The Happening (2008)


Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it's Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it’s Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

(2008) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Alan Ruck, Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly, Cornell Womack, Curtis McClarin, Robert Lenzi, Derege Harding, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

It’s just an ordinary day in Central Park. People are jogging, people are walking their dogs. Two friends are sitting on a bench and reading a book, talking to each other.. A cold wind blows. The chatter and noise of the park dies down to a whisper. It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, something terrible does.

In Philadelphia, the horrified teachers at Philadelphia High, including popular science teacher Elliott Moore (Wahlberg) and his friend and peer Julian (Leguizamo) are informed that there has been a new terrorist attack on New York. This time, it was an airborne gas that was fatal within seconds. To be on the safe side, the principal (Ruck) orders the kids sent home. Julian is nervous; big cities are targets and he thinks it’ll be safer to join his mother on her farm in Harrisburg. He invites Elliott and his wife Alma (Deschanel) to come with them. Disquieted, Elliott accepts.

However, all is not perfectly well between Elliott and Alma. A distance has grown between them, built wider by all the things said and unsaid. Alma has been getting calls from Joey (Shyamalan), a co-worker who she went out for a meal with once but who almost certainly wants to take things farther. Alma is confused and adrift, not sure what she wants. However, she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia with terrorists shooting lethal gasses in major metropolitan centers.

Elliott and Alma meet Julian and his daughter Jess (Sanchez) in the train station. Julian’s wife will be late arriving and will take the next train. Julian can’t help but notice the tension between Alma and Elliott and stumbles into it somewhat. Still, the train leaves the station and for the moment, there are larger concerns. Then, as the train travels through the Pennsylvania countryside, those passengers with cell phones begin to get horrifying news. There have been more attacks, in Boston and in Philadelphia. Alarmed, Julian calls his wife, and is relieved to hear she’s caught a bus to Princeton, NJ and will try to meet them in Harrisburg as soon as she can arrange transportation.

Not too long afterwards, the train chugs to a halt and all the passengers are told to disembark. Why is the train stopping, Elliott asks a conductor. We’ve lost contact he replies. With who, says Elliott. Everyone says the conductor in a low voice. As the passengers gather in a small town diner, the true horror of the situation begins to unfold. Not only are big cities being targeted but small towns are starting to see outbreaks of the contagion as well. So many, in fact, that it looks increasingly that this is less the work of terrorists but some other force at work, something even more unsettling. Now, with the countryside becoming increasingly lethal, Elliott must find a way to get his group to safety before the toxins do their deadly work on them.

Wahlberg by this point in his career had settled into a niche, playing much the same character in movie after movie. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since I happened to like the character he played. Heck, a lot of movie stars – Cary Grant, John Wayne, Gregory Peck – all could get busted for the same crime when it comes right down to it. Wahlberg is more than adequate as the lead. Deschanel, who was at the time becoming one of my favorite actresses which she remains to this day, is given a somewhat fragile character to work with. At times, she does a real good job with it, but at others I think some of the nuances are just missed a bit. It is Buckley, as a somewhat curmudgeonly hermit of teetering mental stability, who steals the show in the few scenes that she has. This is not the Betty Buckley of Cats or even less so, Eight is Enough in any way shape or form.

Some of the best scares in the movie come as a result of the sound crew. As bodies fall from a high rise and hit the ground, the sickening thuds make the scene all the more eerie. Composer James Newton Howard uses his music to ratchet up the tension nicely. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto beautifully photographs the Pennsylvania countryside, even as something sinister is at work.

The middle third drags a bit and the last third completely loses cohesion, including an ending which is simply facepalm-worthy that has such a flat tone that the viewer leaves feeling curiously unfulfilled, like he needs to watch another movie to get their movie fix. The nature of the Happening is revealed far too early on. Some of the characters do incomprehensible things, which jar the viewer out of the world the filmmakers have created.

The first third of this movie is as excellent as anything Shyamalan has done, which may not be saying much for some, given how at this point in the game his reputation was rapidly eroding. At the time, I found that given the state of world events, the concept of The Happening was extremely timely. There are some genuine scares here, and some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. Think of this as An Inconvenient Truth done in Shyamalan style. Better still best not think of Shyamalan at all. This is very much a formulaic movie for Shyamalan, with lead characters struggling with personal issues while confronting a menace very much bigger than they are able to imagine. I had to this point been a fan of his work, but like many others left the theater disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: The tech crew helps create some impressive scares. The first third of the movie is some of Shyamalan’s best work ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third loses momentum and drags along. The final third is an absolute train wreck.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some very graphic scenes of violence, and most youngsters are going to be on a one-way trip to Nightmare City after seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first R-rated film by Shyamalan and was shot completely in sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: An interview with Betty Buckley, a featurette on the porch sequence and a gag reel highlight the DVD edition. The Blu-Ray edition allows you to view the film in BonusView mode which flashes trivia factoids onscreen and incorporates the deleted footage into the finished film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.4M on a $48M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Shallows

Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat


Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat

The Cat and Things One and Two scurry off into the sunset.

