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A well-acted love story that isn't worth the Oscar buzz
In an interview with Gold Derby, director Jeff Nichols described Richard and Mildred Loving's interracial, law-defying marriage as "one of the greatest love stories in American history." Having since been educated on the couple's time together, I tend to agree. But Nichols' film doesn't live up to that prolific standard. In fact, "Loving" isn't even the best film in the budding director's filmography.
This film tackles the true story of the Loving's and how they fought Virginia law back in the late 1950's. Interracial marriage was illegal at the time, so the two ran off to Washington D.C. to be wed, only to return to the open cuffs of the local government. They were then forced to leave the state and spent the next decade fighting the antiquated law, eventually landing their case in the lap of the Supreme Court. From there, you can probably guess how this story ends.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga provide eloquent, near poetic renditions of Richard and Mildred and are by far the brightest gems to be found here, specifically Edgerton and his quietly furious portrayal of a simple country boy with his back against the wall. But these actors simply made the best of what they were given, and after seeing the film, it doesn't seem like they were given much.
The ultimate problem with "Loving" is that it's just not meaty enough. Underwritten and simply too short, there's little context provided for much of what happens on screen. We pick up in the middle of the Loving's story, so we never get to see the pair meet, fall in love, and so on. This is a fine approach to take, provided the subjects are characterized as much as they would've been otherwise. But Nichols skips over much of the connective tissue that would allow us to understand why these two love each other as they do.
A big contributor to this is the fact that the Loving's don't share that much dialogue of consequence. There's plenty of small talk, but their quiet, intimate moments together are exactly that: quiet. They cuddle and they hug and they laugh, but they don't ever talk things out or openly discuss the problems they're facing, whether it's the monumental issue of the law or the smaller stresses at home, like raising three children.
One could argue that the Loving's were just simple country folk so they wouldn't get into lengthy, meaningful discussions about such things, but even if that were the case in real life, this is a movie, and movie's need fleshed-out characters. As it stands in the final cut of the film, Richard and Mildred are much too stoic for us to really connect with their struggle. We're shown how, but we never get a chance to understand why.
Another problem "Loving" faces is the fact that it doesn't feature a single supporting character worth remembering, and that's not because the cast wasn't up to snuff, either. Martin Csokas as the hard and mean sheriff and Michael Shannon as the quirky photographer from Life Magazine are but two examples of the tools this film had at its disposal, but neither are given any substantial attention. Characters come and go without ever making a real impact and the ones that do stick around end up being the least interesting and most poorly portrayed.
In saying that, I'm most pointedly referring to the lawyers that end up representing the Loving's, played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass. Yes, you read that right; I said Nick Kroll plays a lawyer. That's the same Nick Kroll that plays "The Douche," a radio personality in "Parks and Recreation" who's known for his unbearable toilet humor. Now, I have nothing against Kroll or the raunchy, lowbrow comedy that made him famous. In fact, I think he's prone to being quite funny on occasion. But I do object to his casting as a dramatic character, let alone a lawyer, when he clearly isn't built for that sort of role. Kroll plays upstart lawyer Bernie Cohen with a rigid, thorough awkwardness, the sort that makes it hard to believe he was anything but a last minute resort.
But I don't want to get hung up on bashing any one actor, nor do I mean to imply "Loving" is without worth, because that simply isn't true. As I mentioned above, Edgerton and Negga give excellent performances that wouldn't be out of place at the Academy Awards. And though his script is lacking, Nichols makes the most of the pieces he does assemble. As seen most richly in "Mud" (2012), Nichols certainly knows how to capture a location visually, and the Virginian landscapes, forestry and all, are very well represented here. Of course, there's also the fact that this is a story for the ages and one that needs telling, so even if it isn't told as thoroughly as it should be, it's still quite engrossing.
"Loving" is probably going to get a considerable amount of attention at the Oscars, and aside from its lead actors, most of it will be unwarranted. But this is still a good film, one worth watching, as the story of Richard and Mildred Loving is well worth telling. But Jeff Nichols is capable of much more as he's proved before, even earlier this year with his excellent genre piece "Midnight Special." I look forward to his next project with the hope that he takes on something a little more his speed.
Zack Snyder is driving DC into the ground
The comic book movie is blowing up and there's nothing you can do about it. The most popular trend in blockbusters over the past decade, the superhero film has engulfed the market thanks to Marvel's overwhelming success with its cinematic universe.
In an attempt to provide competition and cash-in, Warner Bros. studios launched the DC cinematic universe in 2013 with "Man of Steel." It was a decidedly rocky start that didn't compare to Marvel's first self-produced film, "Iron Man" (2008), but at least it was a start. It introduced us to the first incarnation of Superman that truly felt like a god, with his indescribable feats of strength and heroism. It was a beginning that wouldn't be so bad if the following films made up for it.
But, in truly disappointing fashion, the second installment in the DC universe is even worse than the first. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is one of the most bloated films I've ever seen. The film equivalent of morbid obesity, "Batman v Superman" is stuffed to the brim with useless diversions and is largely incomprehensible. Anyone who saw "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015) knows that superhero movies have a tendency to start far more than they can finish, and "Batman v Superman" is the indisputable king of this trend.
Based on "The Dark Knight Returns" comic series, "Batman v Superman" picks up where "Man of Steel" left off. I'll attempt to describe the plot here, but just know that in truth, there is little plot to be described in the first place. After witnessing the apocalyptic destruction of Metropolis that resulted from Superman's scuffle with his own kind, Batman (played by Ben Affleck) gets really mad and decides he has to kill Superman (Henry Cavill). As Batman broods, the Man of Steel deals with the fact that some people don't like him and gets really sad.
Then, because movies need villains, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up, pits the two against each other and then releases Doomsday, a horrible plot device of a monster that ruins everything both literal and figurative. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shows up too, but I couldn't even begin to guess why.
I could spend hours discussing precisely how the translation from comic to movie went terribly wrong, but I'll spare you all of that. We're here to talk about movies, not comic books. But I'll say that from the very beginning of the film, "Batman v Superman" has no idea how to tell its story.
Inherently it deals with a lot of very interesting philosophical dilemmas. What constitutes a god? Can a god live among men? Is it the duty of men to kill the god if he threatens all of humanity? As interesting as these questions may be, the film never fully delivers on any of them. It's too busy juggling its impossibly large cast of equally important characters to make sense of any of its more engaging pieces.
And by impossibly large, I do mean that this film carries the weight of 10 characters too many. As if the two title characters weren't big enough, the film tries to hammer in a third major hero, two laughably constructed villains and a whole slew of important side characters — far too many for any one film to address.
