DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD: Also beaten up badly has been the other newcomer this weekend, M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated horror thriller The Happening from 20th Century Fox. The Mark Wahlberg starrer started out No. 2 Friday even after film critics and writers alike seemed intent on reviewing the writer-director-producer instead of the movie. (Only 11% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.) With a nasty tell-all book and several film flops behind him, Shyamalan no longer is the popular suspense moviemaker celebrated for his early hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Instead, he’s been branded as the hopelessly arrogant has-been, with media outlets appearing to root for the failure of his latest pic (and some newspapers like USA Today even published spoilers). In an attempt to mitigate the collateral damage from Shyamalan’s unpopularity, Fox laid off much of the cost of The Happening on Indian-based UTV and to a lesser extent Spyglass, while also limited Shyamalan’s exposure to the media. (I’m told the studio was reluctant to let M. Night insert one of his Hitchcock-style cameo appearances into the new pic.) But the always aggressive Fox marketing gave the film an intriguing ad campaign with great visuals (all those bodies seemingly falling from the sky). So what a huge relief for everyone concerned that The Happening managed a $30M weekend when the studio was expecting only high teens or low 20s. It exceeded all expectations from 2,986 venues on Friday with $13M, but then dropped off by 23% Saturday with $10M and fell to #3 — no doubt because the movie was badly received. (It earned only a Cinemascore of “D”). MORE
THE HAPPENING (2008, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 91 minutes, U.S.)
MOTHER OF TEARS (2007, directed by Dario Argento, 98 minutes, Italy)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Geez, this decade is almost over and yet 9/11 seems like yesterday. Weird, huh? Still, to be sure, these are different times. Or to quote Bob Dylan: I used to give a damn, but things have changed. Back then M. Night Shyamalan was local guy-with-funny-name-made-good, one of the most promising young directors in Hollywood, the man most likely to have an entire career with his name above the film’s title. Those days are gone along with So You Want To Be A Millionaire and Paris Hilton Down On The Farm. (Tragic, just tragic.) Standing on the other end of the decade, you see a string of increasingly preposterous films and personal tales of unbridled egotism that have curdled the excitement for the director to the point that critics seem to be hailing The Happening as the final nail of Shyamalan’s coffin before the film had even been seen.
Well The Happening isn’t the catastrophe some are saying, in fact it has some stretches that are among the best work he’s done. Yet by scaling back his penchant for over-ambitious storytelling and the gimmick endings, Shyamalan’s latest is left without much meaning at its center. Something unknown is causing waves of mass suicide in the Northeastern U.S., sending science teacher Mark Wahlberg to escape Philly (look for cameos from 30th Street Station and Rittenhouse Square) for the country, dragging along his kooky wife (Zooey Deschanel) and a friend’s young daughter. On the run they repair their damaged marriage and prove themselves worthy substitute parents, all while narrowly dodging those rampant suicidal impulses.
Back in the mid 1950’s we fought off cinematic apocalypses by riding side-saddle with the scientist and soldiers who delivered us from evil and assorted giant insects. However, like Spielberg’s recent take on War of the Worlds, this film leaves us helplessly running with the masses, with luck being the only thing keeping us from the darkness nipping at our heels. Early on our science teacher hero Wahlberg theorizes on exactly how nature is rubbing out man yet even this knowledge leaves the nerdy everyman with little to do but hope the wind doesn’t blow his way. Meanwhile, back in the real world, worries of climate change and endless war have made helplessness the emotion of the zeitgeist. In the film’s creepiest moments Shyamalan wisely taps into that sense of fearful powerlessness, but there seems to be something inherently un -cinematic about characters reacting as passively as cattle in a tornado. Blockbusters pack more punch when they emphasize resolute action instead of just endless reaction to events beyond the characters’ control. We get enough of that in real life.
Turned loose to roam the countryside, Shyamalan’s film becomes disappointingly aimless, asking the audience to care equally about the end of humanity and Mark and Zooey’s marriage. Broadway diva Betty Buckley stops by for a nice turn as a creepy lady in an isolated farmhouse and then the surprise that everyone is talking about: no surprise ending! Instead, unable to commit to optimism or pessimism, Shyamalan’s finds a whole new way to end on an unsatisfying note. But if humanity’s future is unsure so is the Shyamalan “brand.” Perhaps, having his name demoted below the title again might ultimately allow this frustrating underachiever the chance to catch his breath and figure out what he really might have to say as an artist.
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Being a fan of Italian horror films means your must endure (if not learn to embrace) some of the vagaries of the genre. Whether it is cheesy effects, casual dubbing or nonsensical plots, there’s a lot you must put up with to get to those euphoric moments of grotesque and poetic mayhem that was the hallmark of their film industry in the seventies and eighties. The genre’s most acclaimed director, Dario Argento seeks to reclaim some of that excitement with Mother of Tears, the concluding film to his “Three Mothers Trilogy”, following the supernatural thrillers Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The word has been mixed on this, the first Argento film to receive major America theatrical distribution since 1990, and I was thinking maybe the naysayers weren’t being patient enough with the genre’s quirky edges. Instead, after seeing this sad misfire it seems like those Argento defenders are displaying too much loyalty to the fading master.
Like an old Mummy movie, two archaeologists are opening an ancient casket when one cuts her hand, giving the life blood to the third witch: The Mother of Tears. This sets off the beginning of a number of awkwardly staged scenes, including the portrayal of worldwide chaos as a spontaneous outbreak one-on-one shoving. Then witches arrive, looking like a gaggle of rowdy goth girls headed to the Rasputina show, all giggling at passers-by like Margaret Hamilton The Wizard of Oz. Finally it all goes down in the dopiest way possible, with the director’s daughter Asia Argento confronting the coven on a set that looks like “Hell Night” at a Roman dance club. Those are the dramatic highlights (oh yeah, and there’s a monkey!), and as excruciatingly awkward as they are they’re far more entertaining the endless scenes of Asia wrestling with what to do next and whether or not to embrace her inner witch. Not since Elizabeth Montgomery allowed herself to be browbeaten by Dick York have we had a heroine so hesitant to use her witchcraft, regardless of its benefits.
What I liked somewhere in the heart of this film was how the fate of the world had become an entirely female thing, waged between the Mother of Tears, shown as a pure leggy creature of high fashion and the always engaging raspy Ms.Argento, aided by her ghostly mother (played by the actress’ mother Dario Nicolodi). That’s a lot of woman breaking into powerstance and you can imagine Argento could have crafted something out of these elements twenty years ago, when a crew of craftsmen trained at Cinecittà’s studios during the mid-century could lend offhanded ingenuity to even the slightest films. Its not just the murky visuals and unimaginative pay-off that sink things, it is a production-wide incompetence that makes Mother of Tears feels like the product of a once grand film culture dying of attrition.