(2003) Family Comedy (Universal) Mike Myers, A,ec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Sean Hayes, Amy Hill, Danielle Ryan Chuchran, Taylor Rice, Brittany Oaks, Talia Prairie, Dan Castellaneta, Victor Brandt (voice), Clint Howard, Paris Hilton. Directed by Bo Welch

After the success of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas it made sense for producer Brian Grazer to try for a repeat. Take a beloved Dr. Seuss classic, stick an A-list comedian in the title role, and watch the bucks roll in. The trouble with Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat is that instead of Ron Howard directing, it is Bo Welch making his big-screen directorial debut. And while this Cat looks slick (Welch is a production designer), it lacks the heart that made the Grinch film so charming.

Conrad (Breslin) and Sally (Fanning) are polar opposites. Conrad is constantly doing his own thing, breaking rules and finding new and unique pathways to trouble. Sally is a bossy, tightly wound control freak who is the perfect little angel to the adults around her, but a nightmare to her friends.

Their mom, Joan (Preston), works at a real estate agency whose hypochondriac boss (Hayes) has a phobia about germs, but insists his agents meet and greet clients at special monthly parties. It’s Joan’s turn to play the hostess, and the house must be absolutely immaculate or else, as the boss puts it, she’s “FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-UR-DUH.”

When her babysitter conks out, Joan rushes home, where her next-door neighbor and would-be paramour Quinn (Baldwin) hopes to marry the attractive single mom and ship off the troublesome Conrad to military school. With an admonishment to her children to keep the house spotless, Joan leaves them in the care of a new sitter (Hill) who turns out to be narcoleptic. And for the two bored siblings, the rain truly begins to fall outside … which brings in a 6-foot tall Cat (Myers). The Cat is all about having fun, and after some initial moments of “scream and run,” he befriends the two kids in an attempt to bring them into balance.

Despite the protestations of a CGI fish (voiced by Hayes), the Cat wreaks havoc on the house, especially after the appearance of Thing 1 and Thing 2 (played by a phalanx of gymnasts). With the Things is a crate which — the Cat warns Conrad — must be left closed and locked, else the world from which the Cat in the Hat comes will encroach on this one. Naturally the rule-breaking Conrad opens the crate and gets the crab-like lock stuck on the family pooch’s collar. Said pooch promptly runs away, leading to a merry chase through town in which the suspicious Quinn follows, trying to get possession of the dog to finally bust Conrad permanently and give his mom a reason to ship the boy away.

If you’ve read the classic children’s book, you basically know the story and how it ends. There is a great deal more back story here, and a ton of gags, some of which are a bit more adult than Theodore Geisel might have used.

Myers plays the cat as a demented cross between SNL character Linda “Kawfee Tawk” Richman and the Cowardly Lion; he has moments where he is charming, but sometimes goes a bit more over-the-top than works. The kids are cute enough, but Conrad is such a jerk early on you kind of hope that he does get sent to military school — it might just do him some good.

The star here is the production design — no surprise, since that’s how Welch has mostly made his living. The town of Anyville is a melding of the kitschy suburbia of Edward Scissorhands and the curved-line chaos of Whoville, with a bit of theme park architecture. Everything is in bright primary colors, not unlike the books. And while Myers is more of a Cheshire cat than the thin, angular drawing of the Seuss books, the vision is still very Seussian.

But this Cat simply didn’t have as much heart as it needed. These days, kid movies really need to play to adults as well, but The Cat in the Hat goes a bit overboard in that direction. Some of the jokes are inappropriate for younger children. Myers’ Cat is more of a smarmy game show host than the force of nature depicted in the book, and there is almost no charm to him. Jim Carrey brought charm to the Grinch, which helped that film work.

This is a close call. It is a visually attractive movie, and there are some moments — particularly near the end — which are quite magical; just not enough to sustain an entire movie. Given what the character has meant to children for fifty years – even the grown-up ones – that’s a shame. The kids in this movie probably could have used a good spanking – although they probably would get a time out in this day and age. The filmmakers should have gotten one as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific production design. A theme park come to life.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to appeal to all audiences. Myers doesn’t capture the essence of the character. A major disappointment.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a little bit of crude humor, as well as a few jokes that might raise the eyebrows of parents as being inappropriate.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: As a result of this film, Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, refused to consider any more live action versions of her late husband’s work, giving as her reason that this movie veered too much from her husband’s family-friendly work.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a brief – very brief – featurette on Dr. Seuss, and also a feature on choosing which image to use on a U.S. Post Office Cat in the Hat stamp. For kids, there’s a dance along feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134.0M on a $109M production budget; the feature lost money during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cedar Rapids

Zoom: Academy for Superheroes


Zoom

Tim Allen is pleased to find out that he isn't responsible for the problems of Zoom.

(Columbia) Tim Allen, Courtney Cox, Rip Torn, Chevy Chase, Spencer Breslin, Ryan Newman, Kate Mara, Michael Cassidy, Kevin Zegers, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Pete Hewitt.

