Saturday, March 21, 2009

Knowing When Not to Heed the Warning

Having a series of numbers, scrawled out by a creepy little girl in an elementary school class in Lexington, Massachusetts, for a 1959 time capsule, that successfully predicts the dates, number of deaths, and GPS coordinates of horrible disasters over the past 50 years, is kind of like knowing that any movie with Nicolas Cage and a bad title such as Knowing, Bangkok Dangerous (2008), and Next (2007) is going to be a really bad movie. So when I looked at the offerings for new releases for/at 320094166966270297123, I heard the little voices in my head saying, “Duplicity not Knowing. Duplicity not Knowing.” But I ignored the voices. You see, I’ll choose a disaster movie over a spy movie with Julia Roberts any Friday of the year because even though both genres tend be chock full of clichés, at least with the disaster movie you get the disaster.

So I went to the local multiplex, found the theater more crowded than for any movie I’ve seen this year, heard packs of pre-teens scurrying noisily for seats in the front, felt the teenaged girl behind me ramming my seat with her big foot, saw the old lady ascending the steps laboriously with a small dog on a leash beside her, and I thought, “Oh, shit. I have made a big mistake.”

But I had not. I was surprised. Granted, Cage’s acting ranges from tolerably utilitarian to downright right annoying, as he plays John Koestler, a desperate widower/physicist who decodes the number series and tries to get people to believe what it predicts. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne as Diana, another desperate single parent, is bland and misdirected. Clearly, the film borrows from The Day the Earth Caught Fire, E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deep Impact, Signs, and National Treasure, incorporating such hackneyed elements as the moody clairvoyant kids, the numbers clues, the mysterious figures lurking in the woods, and the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Second Movement, as dramatic accompaniment – which has been overused but is still very cool. But all this doesn’t matter. Once the film grabs you – and I was grabbed from the beginning when the little Wednesday Addams-eyed girl in the stereotypically goody-goody 1950s classroom starts scrawling numbers like a lunatic obsessed by a higher power while all the other kids are drawing pictures of space ships and robots as their innocuous predictions of the future – it is a genuinely scary and suspenseful film.

Director Alex Proyas (Dark City 1997) delivers a lot that I love in movies. I love disasters – and this film has many – rendered by means of CGI that ranges from the silly (the blazing moose) to the viscerally effective. I love a story about a guy who can predict horrid disasters but nobody believes him. And Proyas does a wonderful job of creating very creepy settings – dark woods, a dilapidated trailer – with the spooky Whisper Men who, of course, can communicate with John and Diana’s kids (Chandler Canterbury and Lara Robinson, who also plays the gloomy numbers girl).

Think too much while you’re watching this film and you might consider it ridiculous. Let yourself go, and it is scary, suspenseful, and visually awesome. Considering that the girl behind me ceased ramming my seat and the dog didn’t bark, I had a wonderful time at the movies, and I learned that sometimes you need to pay no attention to the Nicolas Cage warning.


The Film Doctor said...

Definitely, you made the right choice. I went to see Duplicity and regretted it. Thanks in part to your review, I will go see Knowing soon. I re-watched Dark City recently, and it holds up well.

Richard Bellamy said...

I love Dark City. I remember, that year, Ebert picked it as best film of 1997. It's a weird, visually interesting film with some nice surprises. Love the tribute to expressionist sets in silent films like Sunrise.

If you see Knowing, go for the ride. Don't expect logic at every turn. I liked how it was very extravagant with the extent of how far fiction can go.

Daniel said...

You've made a fair defense of this movie, hokahey, and I appreciate your willingness to go back and forth with me on the logic. "Think too much while you’re watching this film and you might consider it ridiculous." Indeed I did, but I can't fault the movie for that. Also, the majority of the public is clearly on your side since it took the box office crown with no problem!

Kind of interesting that with all of the "disasters" actually happening in the world, people still flock to movies about even bigger disasters - the end of the world, no less. Maybe seeing these makes us feel like it's not so bad in real life after all?

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, disaster movies make us feel like things are not so bad afterall. I've always loved disaster movies and been fascinated by them. And I like the ones that go beyond your basic earthquake - as the immensely entertaining The Core did. Reboot the Earth's core!? I'm there.

