Thursday, March 19, 2009

Knowing Review

The new genre thriller Knowing begins with a prologue from 1959. We know because the titles tell us and because the students at a newly opened Grade School dress in cheerful colors and seem uniformly attentive and polite as they might in a Leave it to Beaver influenced universe. They answer every question with a metronome precise chant of “Yes Miss Taylor.” Miss Taylor is their teacher and they’ve been asked to draw visions of the future. They’ll bury their art in a time capsule to be opened exactly 50 years later by a future generation of schoolchildren in 2009 or, as the titles helpfully declare minutes later, “Present Day.” (What happens when people are watching this on DVD in January 2010? How can ‘exactly 50 years from 1959’ be 2010 be “Present Day”? It’s a question for Dr. Manhattan)

One of the students is not a ‘50s Stepford Child. Her name is Lucinda Embry (Lara Robison) and she looks just as wan, forlorn and dead-eyed as the actress Rose Byrne always does (kudos to the casting director, the resemblance is truly uncanny). Knowing’s female lead will be playing an Embry descendant in the present day. Little Lucy hears creepy, loud and overlapping voices which drive her cuckoo. They’re later referred to as “whisper people” though the decibel level the sound team chooses for these voices suggests not such much whispering as “shouty people with lisps”. The voices are feeding her information and the information isn’t pleasant. She scribbles seemingly nonsensical numbers frantically for two pages until her teacher pulls the sheet out from under her preventing its completion. Miss Taylor is annoyed that Lucy didn’t follow the “draw the future” assignment. Chant it with me now “But she did Miss Taylor, she did!"

In the present day we meet a sad widower Professor Koestler (Nicolas Cage) and his hearing impaired son Caleb. We know it won’t be long before they discover Lucy’s “drawing” and all hell breaks loose. We know this because Knowing is the furthest thing from subtle in mood or gradual in its foreshadowing. As early as the prologue the filmmaker makes no differentiation between the creepy parts and the mundane. It’s all scored and shot the same negating the twisting effect of true creepiness. Thriller music, spooky production design choices and low camera angles prevail. Professor Koestler and his son don’t just live in a normal house where we might see their world unravel as the thrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and doomed. They live in a house that could be the Amityville Horror‘s cousin. It’s out in the foggy woods. Of course it is!

Most embarrassing is Knowing’s intimate familiarity with extremely loud “SCARE” sound cues. Sometimes this desperate tendency botches the suspense entirely. There’s one shot in the film involving a piece of furniture that should be a genuinely unsettling “reveal” It’s preceded by a THIS IS SCARY sound cue so eardrum crushing loud I felt my seat vibrating. But instead of timing it to the reveal, it happens before. We’re actually still looking at Nicolas Cage looking at something when we're told to be very afraid. When the edit hits and we see the scary thing for ourselves it's still creepy but way anticlimactic. The movie was scared for us so we don't have to be.

An early scene of Koestler giving a lecture to his class attempts to establish an underlying theme for the film in the question “Determinism or Randomness?” but it’s a red herring of the most cynical variety. The film is crushingly deterministic and besides, no mainstream Hollywood thriller would ever opt for randomness when “everything happens for a reason” is on offer. It’s not the comfort motto of the masses for nothing. This sad man believes in randomness. His wife’s death has killed his faith. Movie stars playing characters who’ve lost their faith before the movie begins always regain it before the end credits. It’s a rule. Just ask Mel Gibson in Signs.

(some spoilers now)

Lucy’s list of numbers is revealed to be prophetic codes to past and future catastrophes with large body counts. Those whispering voices are soon embodied by mysterious blond child-stalking men. Numbers in thrillers always means code breaking which always means Determinism. When will Professor Koestler shuck his “Randomness” preaching and join Team Determinism? Very soon, moviegoer, very soon.