It's the concept of time that "Batman v Superman" doesn't understand. It doesn't realize that in order for a character to be important, you must devote an appropriate amount of time to them. Without the proper amount of attention, characters like Wonder Woman just don't matter, regardless of how much you fluff them up. But even beyond the simple issue of character screen time, which is far bigger a problem than I can communicate here, "Batman v Superman" struggles with time in regard to its pacing as well.
I can't tell you how many times I was confounded beyond belief while sitting in that theater seat. This is a film that shows no desire to establish a proper timeline. Far too frequently, I found myself gawking at the screen as entire scenes sprung up out of nowhere without any attempt to explain the placement of the characters in time or space. People drift from place to place, days seem to pass and then get revisited and events occur seemingly without rhyme or reason. Because of this, "Batman v Superman" is one of the most frustrating films I've seen in a very long time.
Even though it carries the weight of so many errors, there are moments of clarity. Affleck's Batman is arguably the most interesting incarnation of the character that the silver screen has ever seen. He's older, darker and more disgruntled than we've seen before and doesn't shy away from brutality. He and his associated plot lines are highlights against the muddled and confused backdrop that the rest of the film provides. Though much of the action is cartoonish, certain sequences stand out due to their uncharacteristically complex choreography. But any positivity the film conjures is fleeting. Everything eventually gets caught in the maelstrom of confusion.
At this point, director Zack Snyder is known for his style-over-substance method of filmmaking, but "Batman v Superman" hit a new level for him. Though it's a bit too early to know for sure, it would seem that DC's cinematic universe doesn't stand a chance against Marvel's.
The best superhero movie since "Guardians of the Galaxy"
The superhero movie has become stale as of late. 2015 didn't do much for the genre, as its most notable entry was "Avengers: Age of Ultron," which was a serviceable film at best. The genre suffers because of its formulaic core. Marvel can make a billion dollars off of pretty much anything these days, so they have little incentive to mix it up. The mold has been perfected in terms of box office success, and with it, originality has taken a fatal blow. "Deadpool," however, doesn't fit into this mold, or any other for that matter, and that's why it's the best superhero movie to be released since "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014).
"Deadpool" follows Wade Wilson (played by Ryan Reynolds), a mercenary-for-hire that kicks the mess out of people for a living. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wilson signs on to an experimental program that will cure his cancer and allow him to happily live out his days with his girlfriend. This program isn't what it seems, however, and Wilson emerges from the torturous experimentation mutated, disfigured and super powered. With his newfound abilities, Wilson christens himself Deadpool and goes on the path of revenge.
From the first frame of the opening credits, it's clear that "Deadpool" is unlike every other superhero movie that came before it. Its "hero" isn't really much of a hero at all. He's prone to profanity, innuendo and brutal violence, most of which is done with relative taste.
Anyone who's been on the Internet in the last month has surely seen some trace of the film's pervasive marketing campaign, most of which asserts the obnoxious humor characteristic of Deadpool himself. Initially, this worried me. I was afraid I'd be subjected to several hours of lowbrow, pre-pubescent humor, and although there was certainly plenty of that strewn throughout, it wasn't nearly as idiotic as I anticipated. Certainly not all of the ridiculous one-liners connect, but a surprising number of them stick the landing.
In fact, most of "Deadpool" is genuinely hilarious. The film is insanely self-aware and, much like the comic books from which it came, it often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly just for the laughs. It plays off the absurdity of its genre's formula with refreshing effectiveness, using the tired tropes of superhero flicks to its advantage. However, much of this breaks down into a matter of taste regardless. For some people, "Deadpool" with be a humorless excursion into immaturity. But for those unburdened by seriousness, this film is a riot.
However violent it may be, there's an honesty to be found amidst the carnage. Films like "The Avengers" (2012) deal with apocalyptic destruction that surely leaves hundreds of thousands dead, but the audience is never exposed to any of that. We've seen Iron Man save the day countless times, blasting his enemies to bits with his array of billion-dollar technology, but we're never shown the reality of his actions. Sure, he saved New York from an alien invasion, but half the city was destroyed in the process. Almost all superhero movies deal in this kind of flashy, soft-core violence.
"Deadpool," on the other hand, shows us exactly what its hero is all about. Wielding twin katanas, Wilson cuts through swathes of his enemies, separating limb from torso, head from spine and ego from spirit. He's a killer, like most superheroes, but at least he's sincere about it. Characters like Wolverine have power sets that are entirely based in visceral dismemberment, and yet they're dressed up on screen as if the kills are somehow clean. "Deadpool" and its title character are much more honest.
Any complaints made about the film's lack of plot or original characters are based in misunderstanding. The villain, for example, is an intentional cliché that's carefully crafted to reflect the tiresome habits of action movies everywhere right back into Hollywood's face. The plot is bare bones, lacking in any global-scale destruction or international crises, which is refreshing when considering the fact that the earth has come close to annihilation in nearly every other superhero movie. "Deadpool" knows precisely what it's doing with its own elements. It's all very intentional; it's just a matter of whether or not you like its intention.
But this film has done more than provide us with an entertaining way to spend two hours. "Deadpool" has proved that there's a place for R-rated superhero movies in today's market. It's taken what "Guardians of the Galaxy" started and expanded on it, proving that the mold isn't the only way for studios to make money. Hopefully, this film's success will inspire future installments in the superhero genre to think outside the box.
Daniel Craig's silliest Bond
The wonderful thing about the James Bond franchise is that there's always another one on the way. With its sights set on eternity, the franchise currently has 24 legitimate installments and shows no signs of slowing. This never-ending stream of films allows generations of actors and directors to tackle the character, which inevitably leads to some fantastic results – and others not so fantastic. "Spectre", the latest Bond film, fits cleanly in the middle.
As always, a Bond film thrives first and foremost on the sophistication of its lead actor, and although Daniel Craig has proved his infallible refinement in previous installments, like "Casino Royale" (2006) and "Skyfall" (2012), his talents aren't supported nearly as much in "Spectre". Here, it's almost as if Craig is playing a caricature of Bond, drinking twice as much alcohol, being twice as confident and forward with the ladies and enduring twice as many blows to the face. In other words, this is the first time in a while that a Bond film has come off as just plain silly.
That's not to say that the Bond franchise is unfamiliar with silliness. The roots of the character on-screen lie in the campy and absurd. But Craig has thus far played a very dramatic version of Bond, the most realistic of any in the franchise, and has been met with critical acclaim. So it comes as a big surprise to see that where its counterparts built something original and fresh, "Spectre" has fallen for nostalgia, bringing back the preposterous action set pieces, horribly sexist and out-of-touch female counterparts, and oddly shallow villains.
