Improving on his last two duds The Village and the dreadful aquatic nymph tale Lady In The Water writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan gets back to the kind of eerie paranoid thriller he so successfully mined in early efforts like The Sixth Sense and Signs. The results this time are mixed in this story of a mysterious environmental “happening” on the East Coast that is causing large groups of people to commit suicide. As he does in his most effective films Shyamalan focuses on a core group of people who must find a way to survive these strange events. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia science teacher already dealing with marital problems with his attractive but rather unstable wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) now thrust into full crisis mode as he his wife a fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) hit the road by train then car to escape the unusual plague first thought to be a terrorist attack. The group soon realizes it is more than that perhaps a forceful message from Mother Nature cued by the growing winds and rustling of tree leaves. Joined eventually by two older boys Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) and Josh (Spencer Breslin) Elliot tries to be the voice of reason as each person begins to meet their own fates on a journey into a heartland of unexplainable terror. Unlike most contemporary horror films in which actors must battle butt-ugly creatures most of the genuine frights in this flick are left to our imagination. Here Shyamalan wants us to experience what the characters are going through the abject fear on their faces. Wahlberg is particularly good at expressing a growing feeling that events are slipping out of his control. He’s amusing in a direct encounter with a house plant he fears may now have the upper hand and in the film’s best sequence where he must convince a batty paranoid old woman (an intense Betty Buckley) to let the group stay in her remote farmhouse. Forced to utter lines like “just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil invented ” the quirky Deschanel has her work cut out for her but is likeable enough in the end. As a math teacher Leguizamo spends much of his screen time calculating everyone’s odds for survival until his own becomes questionable. As his daughter Sanchez is appealing and handles herself well. Shyamalan is the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock--in his own mind at least. Hitch’s The Birds seems to be the template but that 1963 classic is light years ahead in every way. Unfortunately Shyamalan is becoming something of a one-trick pony as The Happening is basically a retread of things we’ve seen him do before. There is no question he has superior skills. He clearly gets the horror genre; he just doesn’t seem to know how to make it fresh anymore and the answer isn’t by ratcheting up the body count. Reportedly 20th Century Fox asked him deliberately to make an R rated film (his first) and its those gore-filled elements which seem superfluous here. Do we really need to see a guy commit suicide by willingly letting some zoo lions rip off his arms? It’s glaring and out of place with the subtler aspects of the director’s style. Plus the use of overbearing and obvious music cues (score is by James Newton Howard) shamelessly telegraphs whatever scares the movie and only serves to emphasize the shortcomings of M. Night’s sketchy screenplay. Still as a summertime time-waster The Happening fills the bill but as an eco-thriller with dire warnings for humankind it drowns in its own promising potential.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!
Scooby and the gang at Mystery Inc.--Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard)--are at the top of their game and just about everyone in Coolsville loves them. Even the Coolsonian Museum is honoring them with an exhibit--a costumed display of Mystery Inc.'s former foes such as The Pterodactyl Ghost The Black Knight Ghost and The 10 000 Volt Ghost. Yet at the museum's gala opening the team's stellar reputation is put in serious jeopardy when said monsters come alive re-created by a masked villain who vows to bring Mystery Inc. down. Under pressure from relentless reporter Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone) the gang launches an investigation into the monster outbreak but as the mystery deepens Mystery Inc.'s members end up questioning their roles within the organization. Can macho leader Fred and image-conscious Daphne look past the superficial and find the identity of the Evil Masked Figure? Will brainy Velma let her feelings for Coolsonian Museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green) blossom even though he is a key suspect? And finally can Shaggy and Scooby stop cowering--and eating--long enough to prove they can be detectives? These are tough times for the gang but they've got to pull it together so they can solve the mystery and save the day.
Even though it seems a little ridiculous that Scooby-Doo 2's fleshed-out cartoon characters would try to dig deep to find answers within the returning actors continue to have fun exploring their alter-Scooby-egos. Prinze's Fred has a hipper haircut this time (the original matted blond 'do had to go) and isn't quite the braggart he once was. He is still unquestionably the "face" of the group until he is made to look foolish by the ruthless Heather played with relish by Silverstone who shines in the bad-girl role. Gellar has definitely dropped Daphne's "damsel-in-distress" routine getting all Buffy on the monsters but is still worried that its her looks not her skills that get her attention. Cardellini's Velma on the other hand gets a love interest--and even all dolled up at one point--but can't get rid of her inherent geekiness. It's Shaggy and Scooby who experience the biggest revelation realizing they really are nothing but giant screw-ups. Lillard actually turns in some (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) poignant moments as Shag grapples with his inequities. They all realize in the end though that for the good of Mystery Inc. it's best to be true to yourself. Thank god.
Director Raja Gosnell goes full throttle in his second Scooby effort with more action and more elaborate theme-parky sets than the original. Even as the characters pause to reflect on their faults these moments are thankfully short-lived before the gang is thrust into another wild chase or fight sequence keeping the kiddies' minds occupied--and allowing the adult fans to laugh at all the monsters they remember from the TV show. One of the criticisms from the first Scooby-Doo was that it didn't provide enough "inside" jokes for the grown-up enthusiasts (and face it there are probably more of them than kids). But Scooby-Doo 2 harkens back to the good old days and even pokes fun at all those criminals whose evil plans and ghost disguises were foiled by the meddlesome quintet. They all gather at their own watering hole called the Faux Ghost where they can throw darts at pictures of the Mystery Inc. gang. Funny stuff. Overall the sequel provides the same madcap fun the original did without requiring the use of too much brainpower.