Once Koestler gets his paws on the Lucy’s disaster clock paper, he immediately starts underlining and circling groups of numbers with a big fat red marker. He breaks the code. He becomes a daredevil throwing himself in harm’s way repeatedly to save lives since he knows where and when the disasters will happen. Huge budgeted special effects follow – the first setpiece is the most successful and startling, probably because it’s the only one that the movie hasn’t relentlessly prepped us for. The unknown is always scarier than the known. Which is why people prefer the known (Determinism!) to the unknown (Randomness!). Some of the disasters are well realized but the effect isn’t so enjoyable. The director Alex Proyas sinks low, even panning up to an American flag blowing in the wind, as the end note of a New York City disaster sequence. Cheap shot Proyas, cheap shot. More troubling is the dehumanizing dumb religiosity of the whole enterprise, capped by one of the silliest endings I can recall seeing in a movie theater. Knowing’s spectacle of death and disaster and that final scene will probably be a huge hit with apocalypse-loving evangelical Christians considering its commitment to doomsday prophesies. Watch the world burn –we knew it would!!!

Nicolas Cage charts his acting process.

The days of Nicolas Cage’s sensitivity and risk-taking as an actor have been over for so long it’s hard to get worked up about a new lame performance. But I’ll try. He makes only the broadest of acting choices. He MOPES in capital letters. He DRINKS in capital letters. He SHOUTS whenever he can get away with it (the late film bad acting shouting duet with Rose Byrne is especially funny). When the movie needs him to cry he doesn’t cry so much as hunch his shoulders and jam his eyelids together as if he can force tears out physically. He’s like a Terminator mimicking emotions they’ve seen humans express that they don't quite grasp. Cage doesn’t just overact. He overacts and then underlines. Then he starts circling his emotions with a big fat red marker. For years he’s collected massive paychecks as a student of the Joey Tribiano “I smelled a fart” school of acting. He who smelt it, dealt it. This time Cage has an excuse for the face pulling. The movie stinks. D

35 comments:

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

To answer your question: Nobody at all will be watching this in January 2010 or any other year, so I'm sure the time difference won't be an issue.

Glenn said...

I was going to be an extra in this movie! ...but I got lazy and forgot to fill out the form. I wasn't that fussed in the end. But it was filmed where I live.

Ryan said...

I don't know whether this movie is any good or not; and I know he's been in some bad movies. But he also is capable of brilliant acting. His performance in Adaptation is first rate, absolutely genuis.

adam k. said...

OK Nat I have to ask...

Why did you even see this?

Why did anyone??

Why did he get millions to star in it???

How many of these movies does Cage have to make before people figure out they're worthless?

Seriously.

adam k. said...

And what brought it up to a "D" from the "D-/F" I saw on the sidebar earlier?

Grrrr. Nicolas Cage makes me so angry. Not least because we know there's a great actor in there somewhere tied up with a sock stuffed in his mouth, begging to be let out. But the ego and the paychecks are too powerful to be overcome.

jahs34 said...

Yikes, Ebert gave it 4 stars.

NATHANIEL R said...

yeah i read that Ebert review halfway through writing this and I was like "what???" I thought it was terrible.

adam k -- i realized it wasn't as shabbily made as, say, NEXT which i think i gave a D- or an F too. It has it's moments spectacle wise but the whole thing is just a preposterous mess with bad acting.

and I bet you not one person on the internet bitches about Nicolas Cage's botox. Only actresses get the bitchiness from the public it seems

NATHANIEL R said...

why did i see this?

it was one of my goals this year to see more movies and be less picky about which ones and to write more reviews. so that's why. Plus Katey was going :)

AR said...

Of course I had to check the Ebert review. 4 stars--really??? I haven't seen it, but honestly it looks silly. Your review sounds like what I expected.
Cage has been coasting along for a while now, and I guess Proyas is done making good movies.

adam k. said...

Just wondering. I mean, even from a great distance this is obviously one of THOSE Nic Cage movies. They're pretty easily identifiable by now. I'd just hope you knew how bad it would be going in.

But hey, more power to you, reviews of piss poor movies are always fun. And I'm always excited for your "worst of year" awards, and always think they'd be even better if you had a more, say, "balanced" sample of the year's films. There could be so many F's every year...

rahulio said...

"We’re actually still looking at Nicolas Cage looking at something when we're told to be very afraid."

