Tuesday, October 13, 2015

THE VISIT (2015) movie review

DISCLAIMER: This is less of a review than a blatherfest, so just know that going in. I don’t intend to give anything resembling a coherent critical assessment – this is just fingers flying free on the keyboard during the October Challenge, where I never take this much time or space to talk about any one certain movie. But I’m going to make the exception here. Because I have some things to say.

Like many folks, I had no idea that this new Blumhouse film was another M. Night Shyamalan effort, a director whose output following his 1999 breakout film has been a unbroken streak of continual disappointments, dropping in satisfaction almost like clockwork (though I admit to liking Unbreakable more than The Sixth Sense nowadays, it wasn’t always that way). Signs had more than its share of logistic flaws, The Village was an extended B-grade Twilight Zone episode, Lady in the Water was pretentious and scattershot, and The Happening was – following the opening 10 minutes of mass suicides – forehead slappingly awful. So I gave up. The Last Airbender? Didn’t bother. After Earth? No thanks. It was a sharp move on Jason Blum’s part to minimize MNS’s presence in the marketing materials because, like Nicholas Cage, seeing his name on the marquee is actually more deterrent than attraction these days. The secret didn’t stay under wraps for long, obviously, but I was hearing positive buzz about The Visit before I heard it was another Shyamalan effort, so that says something.

Then the mixed reviews started coming in. And by mixed, I mean some people HATING on it while others declared that M. Night was finally back. Now, when things are this mixed, I usually end up falling on the side of the mehs and dislikes, and most of the folks whose opinions I trust were in those two camps. Except my buddy John Pata, who said that while he didn’t love it, he thought that it did what it was trying to do pretty darn well. Now, JP and I don’t always see eye to eye with our cinematic tastes (he didn’t like It Follows or You’re Next, for example), though he can always justify his opinions. But, because we don’t always see eye to eye, I wasn’t prepared to rush right out and spend my cold, hard cash to keep M. Night in the biz.

As it turned out, however, it was the subject of cold, hard cash that did get eventually get me to the cinema. Monday, I sent out an email to my social circle, letting them know that things were progressing well with my Scare-A-Thon 2015 efforts, and that if anyone else wanted to pledge, the door was still open. Happily, several more folks did in fact sign up, and among the many replies there was an email from a certain Tony Award-winning actress who said, “Hi, Aaron, I’ll be glad to pledge IF you promise to make my film, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, one of your choices for the month.” (Yes, ladies and gents, I’ve got Deanna Dunagan Herself’s email address. Jealous?) Now, truth be told, I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew, that Deanna was in this new flick, but I’m a huge fan of her stage work and my interest in seeing her onscreen was definitely piqued.

"And I'll even throw in these lovely cheddar biscuits..."

The final push over the cliff was that Lewisburg, WV’s Cinema 8 movie theater was having their $5 Tuesday night special. I figured, what the hell. Five bucks is about as cheap as anyone can expect to see a movie on the big screen these days, even at a matinee. So, I hauled my ass over to the ol’ C8 and settled in to watch some mighty uninspiring trailers for The Last Witch Hunter and Crimson Peak before the “Feature Presentation” screen came up and the lights went down.

Because I live under a rock, I was also thankfully oblivious of any plot details, so everything unfolded organically for me as intended. The story concerns a pair of young kids, Becca and Tyler, finally planning to spend some time with their grandparents whom they have never met, due to some age-old bad blood between their mother (Kathryn Hahn) and her parents. Becca, being the precocious little millennial that she is, decides she’s going to make a documentary about the experience in order to bring some peace to her mother. Yes, it’s a found-footage piece, seen through Becca’s various lenses, one that actually plays fair with the format in that all the footage makes sense and there is a reason behind it being collected and assembled into a feature. Why that feature would end up in multiplexes is a little more of a stretch, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief that far.

A little side bar about found footage in the year 2015. Back when The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and other FF features were being unveiled, the hardest thing for me to grasp was that the individuals would keep shooting when they were in the distressing situations they oft found themselves. It used to really annoy me, the conceit that things would just magically be in frame or  that they would constantly turn the camera around to talk to it, etc. It seemed false and phony and all-too-convenient. Fast-forward a decade and a half and I have no problem at all accepting this, because "the kids these days" do seem compelled to shoot and record and upload everything. As distasteful as I might find the practice, it’s no longer as implausible as it might have once seemed. Even the framing makes sense, because these youngsters have been doing it all their lives – they know where their subject is without having to look through the viewfinder, their hands know which way to point the iPhone, they’ve perfected the art of the selfie such that they are perfectly natural in front of the lens – the performance persona IS their public persona. This is who they are, whether grouchy old coots like me like it or not. So, there’s that.

So, little Becca and Tyler are shooting their documentary and they are our protagonists. And I hate them. I hate their entitled attitudes, their constant snark, their self-preoccupation, their need to be seen, to be relevant, to be the stars of their own self-produced movie. I just f*cking HATE them. This is a problem for me, since they are the film’s vehicle – it is through their cameras’ eyes that I am seeing the world, they are literally the people I must identify with in order to go on this journey. AND I HATE THEM. I want to slap them into unconsciousness and then slap them back into consciousness in order to push them down a flight of stairs and set them on fire.

And don’t even get me started on Tyler’s agonizing descents into teeth-clenching white-boy rap singing and street talk. Seriously. Don’t. Because I’m feeling all the ragey emotions.

AC considers flaying Tyler the hard way - without the knife.

This isn’t the fault of the performers, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively, because they are completely believable in their complete artifice. I truly believe this is the way "the kids" are these days. I found myself asking who the hell would be relating to these two, who would actually be identifying with them, rooting for them, invested in their fate, and the answer came back: probably a whole bunch of young people. Perhaps the same young people who have made Justin Bieber a megastar in spite of the fact that he’s proven his douchiness countless times over. Bottom line, they’re out there and these are their heroes. Suck it, AC. As was spake long ago in Class of 1984, “We are the future and nothing can stop us!”

On the other side of the coin, we’ve got our two actors playing Nana and Pop Pop, the two kids’ grandparents. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are pretty nigh flawless as a pair of elderly folks who might or might not be losing their marbles from time to time. Nana likes to take her clothes off after dark to run back and forth in the hallways with large knives, Pop Pop is wont to assault complete strangers that he thinks are following him, but when they’re having their good days, they’re total charmers. These two veteran performers know how to render perfectly modulated characterizations that can turn on a dime, and every second that they are onscreen is pure gold. They’re lovely and terrifying and creepy and kind. They’re great. The “hide and seek under the porch” and “Yahtzee game” sequences are among several marvelous showcases for both them and their director.

And that’s basically my review for the film as a whole. Whenever the focus is on our older folks, I really enjoyed it. When I was left with our two insufferable tykes, I wanted to poke my eyes and ears (or more accurately, M. Night’s) out. There is a bit of a twist that I wasn’t looking for and, as a result, I totally dug it when it came around. There are some great little scares (both of the jump and legit creep varieties) without a lot of gore and it all kind of makes logical sense in the end. Do I think it’s a great movie or am I in a hurry to watch it again? No and no. Do I think it’s half a good movie, mostly attributable to Dunagan and McRobbie? Yes. Do I want to push the Big Red Button, knowing that the Beccas and Tylers are going to inherit the world? OH. OH, YES.

Now, get off my lawn, you punks. I’ve got movies to watch.


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