The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Carnage (2011)


The definition of awkward civility.

The definition of awkward civility.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger, Joe Rezwin (voice), Nathan Rippy (voice), Tanya Lopert (voice), Julie Adams (voice), Lexie Kendrick (voice). Directed by Roman Polanski

For a very long time, philosophers and psychologists have examined the thin veneer of civilization that masks humankind; the term used for it is “the ape in the velvet cloak.” It is uncomfortably easy to strip that cloak off to reveal the gorilla within it, and it happens all too often.

Two children have had a violent encounter in the park. Little Zachary Cowan (E. Polanski) has smacked little Ethan Longstreet (Berger) in the face with a stick, knocking out some teeth in the process. Now their parents are getting together to resolve the matter.

In the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster) Longstreet are Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan. These are all four successful people, who are confident that they can resolve this incident in a civilized manner. They are constantly being interrupted however by business calls to Alan, who is a lawyer for a less-than-above-board pharmaceutical firm. Michael’s ill mother (Lopert) is also calling him, and as it turns out she’s using the prescription drug that is at the center of controversy for Alan’s client.

As the afternoon wears on and a convivial drink turns to several, the conversation becomes less civil and long-submerged grievances come to the surface. When they do, the behavior turns childish and petty, the marriages turn out to be less stable than they first appeared to be. Alliances between couples, between social classes dissolve and reform only to dissolve again. A conversation that appeared to have been resolved in the first 20 minutes has continued for an hour and a half and threatens to change the dynamic in the relationships and self-worth of all four “adults” involved.

To preface the rest of the review, I am fully aware of the name on the director’s chair and of the crime that he committed that forced him to flee this country and never return. There are those who will see that name and choose not to see this movie or even read further this review. Fair enough. I understand the sentiment and only wish you to know that by publishing this review I am neither condoning his actions of thirty years ago nor supporting him as a person. I am merely reviewing this movie and you can make of that what you will.

Polanski is incomparable at setting a mood and he manages to ratchet up the tension here to nearly unbearable levels. The anger is palpable, almost a fifth presence in the cramped apartment and the four walls that make up the setting of the movie (except for a brief prologue and epilogue) close in not only on the participants but on the audience as well.

The movie starts with pleasantness between the two couples, morphing into awkward civility before blowing up into downright hostility and the descent is a quick but logical one. It helps that you have four Oscar caliber actors – three winners and the fourth a nominee – who by themselves can carry a movie. Having four of them together makes this an experience no fan of great acting performances will want to miss.

Where the movie falls short actually is a fault of the original play that this is based on. The business at hand is actually concluded early on; there is no logical reason for the Nancy and Michael to remain in the Longstreets apartment and yet they do and it is quite frankly a bit of a contrivance. There’s also a subplot involving a hamster that in all honesty seems to be there to pad the film’s running time. The ending lacks punch and gives the effect of a movie that just fizzles out like a dud firecracker, not the way you want your audience to leave the auditorium.

There is definitely a stage-y quality to the movie that I believe that Polanski meant to do on purpose, to give the film audience the effect of being in a small locked room with the characters which further heightens the discomfort and awkwardness. I don’t think anyone wants to be in a room with a bunch of people acting childishly and maliciously, doing venal things to score psychological points and you may not choose to want to spend the full hour and a half with these people either, although quite frankly with a better ending it might have been worth the wait. Despite the great performances which I do recommend, there isn’t much of a reason to subject yourself to this at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific actors giving strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Claustrophobic. Pointless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to warrant an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in real time without breaks and, with the exception of the scenes in the park, in a single location.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with Waltz and Reilly, as well as footage from the film’s gala premiere.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.6M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Entourage

Nature’s Grave (Long Weekend)


Nature's Grave (Long Weekend)
Jim Caviezel, this time with a legitimate reason to take off his shirt.

