The Happening

The Happening

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Today, I’ll be taking a look at what is arguably the low point of M. Night Shyamalan’s film career to date: 2008’s The Happening.

The plot of The Happening is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A science teacher, his wife, and a young girl struggle to survive a plague that causes those infected to commit suicide.

The Happening was written and directed by the one and only M. Night Shyamalan, whose whiplash-inducing up and down career has included films like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, After Earth, Signs, and Split.

The cast of the movie includes the likes of Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Boogie Nights, The Fighter, The Other Guys), Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer, Elf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Betty Buckley (Carrie, Wyatt Earp), John Leguizamo (John Wick, Bloodline, Super Mario Brothers, Spawn), and Alan Ruck (Twister, Speed, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

The cinematographer for The Happening was Tak Fujimoto, who also shot Devil, The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, Pretty In Pink, and Where the Buffalo Roam, among others. The film’s editor was Conrad Buff IV, who has had credits that range from comedies like Monster Trucks, True Lies, and Space Balls to science fiction like The Abyss, Species, and Terminator 2.

The musical score for the film was composed by James Newton Howard, one of M. Night Shyamalan’s most frequent collaborators. On top of The Happening, he also did the music for the films Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler, Green Lantern, The Dark Knight, The Last Airbender, Lady In The Water, Dreamcatcher, Space Jam, and Waterworld.

Mark Wahllberg has since denounced The Happening, saying that he primarily took the job because of the opportunity to portray a science teacher, rather than a cop or a crook.

Amy Adams, who has since become one of the most acclaimed actresses in Hollywood, turned down the lead role in The Happening that eventually went to Zooey Deschanel.

The Happening was made on a production budget of $48 million, on which it took in a worldwide, lifetime gross of $163.5 million. While this was almost certainly profitable, the film was absolutely brutalized by critics and audiences alike: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.0/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 24% from audiences.

One of the few positive reviews for The Happening interestingly came from one of the most well-regarded film critics of the time: Roger Ebert. In his review, he referred to the film as, among other things, “too thoughtful for the summer action season.” At the same time, he was prescient in predicting the film’s critical failure, writing:

I suspect I’ll be in the minority in praising this film. It will be described as empty, uneventful, meandering. But for some, it will weave a spell.

Watching the performances and deliveries in The Happening, it is hard to believe that the actors weren’t intentionally playing for comedy. In particular, Wahlberg’s performance is surreal in its hilarity: despite the tone around him, he managed to get a number of laughs out of me, despite the fact that there is no overt humor in the screenplay. His conversation with a plastic plant is honestly funnier than most actual comedy routines these days if you ask me.

One of the most obvious issues with The Happening is its underlying message. More specifically, the message is far too heavy-handed, and lacks the subtlety to make it truly powerful. That said, there is a kernel of an interesting idea within The Happening: plants fighting back against humans as an evolutionary defense sounds like the early makings for a pretty nifty creature feature, but it would have to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek to be effective.

One of the few positive things that can be said about The Happening is that it had an R-rating, and managed to use it to a decent effect. A number of the suicide scenes are impressively gory, and provide brief moments of loose entertainment in a generally very slow, plodding film.

Overall, The Happening had an interesting foundation in its idea, but a bunch of things clearly went wrong over the course of seeing that vision to the screen. While it is easy to place blame on the cast for their performances, I think that the writing is far more responsible for the film’s larger issues: Shyamalan might have considered having someone co-write, re-write, or at least punch up the script before handing it wholesale to his actors. However, I suspect Shyamalan was a bit overprotective of the screenplay, given he was also the film’s director. Generally, screenwriters are out the door early in production, and the director is free to alter the work to fit their vision after that. However, when the director and the writer are the same person, necessary screenplay cuts and changes may not happen out of a sense of pride and defensiveness. If there is anything that is known about M. Night Shyamalan at this point, it is that he is a man prone to pride and defensiveness, so the shoe does seem to fit.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think The Happening is a pretty fun ride, even though it is a bit slow in the pacing department. In particular, Wahlberg’s flailing in his role is captivating, like watching a cat try to get sticky tape off of its paw: the motions and expressions are excessive, while always being just a little too unnatural to be believed as earnest. The absolutely brutal death sequences in the movie add a little more entertainment as well, primarily due to their bizarre natures. That said, I think this is a movie best suited for bad movie fans: I’m not sure if there would be as much fun to sap out of the film for your typical, casual moviegoer.

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The Core

The Core

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Today, I am going to take a look at one of the most infamously terrible natural disaster movies: 2003’s The Core.

