Monday, June 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #50: Kingdom of the Spiders

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I wanted to do something special for the fiftieth installment of this feature, which is kind of difficult since how can any “random” report be special? But this qualifies. It’s random because I came across the DVD at a Vintage Stock, but it’s special because this is a bit of an old favorite. KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS was a film that both terrified and fascinated me when I was much younger, and it pretty much has that same quality now. I’m not an arachnophobe by any means, but spiders can in certain circumstances give me the willies. And hundreds of them crawling all over people and leaping at your face and biting away will no doubt terrify anyone. It goes without saying that arachnaphobics shouldn’t see this movie; Hell, I apologize for that last sentence and for including the DVD cover. Of course, spider... enthusiasts, I guess is the word, might not want to see this movie, for reasons I’ll get into later. But beyond the basic “spiders EVERYWHERE” element, this is a solid thriller that’s decently written, makes good use of its modest budget, and contains a genuinely good performance by William Shatner (well, mostly good.)

The Shat, as he has come to be known, plays “Rack” Hansen, a veterinarian in the small Arizona town of Verde Valley. He’s called out to look at a sick calf owned by Walter Colby (Woody Strode), a struggling farmer hoping to win a prize at the upcoming county fair. The calf dies quickly, and a baffled Hansen sends a saliva sample out to be examined; the local university sends out an astoundingly good-looking entymologist named Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling), who has figured out that the calf died from a massive overdose of spider venom. It seems the local tarantulas, their normal food sources killed off by DDT and other pesticides, are ganging up together (something spiders normally don’t do) to bring down larger prey. Colby destroys the “spider hill” next to his farm, but it soon becomes clear the spiders are in this for the long haul, and work their way up to human targets. Soon the entire town is under siege, and just in time for the fair. Oops.

It’s not hard to pick up elements of JAWS and THE BIRDS in this story, and it particularly mirrors the latter in its gradual build-up to the scenes where the animals start attacking. The pace of the film is quite deliberate, and takes a while to really get going. The good news is that the early scenes are really quite entertaining; the characters are nicely defined in that broad suspense thriller way, and more importantly they’re likable. The writing is solid, even clever at times, and though some scenes don’t immediately move the story along they do establish the people and the town in a way that makes the attack resonate more (again, this seems to be a common tack in “nature’s revenge” movies, and may be what I felt was missing in CLOVERFIELD: a sense of community.)

When the spiders finally commence to attackin’, it’s pretty intense, and it may be for the best that the film gives us a breather beforehand. The filmmakers coralled hundreds of the spiders by putting up a general offer for $10 per tarantula, and you can honestly tell that there are a lot of real spiders running around, even in shots where they might have gotten away with fakes (of which there are a few as well). Sadly, as this was a low budget production and done before the ASPCA vetted such things very carefully, it’s plainly obvious that a number of spiders are getting stepped on, thrown from heights or otherwise sent to their maker. Heck, even putting so many tarantulas together on screen was probably hazardous; they are, by nature, solitary and territorial creatures who don’t tolerate each other’s company for long. Some films have been banned in various countries for such blatant animal cruelty, and most famously the makers of the film LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN had to provide evidence to an Italian court that they had not in fact killed a dog on screen, and yet this film has never received the slightest reprimand or protest. I suppose it’s unfortunate that so many gave their lives, but what’s done is done. (It’s also a bit of a wonder that so many actors and extras consented to being covered in spiders.)

It’s interesting to see how the spiders are actually used on film; since they can’t be trained, the film can’t be terribly elaborate in showing the spiders creeping up on and overruning their prey (except in an early scene using a number of “spider-cam” shots). Instead, they simply seem to materialize, not so much moving as manifesting, which itself is pretty freaky. I suppose this is the root of arachnophobia; a spider generally won’t be inclined to leap at you and bite you, but that they could if they wanted to has to give somebody pause. (Of course, tarantula bites are much like bee stings, painful but harmless unless you’re allergic.) At one point, a recently attacked vacationer says, “One moment they weren’t there, and the next moment they were everywhere!” The simple wrongness of this is very effective.