And, if I'm being honest, it's the film's primary villain that really let me down. Franz Oberhauser is as convoluted and multi-layered as any other Bond villain, but with the added kick that he's being played by Christoph Waltz, one of the best actors alive that has a real knack for playing great antagonists. But instead of using him like "Skyfall" used Silva (played by Javier Bardem), with intelligence and tact, "Spectre" leaves him literally cloaked in shadow for most of the film. But even once Oberhauser finally comes into play, he never makes much of an impression. In fact, he's pretty similar to every other villain in modern action movies – distant, cold and calculating, as formulaic as they come.
Having said all of that, I want to be as transparent as possible – all of this ridiculous silliness can be a lot of fun. Even though the film doesn't present itself in the most intelligent way, "Spectre" knows how to entertain its audience. So even though many of the action sequences are founded in faulty logic, all of them are visually spectacular. Each explosion, car chase and gunfight is handled with extreme care, and all are choreographed beautifully. There are plenty of "Did you see that?" moments, making the film an absolute riot when watching with friends.
When leaving the theater, I had to ask myself whether or not the film's sheer crudeness made it a wholly low-quality experience, and I can now answer that with a definitive no. Even though I saw through every twist and turn the film took, I was still laughing and smiling the whole way through. As absurd as it is, I had a great time watching Bond defy death time and time again whether it be in a plane, train or car, all of which exploded at one point or another. And at the end of the day, I went to see the film for the sole purpose of being entertained, right? So regardless of whether or not each piece fell neatly into place, the film deserves credit for doing its job.
This may or may not be the end of Craig's run as Bond, and if it is, then it certainly isn't the send-off I would've preferred. But, all things considered, "Spectre" isn't a bad movie; it's just a movie with the sensibilities of its cherished bygone cousins, and I can accept it for that.
Bradley Cooper saves the day
Even though he's gone through a meteoric rise in fame over the past few years and has proved his ability more times than he needs to, Bradley Cooper certainly isn't incapable of a few duds every now and again. The star has been on a losing streak as of late, as both "Serena" (2014) and "Aloha" (2015), Coopers last two projects, were panned by critics nationwide. His most recent film, "Burnt," is no different. But, with consideration to the ironic nature of this statement, the critics aren't always right.
"Burnt" follows Adam Jones (played by Cooper), a disgraced chef, as he tries to reassemble his former kitchen staff in an attempt to gain his third Michelin Star, the single most prestigious award to be gained in the culinary world. A former drug addict and womanizer, Jones struggles in and out of the kitchen to keep his life and his career in balance.
Although there is an overabundance of clichés to be found in that plot synopsis alone, "Burnt" succeeds solely because of Cooper's performance. Jones as a character is about as one note as they come. He's a domineering, egotistical maniac who happens to be a genius in the kitchen, which, aside from the kitchen bit, sounds uncannily similar to dozens of characters from other films, namely the title character from last weekend's "Steve Jobs."
But somehow Cooper makes it work. He's practically built for the character with his fiery blue eyes, confident predisposition and knack for screaming. In essence, Jones is just a more handsome version of Gordon Ramsay, and Cooper delivers on that to the letter. In many ways, this runs the character right into overdone territory, but Cooper's magnetic qualities make it an enjoyable watch regardless. Even though I predicted nearly every step the character took, I still found satisfaction in observing the man's struggle. Although that doesn't reflect well on the script, it's high praise for the leading man.
However, I will say that even beyond the cliché nature of the main character, I understand how this film received such low marks from critics. The entire film is relatively shallow and doesn't really even make an attempt to break the mold from which it came. The whole movie has a sort of commercial quality that feels superficial, and Cooper is the only cog in the machine that is firmly planted on solid ground. There are sequences that literally feel as though they're straight out of an advertisement for some high-end restaurant in London, and the lack of depth given to the peripheral characters doesn't help.
But even where the filmmakers let things go, Cooper is there to pick up the pieces. He creates chemistry with his costars where there wouldn't have been any otherwise, and is the sole reason there's any legitimate drama to be found in the film at all. Even though it's been done before, the intensity of Jones' kitchen is thoroughly established, so much so that I left the theater questioning whether Cooper was cast for his acting talent or his aptitude as a maestro of the culinary instruments. If great films about cooking are what you're after, last year's "Chef" is a much more sincere and considerably better take on the subject than this. But if you seek the fire of "Hell's Kitchen," then "Burnt" is probably right up your alley. Even though the film didn't come close to its potential, "Burnt" works because its leading man is one of the best in the business.
The suspension of disbelief is the most important part of making a good movie. In order for a film to effectively tell its story, it must first convince the audience to buy into its world – a feat that requires a great deal of persuasion. If the film's case isn't very thorough, if any one piece of the film is less convincing than the rest, the audience will see right through the curtain, ruining the illusion of reality. This suspension of disbelief is something that "Truth", the latest work from Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, struggles with.
"Truth" tells the true story of the 2004 CBS 60 Minutes report that put President George W. Bush's military record under scrutiny, which was followed by a maelstrom of criticism that ended the careers of producer Mary Mapes (played by Blanchett) and anchor Dan Rathers (played by Redford).
As counterintuitive as it may be, "Truth" struggles with believability precisely because it's based on a true story. As the viewer, I know going in that the events I'm about to observe actually happened, and so I automatically have a higher standard for realism. Through the first half of the film, this standard isn't met. Characters jump into jargon-filled conversations about the news business that seem completely contrived, serving only as a way to force the plot to move along by establishing context. But the film never takes time to establish the characters themselves as actual people, so instead of buying into what the film has to offer, I just see a bunch of actors playing pretend.
But, as I said, this problem is firmly rooted in the first half of the film. By the latter half, the actors, namely Blanchett, have done the heavy lifting and have justified at least most of the premise. This is due in no small part to a handful of scenes that, with the help of some great dialogue and performances, are genuinely riveting. Up against the ropes, Mapes goes on tirade after tirade about the corrupt state of the government and the news business in general, and she makes some excellent, insightful points.
It's at this stage that the film is its most engaging. Once the conflict has reached a fever pitch, we as the audience get a glimpse into the different schools of journalistic philosophy and their prevalence in the industry at the time. It's just getting to this point of interest that the film has a hard time with.
