Review: The Visit

Director M. Night Shyamalan, perhaps best known for The Sixth Sense is going back to his roots in this movie, i.e. do something on the cheap and hope that cheap gets better reviews than he’s gotten recently with his many big budget failures, like After Earth. In the creepy horror movie genre being cheap means hiring mostly no name actors, using natural locations and a small cast. If being cheap doesn’t work, well, there’s less financial jeopardy. If it does those union minimum wages don’t matter from all the residuals that pour in. In The Visit, it also means trying to reuse a formula I think first successfully pioneered in The Blair Witch Project, i.e. make the movie look like it’s being filmed by its participants to enhance its sense of realism. The formula can work but only if it’s not used very often. Blair Witch had plenty of imitators, and none that I recall that were successful, but that was sixteen years ago and if anyone can make it work then presumably Shyamalan can.

Teenager Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is supposedly making a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) visit to grandma and grandpa, or Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in their case. The movie has to hang on an unusual premise or two. In this case it’s that their mother (Kathryn Hahn) left her parents for good at nineteen and hadn’t seen them since then. (Hint: this will prove pivotal.) She still doesn’t want to see them but does manage to reconcile enough by phone to send Becca and Tyler on an Amtrak train to see them for the first time. Mom gets to go on a cruise while Becca brings along an expensive looking Canon digital movie camera and a laptop with an apparently excellent built in camera. Nana and Pop Pop live in a place so remote there is no cell service but not so remote that they don’t have high speed Internet. Tyler gets into the project and plays second camera. Becca is the sober older sister and Tyler is her spirited brother with an interest in rap music and a germ phobia. Tyler’s peculiarities are of course one of many hooks that Shyamalan introduces that will prove pivotal to the plot.

Still, this is a horror movie so we know it will get increasingly creepy and serious, so the only question is how. I won’t spoil too much but it’s not too hard to figure out as Nana and Pop Pop are counselors but recently unexpectedly stopped their work. And of course they are a bit peculiar. Nana likes her built in stove nice and clean and wants Becca to go fully into it to clean it. Pop Pop frequently goes to a shed on the property with paper bags. They are warned not to go into the basement because of mold and never to get out of their bedroom after 9:30 PM … the old folks like their rest and don’t want to be disturbed.

Of course all sort of disturbing stuff happens after 9:30 PM and during the day for that matter, much of it filmed digitally on Becca’s camera and laptop that follows they everywhere they go. Nana projectile vomits and scratches the walls at night, and Pop Pop depends on Adult Depends. Both Becca and her brother are reasonably interesting teens, with Tyler perhaps being the more interesting and quirky. There’s lots of peculiar things in this plot, such as how their mother, a Walmart sales associate can afford to take a cruise and give her children such nice laptops and cameras. She must have gotten a hell of an employee discount.

The movie is engaging and creepy enough, but not terribly surprising as it moves toward its climax. It’s more scary than horrifying and only marginally gross. Of course the best horror movies leave the horror mostly to the imagination. Shyamalan gets you halfway there in The Visit. This is not Psycho or The Birds but Shyamalan is not Hitchcock either. He’s done better than this, just not recently. If the movie’s goal is to get a profit, it’s bound to do so but probably won’t turn into a cult hit. Maybe it doesn’t matter, except to Shyamalan’s standard of living. Shyamalan already has The Sixth Sense and probably nothing he does will come close to this cult masterpiece.

3.0 out of four-points.

[xrr rating=3/4]

Review: Rear Window (1954)

This may be my first review for a movie that predates my birth. Even more surprising, I saw this famous Alfred Hitchcock movie in an actual movie theater, specifically the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Some years ago the American Film Institute, which used to show movies at The Kennedy Center, renovated the old Silver Theater. It is good that they did because otherwise this historic theater would have met with the wrecking ball. My father, whom I took there as a Father’s Day present, remembers taking girls to the Silver Theater as a youth.

This was my first trip to the AFI Silver Theater and I will definitely be back. For a film junkie this theater is something of a nirvana. Here you can see historic (and some modern) films the way they were meant to be seen: on the screen. In this case, Rear Window has been digitally remastered. Even so, the film is surprisingly grainy. Either Hitchcock was using poor film stock or the film degraded considerably over the years. This film is part of a Jimmy Stewart film festival at the AFI.