I’m all for superheroes. I love ’em. Really, I do. Give me a movie about a superhero and I’ll almost certainly be there, unless it’s Catwoman. I will admit to missing that one, and after I saw it on DVD, I realized I’d made the right decision. I’ve even enjoyed the faux heroes of Sky High and The Specials.

Being a long time fan of the genre, I will admit that much of what goes on is intended for younger audiences. After all, comic books are part of the American landscape for most kids. That’s why it didn’t faze me – at least at first – that a superhero movie was coming out aimed directly for small fries. I enjoy Tim Allen, at least most of the time, so I had hopes that this would be along the lines of a GalaxyQuest for the spandex set.

Hope may spring eternal for a blogger, but not so much for Jack Shepard (Allen). He runs an auto shop that prides itself on taking the time to fix cars right. What his customers don’t know is that Jack was once better known by another name – Zoom, team leader of the Zenith Project, kids with special powers who had been trained by the government to be a genuine superhero team. They had been the pride of America, protecting us from threats foreign and domestic until an ambitious general named Larraby (Torn) irradiated them with gamma radiation (doesn’t Bruce Banner have a patent on that?) causing one of them, Concussion, to go berserk and attack his own team, killing all of them except for Zoom who is forced to run faster than he ever has before, creating a vortex into which his brother is sucked, never to be seen again. This leaves Jack without any speed powers (except in one finger) and retired, more or less happily, for 30 years.

However, there is a threat on the horizon. Nebbish scientist Dr. Grant (Chase) has determined that a transdimensional portal is about to manifest in our world, and when it does Concussion will be loosed on our world again. He and General Larraby decide to revive Project Zenith and use the powerless Zoom as a trainer for a new generation of heroes. Comely (but clumsy) psychologist Marsha Holloway (Cox) is sent to fetch Jack, promising him that the kids won’t be irradiated, but “natural ” methods will be used. A half million dollar paycheck doesn’t hurt either.

The kids – superstrong six-year-old Cindy Collins a.k.a. Princess (Newman), chunky twelve-year-old Tucker Williams a.k.a. Megaboy (Breslin) who is able to inflate various parts of his body, sixteen-year-old telekinetic Summer Jones a.k.a. Wonder (Mara) and seventeen-year-old Dylan West a.k.a. Houdini (Cassidy) who is able to turn invisible at will – are skeptical. The world has changed in thirty years and the idea of becoming a superhero, while cool, is a little passé. Zoom, for his part, is just going through the motions. He hasn’t been told what the kids are being trained for, so he thinks it’s just a government lark. He’s there strictly for the paycheck.

As time grows short, the pressure begins to mount on Jack to train the kids – or else. Gradually, he begins to grudgingly learn to like the kids and begins to actually prepare them for the life of a superhero, until he finds out the truth. Can he prepare the kids in time so that they don’t meet the same end as his previous team?

The movie is loosely – verrrrrry loosely – based on an illustrated book by Jason Lethcoe. However, the similarities between his book and Sky High were too noticeable and so the decision was made to alter the storyline. What results is a pastiche from various movies, some good, some bad but none working cohesively. Allen and Cox do their work gamely and manage not to disgrace themselves. Neither does the young cast, although Newman’s Princess was so annoying that by the end of the movie I was hoping that a meteor might hit her, or at least some calamity would befall her that might cause her to miss the rest of the movie.

Because the movie is aimed squarely at a younger set, the action is dumbed down. The fact that Jack’s team (which included his fiancee, by the way) had been killed by his own brother could have been explored in greater depth, but it was glossed over, the filmmakers not wanting anything unpleasant for the tykes in the audience to dwell on. Mostly everyone acts like buffoons, and the comedy, such as it is, is of the pee-pee doo-doo ca-ca variety, as one of my writing teachers used to identify the style.

This very much has the look and feel of a Saturday morning made-for-TV movie, something that might have aired on the Disney channel or Nickelodeon (and it probably will anyway). Young kids who are not so discerning (and I’m talking of the four to six-year-old variety) will probably get a kick out of it, while their parents will spend their time eagerly anticipating the end credits. That’s a shame, because there are some nice elements here, enough so that they could have made a decent movie of it in better hands. Director Pete Hewitt (whose previous movie was Garfield which should tell you all you need to know) needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink this one. Incidentally, the movie was released theatrically as Zoom but was retitled for the DVD release on perhaps the hopelessly insane chance that the audience might not recognize it.

WHY RENT THIS: Allen and Cox are at least pleasant. Some of the special effects are tolerable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumbed down for kids, the movie misses some real opportunities to explore complex themes. Newman is way annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the rumor is a little rude and of the toilet variety but otherwise okay for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A photo of the old Zenith team not only includes Allen and Zegers but also Alexis Bledel, Wilmer Valderrama and Devon Aoki.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a collection of four public service-type shorts aimed squarely at teaching youngsters good values.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.5M on an unreported production budget (but one I would guess would be north of $50M); the movie was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Town