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Happening, The

dir: M. Night Shyamalan
[img_assist|nid=11|title=Are we scared? Yes we are!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=188]
The Happening, the happening… What happened again?

What happened was, M. Night Shyamalan made another film that was universally panned, and was actively laughed at by audiences, despite not being a comedy. I think it’s fairly obvious that Shyamalan is never going to be able to make another successful film. He should go back to working the drive through at some burger place.

Honestly, at least then people will buy what he’s selling. At the moment, no one gives him the benefit of the doubt when his unfortunate films debut in the cinemas. They’re pre-loaded for failure. People, whether critics or not, expect them to be bad with almost more certainty than the films of Uwe Boll or movies whose titles end in Movie.

I’m not so sure that the expectation is either unfair or unearned. When I first watched his last flick Lady in the Water, I was so convinced that I’d watched one of the worst films ever made that I immediately started writing a review of such scathingness and vitriolicness that it seemed unfair that Shyamalan himself would never read the malevolent autopsy I performed on his abilities as a director. So convinced was I that it was possibly the nastiest yet most accurate review ever penned that I laughed the way that villains laugh to themselves as they enunciate their plans out loud to themselves in various unfortunate movies. Ha ha HAH! Alcohol may have been involved at the time. A great deal of alcohol may have been involved at the time.

And then my computer crashed, and crashed badly, before I’d had the chance to save it. Not only did Bill Gates’s worthless excuse for a Word program not Autorecover the goddamn document, the computer itself acted as if the review itself had never been started, let alone existed. I thought the hate engendered alone would have engraved it onto the hard drive for all eternity, but then how technology works is a bit of a mystery to me.

I never bothered to write that review again. For me, in that ugly and dark little place I think of as the inside of my head, it became like the Tenacious D song Tribute: “This is not the greatest song in the world / this is just a tribute”. I never thought I could do that original review justice again, so I never tried. But I’m obviously happy to refer to it.

If I had written it again properly, the very fabric of space and time itself would have skewed and foundered, frayed and strained at the edges. I hated that fucking film like I’ve hated few things in this life and in this universe. I hated it more than the sexually transmitted disease I once contracted, and more than the beating at the hands of rednecks I once copped at a country pub.

It showed to me just how oblivious M. Night Shyamalan is to how crappy some of his own ideas are, and how they might play to audiences. I’m not talking about test screenings, audience surveys or critic’s reactions. I mean how any other person apart from Shyamalan would feel watching this stuff.

At their worst, auteurs and artistes like Shyamalan, who believe so completely in their own status as visionaries, are either so obscure in their workings that they disappear up their own anuses, or are so unthinking that they don’t realise their narratives sound like a banal rendering of a person telling you one of their fractured dreams.

Dreams are powerful, symbol and meaning-laden evocations of the deepest and sometimes most unknowable parts of our psyches, but that doesn’t mean a co-worker telling you about that dream of such significance to them is anything less than an exercise in tedium for the listener.

Or the viewer, in this case. Even though I’ve written off Shyamalan as well, in the same way everyone has who keeps expecting another Sixth Sense, knowing full well that he can’t ever surprise anyone ever again having cried wolf one too many times, I don’t believe The Happening is the complete bomb many people said it was.

I don’t think it was great, either, and I certainly won’t be ever watching it again. But it was neither unremittingly stupid (though it is goofy) nor was it the completely insulting cancer cluster that Lady in the Water was.

It’s a post-September 11 film. I don’t mean it is a film made since 2001, smartarses. I mean that it is a flick with a central disaster that ends the lives of many people, but which is more about how Americans treat each other in the face of great, almost incomprehensible danger.

Also, like Speilbergo’s update of War of the Worlds, it’s not about conquering the enemy, it’s about family men saving their families and earning the respect of their children / wives / ex-wives / parole officers.

It unfortunately stars Mark Wahlberg as a Pennsylvanian high school science teacher. I say unfortunately because he’s not good in this in the same way he’s not good in most of the things he does. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy, and occasionally think he’s at least tolerable in some movies (most recently in We Own the Night). But watching him in The Happening, playing the least convincing educator since Julia Roberts played one in Mona Lisa Smile, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to mind.

It came to mind because the absurd notion came to me whilst watching this film (the notion entertained me more than most of the film) that Wahlberg is sometimes so bad an actor that he seems like he was constructed by a mad scientist from the body parts of a whole range of bad actors. I keep looking for the stitching, and I can almost see it.