As for Knowing, it upped the disaster to the ultimate but still left us with a hopeful feeling captured in a very beautiful image. The second time I saw it there was smattering of applause. People came out of this film cheerfully!

Thanks for the comment here - and I really enjoyed your post and the subsequent exchange of comments.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey (and Daniel): I've outlined my review but haven't had time to sit down and write it. But I broke my usual rule and allowed myself to peek at your reviews.

Good stuff, both.

I can't imagine seeing this film twice, but I did allow myself to see it once ... and I knew better to totally avoid Next and Bangkok Dangerous. Which is my way of saying, "For a Cage film, Knowing sucks less."

Richard Bellamy said...

Well, that's a compliment. And, remember, Cage almost kept me away from this one. But as I was watching, I didn't view it as a Cage film. I considered it an entertaining science-fiction film that was not ruined by Cage - though he displays some pretty bad acting, as when he sees the alien spaceship and sinks to his knees, mouth agape. (Then, again, how would you react if you saw an alien spaceship?)

In Next - the film is inextricable from Cage's bad presence. In Knowing, however, there's so much going on that his presence is less obtrusive.

Jason and Daniel -

A specific question here - I felt the image of the airliner coming down on its side, dragging its wing through the traffic was very effective - very gripping. It made me cringe (and don't throw that word back at me - I mean it in the sense that it made me feel the reality of the crash); what's your opinion of that part?

Daniel said...

I thought the plane crash was pretty impressive indeed, though not quite as awe-inspiring as the solar flare fire. As the plane came down through the telephone wires and scraped across the road, I'll admit I was pretty stunned (though not surprised - clearly some disaster was about to occur).

The crash aside, however, I felt the amount of time spent combing through the wreckage was overlong, and even a bit showy. I actually remember sitting there thinking about the destroyed cul-de-sac in War of the Worlds and wondering, "Hmm, which one is better?" (of course I've also been to the actual set with still smoldering wreckage as part of the Universal Studios tour, so I had an even more close-up look). So for the time that I was pondering the arrangement of the set, well it wasn't that effective. But the first five seconds of the crash were.

I can't say the same about the subway crash - that did nothing for me, even if it was a good effort.

Richard Bellamy said...

Definitely, the descent of the plane through the wires and across the highway was the best moment.

The CGI in the subway crash was a little flimsy at times, but it hit me - because it was very precise about showing the abitrary nature of the death toll in a disaster - some people get smashed while others nearby are untouched - all that wreckage flying around and Nic and the woman with the baby are saved. I have to say I cringed as I watched that train slam into the station.

Thanks for all the fun exchange about this movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

I felt the image of the airliner coming down on its side, dragging its wing through the traffic was very effective ... what's your opinion of that part?

Well, I'm tipping my hand to an observation I was going to include in my review. But ...

I hated it, because I'm pretty confident they fucked it up.

Remember: Cage walks up the road to talk to the officer. The officer looks at him and then reacts to something over Cage's shoulder, thus down the road. The cop is supposed to be reacting to the plane ... but the plane doesn't come up the road (from behind Cage), it comes across the road (from Cage's left). In fact, ignoring that people would hear the plane coming before they saw it, even in the rain, I'm pretty sure Cage is in a better position to spot the plane than the cop is. (Hokahey: I ain't seeing this twice, so you'll have to see this a third time to confirm if you doubt me.)

Had they done it right, the crash would have worked. But they blew it. And then it gets all silly with the people running around on fire. As a result, the subway crash worked slightly better for me, but that might be because I ride the subway every day, and just a few years ago something somewhat similar actually happened in DC (on a lesser scale). Of course, that scene gets silly too, with all the people getting run over (talk about 2-dimensional CGI) and the CGI beam dropping at the end.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ah-ha! Evidence! Just after leaving this post, I went to Jim Emerson's Scanners and saw an image from the plane crash scene in his latest post. Check it out!.

This confirms that the plane doesn't come from up the road. And since I distinctly remember the plane making a hard left as it crashed, that means it's coming from BEHIND the cop, not BEHIND Cage.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason -

Thanks for including remarks that you will include in your review. That prepares me.

I think you're wrong about the cop's line of vision. He looks up over John's left shoulder. Cop runs. Nic looks. Here comes Papa. It seemed visually logical to me. As for sound - yeah, but sound can be funny.