As I’ve said before, this film gives us William Shatner, an actor who can go from easygoing to scenery-chewing in seconds flat, in one of his better turns. I think at heart the key to Shatner’s acting is that he was trained theatrically; whenever he has a Big Moment, it’s best not to be too close to the screen. There are a couple of scenes like that here, but for the most part Rack is a level headed guy, and so Shatner is mostly in his charismatic, affable mode. He seems to be having some fun, and Bolling makes a nice foil for him. Shatner’s then-wife even shows up, as Rack’s widowed sister-in-law who carries a bit of a torch, and at some point she also ends up overrun by spiders. Somehow the two stayed together for 17 years after this, so make of that what you will. Western veteran Strode is one of many solid character actors rounding out the lineup. The music is interesting, some of it recognizable from old TWILIGHT ZONE episodes while other material seems to be needle-drop, except for four original songs by country artist Dorsey Burnette, including the oddly upbeat opening theme “Peaceful Verde Valley.” He’s actually kind of good, albeit totally out of place.

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS is not a great movie, and the debate over whether it was worth dozens of arachnid soul may not be settled anytime soon (bear in mind I’m not even sure if any such debate has taken place.) But it’s a great example of low budget horror filmmaking done right, using a limited number of resources- in this case, Shatner, a country musician, a modest stunt budget, and thousands of tarantulas- to create a genuinely scary experience. Honestly, it’s a shame there hasn’t been a Special Edition DVD yet.

Story by Stephen Lodge and Jeffrey M. Sneller
Written by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou
Directed by John “Bud” Cardos

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 22, 2008

In Theaters: The Incredible Hulk

Poster found at
So I finally got around to seeing THE INCREDIBLE HULK, delayed as I was by wanting to review the 2003 film first. This entry, which both continues and restarts the franchise at the same time, is being touted as more actiony and less burdened by drama, which is a fair assessment. It’ll please comic fans disappointed by the first movie, but it’s not too bad for those of us who liked the Ang Lee approach either; it’s obviously been made with some care and doesn’t go completely by the numbers. To be sure, sacrificing character development for action has its drawbacks, and the film has been the victim of some behind the scenes editing drama which unfortunately is detectable on screen. It’s not quite all it could be, but it does deliver what you want out of a Hulk movie.

Edward Norton (who helped write the picture, though he doesn’t receive screenplay credit) takes on the role of Bruce Banner, hiding out in Brazil and working on trying to tame the monster inside him. General Ross (William Hurt) is still trying to track him down, and hires mercenary super-soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to head up an anti-Hulk task force. But there’s a wrinkle- apparently the experiment that made Bruce all greenish was covertly sponsored by the military in an attempt to develop super soldiers. They’re still working on this, and after an attempt to catch Hulk in Brazil fails disastrously, Blonsky volunteers for a test of the latest super soldier serum. Meanwhile, Bruce has made anonymous contact with a scientist researching gamma radiation poisoning, and he needs the data from the experiment that transformed him. So he makes his way back to the United States, and to the university where the experiment took place. Still working there is Betty Ross (Liv Tyler this time), who hasn’t spoken to Bruce in about a year but hasn’t forgotten about him. She wants to help, and when the military try to capture Bruce on campus, he Hulks out, breaks several of Blonsky’s bones, and escapes with Betty in tow. Blonsky, thanks to the serum, heals remarkably quickly, and soon desires more power so he can battle the Hulk on equal terms. The results of his experimentation are not pretty.

This is not entirely a sequel to the Ang Lee film- we get an origin story in the opening credits that differs a bit- but it’s not entirely a reboot either, and since I liked the earlier movie I decided to take this as a follow-up. In any case the movie benefits from not having to do the origin over again (at least not in any detail); we’re able to jump straight to the action and the plot moves at a steady pace. Even in the slower moments the momentum carries us along, and I wasn’t ever bored.