This struggle can most easily be attributed to the fact that this is the first feature film for director James Vanderbilt. Although an accomplished writer, Vanderbilt has yet to fully mature as a visual storyteller, and so much of the exposition in his film comes off as artificial. But when working with talent like Blanchett and Redford, this problem eventually solves itself. Because of Blanchett's reign as arguably the most gifted actress working today, and also with consideration to Redford's timeless charm, Vanderbilt's story comes together by the time the credits roll.
By that time, the audience is left with a reasonably thorough portrayal of one of the bigger news scandals of the 2000's. It isn't as resonant as other dramas of recent memory and likely won't provide any of its cast with nominations at the Academy Awards, but at the very least, "Truth" has provided the public with precisely what it intended to: the truth.
Sleeping in a movie theater is a great way to catch up on some much-needed rest. It's a dark, cozy environment that's practically made for napping, especially after stuffing yourself with mounds of overpriced popcorn, soda and assorted candy. But as a critic, I have some obligations when in the theater, so I don't get to enjoy such pleasures, which is a real shame when watching something like "Goosebumps," one of the more spectacularly boring movies to be released this year.
"Goosebumps" follows Zach (played by Dylan Minnette), a teenager who has just moved to Madison, Delaware with his mother. Zach quickly gets to know his new neighbors, Hannah (played by Odeya Rush) and her eccentric father and famous author R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black), and through a series of rather ridiculous events, Zach accidentally unleashes all of the monsters from Stine's original manuscripts of the "Goosebumps" series into the real world. In order to save their town, Zach and the gang must trap the monsters back in the books, a process that proved much more tedious and exasperating than anything Stine has ever written.
The first of this film's many problems is the fact that it in no way captures the spirit of Stine's books. The author has cornered the market on "horror for children", and as many of us are aware, his books, although written for a young audience, are anything but tame. But, conveniently enough, tame is the exact word I'd use to describe the "Goosebumps" film. The theater in which I found myself was, appropriately, full of children, and not once did any of them seem the slightest bit frightened, which immediately indicates that the film is a categorical failure.
Stine didn't start writing horror stories to mildly amuse his audience. Fear has always been the draw for the "Goosebumps" audience, a fact that even the 90's television adaptation understood. But, for whatever reason, the film plays out more like a fantasy romp than anything even the slightest bit creepy. The only thing I can attribute this to is the vision of director Rob Letterman. His previous works include "Shark Tale" (2004) and "Monsters vs. Aliens" (2009), both of which are children's movies that weren't particularly well received by critics. So, in retrospect, it makes sense that "Goosebumps" turned out to be so unimpressive.
But even beyond the simple fact that the movie doesn't represent Stine's work in the way that it should, the film still just doesn't make any sense. Every twist and turn the plot takes is instigated by some ludicrous leap in logic or unbelievable convenience, which really undercuts the severity of everything that happens on screen.
I know that at this point in my argument, some people might tell me to just chill out because I'm not this film's target audience, so who cares if it makes sense? As long as the kids are happy, why does it matter? And, as always, I'll respond with the Pixar argument. Just because you're making a movie targeted at children doesn't mean it has to be flat out garbage. There are an innumerable number of films out there geared towards kids that hold up in and out of their genre. "Inside Out", the first of Pixar's two films to be released this year, is the perfect example of this. It works for both younger and older audiences because people of talent gave the project the attention it needed. "Goosebumps," unfortunately, didn't receive the same treatment.
So at the end of the day, this film just winds up being a big waste of time for everyone involved. Black's portrayal of Stine, one that ended up being of little substance, could've proved very interesting in the hands of the right director with the right script. But since neither of those were at the film's disposal, "Goosebumps" ended up being a forgettable film punctuated by an overload of special effects and silly dialogue. Someday Stine may find retribution on screen, but that day is certainly a long way off.
The Walk (2015)
Drips with that typical Zemeckis schmaltz, but isn't sunk by it
Director Robert Zemeckis has produced some of America's most beloved films. Works like "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Forrest Gump" (1994) are the favorites of many. But even when viewing the world from 1,362 feet in the air, Zemeckis' latest work, "The Walk", doesn't reach the heights set by its predecessors.
"The Walk" follows the incredible true story of Philippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a tightrope walker from France who dreams of walking the distance between the Twin Towers in New York City just after their construction in 1974. After years of training, Petit assembles a team to assist him in executing his highly dangerous and illegal plan.
From the start, this film has been at a disadvantage because of its Oscar-winning counterpart, "Man on Wire" (2008), a documentary that also details Petit's unbelievable feat. Because the world is already well aware of this story, especially given how recently the documentary was released, there was little "The Walk" offered me in terms of revelation. I already knew the tale the film was going to tell me, so the challenge for Zemeckis was to fill in the gaps the documentary left behind and to do so as engagingly as possible.
However, unlike many biopics of recent memory, "The Walk" didn't take the gritty, tell-all approach to its subject's life, which is strange given the fact that Zemeckis' last film, "Flight" (2012) took that exact approach. Although the film isn't actually a true story, "Flight" has no reservations about its main character and never shies away from telling it like it is. "The Walk", on the other hand, feels sugarcoated and glossy. This is perhaps due to the fact that the film has a PG rating and targets the broadest audience possible, hoping to cash in on the Zemeckis fan boys that fell in love with "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away" (2000). But, unlike those films, I walked away from Zemeckis' latest not knowing any more about Petit than when I had bought my ticket.
This is in part due to the film's impatience with its story. It seemed just as eager as I was to reach its centerpiece scene: the walk itself. The film breezes through Petit's journey up to that point, introducing characters without ever developing them and moving from place to place as quickly as each is mentioned. "The Walk" never actually sits down with Petit and gets into his head. Instead, all we get are statements of grandeur about how ridiculous the stunt will be and how crazy Petit must be to even think of doing such a thing; declarations that surely millions of other people have said both before and after the act.
But, to the film's credit, none of this takes away from the main event. Zemeckis' portrayal of Petit's walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center is spectacle incarnate. With seamless special effects and heights imposing enough to warrant vertigo, Zemeckis constructs the scene with a visual acumen not found in any other part of the film. The walk itself is so beautifully done, in fact, that it almost seems out of place. We learn the most about Petit from merely watching his walk, and as much of a compliment as that is for that one scene, it reflects poorly on the rest of the narrative.
All things considered, this is a real shame for Gordon-Levitt, who's role in the film is one potentially worthy of an Oscar, but because Zemeckis took the broad approach, Gordon-Levitt wasn't given enough room to really break ground with the character. His performance ends up being one of exhibition, not depth.