The plot of The Core is summarized on IMDb as follows:

The only way to save Earth from catastrophe is to drill down to the core and set it spinning again.

The screenplay for The Core had two credited writers: Cooper Layne, who also penned the remake of The Fog, and John Rogers, who wrote Catwoman and worked extensively on Cosby and Leverage.

The Core was directed by Jon Amiel, whose other film works include Copycat, Creation, Entrapment, and The Man Who Knew Too Little. On top of that, his television credits include work on shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, Marco Polo, The Singing Detective, and Hemlock Grove.

The substantial cast for the movie includes Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking, Suspect Zero), Stanley Tucci (Road To Perdition, Lucky Number Slevin, Spotlight, The Lovely Bones), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, Insomnia, Boys Don’t Cry, The Next Karate Kid), Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Flight), Delroy Lindo (Domino, Sahara, Gone In Sixty Seconds, Broken Arrow, Get Shorty), Tcheky Karyo (Bad Boys, The Patriot, GoldenEye), and Richard Jenkins (Bone Tomahawk, White House Down, The Cabin In The Woods, Six Feet Under).

thecore4The cinematographer for The Core was John Lindley, who also shot St Vincent, Legion, The Good Son, The Sum Of All Fears, True Believer, Field of Dreams, The Serpent and The Rainbow, Pleasantville, and Money Train. Terry Rawlings, who has cut films like GoldenEye, Entrapment, Alien, Alien 3, and Legend over his career, provided the primary editing.

The musical score for the movie was provided by Christopher Young, whose other music credits include movies like Sinister, The Rum Diary, Drag Me To Hell, Spider-Man 3, Swordfish, Rounders, Trick or Treat, and Hider In The House, among many others.

A fictitious material known as “Unobtanium” is referred to a handful of times in the movie. “Unobtanium” is essentially a short-hand code word in science-fiction to refer to a non-existent material with inexplicable powers or properties. The term will occasionally make its way into film scripts: most prominently in James Cameron’s Avatar. However, it is widely viewed as a lazy move.

At the University of British Columbia, The Core is routinely shown in a course on “Earth and Ocean Science” as a demonstration of bad science in movies. However, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait, who specializes in criticizing bad movie science, didn’t take as much of an issue with the movie as you might think.

The Core is essentially a high-budget remake of Deep Core, a low-budget science fiction movie from 2000 that starred Wil Wheaton, Bruce McGill, and Terry Farrell.

Made on a $60 million budget, The Core wound up with a lifetime theatrical gross of $73.5 million. While this was able to cover the costs of production on paper, it likely didn’t make much in the way of profit once advertising and post-production costs were taken into account.

thecore3Critically, The Core was instantly the victim of mockery for its outlandish concept. It currently holds an IMDb user score of 5.4/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 41% from critics 33% from audiences, and is widely remembered as one of the goofier disaster movies of the era.

Upon a re-watch, the first thing that stood out to me about The Core is that the effects haven’t aged well: a lot of the CGI that probably looked good in the early 2000s looks like it belongs in a SyFy original movie today. While this is a testament to the speed of technological innovation, it doesn’t do the film any favors.

One of the reasons that The Core is still remembered today is because of the huge liberties it took with movie magic science. While the premise is certainly goofy, I didn’t find the bogus science nearly as distracting as I expected: the film actually does a pretty good job of immersing the audience in its exaggerated reality, and somehow it holds up the suspension of disbelief.

thecore2Aaron Eckhart, as always, is a charming lead. However, I feel like he was a bit miscast: the character was clearly written to be a bit of a helpless nerd who lacks assertiveness and confidence, and who grows from the experiences of the story. Eckhart, however, just looks too much like a movie star. Outside of his pretty awful hair cut, I didn’t find him a good fit for his character’s needs. Stanley Tucci, on the other hand, is fantastically hammy in his semi-villainous role, and was perfectly cast. Outside of those two, there are so many character actors in this movie that I couldn’t possibly list them all.  What is important, however, is that they all put in decent performances, from the top to the bottom of the cast.

Rewatching it now, one of the biggest issues I have with The Core are the excessively agonizing character deaths for generally likable characters. Typically, the more painful deaths are saved for characters with vices, or ones who have in some way earned their demise, based on their decisions or behavior. Think about how often the unlikable jocks are killed off in horror movies, for instance. In The Core, however, the two most brutal deaths are experienced by supporting characters who are, more or less, flawless. Why do these characters suffer such terrible deaths, like being slowly crushed or boiled alive? My best guess is that this was a simple way to raise the stakes of the plot, and reinforce the inherent danger of their mission. However, it definitely left me with a weird taste in my mouth. The traditional karmic wheel that mandates character deaths just doesn’t seem to be in motion.