I could have been impressed more, though. Various stories have gone around about how Marvel and Universal clashed with Edward Norton over the final assembly of the film (with actual director Louis Leterrier apparently undecided), and how Norton wanted more of the script’s psychological and character moments kept in. From at least one account the cut footage totaled about 70 minutes, and though I wonder if I would have noticed this had I not known beforehand, the film bears the marks of some very rigorous editing. Some character relationships seem underdeveloped, most notably Blonsky’s adversarial obsession with the Hulk. I’m not entirely sure of his character’s motivation overall, which is a problem since he’s the villain and unless you’re going for a Michael Meyers “unknowable evil” approach you do want to make clear what the baddie intends to get out of being bad. I think it’s just a fanatical devotion to his initial assignment and wanting to defeat his selected foe by any means necessary, but it could also be a desire to be the strongest and the best at what he does. (And what he does ain’t- sorry, jumped franchises there.) It’s kind of vague. You also have Brazilian model/actress Débora Nascimento as an unnaturally lovely bottling plant worker who theoretically has some chemistry with Bruce, and you can tell that this part was probably bigger at some point because she has no apparent purpose in the final cut. Other characters and elements of the story seem abbreviated as well, and though the plot can still be followed easily, it doesn’t have as much emotional and visceral oomph as it should.

Norton gives a fine performance, and he was a good choice from the start; he has the right blend of vulnerability and intensity, and manages some good comic timing as well. Liv Tyler, though she’s fairly sympathetic, doesn’t make a huge impact as Betty, and I’m starting to think this may be an inherently thankless role. William Hurt also seems flat as General Ross; his style of underplaying is hard to put to really good use, and he may just have been phoning this in. To compensate, though, Roth is superb, and character actor Tim Blake Nelson puts in a very welcome appearance.

Then there’s the Hulk himself, looking more realistic this time around (though I regret the loss of the purple shorts. Visual restraint be damned!) and finally going toe to toe with a monster that’s nearly as brawny. The effects are superb and the action sequences well directed- as I said they don’t have as much impact as they could, but it’s definitely fun to watch, and the final battle is actually pretty intense. I’m happy to report that the Hulk still leaps through the air with the greatest of ease, and has a few lines even, with a voice provided by none other than Lou Ferigno, who also shows up in an extended cameo. Comic fans will get a lot of nice easter eggs in this one, including a tease for a possible sequel villain and a well-advertised one scene appearance by a certain cool exec with a heart of steel.

The tone of this movie shifts a bit, perhaps due to the aforementioned cuts, but overall it’s not quite as serious as its predecessor and more clipped. It’s fun even if it doesn’t blow you away, and perhaps that’s too much to ask of a big summer movie; at heart these things have to appeal to a broad audience, and sometimes accomplishing this requires sacrificing some power. So this Hulk is, ultimately, not the strongest one there is- but it’s still well made and entertaining. I’d like to see a longer version sometime, and since we’ve gotten extended editions of several other Marvel movies I have hopes that this’ll happen. In the meantime, THE INCREDIBLE HULK does what it says on the tin, and well enough for me to recommend it.

I still think the version with the jellyfish was better, though.

Based on the comic character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Written by Zak Penn
Directed by Louis Leterrier

Grade: B

Friday, June 20, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Hulk

Hulk want you buy Hulk at Amazon.
I felt I couldn’t go to see the new INCREDIBLE HULK movie without taking a look back at its predecessor first. Ang Lee’s HULK was, well, controversial to say the least. Its negative reception was and is kind of dispiriting, because it’s a case of audiences (and comic book fans in particular) punishing ambition. The major criticism of the film was that it had too much psychodrama and character business and not enough of the Hulk actually smashing things, and I can still remember when we used to WANT big summer blockbuster movies to be intelligent and not just string action setpieces together. HULK is, to be sure, slower than the norm, particularly in the first half, but there are definitely over-the-top thrills to be had, and more importantly the pace is in service of a good story. It’s a compelling work about fathers and their children that captures the over-the-top melodrama of the Marvel comics which gave birth to old green-skin, and doesn’t skimp on the wild visuals either.

