Mini-reviews: The Happening, The Descent, Brick, and The Ruins

The Happening (2008)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel; Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: * (one star out of five)

Summary: The story begins with an outbreak in Central Park. Tourists, residents, people are making their way through the park when the wind picks up. Everyone freezes, and begins slowly backing up a handful of paces. Then they begin to kill themselves, by any means they can. At a building site in the city, construction workers begin to walk off the top floor of the building to their crushing deaths. In a school in the city, Elliot (Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) are pulled from class to a teachers-only meeting where they told there is an “event” happening, most likely a terrorist attack using chemicals. Then everyone runs for their lives from the New England area, where the “event” appears to be spreading to less populated areas. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not terrorists.

Thoughts: A stunning failure. And by stunning, I don’t mean it looked pretty; it was absolutely awful. Which hurts me a little inside to say, as all of Shyamalan‘s previous movies had some redeeming quailty (I have not yet seen Lady in the Water, though). Beautiful cinematography was something I could rely on — not any more. The dialogue itself was written well; but the direction and the acting behind it were terrible. There were awkward pauses, but not awkward in a realistic way. The explanation for what was going on should be of no surprise to people at this point, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the explanation is no twist, and it’s not scientifically plausible. Scientific reasoning is not something that I normally hold against films, but the way that the information was presented made it such that I found it hard to ignore the hard science behind it all. In a word: Skip it. Period.

The Descent (2005)
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza; Directed by: Neil Marshall
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: After Sarah’s (Macdonald) family is killed in a tragic car accident, her friends try to bring her life back to some semblance of normalcy. Juno (Mendoza) invites the group of friends out on a spelunking trip in a basic cave system. The friends then journey into the cave system, which immediately begins to crumble behind them, sealing the entrance. They must then find their way out and band together as well as they can. This is, however, a horror film: the requisite violence does ensue.

Thoughts: Ultimately, it was a disappointing movie. I honestly cannot say if it’s because I was expecting more or if the movie is just weak. I do not wish to spoil anything, but the first 50 or 60 minutes of a 100 minute movie are spent wandering the caves, with no real action. Had this been a movie about lost explorers, it would not have been that bad, though it could have done better. Unfortunately this is billed as a horror film, and supposedly a disturbing and bloody one at that. With what I thought was a reputation behind it, I expected the terror to begin much earlier in the film, but until about 40 minutes from the end, the only scene of anything ‘horror’ related is a severely broken shin. All that being said, once the Crawlers are encountered, the film succeeds. The darkness of the caves, the eerie glow of the flares and failing flashlights work in magically horrific ways. And the ending — what a terrific bummer of an ending. The ending works, and is by far the best of the movie. In a word: The horror fan in me has to recommend it for the last 40 minutes, but to the average viewer, I’d say skip over it in favor of other fare.

Side note: Whether I liked the film or not, a sequel is currently in the works, picking up exactly where this one left off. I love it when sequels pick up at the exact ending of the first (take Underworld and Underworld: Evolution). Unfortunately, the plot of The Descent 2 sounds ridiculous.

Brick (2005)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas; Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: This is a hard one to summarize. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is a loner in high school, a loner with a bit of a past. He receives a distressing phone call from his ex-girlfriend shortly after she’s supposedly gone missing. He tries to track her down, but arrives too late, discovering her dead body outside of town. Brendan enlists the help of a friend and enters the criminal underworld of his school, working his way up to the top of the felonious food chain to The Pin (Haas), the young ruler of the underage syndicate. Brendan tries to play both sides to swing the outcome the way he wants.

Thoughts: Extremely well made for a first endeavor; it’s a complicated film for a young auteur. The stylings behind it are strongly rooted in the classic film noir crime dramas: everything from the camera angles to the story to the deliverance of the dialogue mimic some of the greatest films Hollywood produced. The plot is somewhat convoluted at times simply because of that dialogue, but that is not a detriment to the story. I did feel that the film had a bit too much of a hint of amateurism and that drew away from the films final polish. The overall plot was ridiculous, if you stopped to think about, but that’s the beauty of setting such an intricate film noir in a high school — it is ludicrous. And it works surprisingly well. It could have been a much tighter film (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and that would have made it brilliant. As it sits, it’s a fine first film for what could be a promising writer/director. In a word: Recommended viewing for those who love film noir.

The Ruins (2008)
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone; Directed by: Carter Smith
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: A group of friends on vacation in Mexico are looking for one last adventure before they head home. At the hotel the meet a young German, Mathias (Joe Anderson), who tells the group of an uncharted, recently discovered Mayan pyramid. His brother, an archaeologist, is exploring the site, and he invites the group along with him to be among the first to see the pyramid in hundreds of years. When they arrive at the site, they are immediately surrounded by locals with guns and arrows who are yelling at them. The nearer the group gets to the temple, the louder the locals scream; at one point, one of Mathias’s friends tries to make peace and is immediately killed. The group retreats up to the top of the pyramid, only to discover no one from the archaeological team surviving — they are all wrapped in plants. Then things get worse.