As I said, I felt the subway crash CGI was low grade. It still got me.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason -

Just saw the evidence. Exactly. But from the way the cop looks, I never believed he was looking down the highway. His point of view was over Nic's shoulder - "down and to the right... down and to the right" ... sorry, couldn't resist the allusion - as I was saying, over Nic's shoulder to the right. Anyway, from my observations, the cop is looking exactly where the plane is coming from.

So, the scene seemed poorly set up to you; I thought it was excellent.

I look forward to your review!

Jason Bellamy said...

But look at the image again. The plane slices through the road between the point where Cage left his car (let's call that south) and the point where he's talking to the cop (let's call that north), correct?

The plane takes a hard left turn (toward the "east"), thus its previous trajectory suggests it was coming from an up-the-road path by the cop ("north") and not a down-the-road path near where Cage left his car ("south"), correct?

Cage walks up the street (from the "south") and starts talking before he stops walking, correct?

The cop looks at Cage (thus looking "south") and never changes his view until he sees something over Cage's shoulder. If Cage never turns, that means that whatever the cop sees is coming from BEHIND Cage. Off to the side, yes, but behind him (from the "southwest"). But this is wrong. As the image shows, the plane is coming from BEHIND the cop (thus from the "northwest" heading "south"). When it turns left ("east"), that causes it to cut across the road. Without a left turn, it would continue toward where Cage left his car ("south" not "north"). Thus he couldn't possibly see the plane over Cage's shoulder.

I don't disagree that the cop looks over Cage's shoulder. But his view over Cage's shoulder is essentially the view of the image that we see on that Scanners post. Which means if he's looking over Cage's shoulder, he wouldn't see the plane until it cut across the road.

So it is poorly staged. Now I'm 100 percent sure of that. Which doesn't undo that the scene worked for you as it happened, so I'm not trying to argue your reaction.

Daniel said...

Man, I love when there are people who as obsessed with details and logic as I am (not that you aren't, hokahey - you've conceded it missing in many instances in this movie and pointed out to me many "errors" that aren't actually "errors").

But Jason wins the day. You made me go deeper into the interwebs (actually it didn't take much) to find this clip of the crash. The cop clearly looks over Cage's RIGHT shoulder down the road. Cage turns around to his RIGHT and then, inexplicably, the camera pans almost 90 degrees right to see the plane ("Papa", LOL) coming from what would have been Cage's left and the cop's right. I don't know if Cage should have actually been able to see it coming from behind the cop and swooping down, but there's no way the cop is looking in the right (correct) spot.

But again, the crash is still a pretty spectacular achievement.

What about the people calmly sitting in their cars after the plane scraped behind them. Do you see them just sitting there as Cage recovers and starts running toward the wreckage? Wouldn't they freak out and start driving, or at least get out of their cars? Or at the very least be pressed up against the windows of their cars?

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason and Daniel -

Thanks for all the exhaustive research. Daniel - thanks for the video. That makes it absolutely clear. Looks like they filmed the cop and Nic part, planning to stick the CGI plane coming up behind Nic, but then they changed the location of the plane. Oops. They goofed. Too bad they did that.

I didn't notice a discrepancy when I saw the film; it happens so fast. Still - watching the video clip just now - it's an impressive crash.

Yeah, slips in logic bother me too. Usually they bother me more in "big, important" films; whereas, in entertainments like this one, I'm not that bothered.

As I commented on Getafilm - there are illogical elements I noticed myself. The one that bothers me most is that only the 3rd grade class gets to put things in a very expensive time capsule that has an ornate bronze lid - and all they put in is pictures. Knowing schools and what we did with our time capsule, they would have put in records, photographs, a reel of home movies, books, popular toys - all sorts of things - in order to make it worth their while. Even knowing now that Nic and the cop look in the wrong direction, the time capsule thing bothers me more.

Still, the errors didn't bother me. I was taken in by the story.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Thanks for adding the clip!

Hokahey: I think the reason the plane scene doesn't bother you much is because it fooled you twice. You have two experiences being blown away by it, so that takes a while to go away.

Because, here's the thing: The time capsule thing is unlikely, but it isn't incorrect. If all they wanted to do was include these drawings of the future, well, that's possible. The plane crash is flat out incorrect.