The plot of the film embellishes the beast’s gamma-soaked origins quite a bit. Bruce Banner (played as an adult by Eric Bana) is the son of an eccentric scientist performing biochemical research for the military, and has apparently inherited some of the weird cellular regenerative properties that dad tested on himself before Brucie was conceived (at least I think that’s how that went.) Bruce was sent to a foster family at an early age after something happened to mom and dad, and doesn’t really notice any genetic abnormalities until, as a scientist working on nano-medicines, gets exposed to a big dose of gamma radiation. Soon after the accident he’s contacted by his father, now played by Nick Nolte in a particularly ragged state (so, casual day), who’s interested in what changes may happen to his son. Bruce spurns his not-really-loving-or-particularly-compassionate father, but soon finds that stress and anger turn him into the Hulk, a giant green monster with limitless strength and no apparent weaknesses. He’s captured by the military, at first for safety reasons, but then becomes the target of scientific experiments by Banner’s unscrupulous rival (Josh Lucas), and this, well it doesn’t make him happy.

The plot is actually not as messy as I make it sound. Lee uses some quick transitions to get us to the present day, going back later to fill in the blanks on Bruce’s troubled childhood. In truth it’s the story of two father and child pairings, the second being Bruce’s co-worker Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and her father (Sam Elliott), a general. Their relationship is more strained than anything else; her father is also devoted to his work above anything else and she has trouble fitting into his life. It’s ironic that so soon after Fathers’ Day I’m writing a review of a film in which bad fathers play so much of a role. The major conflict at the film’s center is that Bruce is still his father’s son and manipulated by him from a distance. It doesn’t help when dad decides to expose himself to the nano-gamma combo and becomes a literal parasite able to absorb the properties of anything he touches. The metaphorical nature of his and to some extent Bruce’s powers is very comic booky and especially in-tune with the way Marvel in the Sixties did things; folks like Stan Lee (who has a cameo in the film alongside Lou Ferigno) and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, et. al., had a way of matching personalities to powers in a way that helped the characters they created resonate with the public. Here it becomes downright Freudian.

Also in a nod to the comic medium, Lee employs an arsenal of unusual frame-like scene and shot transitions that juxtapose his images spatially as well as sequentially. It creates an effect that’s evocative of comic panels, but also uses the motion of film to good effect. There are a number of dreams and montages in the picture as well, creating a surreal and almost poetic effect; briefly seen, but incredibly memorable, is a shot of jellyfish hanging over a desert landscape like space aliens. For all the psychodrama in this film, Lee isn’t afraid of being unrealistic; the Hulk has his trademark purple shorts and bright green skin, leaps through the air with such distance that he almost seems to fly, and treats tanks, helicopters, and missiles like they’re his toys. Indeed there’s something deliberately childlike about the Hulk’s appearance and behavior in this film, suggesting that this is something that Bruce has buried for a very long time.

To be fair to its critics, I must say that the film is slow and possibly more than it needs to be. It’s a good forty minutes or so before the Hulk makes his first appearance, and that’s deliberately shrouded and dark in a horror-movie-style rampage through a laboratory. Of course, looking at it objectively, I don’t see how a film in which the green monster destroys a lab, three mutant dogs (in a scene much criticized but kind of fun, really), an underground base, tanks, and helicopters, and even rides a jet into the stratosphere, can really be called short on action. The film is deliberately paced but it does give us some genuinely over-the-top scenes of carnage and destruction.

