M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ launches to $1 million Thursday

11 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Visit’ review: M. Night Shyamalan comes to his senses.

It’d seem impossible for a director to make a comeback if he was coming back from Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth.M Night Shyamalan bounds into the room looking a good decade younger than his 45 years and far more refreshed than anyone on a promotional tour ought to. Mom’s a little worried about sending the kids off alone – she’s been estranged from her parents since she left home – but she thinks the teens will enjoy it.

You haven’t had a true hit for 13 years and audiences rightfully started reprimanding you for the precipitous drop in the caliber of your work since Signs. The writer-director has been in Dublin for half a day, and already he has managed to take in the Irish premiere of his new film, The Visit, his first pint of Guinness and a certain showdown between Dublin and Mayo. “It was awesome,” he says. “The plane landed. Each of these essays are taken from Gibran’s poetry, and visualized by a different animator — a varied group that include Tomm Moore (“Song of the Sea”), Nina Paley (“Sita Sings the Blues”) and Bill Plympton.

Night Shyamalan, was some combination of Narcissus, Icarus, and posthumous heel-turn Steve Jobs, and you’re left with a portion of the moviegoing population actively rooting for someone’s misfortune in order to find pleasure in it — a sort of fore-schadenfreude. Each one managed to pull in more than $100 million at the box office, but the former kicked off your sharp decline in quality and the latter marked your critical low point, generating only a 6 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Also opening this week: The sexy thriller “The Perfect Guy,” starring Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy; the comic romance “Learning to Drive,” starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley; the Christian drama “90 Minutes to Heaven,” starring Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth; the Chinese-made adventure “Wolf Totem”; and the Mexican animated tale “Un Gallo con Muchos Huevos.” He’s aligned himself with producer Jason Blum, a man whose output mocks a word like “prolific.” “Pathological” works better.2 Under the circumstances, the name of Blum’s company, Blumhouse, sounds like a haven for managed reintegration, which is basically the task before Shyamalan. Your name was at the top of the movie poster and you earned strong critical praise in back-to-back-to-back original features (the rarest of studio-sanctioned Hollywood birds), and those movies brought in hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is thus with some surprise—and perhaps even a hint of disappointment—that I must report that Shyamalan’s latest movie, The Visit, is merely mediocre. Wayward Pines, the TV series he executive-produced and occasionally directed, proved a monster hit last summer, when it set new records for seasonal audience figures. Their permanently heartbroken single mother (Kathryn Hahn) is taking a vacation with a new boyfriend and lets the children go to rural Pennsylvania to meet her folks, whom she hasn’t seen in 15 years. And although many of his movies made money – that’s how he could keep making them – who wants to see “The Village” again? (Hey, even Mark Wahlberg thought “The Happening” was a mistake, and Mark Wahlberg made “Ted 2.”) Guessing, perhaps, that too much money and hype and Hollywood were the problems, Shyamalan decided to get basic – an under-the-radar shoot, one setting (except for a prologue and epilogue), no real special effects and only five actors (the biggest name of which is Kathryn Hahn, who appears briefly as the children’s mother.) And all of it works.

And now there’s The Visit, a fiendishly clever reworking of the Hansel and Gretel story, in which two mouthy siblings realise that something’s not quite right with grandma. “I’ve always loved Grimm fairy tales,” he says. “And I’ve always thought it was strange that they present kids with the things they are most afraid of. And as the oddball elders, veteran character actors Deanna Dunagan – who is absolutely fearless – and Peter McRobbie keep the terror at a low, uncomfortable simmer.

For a filmmaker so drawn to the fantastic (ghosts, aliens, floating arboreal toxins), Shyamalan has always been remarkably self-serious, with the result that the laughs in his films—of which there have been plenty—have almost always been unintended. (Remember “The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used”? Some say it’s “a scary fun-house ride that expertly blends jittery tension and laugh-out-loud humor,” while others call it “frightfully fun, with Shyamalan relentlessly toying with us and cramming in horror genre references.” And The Village Voice is really over the moon, declaring the movie “the best studio horror flick in recent years, combining the but-what’s-in-those-shadows? immersion of The Conjuring … with the crack scripting and meta-cinematic surprises of Shyamalan’s best early films.” During a chat at Comic-Con International in July, you noted that despite the tone presented in early trailers, The Visit was “a very dark comedy mixed with horror” as opposed to a flat-out scary movie. “For me, it’s always a mash of genres, and it’s in the mashup that makes it interesting,” you said. “They’re all dramas masquerading as genre movies for me.” It seemed suspicious, but there I was at a screening laughing out loud (at intentionally funny jokes) and shrieking (with fear) in equal measure. The movie is a “found footage” film taken by a sister and brother, 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who are documenting a trip to see their grandparents. The film is yet another one of those herky-jerky found-footage conceits (although less annoying than most) and it ends with a moment of forced, familial uplift. I honestly think it’s the best time I’ve ever had at one of your movies (I’ve got a horror bias, after all) and you did it all by going back to the basics.