Overall, The Core is a very shallow movie when it comes to plot and character. However, it almost makes up for it with the performances from the cast, and the sheer silliness and popcorn-friendliness of the flick. The biggest issue with the movie in retrospect are the overabundance of CGI effects, which certainly haven’t aged well. That said, I think this is a b-level blockbuster worth digging back up for a fun watch: just don’t expect much substance underneath the surface.

I Am Wrath

I Am Wrath

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Today, I’m going to take a look at a 2016 direct-to-video action flick starring John Travolta: I Am Wrath.

The plot of I Am Wrath is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A man is out for justice after a group of corrupt police officers are unable to catch his wife’s killer.

I Am Wrath was directed by Chuck Russell, who is best known for movies like the 1988 remake of The Blob, The Mask, The Scorpion King, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.

The cast for the movie is headlined by John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Face/Off. Grease) and Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Man of Steel), with additional performances by Amanda Schull (Suits, Twelve Monkeys), Sam Trammell (True Blood), Patrick St. Esprit (Narcos, Sons of Anarchy), and Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business, Wedding Crashers).

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The music for I Am Wrath was composed by Haim Mazar, whose other credits include The Iceman, The Taking of Deborah Logan, and the television show Teen Mom.

The cinematographer for the film was Andrzej Sekula, who shot the cult favorite movies American Psycho, Hackers, Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, and also directed the horror sequel Cube 2: Hypercube.

I Am Wrath was filmed primarily in the city of Columbus, OH, a non-typical location for a film production. A number of local landmarks show up in the movie, including the Ohio Statehouse, the illuminated arches of High Street, and the local diner chain Buckeye Donuts.

Rumor has it that the initial plan for the film was for William Friedkin, of The Exorcist and The French Connection, to direct, with Nicolas Cage in the starring role. However, numerous delays led to the eventual combination of Russell and Travolta.

The title of the film, I Am Wrath, is a reference to the Bible passage Jeremiah 6:11, which reads as follows in the New International Version of the text:

But I am full of the wrath of the Lord,
    and I cannot hold it in.

“Pour it out on the children in the street
    and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it,
    and the old, those weighed down with years.

Upon their release, the promotional images and posters for I Am Wrath were the subject of widespread online mockery for their incompetent and awkward construction.

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“this…has left me at a complete loss for words. All I can do is implore you to share this post with as many people as possible. The world needs to know.” – Scott Wampler, Birth.Movies.Death.

I Am Wrath ultimately released straight to video, and was not received warmly. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 11% from critics and 34% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

For the past few years, I have been living and working in Columbus, OH, so I happened to be around while I Am Wrath was filming locally. Outside of a few blips in the news about John Travolta being in town for a role, I didn’t hear a whole lot about it. However, it was interesting to see familiar locations on screen while watching the movie: for folks in New York or Los Angeles, that is probably no big deal, but seeing Columbus on screen was kind of bizarre.

Despite a handful of interesting visuals peppered throughout the movie, I Am Wrath is far and away dominated and defined by its central performances. Unfortunately, thanks to John Travolta’s half-sleepwalking rendition of a mercenary / car factory administrator, the movie is all the weaker because of it. That said, Christopher Meloni provides the film with an iota of charm and levity with his improvised wit, though he is woefully missed when not on screen (which is, unfortunately, often). Meloni, unlike Travolta, seems to understand the schlock that he is wrapped up in, and leans into the absurdity of the situation, and clearly enjoys his tough guy routine.

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Travolta, by contrast, is a black hole: a human-shaped void that made me question if this was the same hammy scenery-chewer I remembered from Face/Off, Swordfish, and Battlefield Earth. Say what you will about any of those performances, but the guy was never lacking in passion or enthusiasm in those roles.

Beyond Travolta’s banal lead performance, the biggest issue with I Am Wrath is almost certainly the screenplay, which is basically a paint-by-numbers revenge plot. There are a few things I liked about it, though: for instance, there’s a RoboCop-like dynamic between some of the villains, which is always nice to see. However, there is also a lot of bad dialogue, and way too much information is revealed far too blatantly for the message to have much of a punch. Worst of all, I think the I Am Wrath screenplay has one of the most egregious and hilarious examples of a placeholder character name making it all the way to the final draft: Governor Merserve, the self-serving Governor. That’s just inexcusable.

