Happening, The (2008)
★ / ★★★★
There are many things wrong in “The Happening,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but the casting of the leads, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, is perhaps the most salient misstep. The story being a hybrid of science fiction and mystery, it is a basic requirement that the performers be able to emote the deepest and most sincere emotions. Wahlberg and Deschanel are far from the most versatile actors. For instance, Wahlberg has this annoying habit of sounding disingenuous when trying to make others interested in what his character is talking about. Take note of the classroom scene during the first fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Deschanel’s facial expression does not change. She always looks wide-eyed and innocent even when the occasion does not call for it.
A strange event begins in Central Park, New York City. It appears to be just another morning at the park: Health-conscious people are jogging, pets are being taken for a walk, men and women in professional attires are headed to work, others are sitting on benches chatting with friends. There is a gust of wind. Everything stops. A select few start walking backwards. Then they start to hurt themselves. At a nearby construction site, workers jump off buildings. The news claim it must be some sort of a terrorist attack.
The central character is Elliot (Wahlberg), a science teacher whose wife, Alma (Deschanel), is currently wrestling with her conscience. She had went on a date with another man. This could have been a potent human conflict amidst a most bizarre phenomenon if the screenplay had been more probing into its subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead, an attempt at comedy is utilized time and again for the sake of “entertainment”—in quotations because the so-called jokes and funny bits do not work at all. These scenes come across as though they were from a completely different picture.
The material asks the viewers to use their imagination. This is a good thing. The problem is that the film does not provide anything of value that inevitably engages us. There are shots of the wind caressing leaves of trees, tall grass, and bushes. This is almost always accompanied by a mysterious or creepy score. But what is the point when there is no payoff? By the end, the explanation is that there is no explanation because we do not yet understand nature completely. This is lazy and insulting.
There is no third act. The first act, which takes place in NYC, sets up the story. The second act involves a migration, running away from the reported terrorist attacks. And then it just ends with a subtitle claiming that three months had passed. This is most curious because Shyamalan is highly attuned to having three well-defined arcs. This is why “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Signs” feel like complete, well-told stories. By the end of these aforementioned movies, we want to know more about what would happen to the characters even though there is nothing more to say.
One walks away from “The Happening” feeling cheated because the mystery offers to intrigue or depth, the characters are one-dimensional, and it fails to offer anything new or exciting to the various sub-genres it embodies. Its level of creativity is bone dry.
★★ / ★★★★
A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.
Surf’s Up (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) was a penguin who knew how to surf but did not know how to have fun while doing it because his brother and mother did not always show their support for him. So when a recruiter for surfers visited Cody’s hometown, Cody did not think twice about competing in the Penguin World Surfing Championship. On his journey to the finals, he met an oblivious but very entertaining chicken (Jon Heder), a cute penguin lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), a highly competitive penguin (Diedrich Bader) and a surfing legend (Jeff Bridges) who decided to hide from the world. I feel like I am the only person that did not enjoy this animated mockumentary. In what people found inspiring, I found recycled jokes, or worse, jokes that were just not funny. At first I thought it had potential because I have never seen an animated film take on a mockumentary style of storytelling. But I quickly got bored with it because even though everyone had a lot of energy, there really was no story and a defined main character. The images were cute (especially the baby penguins) but the movie did not have enough substance for me to really get into. As for the star-studded voices, I found them to be very distracting. Instead of seeing the penguins come to life, I was forced to think of the actors instead. I was pretty excited to watch this movie because it was light entertainment and I needed a break from a series of serious films. And when I heard that this movie was nominated for an Oscar, my expectations were that much higher but it did not deliver in a way where I could be entertained by the jokes while at the same time getting me to invest in the story. I will say, however, that this film was quite atmospheric at times. I loved the first few scenes when it went back in time to tell the audiences what made Cody feel so inspired to go after his dreams. There was a certain campiness and cleverness about it. Unfortunately, the rest did not hold up especially the scenes where the legendary surfer taught Cody “the ways” of being a real surfer. It was cheesy and, as a person who is not interested in surfing, I found the whole thing quite boring. I’m not sure if kids can enjoy this movie with bright colors alone. It needed a bit of edge, a bit of sadness and a whole lot of originality. Instead of elevating the picture, the mockumentary style felt like a bad gimmick.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.
Yes Man (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Jim Carrey stars as Carl, a guy who learns to stop having fun by sticking to his regular routines even years after he and his wife gets a divorce. After bumping into an old friend (John Michael Higgins) and discussing whether Carl is really happy with where he is in life, the friend recommends a program where the members say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way no matter how seemingly insignificant such opportunities are. The first third of this film was really funny because of the many ways Carl tries to avoid hanging out with his friends (Danny Masterson and the charming Bradley Cooper), particularly that scene in the videostore. In some ways, I could relate to Carrey’s character because I have those times when I’d rather stay in at night by myself and watch a movie or two instead of going out with friends. But things quickly deteriorated after Carl finally joins the Yes Man program. Admittedly, the first few scenes were still comical but after the tenth time he gets invited to do something and he had to say yes, I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie has something else to offer. Luckily, Zooey Deschanel played Carrey’s romantic interest because there’s just something about her–a certain je ne sais quoi–that mesmerizes me every time she’s on screen. Although I’ve heard from some people that the age difference bothered them, it didn’t bother me because I thought there was a strange chemistry between the two of them. While I still enjoyed Carrey’s manic style of acting, the script did not strive to take the story to the next level. Therefore, the picture became a somewhat entertaining and predictable safe comedy. I wish that the film focused more on the negative repercussions of saying “yes” to everything (which it only briefly touched upon) instead of glamorizing a program’s motif. Perhaps with a little alteration from the script and a better direction (Peyton Reed), “Yes Man” would’ve been funny and smart instead of just being moderately amusing.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I am more than happy to say that one of the most outstanding pictures of the year (so far) is a romantic comedy. However, it is far from a typical one. The always impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Latter Days,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Brick,” “The Lookout”) plays Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer who has a passion for architecture but never quite followed it due to some of life’s circumstances. The lovely Zooey Deschanel (“Almost Famous,” “Elf,” “Flakes,” “The Happening”) plays Summer Finn, a new secretary who does not believe in the concept of love and values independence to the fullest. The two are complete opposites, which serves as an ideal template for romance with genuinely awkward moments on the side. But as the film warns us during the first three minutes, it is not a love story, which can mean that a happy ending may not be on the horizon.
