Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Visit / ** (PG-13)

Becca: Olivia DeJong
Tyler: Ed Oxenbould
Nana: Deanna Dunagan
Pop Pop: Peter McRobbie
Mom: Kathryn Hahn

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language).

Let me start by pointing out that Kathryn Hahn is an excellent actress. She’s one of those actresses that you’ve seen in a bunch of films and television shows but have never quite caught her name. She often plays the girlfriend or sister who makes quips about the main characters. She’s played a few moms, like she does here. She seems like she must’ve come from someplace like Saturday Night Live, but she didn’t. She played Lily on six seasons of “Crossing Jordan”, a role that was created specifically for her. Mostly known for comedic roles, she has never been boxed in by them and finds her way into drama quite frequently. Although, her role here is small, it’s the emotional center of the story. Watch her work in the first scene, when she’s holding all her tension in her hands while trying to brush off her emotions with her words. It’s too bad she wasn’t used as effectively throughout.

I’d also like to add—before I get to the review proper—that I am pretty much done with the “found footage” format, especially for horror movies. Found Footage refers to the notion that a fictional movie was filmed as if it were a documentary that is capturing real events. Made popular by such movies as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity”, it was an interesting gimmick for a while. It has unfortunately been done to death by new filmmakers trying to make names for themselves in the horror genre. It’s nice when it’s done well, but more often than not it isn’t. Even worse, it’s lazy. It creates an easy way for writers to inject exposition into their films and allows excuses for poorly shot sequences and ineloquent dialogue. M. Night Shyamalan—who was nominated for writing and directing Oscars for his brilliant “The Sixth Sense”—should be ashamed of himself for submitting to such a tired, overused and lazy filmmaking style. Of course, it allowed him to make the movie for $5 million, which might’ve saved his floundering career with its nearly guaranteed financial success.

I stuck with both Shyamalan and the found footage format longer than most people. I didn’t really start to get sick of found footage until the “Paranormal Activity” sequels, starting in 2010, which made less and less cinematic sense as they continued to pile up, the latest of which opens in October. Shyamalan pretty much lost most people’s respect beginning with 2002’s “The Village”. I stuck with him until he started getting into hopeful franchise fare with “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”. Those were so terrible that no sequels will be forthcoming. “The Visit” has had good word of mouth with many claiming it a return to form for Shyamalan. The only form he seems to have returned to for me is that of a formerly great filmmaker struggling to find a style that he lost long ago, replacing his lost greatness with a borrowed idea from filmmakers not worthy of his early work.

The set up is that a mother sends her two children to stay with their grandparents, whom she hasn’t spoken with since she was 19. The daughter, Becca, is a budding documentarian and has tasked herself with making a documentary about their trip to help her mom come to a reconciliation with her parents. The son, Tyler, fancies himself a freestyler rapper. Why? So he has his own special quirk to match his sister’s. A friend of mine suggested on his film review podcast this week that the kid had that particular talent listed on his acting resume, so they just decided to incorporate it into the film. It’s a good a reason for this kid to rap as any the movie provides.

They take a train up state where their grandparents meet them at the station. Meanwhile, the mom goes on a cruise with a boyfriend that might as well exist only in her head, since he’s never seen. I suppose neglecting to cast a boyfriend saved the production a little money. Of course, her cruise is an incredibly convenient way to keep her away from her children once things start to get a little weird at the grandparents’ house. There’s nothing wrong with this story device except that it is so obvious.

The grandparents are quite odd. They never seem to be totally present. They warn the children not to go in the basement because it has mold. Thank you for telling us ahead of time that the climax will involve a trip to the basement, Mr. Shyamalan. At night Nana has episodes the grandfather attributes to Sundowners Syndrome, a condition that manifests as strange nocturnal behavior in older people. Throughout their stay Becca tries to pry from the grandparents just what happened between them and her mother. Their reactions aren’t very encouraging.

Shyamalan leaves too much on the table here. The writing is sloppy. Becca is smarter about filmmaking than she should be. The children are too accepting of their grandparents’ explanations. Those same explanations seem unlikely to have even been offered once the big twist is revealed. Plus, he sets up a recurring joke that he just forgets about halfway through the movie. As the kids are traveling to their grandparents’ a theme is established that each new person they meet tells Becca that they used to be an actor and they perform a classical soliloquy for the camera. I was really excited for the pay off to this development, but after a few people, we never hear about it again. What a disappointment. It would’ve been easy to remove all traces of this motif if the pay off just didn’t fit into the final cut of the film, so why is it included at all?

To give Shyamalan a little credit, “The Visit” is one of the best looking found footage films I’ve seen. Truly, I don’t find much wrong with Shyamalan’s direction. There are some very creepy moments here and some good shockers. Aside from neglecting to remove joke setups that have no payoff, Shyamalan is still a natural suspense director. I think he would be doing himself a favor, however, to find a writing partner. He insists on writing everything he directs as a solo act. “The Visit” could’ve used a second set of eyes to point out its flaws and downright silliness to a director who seems too close to his own writing to see the forest for the trees.

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