Thoughts: I was dreading seeing this movie, and avoided it for a long time. The plot sounded absolutely ridiculous and some of the visuals shown in the trailers weren’t that enticing. In the last few days, I’ve seen some interesting headlines floating around about how this unassuming film got under the critic’s skin. I had to watch it and I’m glad I did. This movie gave me what I was hoping The Descent would. This film is not really horror, but it is definitely graphic. The horror aspects of the plot don’t kick in until near the end. Several scenes made me wince (the first death is timed perfectly to be unexpected). The ‘surgical’ scene involving the three males in particular made me grit my teeth. For being a movie about a five people trapped on top of a ruined Mayan pyramid, with creepy plant life and threatening natives surrounding them, this movie actually succeeded on a level I never imagined it would. The only downside is that the final few shots are extremely predictable while the rest of film is not. In a word: I never thought I’d say this, but I’d recommend this film. Check it out, it might surprise you.

Mini-reviews: Prince Caspian, 88 Minutes, and more

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Starring: Ben Barnes, William Moseley; Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Rating: ** 1/2 (two and a half stars out of five)

Summary: The Pevensie children are sent back to Narnia a mere year after returning back to war-time London. But more than one year has passed in Narnia — 1,299 more to be exact. There they find an exiled Prince (Barnes) who is struggling with his blood-thirsty uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) who has long been scheming to steal the throne from the royal family. Caspian and the Pevensies join forces to fight the Telmarines and restore the land to the Narnians who have long been prosecuted.

Thoughts: Not nearly as good as the book, and, unfortunately, not nearly as good as it’s prequel (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)). The filmmakers relied on action and violence rather than politlcal intrigue and plot. The story felt extremely thin for how long the film was. The effects were astounding, as was to be expected, but fantasy epics with grand special effects are somewhat cliche these days. Prince Caspian failed to find something to unique to pull it apart from the rest of them. This is even more unfortunate because they are planning to continue turning the books into movies (see here); a brilliant director is attached, so hopefully that’ll help. In a word: Long, with weak storytelling, but amazing special effects and action mean you shouldn’t ignore it.

88 Minutes
Starring: Al Pacino, Leelee Sobieski; Directed by: Jon Avnet
Rating: * 1/2 (one and a half stars out of five)

Summary: Jack Gramm (Pacino) is a top dog forensic psychologist. A man he recently sent to death-row is finally coming up on the big day and he’s maintained his innocence since he was caught. On this day, the final day of the murderer’s life, Gramm receives an incredibly threatening phone call telling him he has a mere 88 minutes to live. At first he blows it off as yet another side effect of his job. It’s immediately clear that the threats are real, though, and he begins an 80 minute long chase to save his life and find who’s conspiring against him (who he automatically knows is related to the murderer). And (what a surprise) 88 minutes has personal meaning to Gramm …

Thoughts: Way too cliche, predictable, and ultimately boring to be that good. I love watching Pacino on screen, and even a cliche’d murder mystery can be entertaining. This movie took itself way too seriously to accomplish much entertainment at all. Your list of possible suspects is immediately limited to three, only two of which are at all probable considering how strongly the script tries to implicate one early on. When you finally reach the end, you wonder why you even cared in the first place; the end is both predictable and utterly ridiculous. The best part is that the from the moment Gramm finds he has 88 minutes to live, that’s the remaining runtime — usually movie don’t stick to their own timelines, so I enjoyed that part. In a word: Predictable and thorougly unoriginal mystery.

Shoot ‘Em Up
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti; Directed by: Michael Davis
Rating *** (three out of five stars)

Summary: Mr. Smith (Owen) is awaiting a bus when a pregnant lady runs by, followed by some thugs with guns who are obviously trying to kill her. Smith, ultimately a do-gooder, throws his food aside and saves her, the baby (which he delivers), and kills a bunch of guys. Then Hertz (Giamatti) shows up — the man in charge, who continually comes up with new ways to find (and kill) Smith. Smith in the meantime dodges these attempts and enlists the help of a lactating prostitute to help him care for the baby. To add to the plot, it does have a conspiracy going on … but that’s not really important.

Thoughts: A ton of fun. Fun, inventive violence that looks good; fun performances by Owen (who sort of relives his Sin City days) and Giamatti. The Subplot (ie, the reason why they want to kill the baby) is utter lunacy, but it is only there to further the violence. And I’m OK with that. Between this and Smokin’ Aces, I’d pick this. There’s not much to else to say, other than it worked wonderfully for what it was and what it wanted to be. In a word: It accomplished what it set out to do: great, strong violence with a great cast.

Smokin’ Aces
Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds; Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Piven) is a stage performer turned mafioso in Vegas. Then he turns FBI informant. And then he gets a $1 million bounty put on his head by his former Mafia boss. Several different people decide their going to try to get the bounty, including neo-Nazi’s, a nameless/faceless professional assassin, and other horrible, nasty people. Of course, the FBI is trying to prevent the assassination, and they have other interests for wanting to bring down this Mafia family.

Thoughts: Great action but not much else. I take that back; it has some good dialogue too. But after violence and some good dialogue, it doesn’t have much else. The ‘twist’ at the end is incredibly predictable if you accidentally think about the movie (as I did). The pace is quick and direct, and the violence just as it should be: way over the top. I couldn’t rightfully give it a top rating, as it’s just eye-candy, but it was definitely good eye-candy. In a word: Great, bloody, explosive violence; some good dialogue; nothing else.