Perhaps "The Walk" isn't as good as it could've been because it tells a story that has already been told, or maybe it's all on Zemeckis. Had a different director handled the material, maybe it would've had the same gripping attributes as "Man on Wire". Either way, what we're left with is a decent film overall that does justice to the achievement, but not the man behind it.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Classic Spielberg sensibilities
Steven Spielberg needs no introductions, as he is arguably the most prolific director in film history and one of the few representations of classic Hollywood still working today. "Bridge of Spies," Spielberg's latest, is evidence of that. It has classic sensibilities that are all but dead in today's market; sensibilities that Spielberg helped establish in the first place.
"Bridge of Spies" follows the true story of James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), a life insurance lawyer who gets recruited by the government during the Cold War to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) in court, and then later negotiate the exchange of the spy for one of America's own, Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell).
I had my reservations going into this film because the trailers made it seem like the whole story was just an exercise in jingoism. Without context, many of the lines used in the marketing campaign came off as platitudinous cliché's about how America is the best because we have the Constitution and it makes us the most just of any country in the world. Or, at least, that's the impression I had going in.
In reality, my initial assumptions couldn't be farther from the truth. What I thought would be an endless stream of patriotic generalizations about Cold War America ended up being an intelligent critique of our own ethnocentrism. Donovan is hated by the public for much of the movie because he's the man appointed to defend Abel, who was viewed as some sort of devil. But Donovan understands that this man is just that: a man, like any other. He was merely doing the job he was assigned to do and deserves as fair a trial as anyone. Naturally, America doesn't sympathize with Donovan's quest for justice.
Spielberg's critique of American society during the Cold War, and in general, is based on this conflict. Donovan's philosophy essentially boils down to treat others as you would treat yourself, an ideology that America hasn't always abided by throughout history. This is what makes the film so thoroughly engaging. Aside from being a taut, humble historical drama, it also forces America in front of the mirror, giving us a look at our past in a light not often used.
Virtues aside, "Bridge of Spies" also functions incredibly on the technical side of things. Spielberg is known for his subtle long takes, and this film is no different. He eliminates the need for cuts by moving the camera around his actors in a way that allows for close-ups and wide shots to flow seamlessly, which often leads to takes running for several minutes. This allows the audience to fully immerse in each scene without even realizing what's going on, giving the illusion of reality that much more credence.
This technical competence runs all the way back to the script, which is concise and engaging at every turn. Donovan is written incredibly well, which is only emphasized by the fact that Hanks, America's sweetheart, plays the character with his trademark precision. It goes without saying that you're on Donovan's side from his first appearance on screen, but it's his classic sense of wit that really locks you in. As is appropriate for an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself under such absurd circumstances, Donovan greets every escalation in the stakes with a sort of professional sarcasm that keeps the tone light without breaking that valued sense of realism.
Spielberg and success pretty much go hand-in-hand at this point, and it's good to see that the founder of the blockbuster still keeps his classic style close to his heart. "Bridge of Spies" probably isn't going to knock the socks off of anyone in the younger generations, but for the mature, patient moviegoer, this film is one of the most satisfying of the year.
Black Mass (2015)
Do I smell an Oscar nomination?
Johnny Depp has spent the last few years ruining his career with films like "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Dark Shadows" (2012) and "The Lone Ranger" (2013), his roles in which reduced him to caricatures of his own talent. He's been little more than a novelty as of late, all because he hasn't had a truly legitimate role since he introduced the world to Jack Sparrow in 2003 – until "Black Mass", that is.
Almost as if the sole purpose of his role was purely to silence his critics, Depp provides arguably the best work of his career in "Black Mass", and for those of you who have at least seen the trailer, this should come as no surprise. Depp is completely unrecognizable as Whitey Bulger, the single most notorious gangster to ever come out of Boston. The syrupy voice, those icy blue eyes, the bravado in his gait; every aspect of his performance is the categorical opposite of Depp himself.
Needless to say, I'd put my money on Depp earning an Oscar nomination, and he might just win it depending on the other contenders. But Depp's performance seems to be the only thing people are talking about when it comes to "Black Mass". There are other characters and a plot to boot, but even the film itself doesn't really seem interested in much other than showing us just how fantastically talented Depp really is.
As far as modern gangster flicks go, "Black Mass" feels pretty familiar. This is in part due to the fact that the film is very much like a documentary. It provides little insight beyond what much of the public already knows, mainly because, like many biopics, it tries to encompass 40 years of Bulger's life in a two-hour runtime: a feat that is rarely achieved gracefully.
Bulger's inner workings are explored, but only briefly, never with any true depth or analysis. We follow him as he runs his business, racketeering, selling drugs and murdering those that get in his way, but most of this information could be found on his Wikipedia page. The real psychology of the man behind the monster is never really discovered.
This is partially because Bulger isn't really the protagonist of "Black Mass", which makes sense when considering that he's basically a super villain. Many biopics about the seedier individuals in history will employ this technique; instead of making the biopic's subject the protagonist, we see the whole story through the eyes of one of their close associates. "Black Mass" makes an attempt at this method but never really establishes a clear lead character to take the audience through the story. Instead of seeing through the eyes of one character, we are given the perspectives of several, which reduces the clarity of the plot.
This could partially be due to the fact that director Scott Cooper has never dealt with a subject of the same magnitude as Whitey Bulger. His previous works, "Crazy Heart" (2009) and "Out of the Furnace" (2013), were much simpler stories dealing with love and loss, and even though neither is as taut as they could be, both are more focused and fleshed out than "Black Mass".
But I don't mean to be a downer. "Black Mass" is definitely a great film from a director on the rise who has proved time and time again that he's capable of pulling out the best in his actors. Thanks to Depp's towering presence, the film contains many incredibly tense scenes and one of the most interesting characters of recent memory. "Black Mass" may not be revolutionary but it's certainly worth the price of admission.
Almost great, but not quite
As far as films about natural disasters go, "Everest" is a league above its dumber cousins. Films like "Into the Storm" (2014) and "San Andreas" (2015) are often just showcases of destruction, lacking any real substance or complex characters. They're more concerned with luring as many people into the theater as they can with their special effects and promise of catastrophe. "Everest" has more intelligent ambitions.
The film follows the true story of Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) and his team on their expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest during the spring of 1996. Fighting through freezing temperatures and gale force winds, the team makes it to the summit only to be greeted by a storm preventing their descent, putting their whole expedition, and their lives, in danger.
"Everest" succeeds because it captures the camaraderie of those who take on one of the most difficult challenges in the world: climbing Mt. Everest. It takes a special breed of person to even consider such a trial and the film understands that. It imbues its characters with a romantic acceptance of fate; either they make it to the top or they die trying. The psychology of its characters is the most interesting part of "Everest" and its best asset.