I actually wonder if our minimum standards for what constitutes sufficient action in a movie, especially a superhero movie, haven’t risen over the last decade. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, after the scene wherein Krypton is destroyed, features a lengthy sequence of Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, discovering his heritage, and traveling to the North Pole or nearabouts to build his fortress and meet his birth father. It has to be an hour into the film before he actually dons the costume. Would modern audiences stand for this, or for his failure to punch anyone in the entire film? (Reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS suggests no.) I sometimes scoff at the idea that our attention spans are dropping, but this gives me pause. Granted, the Hulk is identified with smashing things even more than the average hero, but if slow buildups now aren’t allowed at all we may be in trouble.

The effects for the film are a bit below expectations- it’s hard to make a character like the Hulk realistically in CGI, though the new film seems to be closer to the mark- but I have to say the overall surreal style of the picture makes this less of a problem. Bana is fairly convincing throughout, though Connelly kind of gets lost in the background- she’s a fine actress but somehow she doesn’t make a big impression. Nolte is mostly good, but has a couple of bits near the end where he goes overboard. The climax of this film is particularly disliked, as it’s a bit obtuse as to the literal action, but I think it works thematically, and in a movie like this the thematic comes close to being the literal. That’s a big part of the appeal of superhero comics, we see abstract things like rage and justice and revenge and insanity given form and physically pitted against each other.

This, then, is the ultimate triumph of Ang Lee’s HULK; it’s a film which takes a story of family and abuse and transmission of rage through generations and turns it into the story of a giant green monster destroying things. It’s almost like a PG-13 version of David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD in that sense, and though it’s not for all tastes, viewed with an open mind it’s a bit of a minor classic. I’m enthusiastic about the new HULK movie, I hope it’s even better, and I’ll likely have seen it by the time you read this. But we as audience members should have room for more daring superhero movies that don’t play by all the rules we set for them. Genre should never be a straitjacket, nor should adaptation, and we shouldn’t let our ideas of what things should be make us unable to enjoy things that are quite good as they are.

Based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Story by James Schamus
Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus
Directed by Ang Lee
Grade: A-

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Random Movie Report #49: Trancers

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The TRANCERS series is interesting in that nobody seems to have heard of it yet it’s got as many entries as the STAR WARS saga. The reason for this, of course, is that it’s a Charles Band production, and though he had yet to found the Full Moon studio known for direct-to-video epics like the PUPPET MASTER series and DOCTOR MORDRID, his ability to exploit a concept as much as the law would allow was already being developed. I eventually decided I was curious as to just what this series was and rented the first film on that basis, and it’s an odd one. A mash-up of popular sci-fi imagery from the mid-Eighties, the picture makes some good use of a limited budget and has Helen Hunt paying her dues, but ultimately loses its way and fails to deliver on what is some considerable potential. And then there’s the lead.

Tim Thomerson is Jack Deth (I shit you not), a future cop whose job is hunting down Trancers, the mind-slaves of the evil Whistler (Michael Stefani), who wants to rule the world or something. The elite of this post apocalyptic world (we get a nice matte painting of a submerged Los Angeles) are blinking out of existence, and have worked out that Whistler has somehow jumped to the past and is killing them retroactively by going after their ancestors. They send Deth back to apprehend Whistler, and he ends up in mid-80s L.A. in the body of his ancestor Phil Deth (an accountant with the most badass name in history), who has just hooked up with the lovely Leena (Helen Hunt). She quickly gets sucked into the action when Trancers start popping up, and Whistler has the advantage of being in the body of his ancestor, a police detective who quickly enslaves the LAPD to his will, putting Jack and Leena on the run.

So far, so good, right? For a while I actually enjoyed this, as low-rent as it is. Obviously writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo smushed together BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, and probably SCANNERS; it’s lazy as Hell, but it’s such a pure distillation of 80s science fiction that it almost sums up the state of the genre. Psuedo-cyberpunk, techno-zombies, and time paradoxes, it’s all there. And there’s a quirky sense of humor to a lot of scenes, as when a mall Santa becomes one of Whistler’s slaves, and when Jack and Leena have to talk to some particularly deluded hobos to get information.