Rear Window is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it the only one to star Jimmy Stewart. (His best-known Hitchcock role was probably as Detective Ferguson in Vertigo.) Rear Window deserves more attention because it is a surprisingly engaging and well-done film. Current cult director M. Night Shyamalan was clearly inspired by Hitchcock. One only has to see Rear Window to see elements that Shyamalan has borrowed from Hitchcock.

For example, Shyamalan’s movie Lady in the Water takes place in an apartment complex. Rear Window also takes place in an apartment complex. While Rear Window does not have Lady in the Water‘s mysticism, both films have a collection of oddball apartment dwellers. Jimmy Stewart, playing L.B. Jefferies, is a convalescing international photographer with a broken leg. He is stuck in his apartment with nothing else to do during a hot, sticky Brooklyn summer than watch his neighbors. His apartment happens to face inward onto a courtyard, giving him an intimate view of the comings and going of his neighbors across the courtyard. These were the days before air conditioners. We find a couple sleeping on their balcony to avoid the heat. Much of the movie literally drips with sweat. At the start of the movie, we find a hobbled Stewart in a leg cast and wheelchair sweltering with his neighbors in 92-degree heat.

For a movie this old, it is surprisingly racy. Indeed, the MPAA belatedly gave it a PG rating. It includes scenes of a dancer always practicing her dance steps through her open window in little more than a bra and panties. It also includes Grace Kelly in lingerie and the (then) shocking suggestion that as an unmarried woman her character planned to spend a long weekend nursing her boyfriend.

Jefferies discovers his apartment complex is a real Peyton Place. The cast of eccentrics include Miss Lonelyheart, who stages elegant dinners for a boyfriend that does not exist, the Songwriter who seems to have parties every night, and the newlyweds who remember to shut the blinds at the last moment. It is at these times that you realize parts of Lady in the Water are homage to this important Hitchcock film. Through Jefferies, Hitchcock quickly draws us into the lives of these strangers across the courtyard. Jefferies’s attention though soon focuses on Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr, who was obese even then). Lars and his wife have a fight. Yet his wife mysteriously is never seen again. Jefferies wonders what happened to her, and through the open window, he watches his neighbor engage in some very peculiar actions. He grows convinced that Thorwald murdered and dismembered his wife.

The movie also stars the entrancing Grace Kelly in her prime. If you have never seen Grace Kelly in a motion picture, this movie is a great one to watch to make her acquaintance. She is both achingly beautiful and an excellent actress. In this movie she plays Lisa (that’s “Leeza”) Fremont who is something of a fashion snob. Their difference in values suggests to Jefferies that their relationship is doomed, but he cannot quite find the courage to end it. An insurance company nurse also visits Jefferies daily. She performs physical therapy, changes his sheets, makes him meals and most importantly gives Jefferies the opportunity to spout his conspiracy theories about his neighbors. Jefferies is also pals with Lieutenant Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). After seeing enough suspicious activities, Jefferies tries to enlist Doyle’s help for some shoe-leather work.

While Doyle remains skeptical throughout, Lisa and Jefferies’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) eventually become fully engaged in the Lars Thorwald mystery. Did something happen in that apartment or is Jefferies making much ado about nothing? Hitchcock of course keeps you guessing.

The result is a taunt character driven movie that quickly sucks you in. The camera never even leaves Jeffries apartment. Jefferies watches all his neighbors’ comings and going. Since he is a photographer with a telephoto lens, he can also capture much of it. As a suspenseful movie, there is lots of mystery but little in the way of jeopardy until the very end of the movie. Suffice to say that when Stella and Lisa start to become private investigators, things turn dicey quite quickly.

What I also really liked about this movie is the way that Hitchcock so accurately captures life in noisy Brooklyn. You can hear the tugboats wailing on the unseen East River. You hear the constant sounds of the city, and of people noisily engaging in life. It was doubtless all staged on a Hollywood set, but it feels very much like Brooklyn. I also enjoyed its authenticity to period. This was the life my parents knew but that largely passed me by. Hitchcock makes use of his roving camera and shadow to accentuate the film’s engagement and mystery.

While probably not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful film, it may well be his most intriguing. You should see it if the opportunity presents itself.