But the film never fully delivers on that front due to the fact that instead of telling one story with Hall as the clear protagonist, we're told a number of stories, one for each of the men on the team. Featuring a large ensemble cast, the film briefly touches on the life behind each and every man on the mountain, desperately trying to make one just as important as the next; an impossibility for film with a 121 minute run time.
This is a shame because these fleeting glimpses really got me invested in each character. Hall is portrayed as a legend of sorts: the man to lead all men to the summit. His confidence and reassurance even had me believing that this expedition might be pulled off without a hitch. Others, including Beck Weathers (played by Josh Brolin) and Scott Fischer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), are built up as equally fascinating people, and yet we only spend a small amount of time with each. This hinders the emotional impact of the film because we as the audience never get the full weight of any one character's story.
This shortcoming really comes into play towards the end of the film. When it comes to stories like this one, it's to be expected that not all of the characters you meet will live to see the credits roll. I won't spoil anything, but this holds true in "Everest," and because we are never given a complete picture of any one character, these deaths lack the magnitude they deserve. In fact, some deaths come and go so quickly, I barely had time to process what had happened before the film had moved on.
This unceremonious treatment of death hurts the film precisely because its characters are so magnetic. These men take palpable joy in suffering for their art, but because the mountain doesn't pause when it ends a life, neither does the film. Although I wouldn't say it tells its story with impatient briskness, "Everest" certainly never lingers on any one plot point long enough for it to really set in with the audience.
But, to the film's credit, even this doesn't totally sterilize the moving story of Hall and his team. The passion that drove these men to the highest point on the planet shines through whatever mistakes the filmmakers made and the great ensemble cast embodies that passion well. "Everest" may not have the shocking realism of "Gravity" (2013) or the emotional intelligence of "The Impossible" (2012), but it does have a lot of heart, a respectable quality that not many disaster movies ever achieve.
The Martian (2015)
The best space expedition in years
Relatively unimpressive works like Prometheus (2012) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) have put 77-year-old Ridley Scott's directorial prowess under scrutiny as of late. The Martian is Scott's response to these sentiments. With a level of humanity that Gravity (2013) could only dream of and a precision that Interstellar (2014) never achieved, The Martian is definitively the best space mission I've been on in years.
Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian follows the Ares III mission to Mars. Due to an intense sandstorm, the Ares team is forced to abort their mission and flee the planet's surface. During their departure, botanist Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is struck by debris and lost by his crew. Presumed dead, the team cuts their losses and sets out for Earth, only to find out later that Watney has survived and is awaiting rescue.
Much like Scott's sci-fi classic Alien (1979), The Martian features an enormous ensemble cast full of some of the most talented actors in today's market. This is the first of many reasons why this film works on such a deep level. No aspect of the narrative feels peripheral because each character is fully fleshed out and critical to the story's structure. Every person is given purpose and dignity, which deeply enhances the film's connection with the audience.
This is primarily because Drew Goddard's script, and subsequently Weir's novel, is written with such charisma and wit that it's near impossible not to become profoundly attached to the characters, namely Watney. His sense of humor, which is so well developed that the theater I found myself in erupted with laughter on several occasions after some snarky insight or sardonic remark about his situation, keeps the entire movie afloat. Watney remains simultaneously very conversational and intimate throughout and is definitely the most likable protagonist this year has seen thus far. This allows for all his hardships to connect with the audience that much more. After watching this man's incredible ability to remain calm through such an ordeal, seeing him break down becomes almost too much to bear.
It's this profound humanity that makes the story so interesting. The Martian is nearly a two-and-a-half hour movie, but not once did I find myself checking the time. I could've watched Watney wander around Mars forever, observing as he sarcastically mutters to himself about the absurdity of his situation while simultaneously performing miracles of science not thought possible. After leaving the theater, I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that I had just watched a work of fiction, not an actual biopic, precisely because Watney is so well rendered. He's a living, breathing human being, just like the rest of us.
The film's supreme sense of realism is spearheaded by the way it so logically and casually implements the science of its fiction, a skill that won't be found in most other films of this nature. For example, I have little to no idea what was actually happening in Interstellar, and for those of you who haven't seen it, I can almost guarantee the same confusion awaits you unless you're a quantum physicist. I'm certainly not a scientist, and chances are you aren't either, so when a film presents concepts that are unfathomable to the average citizen, few people benefit.
The Martian avoids this problem altogether for two reasons: the first is the fact that the entire film is based in science that transcends theory. Much of what is seen on- screen is accurate to where we stand today. The narrative of the film is supposed to take place in the very near future, so most of the technology seen is either already in existence or just a few years away – something that Interstellar most certainly cannot lay claim to.
The second reason why The Martian remains so accessible to the scientifically illiterate is that Watney explains everything he's doing in detail as he does it, getting into the nitty-gritty of every process he undertakes and every feat he achieves. For him, he's just talking to himself while documenting his experience, but for us, he's giving a clear, understandable account of how one could possibly survive on Mars while not being in any way prepared to do so. This didacticism keeps the film wholly engaging and credible throughout.
But the film's narrative isn't great just because it's so fascinating and thorough – its also incredibly well structured and paced. I wasn't sold on Gravity because of its relentlessness. Every possible thing that could've gone wrong did go wrong, and after a while that has a numbing effect. I can't be completely invested in a character's struggle if A. I don't know them very well and B. the level of danger they're in is so constant and explosive that it borders on absurdity.
The Martian understands this. It doesn't test the limits of its characters by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at them. Instead, it provides only intermittent crises. It allows for the audience to become invested in the improbable success of Watney and then tests both him and the audience at just the right moment. This allows for bursts of intensity and subsequent release that establish the emotional intelligence of the whole film.
That being said, it's still early in the year and Oscar season has only just begun, but for now, The Martian is the best movie of 2015. Ridley Scott has been the king of science fiction for several decades, and it doesn't look like he's going anywhere anytime soon.
Tomlin's best work of recent memory
As abortion and its moral complexities continue to be a hot topic in politics, so it will be in film. "Grandma", the latest indie feature from writer/director Paul Weitz, is the most recent film to deal with the timeless topic.
The film follows Elle Reid (played by Lily Tomlin) and her teenage granddaughter Sage (played by Julia Garner) as they struggle to find the money for Sage's abortion. This quest leads the two all across town, through Reid's past and back again, all because they can't go to Sage's mother, Judy, (played by Marcia Gay Harden) for fear of her wrath.