Speaking of Leena, Helen Hunt is goddamn awesome in this film. Obviously this was well before she was famous for anything at all, so she’s got a fairly typical “modern LA romantic interest” role, but she totally makes it her own. She’s cute, she’s witty, she’s energetic, she’s got star power galore and is generally much better than the material around her. If you’re a fan of hers you may just have to see this, and not just for purposes of completism.

Jack Deth, meanwhile, is pretty much the embodiment of an 80s B-movie action star. He doesn’t quite have the brawn or firepower of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone, so he compensates with attitude out the rear. He’s the kind of tough future cop who mouths off to his superiors and has a troubled past and a personal vendetta against the villain, because a Trancer killed his wife. It’s pure boilerplate but Thomerson gives it a manly swagger. If you like this sort of thing you’ll be amused.

In the end, though, the film fizzles out, and may ultimately be a victim of its budget. Whistler has big plans for the past, wanting to conquer the world early and making the city’s transients into a legion of Trancer slaves. Now, ladies and gentlemen, somewhere in the dusty books of filmmaking law there is a rarely-cited but ever-important clause: you do not promise the audience a hobo army and then not show it. Not that this is the only problem; the final third of the movie just doesn’t go anywhere interesting, and boils down to some dark fumbling around in a warehouse and a profoundly unspectacular final showdown. The damn thing doesn’t deliver. So there you have it.

Obviously TRANCERS combined enough popular elements to be a commercial success, and it still has some curiosity value. Individual elements of it are kind of neat, but they fail to come together. I can’t quite recommend this film unless you fall into the category of Helen Hunt fan or lover of cop movie clichés (and I’m genuinely curious to know what kind of overlap those categories have), but it’s pretty painless. A middle of the road picture, designed not to linger in the memory, for better or worse.

Written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
Directed by Charles Band

Grade: C

Sunday, June 15, 2008

In Theaters: The Happening

Poster taken, as always, from
I almost feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. Almost, of course, because he’s still a professional filmmaker and I’ve done some things with THE MOVIES, but he may be the most unappreciated filmmaker still able to make major deals. LADY IN THE WATER was, of course, run over the coals because, well, he killed a film critic in the movie and cast himself as an important writer figure; the film was not without flaws but you barely heard them discussed up against the not-actual-aesthetic-problems mentioned above. THE HAPPENING had bad buzz right out of the gate and seems doomed from the start, which is a shame. Mostly, I feel sorry for Shyamalan because he’s a talented and imaginative man working in a style that went out with black and white television. It’s amazing he managed any success at all, but he’s making conceptual melodrama in an environment that is totally not geared for it. Personally, I like this sort of thing, and THE HAPPENING is a solid thriller on that level, creating a strong atmosphere and providing several good shocks despite a certain lumpiness. To be sure, M. Night has certain tendencies to overcome, but I like what he’s doing here, and it’s worth catching.

The plot is as follows. One Tuesday morning, people in Central Park, NYC, start killing themselves for no reason. They become disoriented, then quietly and methodically find the most efficient way to end their own life. The phenomenon starts to spread. A New York school teacher (Mark Wahlberg) hears about what’s happening, and takes his wife (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow professor (John Leguizamo) and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) out of town on the quickest train to Philadelphia. But Philadelphia is quickly hit as well, as is New Jersey, as is Boston, as is the whole Northeast. The train is halted in the middle of nowhere, and our protagonists make their way cross-country, trying to get out of the area of “attack”. The phenomenon, whatever it is, seems to target groups of people, starting with cities and moving to towns and roads and smaller clusters. It also may have something to do with the plants, and the disappearance of bees. The characters find themselves trying to outrun an invisible force, something on the wind that is never quite predictable.