Of course, things start going awry almost from the moment Becca and Tyler arrive at the “isolated farm” where they meet their “Nana” (Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop-Pop” (Peter McRobbie). It’s too remote for cell-phone coverage, and the camera on the laptop with which they communicate with Mom via Skype is damaged in a freak kitchen accident. (Or is it an accident?) Nana and Pop-Pop tell the kids not to go in the basement—never a good cinematic sign—and to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m. Themes of paternal devotion, heavy-handed commentary on the importance of family, and a moral compass in the form of a hyper-intuitive, pure-spirited child are also typically in play. (No, seriously. Technically, this isn’t a found-footage film since the hours of handheld video are never lost, but it’s the same formal conceit of movies like Creep and The Gallows.

That would have been too debilitating to listen to.” That beautifully observed writing wouldn’t have worked nearly so well without two brilliant central performances from Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. You can feel Shyamalan trying to make the most of a challenge — the way, on those cooking shows, a chef can turn stale bread and two rotten bananas into a blue-ribbon dessert. And we’re pretty sure the only reason it stopped is because you went off-world for his last two movies, which is where things got really hairy.) And working with a formula isn’t a bad thing! Wes Anderson keeps making movies about paper cutouts come to life and Noah Baumbach tells stories exclusively about malaise-stricken adults who act like children, and people can’t get enough of them!

And at some point, both siblings go crawling around under the grandparents’ farmhouse, and in one shot you get a glimpse of a third person crawling toward the camera. It’s losing faith in your cinematic voice and trying to communicate with someone else’s, or even worse, clinging to your darlings so tightly that you think your Message is more important than making good movies.

The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all told stories no bigger than a household and did so with themes that resonated through our shared human experiences of home and family. You wrote about generally ordinary people forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, but the focus was always on how the protagonist related to their loved ones after the unspeakable occurred, with a precocious child thrown in to guide the hero along. The Village was about a guy in a village, but then you semi-killed that guy and made it about the world and some monsters and an intermittently blind girl. He gets criticised for not being the twist guy. “A lot of it is expectation,” he says, smiling. “I think if I had made Amour – a film I love – people would have focused on the twist.

The real villain, though, was that terrible script, which you used to force Mark Wahlberg to run around like a moron screaming “Give me a second!” while his dumbstruck face filled the frame. She sits down for one-on-ones with Doris, and when Becca promises her that she’ll be the star of the film, the old lady’s eyes get that Norma Desmond twinkle. For your next move, not only did you leave Pennsylvania, you left Earth entirely, and ditched any semblance of the close-quarters family portraits that made your name. It’s like saying to an athlete, ‘The last couple games you’ve missed several three-pointers: are you worried the same thing will happen tonight?’ But for a great athlete, misses are valuable.

The Happening may be the only movie I regret, but Airbender was only watchable because it was hard to tear my eyes away from the catastrophe unfolding on the screen. And you can’t learn without failure.” The Visit, which was made for less than $5 million with no stars attached, was filmed in secret. “It’s not that I’m trying to work outside the system. But Oxenbould goes all the way in on the character’s entitled bravura, which the writing keeps softening for sympathy (he’s been a germaphobe since their dad left) and comedy (when he means to curse, he uses a pop star’s name instead). The bigger your scope got—a village, then all of America, then all of the cosmos—the more fully your movies got crushed under the weight of all those story layers you like to pile on, and when that happened, your signature twist couldn’t live up to the grand aspirations of the movies around them. In that same conversation at Comic-Con, you acknowledged you were a very involved, very hands-on director, and considering you are the complete creative force behind your movies, one might venture to guess you’re a micro-manager on set. “I’m harsh with all the actors to protect the characters,” you said. “If they’re coming from a less than thoughtful place—charm’s not going to work.

But that persnickety approach only works if you have the focus to execute your vision, and every time you take your stories beyond the front door you loose hold on your narrative. Bloating your stories with more characters and grand allegories and sprawling environments mean you lose your grip on the big picture as you try to manage every little thing. People who like sounding smart would call it a “bottle movie.” You made the primary conflict about a single mother coming to terms with the broken relationship she has with her parents, and made the incredibly wise decision to upgrade the precocious children from supporting players to leading roles.

But there’s nothing new here — and what I sensed for 94 minutes was compromise, a director who concedes that spending time at Blum’s house might be the first step in getting back to his own. You took your genre-mashing sensibilities and made a really funny, really freaky little movie with the themes and skewed humor and charm of your early projects, and for the first time in years the twist was totally worth it! It was reported at the beginning of last year that you would soon reunite with Bruce Willis for project called Labor of Love about, naturally, “a Philadelphia book store owner who loses the love of his life in a tragic accident.” The project has since been back-burnered, but you claim your follow-up to The Visit will maintain an intimate focus—and will be set in Philadelphia. We are in short supply of major movie directors willing to tell original stories during this era of sequels and superheroes, and it’s nice to know that we can still count on you.

She’s restless and frustrated with him — he said he’d do taxes that aren’t done; he won’t take her family’s money to send the boy to a good private school — and takes the kid to her mother (Judith Light) and stepfather (Sam Elliott), while he stays behind to party and exhume the dead body he’s certain is buried on the property. There are parts for Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Ron Livingston, Orlando Bloom, Jenny Slate, and Jane Adams, some of whom Swanberg’s directed before.

The moment in which Lynskey breaks the news to DeWitt — nervously, with little eye contact — is lovely, and DeWitt’s work seems headed somewhere more trenchant than the warm, familiar place the character eventually winds up.

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