As far as films about abortion go, "Grandma" does little to justify the severity of its plot. It's established early on that the only reason Sage's abortion is so urgent is because she just can't stand the thought of being pregnant, and so she's made an appointment at a local clinic for later that same day. This means that all that frantic searching for money is all in the name of comfort. Sage could reschedule her appointment at any time, she just doesn't want to. Once this is realized, the entire abortion plot line is deflated.
This doesn't derail the film, however, because after viewing the whole movie, one realizes that the abortion is merely a MacGuffin, or simply a plot device used to move the story along that doesn't really have any value in and of itself. The film isn't really trying to say anything about abortion. Instead, it focuses on age.
As she takes her granddaughter from place to place, Reid is taken through a slide show of her past, visiting people she hasn't seen in years. Her character is a misanthropic lesbian who's easily angered by even the smallest of grievances, so naturally she's made plenty of enemies throughout her life. As she searches for a solution to Sage's problem, Reid meets with old flames, former friends and even recent girlfriends, each of which has a bone to pick with Reid for something she's done in the past.
One such visit is with Karl (played by Sam Elliott), Reid's ex-husband. As you could predict, this meeting leads to a heated argument about Reid's wrongdoings; a scene that ends up being the cornerstone of the whole film. Elliott provides an honest and heartbreaking performance that cuts right to the heart of the film's narrative, highlighting the fact that Reid is trapped in a wiser body, tormented by the reckless selfishness of her past and left to deal with the consequences.
Reid's personal crisis is brought home by Tomlin's immense talent, which is really the biggest thing this film has going for it. She gives a certain vivacity to the character that brings the whole movie to life. Reid's regrets, strife and experience are all worn in plain view, and even through the barrage of verbal abuse that she spouts at those who displease her, one can see the years of hardship the woman has endured.
However, in an ironic sort of way, Tomlin's excellent performance also hurts the film. Garner, a relatively new face in film at the age of 21, has yet to mature as an actress, so when sharing the screen with Tomlin, she withers along with the weight of her character's troubles. In comparison to Reid's dysfunctional life, Sage's pregnancy doesn't seem like that big of a deal. The film establishes that Reid has lived through much worse than what Sage is going through, which undermines Sage's whole function in the plot to begin with.
So even though Weitz' latest has less to say about the political climate than it initially implies, it's still a thorough exploration of age and what it means to live a life full of regrets. This may not be a revelation, as many films have tackled it before, but thanks to Tomlin's layered performance, "Grandma" has a definitive place amidst the ranks of its predecessors.
Fantastic Four (2015)
Trank, what have you done?
Like many reboots, the latest edition of the Fantastic Four was met with hostility from both audiences and critics alike as it received some of the worst reviews of any superhero movie released since Catwoman (2004), the movie that nearly killed Halle Berry's career.
For anyone paying attention to the film over the past few months, this should come as no surprise. Fantastic Four had one of the most tumultuous productions of any in recent memory. Relations between sophomore director Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox became quite miserable during production, so much so that Trank eventually boxed himself off from the crew, became completely unresponsive and essentially went crazy on set, a chain of events stemming from the massive amount of oversight that Fox lumped onto the director, stripping him of his creative freedom. Or so the story goes.
Knowing all of that, there was no way I could resist buying a ticket to witness the mayhem that surely was to be the Fantastic Four reboot. Unfortunately, I wasn't disappointed.
This version of the Fantastic Four follows Reed Richards (Miles Teller), a boy genius, as he invents his way into a program for the gifted through the Baxter Foundation. The team to-be assembles here as Reed meets Johnny and Sue Storm (Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara), along with Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). This team of whiz kids then invents the impossible: a portal into another dimension. Using the level of common sense appropriate for geniuses, the team drunkenly uses the portal without supervision, dragging Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) along with them because the filmmakers had to squeeze him in somehow, and the body horror ensues.
If I'm being honest, I must admit that even though I had heard the terrible stories about the film's production, I still had hope. Trank's directorial debut, Chronicle (2012), was fantastic. It's gritty originality wasn't something often found in the superhero genre and I was hoping that would translate to Fantastic Four. Early interviews with Trank revealed that his approach to the film had similar grit to Chronicle's. He wanted to get away from the bubblegum style of Marvel's cinematic universe and really dig into the horror of being transformed into a man perpetually on fire or a man made of stone.
Given the fact that the Fantastic Four is traditionally the most ridiculous of any superhero team, with their matching bright blue suits, Fantasticar, and absurdist power sets – like being able to stretch one's body endlessly – this sounded like the perfect direction to take the team. Turn the concept on its head and instead of a bunch of circus clowns, you have a group of teenagers struggling with life-altering deformations. On paper, that's a killer concept. The trick is the translation.
Through the first half or so, it seemed as though that translation had worked fine. The film featured some pretty interesting ideas, a very talented cast and a reasonably well-plotted story. It didn't seem to have the capacity to be terrible. If anything, it was just boring. I just didn't get what all the fuss was about.
But all of that changed rather swiftly in the final act. What was a relatively decent movie revealed itself to be a disaster cataclysmic enough to rival Pompeii. In the last fourth of the movie's run time, every facet of Fantastic Four falls to pieces. The villain, a character so shamelessly terrible that I refuse to mention his name here, ushers in this bombastic drop in quality. It's as if the ending features dialogue, plotting and special effects from an entirely different movie, one without any budget, talent or soul.
However, this sudden turn for the worse wasn't planned, but was actually a result of the aforementioned clash between the director and the studio. Trank imploded before they had filmed the ending, so the conclusion was shot well after the rest of the film, and it was done so in an embarrassingly haphazard fashion. By that point in the production, Fox had dumped too much money into the film to simply abandon it, so instead of throwing it into the garbage like they should have, they finished the film. But I use the term "finish" very loosely.
Yes, technically the Fantastic Four has an ending. But it's done so quickly and with such little finesse or attention to anything resembling quality that instead of providing an actual conclusion to the story that had been told up until that point, we are left with a horribly warped, poorly scripted anti-conclusion, something so foul that it must've come from whatever dimension that disfigured our poor heroes in the first place.
So for those of you hoping that Fantastic Four in any way resembles director Trank's 2012 hit Chronicle, you will be heavily disappointed. This is a reboot that will haunt his career for a very long time.
Irrational Man (2015)
The beginning of the end?
Although his moral integrity has been scrutinized a thousand times over, it is inarguable that Woody Allen has had one of the most productive careers in Hollywood. The director has released a new movie every year for the last thirty-three years and nearly every other year before that, going all the way back to What's Up, Tiger Lily?, his first film in 1966. Needless to say the man keeps himself busy, but a glance over his filmography gives rise to the question, does quantity consistently allow for quality?