Shyamalan has hit upon a great concept here, as he often does. What, precisely, we’re dealing with is never fully defined. It probably has something to do with plants, it’s almost certainly airborne, it’s strangely localized, and it makes people destroy themselves. The feeling of dread that’s created is palpable because you can never quite tell when things will get worse. I spent a good portion of the film waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I was somewhat obtuse in my earlier comments about Shyamalan’s style, mainly because this is something I need to get into heavy detail about. To put it simply, I believe that M. Night Shyamalan is heavily influenced by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and not in the simple sense that his movies often have twists in them. (For the record, this one does not.) If you watch THE TWILIGHT ZONE today, what’s noticeable is not just the way the plots turn but how the whole thing is basically contemporary social drama in genre dress. And by contemporary, I mean the dramatics of the fifties and sixties, of Arthur Miller and PLAYHOUSE 90. It’s not naturalistic in the least; it’s a style in which characters are broad and quirky, in which themes are explicitly raised and discussed, and in which everything is, well, slightly theatrical. This, I believe, is Shyamalan’s own approach. He is not a realist, which is a problem because one generally aims for a kind of realism (or at least verisimilitude) in thrillers in order to more easily engage the audience. He is working on this broader, more conceptual, and let’s face it, old-fashioned level, where advancing the idea is more important than making you believe it’s actually happening.

Now, personally, I like this. I think it’s a valid approach, and I like the energy it brings to a project. THE HAPPENING is not a cynical or nihilistic film in which we’re here to watch people whimper as evil overcomes them; it’s more about what’s going on than our helplessness. Though it never fully defines what the problem is, it raises ideas, and provokes thought about how nature will react.

This comes at a price. As I said, it’s not close to realistic, and this mostly shows in the acting. There’s a certain dazed, stiff quality to a lot of people, arguably justifiable by the sheer shock of what’s happening, but it does make it hard to connect. Mark Wahlberg, who has given some very fine performances in the past, is the weak link; all of his readings are slightly off, and I can’t say if that’s his or Shyamalan’s fault. Certainly the director can be faulted for making everyone’s speech so damn declarative; if some of the dialogue were more conversational it would flow a lot better, even if we missed some of it. That said, and this isn’t really a defense, there’s a positive upshot to all this; because everyone’s a little off to start with, you’re never quite sure when the “happening” will take them and they’ll become genuinely doomed. Most of the people look and act like they could snap at any time, and the blasé fashion in which they meet their deaths is genuinely terrifying.

Okay, the one part I’m going to unambiguously slam is the denouement. It’s unnecessary, we know from the start how it will end and as such it takes too long to get there, and it makes far too explicit what was implied well enough by what came before. There’s an obvious point where this film should end and you will all recognize it. I guess either Shyamalan or the studio or a test audience felt it was necessary to clarify things. Bah. Also, yeah, that title’s a bad one. A happening is something that takes place with the aid of LSD and sitar music, and I’m fairly sure these elements are absent from this movie. (Could have been at the end of the credits for all I know.)

To be sure, M. Night Shyamalan could stand to improve in some areas. But he’s doing things in the thriller genre that nobody else is doing, and that need doing. THE HAPPENING is an earnest revisiting of the “nature’s revenge” genre, executed thoughtfully if a little sloppily. I was scared at times, blackly amused at others, and overall provoked to think. This is good. I think this guy is onto something; let’s hope his career doesn’t end before it develops.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Grade: B+

Monday, June 09, 2008

Random Movie Report #48: The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells

Buy the DVD from Amazon by clicking here
After a while of figuring out what my next review should be, I finally chose something I’d seen recently at random. I’ll have to do this more often, it’s a nice motivator. Anyway, THE INFINITE WORLDS OF H. G. WELLS is not properly a movie, but a miniseries produced by Hallmark, but these sorts of things make less difference when you can watch the whole shebang on DVD, so I’m again classing it both ways. I don’t have a good dedicated television category yet.