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Honestly, I wish there was something to recommend about I Am Wrath. Unless you are a big fan of Christopher Meloni, or a Columbus local interested in seeing the city on screen, there just isn’t anything compelling here. Even the action sequences aren’t terribly enthralling, and are by and large forgettable. If you want a cheesy action movie, look into whatever Nic Cage has out this week, and give this one a pass.

Hausu

Hausu

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Today, I’m going to take a look at a truly bizarre, one of a kind film: 1977’s Hausu.

The plot of Hausu is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A schoolgirl and six of her classmates travel to her aunt’s country home, which tries to devour the girls in bizarre ways.

Hausu was directed and produced by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, who was previously known for doing a fair amount of television, short film, and commercial directing in Japan. Obayashi, or “OB,” also provided the film’s distinct special effects, and was notably the primary advocate for the film during its tumultuous pre-production. While he has continued to make many films over the years, and is considered a celebrity in Japan, Hausu is by far his film with the most international recognition and acclaim.

Serving as the production designer and assistant director for the film was Kazuo Satsuya, who provided design work for two other notable cult movies: Lady Snowblood and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

hausu2One of the producers for Hausu was Tomoyuki Tanaka, a Toho producer who had a hand in the creation of countless Japanese cinema classics, including monster flicks like Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, as well as Kurosawa features like Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Kagemusha, and Sanjuro.

A number of the most distinct elements of the film were based on ideas collected from OB’s young daughter prior to the writing of the screenplay. He has said that he asked his daughter for ideas because “children can come up with things that can’t be explained.” Among the many ideas from his young daughter that made their way into the final film were the hand-eating piano keys, the very concept of a killer house, the watermelon-head being pulled from a well, and the bizarre pillow attack.

hausu5Following the project getting a green light from Toho, none of the Toho staff directors wanted to take it on, fearing that the film could easily be a career-ender due to the screenplay’s outlandish concept. After it sat unproduced for 2 years, OB, the film’s primary driving force, was given permission to direct. Toho was initially hesitant to let him take the reigns, specifically because he wasn’t on staff with the company.

Hausu finally got a theatrical release on July 30, 1977 in Japan as part of a double feature. It wound up being a surprise success, as it particularly struck a chord with cinema-going youth. Despite its popularity, the film didn’t make it officially to North American theaters or homes until well into the 2000s.

The Criterion Collection, which is known for distributing influential and well-regarded films on home video, released DVDs and blu-rays of Hausu in October 2010, bringing a new audience to the film.

hausu1Hausu has had a complicated history with critics: Japanese critics didn’t care for it initially when it was released in theaters, but its long-belated release in North America led to a critical re-evaluation decades later. North American critics have mostly praised it, and time has solidly cemented the movie as a memorable cult classic.

The two most defining elements of Hausu are, without much argument, its bizarre images and odd, often confusing tone. One of the most frequent descriptions I have heard of the movie is that it is like a “fever dream,” and there isn’t really a better way to describe it. There’s a sense of discontinuity between the film’s bleak content, cartoonish color, and whiplashed tone that makes it seem that it could only be the result of madness, and perhaps a wholesale divorce from reality.

One of the most impressive aspects of Hausu is its peculiar production design. The prominent matte painting backdrops and clear set pieces are surreal in how transparently artificial they are. In a sort of rejection of traditional wisdom, the design spits in the face of immersion: there is never a moment where the audience could confuse the events in the film with reality. In that sense, I was reminded a bit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though with a dramatic injection of frenetic color, gore, and LSD.

hausu3One of my initial issues with the movie while I was watching it was that the characters are incredibly thin, and are mostly boiled down to single character traits. On top of that, the lack of characterization and time on screen for the individual girls makes most of them hard to distinguish from each other. However, as the movie went on, this is an element that started to interest me. Each of the girls have names that are related to their assigned traits, and occasionally to their deaths. It might be fair to write this off as shallow writing, but at the same time, there is also a debatable element of genre-awareness present as well. Given how transparently artificial the movie’s design is, why wouldn’t the characters follow suit? Whether this screenplay is an example of trope-awareness and genre-deconstruction is something that is probably worth discussing, whether it was intended or not by the writer.

hausu4Any of these elements I have mentioned so far could potentially be argued as positives or negatives, depending on who you asked about them. I think this is something that makes Hausu a uniquely interesting movie to discuss, and is one of the top reasons that I would recommend just about anyone give this movie a shot. For cult movie fans, it is absolutely essential. But, for everyone else, I think this is still worth watching. I would recommend going into the movie with as little information as possible, however. There are definitely enough highlights to entertain most audience members, though the movie does take a little time to get going, and the slapstick elements are likely to fall flat with many.

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