The movie was told in a non-linear sequence. It started with Tom confiding to his precocious sister (Chloe Moretz) and two best friends/apartment-mates (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) about his fear that his relationship with Summer might be over. I liked the fact that the film immediately jumped into getting to know the characters. That scene showed that Tom was not your typical macho guy who considered girls as mere conquests; he actually had a heart, a brain, and a soul, someone who was not afraid to cry and fall apart in front of people who mattered to him most. That sense of efficiency pervaded the 95-minute running time as it jumped from the 300th day to day 1 and back to 164th. As the audiences jumped back and forth in time, we get a fuller picture about the dynamics (and not always reciprocal feelings) between Tom and Summer. He slowly realized that Summer was someone who he could never have no matter how much effort he tried to put into the relationship because Summer simply did not feel the same way. But I liked the fact that the picture did not make Summer look like a bad person. Like Tom, she had her own values and ethics and varying capability to do good and bad things. Marc Webb, the director, always strived for complexity with regards to characterization and I appreciated his efforts because most romantic comedies of today are too sugary, one-dimensional, or the characters become more like caricatures instead of reflecting actual individuals in the world. In my opinion, Webb managed to capture how it was like for a twentysomething to feel lost in the world but still have that glimmer of hope that things would ultimately turn out for the better. Maturity is one of this film’s biggest strengths and it was always at the forefront.
There were some storytelling techniques that could either annoy audiences and think that the picture was being somewhat pretentious or impress audiences in every way. I was one of the latter group for several reasons. I absolutely loved the foreign language scene because I thought it represented the disconnect between Tom and Summer. I think it served as a metaphor when two people are constantly at odds to the point where they stop trying to understand each other because every sentence of justification feels like a foreign language. Another scene that stood out to me was when Tom attended Summer’s party. The split-screen between what Tom hoped would happen and what actually happened had a great balance of comedy and tragedy. And I think it painfully reflects real life. There were a lot of similarities between the two split-screens but there were also a plethora of glaring differences and others were quite subtle. Lastly, I admit that I am not a very big fan of dancing in movies but it worked here. It was amusing when Tom, because of extreme happiness that he cannot express with words, started dancing in the park and everyone else started joining him (including an animated bird!). Such scenes mentioned proved to me that this was an edgy picture with a purpose, which was different than an indie movie simply trying to be edgy for the sake of being different.
In a nutshell, “(500) Days of Summer” is a picture for movie lovers who love watching films showcasing real-life instead of films imitating real-life. There is a subtle but important difference between the two and this one is well aware of that line it daringly treads. By the end, others may be saddened by Tom’s journey from naiveté to awareness or be uplifted with the possibilities that face him. I belong with the latter because I believe in the necessity of sacrifices for the learning experience. This is the twenty-first century “Annie Hall” and it should definitely not be missed.
★ / ★★★★
“Flakes,” directed by Michael Lehmann, looked good from the trailer because it focused on why these group of characters are different (and proud of it). But the actual film was very disappointing because it ultimately succumbed in typicality; it focused on the romantic relationship between the two leads instead of the actual concept: having a food establishment that serves nothing but cereal. The bistro was lead by Aaron Stanford whose goal is to be a musician but doesn’t quite get there because of his own fears of spreading his wings. On the outside, he says that he wants to be something more but on the inside he’s content on where he is. His girlfriend is played by Zooey Deschanel, someone as quirky and different as Stanford, who’s a painter and wants to help her boyfriend out by taking over the cereal restaurant for a couple of days. Another part of the problem was when a competitor opens in front of them that also features cereal. From then on, a rivalry insues between the two restaurants and the couple. This indie comedy would have been so much more interesting if it did not focus on the relationship between the two leads. Seeing them act like children by trying to make each other miserable, claiming that what they do is “just a job and nothing personal” was too immature and insulting. A smart person (and filmmaker) should realize that sometimes job and relationships DO affect each other in more ways than not. The premise (and therefore the execution) would have been that much more interesting if it straddled that line instead of simply taking sides. Also, in my opinion, Christopher Lloyd was wasted here as the original cereal bistro owner. All he did was pretty much look unkept and mumble nothingness. In the end, I couldn’t get over its “Look! I’m being so indie and different!” feel to the point where it felt almost commercial–the antithesis on what it’s trying to be. Not even the always lovable Deschanel could save this train wreck.