Review: Lady in the Water

I am still sorting through my feelings for this movie, and probably will for months to come. Consider this the Version 1.0 of the review of this movie. For the life of me, it is challenging to know whether to praise or pan Lady in the Water. For those of you who have seen M. Night Shyamalan’s movies (and who among us by this time hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense) they are beginning to feel a lot like Alfred Hitchcock movies. They all have a certain style to them that is uniquely Shyamalan. Generally, his movies fall into the scary/creepy/metaphysical genre. Lady in the Water is more of the same. The question for the discerning moviegoers is, “Has Shyamalan’s ambitions exceeded his talent?” This is a director not afraid to take big risks.

The good news is that this latest movie by the man from Pondicherry is far better than his last movie, The Village. Moreover, this movie definitely kept me guessing until the last moment. Shyamalan populates the movie with a cast of excellent actors who play rather eccentric, yet strangely plausible characters. Principally the movie revolves around Paul Giamatti (whom you may remember from Sideways). Here Giamatti plays Cleveland Heap, the manager of an apartment complex. The premise of the movie, of course, is laughable, but then this is fantasy. It seems that sea nymphs (or narfs) exist. A sea nymph, apparently, is an aquatic creature like a mermaid, but without the tail. Narfs apparently have an altruistic heart and periodically attempt to help humanity through rough patches. One narf in particular named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who also starred in The Village) ends up in the swimming pool of the apartment complex that Cleveland manages. Investigating the odd disturbance in the pool, Cleveland ends up slipping into it only to be rescued by the narf Story.

The apartment complex is apparently in Philadelphia but it sure does not seem like it. I would have guessed Southern California. As the super Cleveland spends his days unplugging toilets and resolving tenants’ complaints. Through Story, we soon learn that Cleveland is a troubled man, who lost his family in a mass murder. The apartment complex is a microcosm of America with virtually every ethnic group adequately represented. In addition, virtually every social group is represented too. This is actually fertile ground for the hard work that Story and Cleveland have ahead of them. For they have to set in motion a set of events that will eventually save humanity. Allied against Story are beasts from the underworld. What is Story’s mission exactly? It is all unclear for a while, but apparently there is a tenant (played by Shyamalan himself) who will write “The Cookbook”. This book will someday be used as inspiration to pull humanity out of its moral and political morass before, presumably, our species devolves into phytoplankton.

It does not take Cleveland long to realize there is something very odd about Story, who spends the movie either naked, or in one of his long shirts, and who is calmest when holed up in the shower with water running over her. Through the mother of one of his tenants, he learns about the sea nymph legend. He quickly applies it to Story, for whom he starts to feel almost fatherly affection.

Shyamalan generally succeeds in making us suspend disbelief. He does it by using atypical and oddball characters. After each of them has a chance to meet Story, they seem eager to suspend skepticism too and do not seem to mind helping her out. Unfortunately, Story is largely as ignorant of what she is supposed to do to help humanity as the rest of them. Details emerge slowly through the tale conveyed by the mother of Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), one of the tenants. Young-Soon, a brassy, university attending student has to translate the story for Cleveland, often in hysterically funny ways (such as over a cell phone from a nightclub). None of it makes much sense as Cleveland tries to figure out who play roles such as “The Guild” and “The Guardian” from the legend. Somehow, he has to find those in the apartment complex who are meant to play these roles. Even so on the final night when Story must return to the underworld while risking death from a nasty beast that lives in the bushes (but can only be seen in a mirror), it’s touch and go. Mistakes happen, the story is misinterpreted, and roles must switch in a rather dynamic fashion as they try both to return Story to her world, save themselves and, oh, save humanity too. Thanks to the uniformly excellent acting and the truly strange characters running around the apartment complex, you accept that clues can be found in a crossword puzzle or can be read by a kid from the alignment of cereal boxes. Just go with the flow! Shyamalan manages to accomplish this quite nicely.

Still, there are aspects of the movie that are disconcerting and should give you pause. Was Harry Farber (played by Bob Balaban), the ultimate skeptical professor, actually devoured by the beast or not? How did Cleveland manage to hold his breath so long and find the vault under the swimming pool to retrieve the magic mud that Story needed to heal her wounds? (Yes, we do see him breathing air from an upturned glass, but sorry, that is not enough for the several minutes he spends underwater. In addition, you cannot see clearly underwater without a facemask, which he does not wear.) Is it necessary to cut to black so quickly at the end? Maybe this is part of Shyamalan’s film noir, but it does get annoying to leave so many plot points unexplained.