I initially balked at THE INFINITE WORLDS OF H. G. WELLS due to its length; it’s listed as running at a solid four hours, and I wasn’t sure the premise could hold my interest for that long. I’m a fan of Victorian science fiction, but it took me a while to really invest in watching the whole thing, even with breaking it up into segments. (Something I rarely do for DVDs.) But I warmed to this as time went on, because as basic a concept as it is- inserting the author himself into fantastic scenarios based on his stories- the filmmakers emphasize the human element, giving us a series of vignettes that turns into a very sweet and charming story. It’s still too long, mind you, but not by much.

The framing device of the series is that a reporter (Ellen McGillvray) visits Wells (Tom Ward) in 1946 (shortly before his death) to ask him about a series of incidents from his past- incidents that he ended up writing as stories. She’s got an agenda of her own, but Wells is happy to share, and so we go back to VIctorian times, when he was just a struggling writer with a friend or two at the local university science department, and an eye for Jane Robins (Katy Carmichael), a beautiful researcher with a curiosity that rivals his. Wells comes across a man who moves so quickly he’s seen as invisible, another who gets shot back in time a week and tries to take advantage of his foreknowledge, a meteor that carries images of another world, and other oddities. Wells and Robins grow closer as he investigates, and in the present tense we learn more about the reporter’s real mission.

I confess to not having read the short stories on which this series is based (I’m more familiar with Wells’ novels), but not only do they echo some of the ideas Wells would play with in his longer work, but they’re an interesting snapshot of early science fiction; Well’s big contribution to the genre, apart from being very good at writing in general, was in setting down many concepts we now find familiar. There’s an appealing simplicity to most of the stories presented here, and that frees up the series to focus more on the people involved than on explaining what’s taking place. The story of the man projected back in time becomes a charming narrative about the mostly working class inhabitants of a local pub, and a weirdly O. Henry-esque story about an overly literal potions shop turns into a wonderful romance about weight, class, and mathematics. You’ve got a core of recurring characters at the university, but also a lot of guest turns- it’s almost like an ongoing television series, and you wish it could have been, but by nature the source material is finite.

The casting is especially good; Tom Ward is charming but just standoffish enough to pull off Wells’ intellectualism, and Carmichael is, well, breathtaking. She’s extremely attractive, very sharp, and never less than convincing as an exceptional woman in an age that looked down on such things. The central romance is very sweet, and gently handled; the two take on a Nick and Nora Charles quality as the series unfolds. Nicholas Rowe is also memorable as Professor Gibberne, Wells’ perpetually frazzled friend at the university who goes through lab assistants at an alarming rate.

The series is broken up into three parts, each under 90 minutes and containing two stories plus surrounding material. Because this, like all television, is held to a time limit, and since in this case it’s more a question of filling space rather than fitting into it, the series does feel padded at times. Scenes go on for slightly longer than they should, and sometimes material just seems to be tacked on. The restraints of the series’ budget also show at times, though I didn’t spot any major problems with the period detail. Then again, I probably wouldn’t notice a zeppelin in a Revolutionary War movie.

Overall this is a very pleasant little series, not quite something you’d want to watch all in one go but very enjoyable spaced out over time. At heart, it’s a tribute to Wells and his visionary status, which remains remarkable to this day; the man predicted so many things that he created unfair expectations for every other science fiction writer, most of whom are not in the prediction game to start with. The project is animated by a sincere love for the author and his work, and that gentle good nature permeates everything. I actually watched it a while ago, but apparently it lingers in the memory long enough for me to still want to recommend it to you. That’s a good sign.

Based on the short stories of H. G. Wells (naturally)
Story and Format by Nick Willing
Teleplays by Chris Harrald, Clive Exton, Matthew Faulk, and Mark Skeet
DIrected by Robert Young

Grade: B+