Friday, September 11, 2015

M. Night Shyamalan's THE VISIT (twist, spoiler: it's not bad!)

Boy, hasn't it been a while since M. Night Shyamalan has adequately had a movie that conforms to Plato's triangle. Know what that is? It's when a work has Ethos, Logos, and Pathos - in other words, that it's ethical, logical, and has emotion (you may hear Pathos referenced in movie reviews sometimes, and that's what it's meant to note, that it has a solid emotional finish for example).

The Visit has these qualities, for the most part, unlike a good number of M. Night's previous films - Lady in the Water, The Happening, Last Airbender, The Village, After Earth, even Signs to an extent - had issues when it came to how the human characters had these crazy things called real-world emotions (often actors seem directed to lack emotional resonance or poise in those movies, with some exceptions), and logic... well, remember Wahlberg running from the wind? This doesn't mean there are some problems (maybe some major ones in fact) with both logic and maybe even ethics with this movie, but at least it appears that this filmmaker is having some relatively low-budget fun with his premise.

See, fun!
In brief, a mother wants to go on vacation, and sends her two adolescents to see her long-estranged parents out in rural Pennsylvania. Her children have never met her parents, and she's been on the outs with them for many years (there may be a question about, say, any photos of the grandparents, but that may go into spoiler territory I won't say here). The kids, a younger brother and older sister (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge respectively) are wannabe filmmakers, or rather the sister is and has herself and her brother as subjects along with their mother and, as the girl Becca hopes, her grandparents too. But these grandparents... they act weird, and odd, and maybe scary - like grandma chasing the kids in a 'tag' type thing under the house, and how the old woman throws up at night, and how the old man seems to keep putting on clothes and getting ready to go to a costume party, and, and...

OK, so you get the drift: something's not quite right with grandma and 'Pop-Pop', and while mom is away on vacation (albeit able to communicate on Skype), the young teens keep finding as they're documenting everything on two cameras that things are getting weirder and weirder. The good news is it's not something that is completely out of this world in the way that, say, Lady in the Water was (though there is a moment I got afraid that the old woman's ramblings about aliens in a lake using spit as conduits would become canon), and most important of all is that these four characters feel like real people.

The actors playing them, along with character actors Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie (you may recognize one or both of them from somewhere), are really great at conveying the equal measures of fun times of being on vacation and making this 'movie' of theirs, the awkwardness of dealing with 'old folks', and then how there really is something sad and terrible when it comes to dementia and the withering away of minds and body parts. These young actors, newcomers I think, are really strong, especially in those moments where it's just them talking to each other; only caveat is the boy's rapping (no kidding) that can be irksome (maybe the idea, but not funny).

There's a lot of things that happen with the grandparents that, frankly, go over the top. But unlike something that M Night's done before - The Happening, the Village - there's a sense that he's in on the joke. Or, at the least, if he means for all of this to be dead-serious scary, there's some underlying sense of play to many moments; the scene that people will recall from the trailer, where grandma asks Becca to come clean the oven, is a nice (legitimate) fairy tale reference. And the younger characters over the course of this week have a mounting pressure that feels real. The emotional core of the story, for all the fun and dark and shrieks, has a reality to it that is about the loss of a mind and the loss of family (the father of these kids is separated, a cliché but it's tolerable), and a scene where the teen girl interviews the grandparents separately has a ring of tragedy to it.

But, again, there are problems here. Big ones, ones that keep it from still being a cut below a work like Unbreakable. To be clear, this isn't exactly a found-footage movie, at least in the way of a Cloverfield; this is more like Diary of the Dead, a fake-documentary that is, in the context of the world of this movie, is that we're seeing the movie that this girl has created on the laptop at the end of it all. I wish that M Night had actually kept the film-in-a-film gimmick but also had a third-person point of view, as the issue comes up as in a lot of these found-footage type of movies of the logic of things (how does the camera last THAT long without any change of battery, how does it last this element of nature or this scene, or this beating and so on). While there's some stylistic play due to these characters being twerpy teens, there's still some logic to parse out there as well.

But another, greater, problem most of all is that... the twist (you know it's coming, and if anything that's the most 'return-to-form' of all for the director) is actually really satisfying... until you start to give it a little more thought, about how much of a stretch you've really had to take this plot in order for it to get here, even as one has to suspend some disbelief, while in your seat in the theater. A 'hey, wait a moment' light turns on in one's head, and questions come up about the mother sending her kids out there in the first place; it's certainly, among certain other twists this director has had, one of the better ones, but still has holes. On top of this, there's a very irksome call-back to something that Shyamalan did in Signs that, once realized is in The Visit, is very annoying (hint, it involves something SPORTS related, ho-ho).

It's ok, I'm afraid of old people, too (see Mulholland Drive, kid, I'm sure you'll never want to sleep ever again)

For all this said, and other small issues, it's still a strong and entertaining film, with some clever dialog and movements with the camera(s). It's at times nasty, and at times uproariously funny, and other times the logical/emotional/ethical points make one pause that this is not... that bad!

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