You mean, you AREN'T terrified when you look at Nicolas Cage's hairplugs?

NATHANIEL R said...

Ha!

I am but by that point in the movie i was more terrified by how much the hair sticks out on either side of the face. It's such a weird frame for that face. I really don't get it. With Jason Statham and Bruce Willis and Jude Law and all these people never hiding their diminishing or absent hair why must Cage continue to have such terrible fake hair???

Katey said...

And it was kind of fun, right??

I've been a little horrified by reading occasional reviews/tweets talking about how Proyas is the man and how inventive this movie is. I guess people really, really want to give him credit for Dark City and The Crow and not admit that this movie is TERRIBLE.

And Brooke, I think this is one of those movies you'll catch on cable in 10 years and wonder how in the hell it ever got made.

Erich Kuersten said...

Nice writing! I like the punchy ending and your ruthless coming down on sound cues. Fuck them sound cues! It's typical that someone like Cage would run around trying to avert inevitable disasters and upsetting the balance of flow, instead of trying to sit through an acting class or two, like the whole world wants him to.

It's amazing that an actor can luck out and be in a string of hits, so then years later, after strings of bombs, he's still getting top billing. Thank god the world will soon end and hopefully we will be FREE! Free of the Cage!

Anonymous said...

"With Jason Statham and Bruce Willis and Jude Law and all these people never hiding their diminishing or absent hair why must Cage continue to have such terrible fake hair???"

Jason Statham and Bruce Willis and Jude Law are all handsome haha

BeRightBack said...

I loved this, of course, but will there be a Duplicity review up soon?

Sally Belle said...

Wow...kudos to you for even watching this film. I could barely bring myself to watch the trailer.

I think the body snatchers got to cage soon after Raising Arizona.

NATHANIEL R said...

Erich, thanks for catching the silver lining. If the world is ending I'll never have to see Nic Cage's hair plugs again. Wheeeeeeee

anon 1:57 good point.

Katey yeah. I keep reading "inventive" and i just wonder what's being invented. It must be a doomsday machine. if this is good filmmaking the cinema is dead.

Anonymous said...

You should do a top 10 some time of biggest gaps between an actors best and worst performance. Because the difference between say -Next and Leaving Las Vegas is ridiculous. I think its crazy how an actor capable of being brilliant can sink so low ...same goes to Deniro and Pacino lately

adam k. said...

I agree with anonymous 5:01. Though sadly, I think there are some other worthy entries on that list that would be much more painful to write about (*cough*JulianneMoore*cough*).

I have to say, though, I don't see why everyone has to keep ragging on Nic Cage's hair plugs as if that's what makes the performances bad. The performances are just BAD all on their own. The way he keeps trying to hide his baldness AND weird-looking face by bad overly long haircuts certainly contributes, but is by no means the determining factor. And the fact is, there are most likely many good actors walking around with plugs no one notices, because they're handsome actors with GOOD plugs and and they don't have bad acting and bad haircuts drawing attention to them. I'd actually put money on (very hunky) Patrick Wilson being in this category.

Nic Cage unfortunately just isn't able to work it. And yeah, you'd think as an "action hero" of all things, he could handle just not having hair.

JoFo said...

Yeah I saw this film about a month ago at a press screening, and even professional critics were laughing all the way through it.

The funniest parts for me were Rose Byrnes "THE CHILDREN!!" ranting, Nicholas Cage kneeling in the rain looking up, but number one has to be the classic line "You want somma this?!" *beats up tree with baseball bat*.

Comedy of the year.

NoNo said...

Damn, and I was really looking forward to this! I guess I'll have to go see Duplicity instead. ::sarcasm::

Karen said...

Rental!

Arkaan said...

So, I didn't actually know this movie existed until I read Nathaniel's review. Seriously.

Haywood JuBloeme said...

Okay, First off.... If you hate Nic Cage and you hate his hairplugs... goto www.ihatenic-cageshairplugs.com .... Otherwise chill. The movie was good. Predictable, YES! But still good. I understand he is not the best actor of all time, but I can think of MANY more that are worse than he is. Colin Ferrell, Will Ferrell, Tyrese, Paul Walker, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris, etc. etc.... They were all in good movies, but as actors they are horendous.. ::THink:: Keanu Reeves in SPEED. The symbolism in the latter half of the movie was an interesting added bonus, religion vs. science, and the truth many feel that the two can coexist as one. Take out the actors that everyone here seems to despise and look at the movie as a whole. Great movie. And btw.... Dont Go To The Tree Kids!!!!!!!!!!

PDB said...

This was a terrible movie. But its main weakness is not Nick Cage; it is in fact a mishandling of the story, beginning with the realization that knowing does not mean you can impact the future. In other words, the people here cannot make a difference. So the criticism is with the vision itself; unlike Dark City and the Crow, which were about the infinite spirit of “man” to make difference. The last 25 minutes of Knowing unfold (unravel would be more appropriate) like the screenplay had been lifted from a far right Christian perspective focusing on what some call The Rapture (where the chosen get to leave Earth while it is consumed by the fires of Armageddon. The stylized imagery at the end of the movie is like an overly zealous bit of religious propaganda. The chosen children, those who heard the whisperings of the pale people, romp across a new Eden with their bunny rabbits to re-populate the human species; a second (or third, or fourth) chance. They have forgotten all of their human connections. So there is no human growth here. We do not learn from our mistakes. Of course the writers could have taken a different tack. They could have used instead of “The Rapture” a biblical scene from the Old Testament when the Angel of God said he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find just one righteous soul. Nick Cage played just such a character, and in the end he found a personal redemption, not just because he felt the pain of all those who died in spite of his best efforts to save them, but because at the end, he gave up his only son to a better life knowing he would die. That single act was the act of a truly good man. This is the moment that should have been rewarded with salvation; in fact, from a structural perspective, the entire movie/story had been moving in the direction of the saving the earth. The more intrinsically logical and satisfying end would have been as follows: The pale people (those angelic beings – did you note their wings --, having found the one righteous man, would have banded together to protect the earth from the solar blast, thus giving mankind time to grow spiritually, and providing an ultimately satisfying end to a rather ordinary story overburdened with tiresome clichés.

NATHANIEL R said...

Haywood -- welcome! I hear what you're saying and it's true that Cage has given better performances than MANY actors combined. But that was years and years and years ago. Plus I'll never understand people thinking Colin Farrell is a bad actor. The only explanation I can ever think of for people thinking this is that they haven't seen his smaller or artier films in which he is nearly always very good (In Bruges/Tigerland/The New World) and/or at least trying to do something interesting with the character (A Home at the End of the World)

he's so underrated as an actor (although, yes, very overvalued as a celebrity)

PDB... I think some people are probably willing to give it credit for going "dark" in the finale but to me that's not risky at all. It's just pandering to the sizeable crowd that ate up Passion of the Christ. The apocalypse/rapture crowd. And that "Eden" finale was just about the dumbest thing i've seen in movies in many years.

I guess I'm reacting to it strongly because once Bush left office I was hoping that America could chuck the feverish religiosity for awhile. Lord knows that didn't make things peaceful and happy in the middle east --it doesn't make people happy anywhere though everyone refuses to notice this.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the film was great until the last 15 minutes. At that point I wished I had not wasted my money. If you watch it, look for the van in the next to last scene where Nicholas Cage is driving though the looters. The van is brown with white lettering saying "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life". I can only assume that the reason for that particular message was to show that Jesus, and therefore, God, could not save anyone. What we needed was alien intervention. Salvation was not through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ and was not for all who believed on His name but was rather only for a few children, chosen by an advanced race to be breeding stock for a new race. This is an old theory. Some believe that this planet was “seeded" by aliens with their DNA. Interesting thought but where did the Aliens get their DNA from? I believe the film attempted to discredit Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim beliefs. I need look no further than the appearance of the large tree during the last scene, representing, I believe, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. So God did not place Adam and Eve in the garden, but rather, aliens did. There are obvious references to the first chapter of Ezekiel in the last part of the movie. Could this be an attempt to re-define God through New-Age theories? Perhaps, although there is no reference to God in a positive light anywhere in this book. What I perceived was an attempt by revisionists to explain what Ezekiel actually saw through the eyes of science rather than the dimwitted and dull eyes of a 5th century B.C. religious zealot. While I do not mind in the least films and books which open our minds to discussion (The DaVinci Code) I cannot see this film as anything less than an attack and a slap in the face to all who believe in the God of the Old Testament.

Pfangirl said...

So, better or worse than The Happening? Because this one sounds pretty awful as well.

radix said...

Hey, much better movie than all the susy-wish-I-was-in-films have let on. Keeps you guessing and gives you something to discuss when you leave the theater.

Anonymous said...

The ending of this movie is not about Christian Rapture ... it is about a Mormom idea of Heaven and afterlife Vs. Christian.

Christians believe Heaven is about unity with the body of Christ ...each individual must accept Christ as savior - which means your family may not be there.
Christians do not believe there will be giving and taking in marriage in Heaven.

Mormons believe Heaven is about being with your family forever ...something stressed in this movie. They also believe That each worthy man will be given his own planet ( like the kids )

If this was about Christian rapture The preacher grandfather , his wife and daughter Grace would have been the ones raptured not left to burn.

Christian believe salvation comes through Jesus and as as someone else noted the truck at the end implies Jesus din't save anyone.

Though I believe the tuck says Jesus is the Tree Of Life ( not Jesus is the way the truth & the life )

Someone said for the kids not to run to the tree ...the tree is supposed to be the Tree of Life ( it's in a field of finest wheat another symbol for life ) it's suppose to shw Jesus didn't save anyone but Life continues.

The Theology of this movie is very Mormon not very Christian ( keep in Mind Dark City was heavily soaked in Mormon symbolisim too )
Much of Mormonism looks like Christianity ...they use the same words but define them differently as is seen in the conclusion of this movie.

Anonymous said...

DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE, I DIDN'T EVEN HAVE TO PAY TO SEE IT AND I STILL BELIEVE IT IS A PIECE O CRAP AND A WASTE OF MY TIME, AND ANYONE ELSE'S TIME WHO SAW IT.

Jesus Alonso said...

mmmm. I guess I'm in the minority on this one, Nat, but I thought it was a great movie. Proyas and the writers deliberately decided to make this an opressive world with constant sense of dread, and some of your complaints - the "cheap shot" of the american flag, for example - are actually there in an ironical way (that shot comes right after a great sequence that could be read in a satirical way: Cage's character thinks it's going to be a terrorist attack and in the end results to be an accident, it's irony playing over the xenophobic paranaoia the western world lives in). The movie actually plays in several ways, and is open to interpretation, leaving up to you if they're aliens, angels or actually suggest that our religions are distorted ways of reality. I thought it actually delivers solid entertainment and a nice amount of questions which answers aren't actually chewed for you to swallow. I'm not going to say it's a masterpiece - as Ebert does, actually - but to me, this is going to be probably the "underrated" movie of the year. Plus, it features the best plane crash and train wreck in film history (the latter being a spit in its face of the infamous Die Hard with a Vengeance one, in which no one died or got barely hurt, lol).

Anonymous said...

I love KNOWING! I think it's the best hollywod end-of-world-disaster film that has ever been made. Every end-of-world film that hollywood made never really ends the world, fellow Americans always saved the day. But this one does end the world while still maintaining to keep the hope factor for humanity. I salute Proyas and the writers for their bravery and brilliance to do so.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Oh, man, I'm watching it right now and really liking it. It's sooo flawed: bad VFX, everyone just screams in the last fifteen minutes...but it's pretty well-done. The music is so stylized 1950s, so I totally dig that. And while I don't believe in Jesus, I'm totally fine with mainstream movies that have a Biblical edge to them...as long as they're good. But I understand that that condition is where we disagree in the first place ;)

That said...why would feverish religiosity calm down once Bush left office? Hasn't it always been thus in the USA? And if it became more pronounced in the past decade, I think that has more to do with 9/11 than with the President.