Still, Shyamalan manages to pull off a neat trick. Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings movies spent over nine hours of cinema time showing us the ultimate conflict between good and evil. Shyamalan manages to do it in 110 minutes, yet you feel the same rush of anxiety and emotion that you likely felt as Frodo and Gollum tussled at The Cracks of Doom. For me it was not clear why I cared about some of these characters, who you only get to know tangentially at best. Yet by the end of the movie, I did care about them. And gosh darn it, with the whole future of mankind at stake, I sure wanted Cleveland to pull all the divergent threads altogether and defy the odds stacked against them by the netherworld.

I need to see this movie a few more times to see if I can fully figure it out. Interpreting the movie is as much a puzzle for the viewer as it was a puzzle for the tenants in the movie to help Story fulfill her mission. The movie also walks a fine line with being overbearing, particularly since Shyamalan gave himself the most important part (the man whose words would save humanity). I am sure many reviewers will see the movie as overbearing, overreaching and a bit of a narcissistic trip for Shyamalan. It is nonetheless fine entertainment, and not really violent, just periodically scary. I suspect theater buffs will be arguing over this movie for years. A small set will see it as an ignored landmark film, along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

My inclination is to cut Shyamalan a break, because the film sucks you in anyhow, is finely crafted and certainly is entertaining. Therefore, I give it a solid 3.3 on my 4.0 scale. A minority of you will feel like you wasted your money, but most will be glad you went.

Review: The Village

One of the most enjoyable and spooky movies I have ever seen was director M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Sixth Sense. It had just the right mixture of creepiness, suspense and terror. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy his movies is (aside from being a terrific director) he can cast so well. Haley Joel Osment, the creepy boy in the Sixth Sense who sees ghosts, is the best child actor I have ever seen in a movie. I try to see any new movies he puts out.

I knew by now I could expect a twist ending from The Village. But the ending is not quite a surprise; I had figured most of it out before the young lady Ivy even left the village. You probably will too. The plot involves an isolated village that exists in the middle of an undisclosed forest. There is no road in or out. The residents of the village never go outside the carefully demarcated village boundaries. Torches on posts line the edge of the village and are lit at night to ward off – what exactly? Well if you knew that there would be no point in seeing the movie. At one time an evil creature from the woods came and caused trouble in the village. But that was long ago. The story opens with a new generation coming of age. The nameless and largely unseen thing in the woods starts making signs that suggest it is time for the villagers to start packing.

The village is run by a council of elders all of who are middle age. After a while it seems rather odd that there are no old people in the village. Everyone in the village is dressed in nice clean 19th century garb. Except for the dead and furless livestock left around the village to creep out the residents its seems a pretty happy and idyllic place. Yet no one seems to want to take a stroll into the woods.

I won’t give out anymore of the plot because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you. But I can say that it follows Shyamalan’s tradition of genuinely suspenseful but not gory films. He understands quite well that timing, acting and what you cannot see but happens off camera is a hell of a lot scarier than the real thing.

The acting is generally very good. Joaquin Phoenix is the biggest name in the film, although there are a lot of well-established actors from movie blockbusters of the past among the elders. They include William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver. But the younger actors actually are more convincing and seem better cast than the older actors. The main character is a new actress named Bryce Dallas Howard. She plays Ivy: a blind young woman who must leave the village to go to a town to get medicine for her fiancee, who is dying. She may be a new actress but she shines in her role. She has one of these radiant faces that just captivate the viewer.

And yet the presence of just the right characters such as Ivy makes the movie less plausible. Who better to go to town than someone who can’t give a report of the outside world? There are other aspects to the film like this that detract from its believability. For example there is the dialog, which is full of very simple words and oddly constructed sentences that often sound like bad movie dialog. And there are other peculiar things about this village that will keep your mind fully engaged in puzzle mode. For example although they seem God fearing there are no churches.

But movies are all about suspending disbelief. Try to put its minor flaws out of mind and just enjoy The Village for the surreal experience it is. And the good news is that overall it is worth seeing. Yet I wish it hadn’t ended quite so abruptly. It left a number of unanswered questions. Having invested a lot of emotional energy caring about some of the characters, particularly Ivy, I would have liked to have had a few plot points cleaned up before the film cut to black.

I give it a 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.