Recipe for a Wahlberg:
Six drops of essence of terror
Five drops of sinister sauce.
Lungs and earlobes of actors called Corey
Spleens and feet of less-successful Baldwin brothers
Kidneys and no longer required frontal lobe of Kirk Cameron
Mickey Rooney’s goitre
Mickey Rourke’s liposuction fat and Sly Stallone’s human growth hormone monthly supply (48 bottles)
Angela Lansbury’s neck waddle
Tom Sizemore’s speed-addicted veins, madam-abusing fists and left testicle,
and finally add the funky stylings and unmatched rhythm of Vanilla Ice.
Shake. Cook until overcooked. Serves 4.

He is completely unconvincing as a science teacher, but he does do okay during moments of the film where he doesn’t have to talk and is walking hurriedly in particular directions. He’s a whiz at that stuff.

On some particular day, everyone in New York’s Central Park at 8:33 in the morning starts babbling insanely before finding ugly ways to kill themselves. At a construction site, the men working upon high start flinging themselves to their deaths, being almost painfully reminiscent of the people jumping to their deaths from the falling World Trade Centre towers. The phenomenon spreads outwards from New York, until it starts affecting Shyamalan’s constant setting, being Pennsylvania. The school teacher, who is married to a ditz that’s thinking about cheating on him (Zooey Deschanel, who is even more miscast in this than Wahlberg is), his wife, his work colleague (John Leguziamo) and his daughter all get the heck out of town, believing it to be some kind of airborne nerve agent / terrorist attack aimed at large populations.

The theory is that if you get out of the populated areas, terrorists aren’t going to be able to target you.

But, and it’s hardly a twist, since Shyamalan painstakingly avoids twists these days, it’s not terrorists, terrorism or terror at all.

I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s somewhat disappointing as an adversary.

All the same, the numerous scenes of people finding ways to kill themselves are horrifying. The lengths people go to are elaborate and macabre, the first of which I’d credit Shyamalan for, the second of which I’d never have expected from him.

Those scenes are alternately, creepy, horrifying or downright horrible. The blind dedication with which a group of people affected by The Happening that’s happening kill themselves in groups is quite affecting. As in, when there are circumstances where the “thing” hits the group, and the only person with a gun like an automaton shoots themselves with it, dropping to the ground, switching on the next closest person to come over and repeat the process is as nasty a horror concept as anything I’ve recently seen.

As a mixture of apocalyptic kind of fare, with a nod towards the enviro-horror of the 70s and 80s (movies like The Swarm, or other flicks with ants, bats or frogs as antagonists), and liberal doses of Hitchcock’s The Birds, The Happening works. It’s unsettling, and at least initially gives that feeling of menace in terms of being able to identify with people caught in a horrible situation whose only solution is to flee in whichever direction they can.

As a drama, it’s woeful. Wahlberg and Deschanel could not have been less convincing as a couple, and Deschanel especially virtually winks at the camera to show her contempt for the whole production.

I’m sure you were still happy to collect the paycheck that came with second billing, right, Zooey?

She’s terrible, but I hardly think it matters. She’s still a better actor than Wahlberg will ever be, even if she limits herself to playing the same kind of kooky manic pixie that she plays in nearly everything. Once she makes the leap towards dramatic ability, she can be the next Maggie Gyllenhaal, I guess.

With my reference to what these kinds of film are really about these days, the nastiest scene in the film involves what some paranoid people unaffected by the “maguffin” actually do to two kids. That was even more shocking than the other scenes of elaborate suicide interspersed throughout the film. If Shyamalan could buckle down and make some honest to goodness horror flicks, he could have a future in this movie-making business. He’s got an imagination.

He just has no idea with the dramatic / people having human conversations stuff any more, though. Scenes of people talking undermine this flick, especially in the haphazard / retarded manner in which he injects relationship conversations into the action.

Well, what action there is. The film doesn’t consistently maintain any tension, because the culprit / enemy is so, shall we say, diffuse. Since Jaws the argument has been when and how clearly to show the monster, all tension and terror being able to be implied without having to give the complete game away. Well, here there’s a concept but nothing visually to give the game away, except for scenes of windblown trees and grass, which is less than scary, unless of course you are an undocumented Hispanic ‘landscape’ worker who has to contemplate the magnitude of a landscaping job for the little money on offer. And if you complain about it, you know the INS (Immigration) are just a phone call away.

Now that’s scary. The Happening becomes less so the more it goes on. It’s only 90 minutes though, which was the perfect length for this.

It’s not completely successful, but it’s not a complete failure either. The best of these recent post 9/11 flicks is still The Mist, which managed to incorporate many of the elements and themes I’ve mentioned in this review, far more successfully (even with the problem of painful acting performances). And it has a much better ending.

The Happening isn’t that happening, but it’s fodder for thought at least.

6 ways in which Wahlberg sometimes seems like he’s becoming a worse actor the more experience he gets out of 10. Isn’t it supposed to be the opposite?

“Can this really be happening?” – sure, why not, The Happening.


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