. I don’t really know. These segments clog up the engrossing horror story Gore is dictating. I don’t want to learn about Gore’s tobacco farming family or how he handled losing the 2000 presidential election, I want to get back to the doom, the gloom, the graphs, and the pictures! It’s the equivalent of listening to a grand ghost story by camp light and having the storyteller occasionally stopping to mention they once caught an eight-pound bass. Get back to the good stuff already.

You don’t have to agree with Gore’s politics or even like him to be strongly affected by An Inconvenient Truth. As a film, it’s little more than a bigger stage for Gore’s patented, visually friendly slideshow, but as a message movie its aim is true and striking. Gore lets the science speak for itself and to that end the case seems closed. Global warming is happening, despite what media reports, skeptical business big wigs, and energy polluters might say. It’s saying something about the reach and importance of a documentary when actual oil companies are releasing smear commercials to discredit its message. Gore’s impassioned science lecture is fascinating, incredibly informative, and easy on the eyes with lots of stark pictorial examples. Al Gore is right; global warming is too big to be deemed a matter of political right and wrong. It demands attention and action, and An Inconvenient Truth demands to be seen; it’s not the best movie of 2006 but it’s certainly the most important.

Nate?s Grade: B+

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