Irrational Man, Allen's latest, seems to provide an answer: a relatively definitive no. The film follows Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a disgruntled alcoholic of a philosophy professor who has recently taken a job in the philosophy department at Braylin, a small-town New England college. His prolific reputation precedes him as his peers and students revere him with a certain wonder, and eventually Lucas develops a relationship with one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), and so the Woody Allen tropes ensue, as do the problems.
Lacking the emotional acumen of Blue Jasmine (2013) and the charming wit of Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Irrational Man is more about itself than the story it wants to tell. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment clearly influenced the film, and I won't spoil anything for those of you who haven't read it, but that inherently leads to certain absurdities that the film just can't sustain. Within the confines of a book, such a story works well, but the brevity of film puts that story under unwieldy constraints.
That's not to say that books can't be adapted into film because that's obviously not true. Even this specific book has been adapted time and time again. But Allen's film runs at 95 minutes and merely places its influences where it wants them, never fully exploring or justifying their presence. Its loose base in Crime and Punishment isn't taken seriously and thus the moments of critical climactic power come off as completely unbelievable and unwarranted.
But Irrational Man isn't mediocre simply because it misuses its influences. The dialogue itself is schmaltzy from the onset of the film, as campus-goers openly discuss their amazement at Lucas' arrival and how interesting and edgy he is. Philosophic reflections abound, and although some of them connect, most come off as a bunch of actors reciting lines from a philosophy 101 textbook.
However, I don't mean to imply that the actors themselves are somehow at fault for their cheap lines. Phoenix still provides an engaging performance as Lucas, with his character's personal strife connecting where nothing else does, and Stone is as animated and sincere as ever. But these small victories can't prevent the overall withering of the film.
The disappointment that is Irrational Man gives rise to the question, is Allen reaching the age where his ability to produce quality content is declining? He will be turning eighty this December and is currently one of the oldest working directors in Hollywood. At what age is a man no longer fit to run large-scale productions?
The same question has been posed in regards to Clint Eastwood. Now at the age of eighty-five, Eastwood's ability to direct was put into question after J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014) were released, the former being positively terrible, with the latter proving to be only a marginal improvement. But the release of American Sniper (2014) silenced those critics after it garnered six Oscar nominations and one win, proving that Eastwood still has what it takes to produce quality films.
Is the same true for Allen? Some critics argue that he's been making the same film for his whole career, and even though I disagree with that, I see their point. Has Allen finally run out of ways to reshuffle the same romantic quandaries? I suppose we'll find out next year when his currently untitled project is released.
The Visit (2015)
Not nearly as bad as you might think
Back in 2002, Newsweek Magazine declared M. Night Shyamalan to be the next Steven Spielberg. The director had "The Sixth Sense" (1999) and "Unbreakable" (2000) under his belt and had just released "Signs" (2002), all of which still make up the best work in his filmography.
However, being in the present allows for a hearty chuckle at such a statement, given the fact that Shyamalan has done nothing but produce absolute garbage for the last decade. His most recent crimes include "The Last Airbender" (2010) and "After Earth" (2013), two films that would have immediately ended any other director's career. But somehow Shyamalan managed to stay in the business, utilizing what must be some sort of unholy endurance that rendered him invincible to the soul- crushing failures of his past, and so I found myself with a ticket for "The Visit", a found-footage horror flick that I was sure would make my stomach churn.
But, against all odds and possible predictions, my stomach went unharmed. In fact, I actually had a pretty good time. "The Visit" proved to be the best film from Shyamalan in years as it put the director's creativity in a position to be appreciated.
The film follows Becca (played by Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (played by Ed Oxenbould), two siblings whose mother (played by Kathryn Hahn) has had a decade- long feud with her parents. The two children decide to visit their grandparents, whom they have never met, to catch up on the lost years and try to get to the bottom of the feud. But after spending a night in the house, Becca and Tyler realize that all is not well with their grandparents and that they might be in deeper than they had anticipated.
The first thing that "The Visit" does right is that it doesn't abuse the power of the found-footage medium. Some films, like the entire "Paranormal Activity" franchise, come up with any excuse they can to get a video camera into their protagonist's hands just for the sake of a few jump scares. "The Visit" takes a more intelligent approach.
Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, decides to make a documentary out of their visit in order to achieve some sort of closure for their mother. She films the daily lives of Nana (played by Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (played by Peter McRobbie) and interviews the both of them on multiple occasions. So instead of just throwing ten cameras all over the interior of some suburban home, the film provides some intrinsic motivation for Becca and Tyler to constantly walk around with cameras.
This allows for another of the film's strengths to come through: its humor. Before seeing the film, the only laughter I could have predicted would be that stemming from the egregious lack of quality that coincides with nearly all of Shyamalan's films, but to my delight, "The Visit" was actually just hilarious.
The dynamic between Becca and Tyler is like that of many siblings, full of constant banter and bickering. Becca regularly spouts film jargon that Tyler promptly mocks, and Tyler has a knack for freestyle rap that Becca doesn't always appreciate. This chemistry between brother and sister helped lighten the mood of the whole film, a necessity considering the ridiculousness of the plot. Because the film didn't take itself incredibly seriously, I was able to relax and enjoy the nuances of Shyamalan's work.
But that's not to say that "The Visit" isn't frightening, because it is. Nana and Pop Pop come off as senile at first, but the playful forgetfulness that comes with age soon reveals itself to be something much darker. The first night in the house finds Becca going to the kitchen for a late night snack, but before she can get down the stairs, she's interrupted by the sight of her grandmother projectile vomiting onto the floor as she mindlessly wanders the house.
As you can imagine, the grandparents' bizarre behavior only escalates from there, and is the real reason "The Visit" remains interesting throughout its entirety. It combines the awkward obliviousness of senility with certain demonic implications that equates to some really well executed scenes. However, in the end, those demonic implications prove to be the film's biggest weakness.
As the story progresses, certain conversations and events begin to build an impression of what might be behind Nana and Pop Pop's peculiar behavior, bringing classics like "The Exorcist" (1973) to mind. However, the film never delivers on that front. It never fully explores what was behind the grandparent's madness, which is a shame because the most enjoyable part of the film is the anticipation of the great evil that is surely orchestrating it all.
That being said, "The Visit" is surely not Shyamalan's definitive return to quality filmmaking, but it is a good horror movie and is well above the standard he's set for himself over the last decade. Either "The Visit" is a fluke or Shyamalan's on the rise again. Only time will tell.