Sunday 27 February 2011

Movie Bites: 'The Hole', 'The Last Airbender' & 'The Other Guys'

Sunday 27 February 2011
THE HOLE. Joe Dante (Gremlins) makes his overdue return to directing with children's fantasy-thriller The Hole; essentially Goosebumps-meets-The Gate. In a typically Spielbergian suburb of America, teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a new house with their single mother (Teri Polo), later discovering a padlocked trapdoor in the basement that covers a bottomless abyss. They investigate the uncanny hole with the help of cute next-door-neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett), only to later realize that they've awoken malevolent spirits from within.

There's a pleasing sense of '80s nostalgia about The Hole, particularly in its first act, which features the tropes of many kid-friendly horrors of that decade: a family moving into a new neighbourhood, a shy teen ignoring his mom because he's listening to loud music, there's even a sinister jester puppet that recalls both the unnerving clown from Poltergeist and Dante's own Gremlins once it springs to maniacal life. The trouble with The Hole is that the mystery and scares become less potent the longer the movie trundles on, despite a fun detour when the trio find the house's previous occupant "Creepy Carl" (Bruce Dern), perhaps proving The Hole would have made a better Outer Limits episode than a full-blooded movie.

Still, credit Dante for delivering a scary movie for kids with some genuinely creepy moments (the grinning jester's a recurring nightmare-in-waiting), camera tricks that were once avant-garde for adult horrors (reverse-filmed ghosts, to create an unnerving jittery gait), and good use of Friedrich Nietzsche's quote "if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you" to explain the eponymous hole's power.

directed by Joe Dante / written by Mark L. Smith / starring Teri Polo, Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble & Bruce Dern / 98 mins.

* * *

THE LAST AIRBENDER. All hope that M. Night Shyamalan could reverse his filmmaking nosedive by tackling someone else's material are dashed by the dreary non-event of The Last Airbender. Maybe MNS should try directing someone else's script entirely, although there are a worrying number of awkward, stilted scenes that belie Shymalan's usual competence behind the camera. Maybe the guy's starting to lose whatever glimmers of latent talent remained on The Happening? Last Airbender's chilly steampunk production design, nifty special effects, and intelligible fights are the only things worthy of some praise, and thus responsible for my one-star rating.

In a mythical realm there are four kingdoms whose populations can wield, or "bend", the five elements (earth, air, fire, water) to their will. The Air Nation are extinct at the hands of the bellicose Fire Nation, who declared war on all their neighbours, and our story begins with Water Nation friends Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) uncovering an airbender called Aang (Noah Ringer) in a globe of ice -- who's also the long-lost Avatar, capable of controlling all four elements and commune with the ethereal Spirit world. Elsewhere, exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko (Dev Patel) is determined to capture the Avatar to regain the acceptance of his warmongering father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).

There's nothing about Airbender's premise that shouldn't work as a live-action movie. I hear the Nickelodeon cartoon this movie's adapted from is a revered animation with the potential to have spawned a successful franchise in the Harry Potter/Star Wars mould, which makes Shyamalan's limp movie a bitter pill to swallow. The screenplay unwisely tries to compress an entire season's worth of plot into 99-minutes and, frankly, this results in puzzling twists and turns. I'm still not sure if Zuko was a hero or villain, or exactly why the Fire Nation refuse to live in harmony with the other kingdoms. All the actors are vacuous husks, bringing no personality to proceedings, so it's impossible to care about the quest they're on, or invest in their motivations -- if they even have any. While a stupid love-story materializes out of nowhere for gormless Sokka and a beautiful teenage princess, any potential of a romantic undercurrent to Katara and Aang fails to ignite.

The Last Airbender is a movie with a rich universe to explore, but provides no emotional tether for its audience. It's rather like watching a hazy dream unfold, only half as fun in the moment and forgotten twice as fast. But it was a surprise box-office success, despite being savaged by critics, so maybe a lower-budget sequel will happen. If so, let's hope Shyamalan finds his Irvin Kershner and hands over the reigns.

written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan / starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi & Cliff Curtis / 103 mins.

* * *

THE OTHER GUYS. Mismatched "buddy" cop comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman), where pen-pushing detective Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and his dimwitted partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) stumble upon a case where billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan) is trying to cover his business's financial losses to client Lendl Global. Gamble and Hoitz are the eponymous "other guys" of the precinct, dismissed by their colleagues (particularly an egocentric duo played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson), who get a chance to prove everyone wrong by solving the city's biggest ever crime.

My problem with this comedy is, at heart, very simple: it isn't very funny. The case being investigated is a white-collar bore that's impossible to feel any connection with, wasting Coogan in the process (no change there), while the simply humour of partnering nerdy Ferrell with idiot Wahlberg rarely amuses. The only element that works is a running gag that Ferrell's character can't see that his sexy wife Sheila (Eva Mendes) is every man's dreamgirl, instead convinced she's a plane jane, which has very little to do with the actual story being told. There are moments when you get the impression this is intended to be an American answer to Hot Fuzz (a climactic car chase swaps Fuzz's miniature village for a golf club's driving range), with McKay also indulging himself with memorable but pointless sequences (like a one-shot tableaux in a pub, where the camera floats around frozen 3D snapshots of Gamble and Hoitz partying.) Adding to the sense of a movie utterly failing in its intentions, the end credits involve animations that explain various financial concepts (using graphs, pie-charts, and statistics), despite the fact The Other Guys never once felt like a clever treatise on shameful business practices.

directed by Adam McKay / written by Chris Hency & Adam McKay / starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, Steve Coogan & Michael Keaton / 107 mins.