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: AVPR, Astronaut Farmer, Fracture

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Starring: Steven Pasquale, John Ortiz; Directed by: Colin and Greg Strause
Rating: 1/2 (half star out of five)

Summary: When an Alien managed to destroy a group of Predators, including impregnating one with a little gut-busting baddy, the ‘head’ Predator on the hunt seeks revenge. They meet in a small town in the US, whose residents range from a do-good sheriff, an ex-con, his brother and the girl he likes, and a bunch of other people who die. Carnage ensues as the Predator hunts down the Alien, destroying humans who get in the way.

Thoughts: Boring. The original AVP, which was only PG-13, was much better than this one. With an R-rating, one would assume the extra gore would bring a new level to the story … but no. Disappointingly, no one makes any use of the alien-predator hybrid that is being hunted. When the Alien face-hugger implants the Predator, the damned thing that bursts from it’s chest cavity is a hybrid between both species. How cool of a creature could that be? Unfortunately no one seemed to realize this had potential and it was much to the films detriment. In a word: Utter disappointment.

The Astronaut Farmer
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen; Directed by: Michael Polish
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Charles Farmer has a dream to be an astronaut. So he builds a rocket in his barn with the plan to orbit once around the earth then plummet back down into his backyard, all safely. His son has been working with him and training to man the command center as his father orbits. His family, though in debt and in foreclosure, endlessly support Farmer, stressful as it is. As does the town, at one point even buying advertising on the rocket itself (a la NASCAR). And then he tries to buy 10,000 gallons of fuel. In comes the FBI worried he’s building a WMD. In comes a regulatory board which does all it can to ground Farmer. But they can stop a Dream? (Dream is the name of the rocket).

Thoughts: Not as touching as it should have been, and the lack of any scientific explanations will likely turn of most people. Where he got his equipment, his physics and math skills, and, most importantly, the knowledge to build a rocket with it’s complicated engine, structural design, and ‘advanced’ electronics (‘advanced’ is something of an understatement as the technology in Dream itself harkens to the Gemini-era). The end is also choppy. So why give it two stars instead of one? It was original — what a fantastic idea! I was sold on it when I first saw a trailer, even though I knew it wouldn’t be quite as good as I wanted. In a word: Great idea that falls extremely short on execution.

Fracture
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins; Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Ted Crawford is an artist who has discovered his wife is cheating on him with a police officer. So he shoots her in the face and cleans up the murder scene. When the cops arrive, the man she was messing around with is the head detective; Crawford confesses to him. Enter Willy Beachum, a top-notch young lawyer for the prosecution. Can he play Crawford’s game? Or will someone get away with murder?

Thoughts: Just plain average. Both Gosling and Hopkins give good performances, but there isn’t much to any of the characters for these two great actors to truly build anything upon. The actual details of the case and the plan that Crawford has to get off are incredibly predictable. So, once again, why two stars instead of one? Because Gosling and Hopkins were good, and the direction actually wasn’t bad. It was the script that was lacking, not the overall film. In a word: Predictable yet somehow well made.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp
Rated: PG-13
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Indy’s back. And in full flavor. I completely enjoyed myself, but I cannot say the same for everyone else in the theater.

We begin with the standard Paramount mountain fade into something else — this time it’s a prairie dog mound. Elvis begins playing and we meet the Army, driving in the Nevada desert, just outside “Hangar 51″ (you make the connection). After a small skirmish, it’s revealed the men aren’t US Army, but Soviets, lead by the icy villianess Irina Spalko (Blanchett). Out of the trunk of one of the cars comes Indy and his pal Mac (Winstone).

Spalko is a psychic, or wants to be, but since she can’t coax Indy into doing her bidding with mental powers alone, the guns alongside her help. They then search for a box, about the size of a coffin, in a warehouse of boxes that will be familiar to fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fortunately for everyone involved, the box is highly magnetized and therefore pretty easy to find.

This sparks the main adventure, details of which I will not expose here. It’s easy enough to find the spoilers on the internet. I will say that most of the rumors you have undoubtedly heard are true — all but a meager few of the ones I had read early on were false. I will say this: Had George Lucas’ originally proposed title of “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars” stayed the title, I’m not sure I’d have seen it.

Indiana Jones is definitely back, but in a different way. Age doesn’t matter much in this film, except for comedic effect. The age is played up, almost too much at times, but never once did I look at Indiana Jones and think to myself that he’s too old for this shit. To me, Indy has always been a bit of an anti-hero — gruff, tough, and not too much of a gentleman. His work seemed to go under the radar, unacknowledged beyond academia. To Crystal Skull‘s detriment, he’s hyped as an incredible hero. If anyone uttered the phrase “war hero” again, I was going to be upset.

Why try to make an icon iconic? He’s already an icon! All three of the previous films were also cheesy — they didn’t take themselves all that seriously, and that’s a significant reason that they are great films. There are moments throughout Crystal Skull where you get the impression that the filmmakers were too conscious about making it cheesy and tried too hard to not cross that line. Unfortunately, there were times that they did, most notably in the climax with Spalko.

Does any of that actually detract from the film? I don’t think so. I think it lives up to it’s lead character and more. The whole experience got me thinking (and my thoughts are likely to become another blog entry). Was I expecting too much? Or was I too sold on the originals? Definitely not to the latter — Raiders of the Lost Ark is, and always will be, as fantastic as the first time I saw it. Last Crusade will never be boring, and, while it’s not as good as the other two that bookend it, Temple of Doom is still an amazing adventure yarn. I think that because I know the previous three films so well that Crystal Skull was almost certainly set to disappoint. The fact that it wasn’t nearly as disappointing as I had feared says a lot.

My only true disappointment with the movie is that there is likely to never be another after it. The original plan in the 1980′s was to create five (yes, five) Indiana Jones films. Four are now complete, and new star/character has been tapped to possibly continue the series (Mutt Williams, played by LaBeouf). Sean Connery as Indy’s father was timeless. I want to see a fifth film with Indy playing that role to Mutt’s novice adventurer.

I don’t want to be done with Indiana Jones yet, and this film didn’t help that. That is why it’s worthy of the title and a great movie.