Still, giving away more of my (eventual) review, the part that bothers me most is when they decide that the best way to search for the missing girl is by leaving the lights turned off at the school. Give me a break.

Richard Bellamy said...

Right about the lights - Daniel noted that on his post. In fact, Daniel has covered just about every possible lapse in logic this wonderful film contains.

So here's a new direction on a related issue - homework for anyone who wishes to comment:

Name a film that you really liked while at the same time you acknowledge that it contains errors and/or lapses in logic.
(Actually, that applies to most of Spielberg's films - which I commented on recently on The Dancing Image in response to MovieMan's post on The Lost World: Jurassic Park.) For example, I love War of the Worlds - despite lapses in logic and an absolute error(among others, I'm sure): Shot 1: Close shot of Dakota running off to go to the bathroom; Cruise has not opened the back of the van yet. Shot 2: Close shot of Dakota nearing the river; in the background Cruise is opening the back of the van. Shot 3: Cruise turns to open the back of the van.

Jason Bellamy said...

Name a film that you really liked while at the same time you acknowledge that it contains errors and/or lapses in logic.

Well, the one that jumps to the front of my mind for the lapses in logic department is Sunshine.

(Spoilers ahead...)

* There's no way they divert from their course in the first place for any reason.

* Every crew member would be able to do every task. Having one guy know how to "deliver the payload" is ridiculous.

* Considering the computer could do everything else, how come it couldn't deliver the payload?

* I love, love, love the moment when they shoot themselves from one ship to the next, but something tells me that isn't possible.

* The computer that runs the ship is pretty inconsistent about what jeopardizes the mission and what doesn't.

* Don't even get me started on the surprise crew member.

All that said, Sunshine presents everything with a seriousness and a level of detail that makes it feel real, even though a few seconds of thought demonstrates how silly most of it is. Love that movie, but not a good one to think through.

Richard Bellamy said...

That is an excellent example. I loved it too; it was on my Top Five List for 2007 - then later I read all sorts of criticisms of its logic. The element that was most irritating to me is that the navigator forgets to alter the trajectory of the shield when they change course. Yeah, right. Since that's so crucial - there would be all sorts of warnings on the computer against that and signs and warnings all over the computer where he was doing the calculations.

It seems like with science-fiction movies it's hard to create a world that doesn't have some illogical loopholes in it. But I love the genre so much that I give sci-fi movies a lot of leeway.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason and Daniel -

Take a look at this version of the crash from the preview

Different shot - and looks like it's behind Nic - so it seems they made two CGI versions of the crash and chose the second - which is more dramatic - at the expense of logic.

Jason Bellamy said...

Very interesting. That's a different look, to be sure. Strange.

The trailer reminded me of another head-scratching moment from the film: Cage lectures his son about removing the page of numbers from the school and says his son must return it the next day. Then Cage takes the page out of his son's backpack and puts it on the kitchen counter ... where it would be more likely to be left behind in the morning. Ugh.

Daniel said...

Wow, that clip from the trailer is completely different. That is really bizarre. I wonder if we're the only three people focusing on this, haha!

Here's an interesting fact - I love the National Treasure franchise! I'm almost certain there are major errors in both, but I'd have to rewatch to create the laundry list.

The first one has a "Knowing" moment, though, when Cage figures out the presidential connection to that old ship by looking at a pipe or something. And then the ship explodes and everyone is unscathed, if my memory serves me correctly.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, this is exciting. Thanks for checking out the preview. Yeah, I wonder if we're the only ones who know about the two versions of the plane's descent! I had gone to Google looking for still images of the plane and I saw one with the overpass. Then I watched the preview and I was amazed. Totally different.

Seems like a silly thing, but what we're saying here is that we're sticklers for visual sense in films. That's what films should be concerned about establishing.

As for the National Treasure movies, I like them too and just go for the ride.

Joel Bocko said...

This sounds remarkably like a movie that Donnie Darko's director (name escapes me at the moment) was slated to make a few years ago, and that I was under the impression he had written. Actually, it doesn't sound remarkably like it - it's the exact same idea. Anyone know what happened? (I did hear his follow-ups to DD were pretty terrible...)