 

 (Arclight) Jim Caviezel, Claudia Karvan. Directed by Jamie Blanks

 

The old saying goes “Don’t fool with Mother Nature” with the implied “because she’s a real bitch who will carve out your innards if you do” as well. More to the point that like any mother, Mother Nature will fight back if you disrespect her long enough.

 

Peter (Caviezel) and Carla (Karvan) is a couple who have been married too long. The love has long since disappeared and their relationship has disintegrated into a series of battles that nobody really wins. They decide – well, at least Peter did – that to make a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage they should take a vacation.

 

That would normally be a good idea, but even that turns out badly. You see, whereas Carla’s idea of a vacation is five-star hotels, massages and lush resorts, Peter prefers a tent, a secluded bit of beach and a gun. A gun which he fires in the general direction of his wife as a joke when they first arrive at the beach…at least, they think it’s the beach. The truth is that Peter got hopelessly lost on his way there and they really have no idea where they are.

 

At first it seems idyllic. Not far from the beach, a secluded forest with plenty of wildlife for shooting and only a few neighbors far away. However, things are rapidly deteriorating between Carla and Peter. It’s not a case of one being a jerk and the other a martyr…they’re both pretty much jerks. Peter is an alpha male whose testosterone drives him to do stupid, moronic things. Carla is a world-class nag and an all-Aussie bitch.

 

There are some other troubling things. One of Peter’s mates and his girlfriend was supposed to be meeting them, but they never showed. There are strange sounds in the night. Animals, plants and insects are acting unusually aggressive. A chicken rots in a cooler without explanation.

 

In the meantime, Peter and Carla act recklessly and thoughtlessly, Carla running over a kangaroo in the night, Peter shooting anything that moves (and several things that don’t). One wonders when the tipping point will be reached.

 

This is a remake of a 1978 eco-thriller called Long Weekend (which was the title this was released under in Australia where it was made) directed by the late Colin Eggleston. Although I never saw the original, I’m led to understand the remake is fairly faithful to it.

 

Caviezel is an actor I’ve always been fond of although he has been less visible on the big screen as of late. He is versatile enough to play the heavy (as he has in several movies) as well as the divine (as he did in The Passion of the Christ) and here, he plays a bit in between. Peter is a macho asshole (there’s really no other way to say it) but he isn’t rotten through and through; occasionally a bit of softness shows through.

 

I like the way the marriage between Carla and Peter is portrayed here. The two commit acts of petty cruelty in a slow dance of one-upsmanship whilst twisting the knife. As the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate and that line is blurring here. Their pain has become so ingrained in them that every move is a series of reactions and counter-reactions to the slights, perceived and otherwise, delivered by the other. In that sense this is as fascinating a portrayal of a marriage in its death throes as any I’ve ever seen.

 

However, this is ostensibly a horror movie and while there are a few shocks, quite frankly this is one of those less-is-more type of horror movies that is more of a character study in which the scares come from left field. Veteran gorehounds will probably cringe while watching this, but it is better approached as a psychological thriller despite the supernatural aspect.

 

Because the lead characters are so cruel to one another, it’s very difficult to really root for them even when things are really going to hell in a handcart. After all, this is the bed they made, so lying in it comes with the territory. That said, it should be noted that the Aussies are often underrated when it comes to delivering delicious horror movies; quite a few good shock flicks have come from Down Under over the past thirty years, and some of them are as enviably good as any to come out of Japan, Korea, Spain, England or of course the U.S. This might be more than a little difficult to locate but it’s well worth the effort; while it doesn’t set any genres on fire, the train wreck aspect of watching the relationship deteriorate is equally a horror to the gory scenes of nature’s devastations.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic portrait of a marriage that has completely come apart. It’s the relationship between Peter and Carla that make this movie.

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe a little too subtle for the average horror film. Some might think Caviezel spends way too much time without his shirt on. There is a good deal of marital ugliness that might hit a little too close to home.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that are definitely not for the squeamish, a few big scares, lots of rough language and some drinking and drug use.  

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Everett De Roche also penned the 1978 original.  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness.