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Movie of the Day: Rachel Getting Married (2009)

A lot of movies feature big weddings. It was not until I saw Rachel Getting Married that I realized how much they all look alike. Rachel gets married in the film, but that’s only the first layer description. This is a movie about a gallery of interesting people gathered together for a happy occasion. The wedding here is different form the norm because it is Indian themed despite the fact that neither of the participants are Indian. Rachel is white American and the groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is African. The family and friends on both sides are a mixture of cultures.

There are a lot of characters in this movie and many fit together in unexpected ways. Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) is not your standard neurotic bride but is relaxed and happy to have all of her loved ones together. Something else that I noticed that is different from the standard wedding movie is how the bride and groom interact. Most grooms in the movies are good-natured doormats whose function is to perform a snazzy proposal and move out of the bride’s way only to show up later at the wedding. Here, the groom is named Sidney, a gentle fellow who expresses his vows at the alter by singing a tender a capella rendition of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” Everyone involved seems to be having a great time except, sadly, for Rachel’s younger sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), whose story holds the film’s dramatic center. Kym has been in and out of rehab for 10 years and is making good strides to get clean. She has arrived at her sister’s wedding on a day pass from the clinic. What becomes clear right away is that while Kym can claim to have been clean and sober for 10 months, she hasn’t swept her emotional closet free of all of her demons. She is self-centered, a wet blanket, a drama queen who wants to be the center of attention, as in a moment when she turns a simple toast into a confessional, lined with rehab humor – few of the wedding guests laugh.

All through the preparations for the wedding, Kym continues to be out of place and always seems to be at odds with Rachel. Coming between the girls is their genial father Paul (Bill Irwin) who is so low-key that he seems unable to raise his voice. Paul is divorced from the girls’ estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger) who is overbearing, especially when it comes to Kym’s recovery. Much of Kym’s demons, we discover, fall back on an incident from long ago that the family doesn’t discuss. Years ago, Kym was left with her baby brother Ethan at the park. She was high on pills and later drove her car into the lake where her brother Ethan drown. That memory comes to light during a happy moment when Paul and Sidney are having a competition to see who can properly load the dishwasher in record time and one of the dishes that falls into Paul’s hands was Ethan’s and it stops the moment cold.

What is fascinating about Rachel Getting Married is that while the movie has a dramatic center, it never feels manufactured. We feel that the family’s problems with Kym have been ongoing and nothing ever comes up that we sense hasn’t been festering for years. Most of the best moments in the film happen because of Hathaway’s performance. She’s one of the best actresses of her generation, making her mark mostly in comedy but here finding a character who is fully realized. Kym is a mess, she is an enabler, she feels sorry for herself and she makes everyone around her miserable. I give credit to Hathaway for playing a character this unlikable. She isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.

Ironically, just three weeks before Rachel Getting Married was released came another wedding-themed movie, named Bride Wars, about a hateful spite war that kicks off between best friends over the venue at which they both want to have their wedding on the same day. It also starred Anne Hathaway but that film had nothing to offer but silly sitcom nonsense. It was hateful and cruel and mean-spiritied, the kind of film that is cobbled together out of spare parts from bad comedies. This film is much brighter, much fuller and with well-rounded characters. Everyone here is memorable even if we don’t get to know them. Rachel’s wedding is one that we remember because of the people involved.

 
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Posted by on 06/21/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist (2015)

It is very likely that the remake of Poltergeist may be impossible to enjoy on any level. If, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the original and look on it with fond memories, this retread will come off as a soulless carbon copy. If you’ve never seen Steven Spielberg’s film, then this will come off as bland and colorless and rather indistinguishable from any other CGI horror movie made these days. In its intent, it sparks all manner of questions of necessity. Why remake good movies? Why not instead – as the late Gene Siskel once remarked – remake bad movies and make them better? As with the flat remake of Carrie a few years ago, you get the sense that the filmmakers know the notes but not the music.

The original worked because of our investment in the characters. The Freelings felt like a real family, nestled in their suburban cocoon in the midst of the 1980s Reagan-era economic boom. We felt their security and the reality of their comfortable situation, and that made it much more palatable when they found their sanctuary invaded by forces they couldn’t explain. The movie took the time to get to know them, we got invested in the housekeeping details and the daily (and nightly) rituals.

In the remake, we meet the Bowen family; father Eric (Sam Rockwell), mother Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) and their three kids: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a sullen teen who is forever glued to her tablet; middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) who is terrified of just about everything; and cherubic six-year old Madison (Kennedi Clements) who makes a habit of talking to things that aren’t there. We don’t see these people as a family so much as a troupe of actors grouped together to play one. Their lives are spelled out in very sparse details. Eric just lost his job with John Deere, and Amy is a failed writer who wants make time to write her book. That’s it. That’s all we know about them. They’re a family struggling in the midst of Obama-era recession. So, how they’re able to afford a new house is a question no one can be bothered to answer. The fact that they are struggling in tough economic times makes their ghost problem feel like insult to injury.

It takes less than 20 minutes of screen time before the terrors begin (in the original it took an hour). With the parents out of the house having dinner with friends, Kendra finds corpses popping out of the basement floor while Griffin is whipped around the house by an angry weeping willow, and Madison is lured into a bedroom closet that, up to this point, no one has been able to open. She disappears into the netherworld and Eric and Amy, at a loss for what to do, get help from a rather bland quartet of paranormal investigators, headed by a reality show psychic named Carrigan (Jared Harris, son of Richard). He takes up the role occupied previously by the diminutive spiritualist Tangina Barrons. Where Tangina exuded comfort with a hint of huckstering, Carrigan is a jokey old croke who is forever telling stories about the scars that adorn his body. You know he can get Madison back, but you never feel that tender assurance that Tangina gave to Diane that she could get Carol Ann back.  The motivations are gone, and even the mother’s heroism is replaced. Rosemary DeWitt does a serviceable job but the mother role in this film has been diminished – she’s not the one who brings the daughter back!

The remake feels like a rush through paces we’ve been over before brought to you by filmmakers who never bothered to understand why they worked in the first place. Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper worked to create a sense of magic and life and energy. That movie was also fun. This one, directed by Gil Keanan (Monster House), feels like a checklist. There’s no time for anything, no time for characters, no time to establish tension or mood.

The better images of the original are glossed over or thrown out completely. The eerie snowy screen of that old TV set in the original felt like a quiet window into another dimension. Here it has been replaced by a rather bland malfunctioning flatscreen. The clown attack that came in the original’s third act comes very early in this one so there’s no buildup of tension or terror. Even the house seems dry and dull. The only addition to the remake is that we get to see where the youngest daughter went, but it’s not a place of wonder so much as a fake CG zombie nightmare that looks like something George Romero would dream up. Even the ending seems like a misstep. Where the original ended with sadness and loss, this one ends with a punchline.

If there’s a single word that sums up the remake of Poltergeist it is “banal.” This is a dull film, devoid of life or energy. The actors go through the motions of a story that really doesn’t merit being repeated. There’s nothing to improve upon. Even the special effects feel artificial. There’s no wonder or spectacle or magic. Again, why remake his movie?  Why not update it.  Tell us what is happening to Carol Ann now as she enters her 40s?

You know what? Go back and watch the original again. It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen it. This weekend, instead of going to see this chunk of indifference, stay home and watch the original film and get caught up in its spell all over again.

 
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Posted by on 06/20/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

Poltergeist II: The Other Side is sound and fury signifying nothing, a good-looking special effects show that contains no less than a flying chainsaw, a set of killer braces and a creature excised from the human body through vomiting, yet it can’t find a cohesive foothold to string any of those ideas together.  Then again perhaps they couldn’t.  How exactly do you build a narrative that leads to killer braces?

It isn’t exactly news to report that Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a sequel to the hit 1982 thriller, but the surprising news is that this movie does everything wrong that the original film got right.  Like The Exorcist, key to the success of Poltergeist was that the characters were so grounded in reality that when the supernatural stuff started to happen, it leant the special effects a degree of credibility.   This sequel goes the other way around so we feel the effects but the characters are simply there to be knocked around.

That’s too bad because Poltergeist is one of the rare horror films that actually earns the right to a sequel by virtue of ending on a note so melodramatic that we might have been disappointed if someone didn’t find a way to get that family out of their funk. That film, you will recall, ended with the Freeling family fleeing their house as dead bodies popped out of the ground before the house was sucked into oblivion.  The family, now homeless, checked into the Holiday Inn.

As much as Poltergeist II: The Other Side is valid enough to continue their story, it does not, however, live up to the original. The story is silly and the characters feel like cardboard cut-outs, with witty little jokey dialogue, when it isn’t laced with supernatural hoo-ha.  The supernatural stuff in the original was mounted on a semi-plausible idea: their house was mounted on the grounds of a relocated cemetery.  Here there’s some nonsense about protection from evil forces and the protective force of the family bond.  This is filtered through Indian mystical nonsense and something about a 200 year old religious sect that wants Carol Anne’s life force back on “the other side”.  Whatever.

The story picks up a year later, which is a problem because the two movies were produced four years apart. That means that the little blonde Carol Anne, who was five years-old in the original is six now and played by Heather O’Rourke, who is actually nine.  That gives us the agonizing sight of watching a nine year-old playing a six-year old.  Why not just set the movie four years later?

Anyway, the story deals once again with the Freeling family, Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), and the kids Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne.  The teenage daughter Dana is absent here and never mentioned. They have moved in with Grandma (Geraldine Fitzgerald) after their house was sucked into oblivion.  Naturally, Dad refuses to buy a TV.

The hole where their house once stood is under investigation by the medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein) and a Native American mystic named Taylor (Will Sampson) because “there’s a presence.” What that “presence” is steps on the premise of the original film.  In the earlier film, it was explained that a real estate company made a strange decision to uproot the cemetery without moving the bodies.
Now we learn that a 19th century cult sealed itself inside a cave at the urging of an evil minister named Henry Kane.  Kane is alive and well and stalking around trying to capture little Carol Anne and take her back to the other side. It is hard to figure out exactly what Kane is, whether he’s a spirit or some kind of satanic manifestation.  We never know.  There’s some suggestion that he can manifest himself into a different forms but that is never really explained either.  This movie is one long series of loose-ends.

The movie is also one long series of special effects for their own sake.  Hardly a scene in this movie isn’t crafted without one.  The back half of the movie is a strange venture into the mystical world that seems to be neither here nor there.  Somehow the family does battle with the forces of evil by using their strong family lifeforce – nevermind the fact that one of their numbers, 17 year-old, Dana is missing.  Somehow they enter the netherworld through a multi-colored Indian campfire, and I was never completely sure how they got out.  I suppose I wasn’t supposed to ask.  It’s a sad day when the only way to enjoy a movie is to stop questioning its overwhelming gaps in logic.

The one thing that does work here is the performance of Julian Beck as Henry Kane.  Dressed in the vestments of an 19th century minister, his face is skeletal with large teeth beared over curled lips. His voice is slippery and unnerving. There is something about his presence that, in a better movie, could have really come to something.  He shows signs of what the movie could have been.  More priest and less family bonding might have helped.  You know what would have been a great sequel?  This family in therapy.

 
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Posted by on 06/18/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist (1982)

In 1982, Spielberg was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit because, at the very same moment, he was still working on E.T..  While Poltergeist was made for MGM and E.T. was made for Universal, he never-the-less managed to work on both projects at once he was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit while preparing E.T. so he gave Hooper the directing credit.  So, the fact that this movie was released exactly 7 days before E.T., and both were enormous hits, the summer of 1982 was dubbed “Spielberg Summer.”

Revisiting both films, I was struck by how similar their worlds seem to be.  They both take place in the nest of the American middle-class white suburban world of the Reagan years.  Both films could have taken place in the same California neighborhood, and both films seem to exhaust the same kind of familiar worlds that we all grew up in.

The most appealing thing about Spielberg’s work at this period is that it never seems to take place within a set.  The Neary House in Close Encounters, Elliott’s house in E.T. and the Freeling house in Poltergeist all seem to exist in a certain plane of reality.  The Freeling home has an earthy quality about it.  There is a lived-in feel to it. Look around the living room, the kid’s bedroom, the kitchen. Everything feels like it’s been there for years, not like a prop man set it up just before the cameras rolled. That, I think, settles our minds into the reality of this house.

Poltergeist is an interesting experiment in artistic styles – two differing styles to be exact, and what happens when they clash might have made real mess if not handled with care. In this corner is Steven Spielberg, the prince of Suburbia, who – more than any other filmmaker – understands the world of middle-class America. In the other corner is Tobe Hooper, the mastermind behind one of the best and most unsettling horror films of the 1970s, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. Their efforts together create a brilliant haunted house movie that both tenderly shows us a family in crisis but also the strange, supernatural events taking place around them.

The credits give the reigns to Hooper, but Hooper’s style comes from the special effects elements. We are familiar with his other films and we can see some of the inspiration of Texas Chain Saw Massacre here – rotting corpses, flesh ripping, demonic faces, and decay. We remember his elements in that Texas house all those years ago and much of it exists here.

The villains here are hardly ever seen. They’re ghosts, lots of them apparently. We are never sure how many. There’s some discussion of “The Beast” but what does that mean? In the supernatural half of the film we are led to believe that they are full of surprises, that they can open a portal to the next dimension and take the family away. On the reality side of things are Spielberg’s favorite villains – corporate America, the same kinds of people who didn’t want to close the beaches in “Jaws” for fear of losing summer dollars. Here their machinations are much worse, a real-estate company that made a very bad decision.

Yet, this film is successful, I think, because of the human characters. There’s a close-knit family, and to our surprise, one that we actually care about. Mom and Dad – Steven and Diane Freeling – Steve is a real estate agent and former football player. Diane is a former flower child turned doting mother and housewife. The kids are just as defined. There’s 16 year-old Dana, whose forward-thinking attention is more attuned to her social life than anything going on at home. There’s 8 year-old Robbie, who finds fear in the most normal of everyday objects like a stuffed animal and a tree outside the window. And there’s 5 year-old, cherubic Carol Anne, who is prone to sleepwalking and whose attention seems unsettlingly distracted.

If not for the production design and the well-defined characters, the movie would be a complete wash-out. Like “The Exorcist” or “Carrie” the movie has to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to be effective. That’s especially true of the characters who arrive later, after Carol Anne has been kidnapped and taken to the next dimension. It might have been fatal if the movie had been led by the investigating parapsychologists or even the erudite medium that blows in to explain the situation. Their work is so foreign to us, that putting them at the film’s center might have made the movie seem like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” If there is a weakness in the film, it probably comes from the myriad attempts to explain what is going on. The parapsychologist has her explanation. The medium has hers. Even the evil real estate developer has his explanation. Yet, it never really comes together, and after a while they all feel like club-footed theories. Late in the film there is a long-winded explanation of the supernatural forces that have kidnapped Carol Anne, and why, slows that I think slows the picture down. It reminds me of the blabbering psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho”, who comes on to explain the plot, when we in the audience don’t really care. Get on with it.

Yet, it is unfair to be snide about a movie like this. You kind of have to go with it. If there is an illustration of where “Poltergeist” succeeds, it must be in its comparison with “The Amityville Horror” which tells almost the same story but is a complete mess. That film did everything wrong that “Poltergeist” did right. It was a haunted house movie that only cared about the special effects, tossing the characters around like pegs. Also, that film allowed the horror to extend outside the house for no reason. In “Poltergeist”, the terror stays home and that lends it a bit of credibility. Grounding the supernatural events to the house allows us to orient our minds to some measure of limits. There have to be rules, otherwise the movie feels like it’s just a bucket of special effects with no purpose. “Poltergeist” is a prime example of how to make a haunted house movie under the best of filmmaking talent.

 
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Posted by on 06/17/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Ex Machina (2014)

It is lamentably true that the age of brainy science fiction is long behind us. What was once a genre that looked at ideas and questioned the nature of human identity has been diluted into a genre that is almost exclusively nestled in the comforts of action and candy-coated visual effects. What’s left of science fiction is a genre of artificial flavors. Yet, after seeing Alex Garland’s head-spinner Ex Machina it is gratifying to report that someone still sees sci-fi as place of ideas.

Ex Machina is many things but above all it questions the nature of what it means to be human. What is human? What makes humanity? Are artificial personalities real or just part of the programming? What’s interesting is that Garland wraps those questions up in a movie that is part thriller, part horror, part love story, and mixed with a dash of Hitchcockian delivery. There’s an action scene at the end of the movie, but it doesn’t feel perfunctory – the movie earns it.

The story unfolds gradually, Garland is smart enough to tell this story as it unfolds rather than make everything clear at the beginning and then plug in a course to the end. All the way we keep guessing, not sure what’s really going on. It opens with a good-hearted programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, he was Bill Weasley in Harry Potter) who is flown by helicopter to a remote forest where he will spend a week examining the research of a noted scientist. How remote? When he gets out, the pilot instructs him to follow the river until he reaches the facility.

The scientist is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), a butchy and bearded brainiac who came up with a new programming code at age 13 and turned it into a corporation that would make Zuckerberg look like a pan-handler, and then funneled the profits into a secret research operation to perfect artificial intelligence – yup he’s working on girl-bots!

Nathan wants Caleb to study his work which could easily change the course of human nature. The most accomplished creation in Nathan’s lab is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a half-finished robot with a human face and a silvery, skeletonized body that looks less like a series of plugs and wires than like a work of art. Through a series of interviews, Caleb’s mission is to learn and understand exactly how Ava’s brain functions. What comes to light instead is that Caleb begins to like Ava. She apparently likes him, and they seem to connect on a personal level. So the question that plagues Caleb is whether or not Ava actually feels things or whether her advanced programming is tricking into thinking that he is. So who’s playing who? What’s really going on here?

What happens next forces Caleb to question not only the nature of Ava’s personality, but in many ways his own sanity. Ex Machina is a thriller, but a smart one in which we only really know what Caleb learns. The film takes place exclusively in Nathan’s hideaway research facility, a place in which Caleb’s key card opens some doors but not others. Eventually, slowly he comes to find out what Nathan is hiding. We know he’s nuts, but we only slowly come to find out how nuts. Ava is an accomplishment but she’s far from the only creation to come out of Nathan’s lab, most unnervingly there’s a mute Asian bot named Kyoko acts as his servant but may also act as concubine.

The performances here are better than they probably should be.  Oscar Isaacs is a lot of fun as the Dr. Frankenstein, all full of tricks and twisted words that are always cloaked in question marks.  Domnhall Gleeson is great as Caleb, a good joe who thinks he’s going mad under Ava’s spell.  But, it is Swedish actress Alicia Vikander that weaves a spell.  Her body is a silvery skeleton but her face reveals an upfront vulnerability that leaves you questioning whether or not it’s by design.
Her physical performance deserves praise, she not just playing a robot, but a being struggling to find the patterns of human motion.  I’m aware that much of her performance is given over to CGI, but Vikander makes Ava come alive in a way that makes us question whats on her positronic brain.

Ex Machina is the movie that Spielberg’s A.I. should have been.  It has a sense of direction.  It plays like a thriller with a brain, peeling back the layers of its story to reveal twist after twist and coming up with a third act that is a whopper. It is difficult to really tell too much more without giving anything away (trust me, I’ve given away nothing), except to say that Garland has a way of building tension just in silences and looks. What’s really going on here? That question is answered over and over because the movie never stops surprising us. Meanwhile it mixes in references to mythology, history, physics, and visual art into casual conversations that is simple enough that the techno-babble doesn’t go over your head. It’s a movie that you are thrilled by when you’re watching it but find yourself thinking back on its questions, it’s mysteries and it’s ideas when it’s over. This is not only great sci-fi, but it the greatest kind of sci-fi.

 
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Posted by on 06/16/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015)

No one would really blame you if you approached Avengers: Age of Ultron with a bit of weariness. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now in its seventh year, and each release is a massive tentpole event, the size of which is usually reserved for The Super Bowl or The World Series. Yet, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t live and breathe the comic book world you often find that most of these movies come with a nice candy coating but nothing special inside – the effort is there, but the result is nothing to write home about.

I’m happy to report that Avengers: Age of Ultron is worth its hype. Being this far into a series we might feel that it has started to spin it’s wheels, but this is the first of these films since Iron Man that breaks away from the inevitability of CG action sequences and makes us feel for the characters. In other words, somebody gave a rip about the people involved. Here is a movie that actually takes time out to give us characters rather than iconic stand-ins. Sure, Iron Man and Captain America and Thor and Hulk have had their stories told in separate movies, but giving them character details in a movie that’s essentially suppose to be a montobulous summer action picture is really quite a surprise.

The plot is exactly what we expect. The movie opens with our sextet of superheroes storming the castle of the monocled Baron von Strucker to retrieve Loki’s staff and unleashing a pair of mixed-up kids – The Maximoff twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who can run fast, and goth-chick Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who can scramble your brain. Or as Maria Hill puts it “Ones fast and the other’s weird.”

That mission accomplished, the crew appears to be ready for a little downtime, but a problem presents itself when one of Stark’s inventions – a robot program called Ultron who has been designed to prevent future attacks like the one in New York – begins to think, and then consider, and then decide that the Earth would be much better if human beings weren’t around.  He wants the world to be remade in his image, but there’s all  those pesky insignificant humans to deal with first.  Naturally, that leads to the inevitable city-wide Battle Royale with buildings crashing and human life at stake – Director Joss Whedon allows the human toll to be part of the concern, in effect commenting on the way that it was callously mishandled in Man of Steel.

The action part of the movie we can fairly predict and it might have been easy to write this one off if the movie had just stayed on that track. But what was surprising is that the movie takes time out to give us details about the characters.  No, this is not a character study, but it gives us extras bits and pieces about these characters that we don’t expect.

We spend some boozy downtime with The Avengers as they waste away their time trying to pick up Thor’s Hammer (they can’t). And then there’s a trip out to a remote ranch house where we learn a whole lot about Hawkeye that we never knew before (which I won’t spoil).  Scarlett Witch has the power to get inside a person’s mind, and we get to see the team’s deep-seeded fears and desires.

The human element is what we don’t expect. There’s a lot of anger boiling under Stark’s skin about this monstrosity that his hubris has unleashed upon the world. He’s protective of his massive ego and what comes of that is one of the best performances that Robert Downey Jr, has given in quite a while. But it doesn’t stop there, there’s also a sweet Beauty and the Beast dynamic going on between Bruce Banner and Black Widow. Her lullaby to turn him from green to pink is really kind of sweet.

Even the villain gets a human dimension. Ultron is a great creation, a blend of computer animation and a voice that brings him happily to life. That voice, of course, comes from James Spader who gives Ultron a lot of dimension through a cocky, slippery demeanor that seems weary from reminding mankind of the inevitability of its demise. He fancies himself a deity. “When the universe starts to settle,” he says, “God throws a stone at it.” But, to our surprise, Ultron is not all that we think he is. There’s a certain vulnerability to him. He’s learning but we sense that he hasn’t learned enough. Even in his final scene, you kind of feel a smidgeon of pity for him.

It is clear that writer/director Joss Whedon cares about what he’s putting on screen. Many of these massive action movies of late have been just amalgamations of things that are popular at the moment, but Whedon clearly wants to give Avengers: Age of Ultron something more than just the bottom line. We like these people. We like their adventures. And he’s given them a human dimension, and we like that too.

 
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Posted by on 06/15/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: The Visit (2015)

It has been agonizing to watch M. Night Shyamalan over the past decade, a director who came bursting out the gate back in ’99 with The Sixth Sense, a brilliant piece of cold terror that earned him two Oscar nominations and, for me, stayed the course with his next two pictures Signs and Unbreakable. But then . . . it all went belly up. Shyamalan became a punchline, a dead serious parody of himself who in film after film just couldn’t get it right. Like George Lucas, he proved time and again that he’s a great visionary, but as a writer he leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m not going to call The Visit a comeback – he’ll need a few more good movies to earn that. This is a very good, highly entertaining and economical thriller that proves that he still has the knack to tell a good story. Whether it is a fluke or not remains to be seen, but all I can say is that this time he got it absolutely right.

The Visit is a creepy and often very funny movie that blends together every tired horror movie trope in the book (creepy basements, night sounds, the phone out of order, mental patients, creepy old people, ominous warnings, disappearing nosy neighbors) and whips them up into a stew that is fun and entertaining. He even takes the shopworn convention of the found footage movie and makes it palatable. Yes, the whole movie is being filmed by a hand-held camera but there’s a reason for it.

We’re introduced to Becca (Olivia DeJonge), aged 16, and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), aged 13, who come from a troubled home. Their dad walked out on a whim and their mother is suffering a form of emotional PTSD.  Due to some family trauma early in life, the mother hasn’t seen or talked to her aging parents in years and the kids have never even met them. So, figuring that she needs a vacation, she takes a cruise with her boyfriend and sends the kids away for a week to get acquainted with the grandparents. Tyler’s passion is freestyle rap, while Becca has designs on being a documentary filmmaker – she films he entire trip.

From the moment the kids arrive at the train station, something seems a little off. They meet their grandparents Doris and John, referred to as Nana and Pop Pop. They’re unusual, but since they’re elderly we kind of give them a pass. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) looks like something out of a fairy tale with her long grey hair, her aprons, her baking, and her strange dementia-like symptoms. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) looks like he might be at home in a pancake commercial. He is a kindly old farmer who asks the kids to obey two rules: 1.) Don’t go in the basement and 2.) Don’t leave your bedroom after 9:30.

Things are bizarre from the start as the kids wonder what Pop Pop is doing out in the barn and what those strange sounds are in the middle of the night? Why does Pop Pop attack a man across the street and why is Nana sitting in rocking chair laughing at nothing in particular? Skype conversations with their mother assure the kids that, well, they’re old folks and they have their ailments and their peculiarities.

Determined to understand what’s going on, Becca and Tyler do some investigating by leaving the camera in the living room at night to capture Nana and Pop Pop’s activities. What they uncover tells them next to nothing but what they see will no-doubt leave them scarred for life.

The dread intensifies. The grandparents show up out of nowhere and do things that can’t be explained. It gets worse and worse from there and Shyamalan is smart to ramp up the tension by breaking up the days with big blood red letters that announce “THURSDAY MORNING.” Every time we see that it’s a new day, we know that the story is about to go to another level.  He shows his best gifts here at being able to establish tone and mood and the creepy feeling that something is happening.  He spends long chunks of the movie just letting the film’s tone hang in the air, and never seems in a hurry to spring the trap.

Shyamalan’s trademark twist does present itself but it’s not the film’s destination.  He wants wind you up more than he wants to arrive at a conclusion and that, we remember, is what made his early films so great.  He is also adept at making the horror and the comedy go hand in hand.  Much of the comedy is difficult to discuss without spoilers.  Again, it’s not the destination, it’s just part of the tapestry.

If the film has a weakness, it comes in the emotional scenes.  Becca and Tyler have a tragic backstory and it is dealt with efficiently, but those scene don’t seem to fit organically to the horror.  The mixture of horror and pathos worked in The Sixth Sense where we felt the tragedy of Cole’s mother, here it feels like an intrusive add-on.  I appreciate immensely that the two kids are allowed to have a loving bond and typical sibling rivalry that makes them more than just pawns in a horror story – they really feel like living breathing human beings.  They’re the all-too-human link to very inhuman circumstances.

It is so easy to see where this movie might have gone wrong.  It’s a batty, overwrought story that seems to borrow from every horror classic from Halloween to Paranormal Activity to Psycho – there’s a scene where Becca approaches Nana from behind while she is seated in a rocking chair that had me averting my eyes.  It’s a high-wire act.  Either you’ll get on board with this insanity or you won’t.  But you can’t deny Shyamalan’s desire to entertain.  He’s in command of his material here, it may be ridiculous but he’s got you by the throat and by the funny bone.

 
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Posted by on 06/14/2017 in Uncategorized