Review: The Visit

the-visitYou’ve gotta give M. Night Shyamalan credit – here is a director who is bombarded with criticism over any movie in his filmography of the past fifteen years, and yet he still manages to keep his chin up and keep working in spite of it. And yet, after his unfairly reviled 2013 studio effort After Earth, I think Mr. Shyamalan must’ve resigned himself to critical estrangement. It’s the only explanation for his latest thriller The Visit, the cinematic equivalent of a once-promising director throwing up his arms and snapping, “You know what? Fuck it.”

The Visit opens with Loreta (Kathryn Hahn), a mother prepping to drop her two kids off to meet their grandparents for the first time. After conceiving them with an older man and moving out, Loreta has not spoken with her parents in 15 years. So rather than accompanying her children to make sure everything’s cool with the fam like a good mother would, she sends them off and goes on a beach cruise with the hubby. Hooray for modern parenting!

Her children are 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), who speaks as if she’s been studying a little too hard for a film school exam, and the 8-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wannabe freestyle rapper. No, you are not reading that wrong, and yes, he is white. Painfully, agonizingly white. After the kids are picked up by their Nana and Poppa (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie respectively), who of course live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, they decide to document their voyage to have something to bring back to mom. We watch the entire film shot in this faux-documentary style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, a great model to emulate if you want to suck the suspense right out of your horror movie.

Things take a turn for the weird when the kids find their grandparents exhibiting bizarre behavior around the house. Papa is found with a shotgun in his mouth, and Nana scrapes at the walls while naked and bounds around on all fours with her hair in her face like something out of a better, scarier horror movie. Poppa calls it “sundowning,” a form of dementia that only occurs at nighttime. He advises the kids to lock their door after 9:30 p.m. But is there more to the kids’ grandparents than just an onset of old age?

One thing’s for sure: there is nothing more to this movie than its director’s stylistic suicide.

Since 2002’s Signs, director Shyamalan’s quiet, minimalist approach, often eliciting odd line delivery from his actors, has been a breeding ground for unintentional comedy. For The Visit, Shyamalan has thrown subtlety to the wind and embraced every bit of awkward humor he can derive from this concept, even going out of his way to push a few painfully unfunny gags. One such recurring bit sees Tyler try to improve his rapping by replacing curse words with the names of female pop singers, “Oh, Shania Twain!” he spats after dropping his camera. Ha!

Then there are the grandparents, who do things that grandparents wouldn’t normally do, and this somehow constitutes as either comedy or horror. “Would you mind getting inside the oven, to clean it?” Nana awkwardly intones in a memorable line from the trailer. But by that point, even the film’s shock value is depleted; crazy people doing crazy things can only be surprising for so long. The same can be said of the scares, which are cheap and jump-y in place of real horror. One sequence sees Nana literally leaping into the frame and screaming into the lens, for no real cinematic purpose other than to startle us. You can practically hear M. Night and his new buddy in Insidious producer Jason Blum snickering in the back of the theater as the moment happens, and passes, with little consequence.

There’s of lot of elements like that in The Visit, including an underdeveloped subplot where the kids are suddenly revealed to harbor some repressed anger over their father’s leaving them to move to California, providing ample fodder for a canned message at the end that has no bearing on the film’s actual contents.

So to recap, we have a movie about crazy old people doing crazy old people shit that is neither funny nor scary. It’s just uncomfortable, and amounting to what is essentially an exploitation film about dementia in the elderly.

Ha?

Balancing comedy and horror is tricky. Few filmmakers can pull it off. Edgar Wright and Drew Goddard elicited laughs and scares aplenty with Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods, respectively. But The Visit has no such vision, banking on its filmmaker’s failings, rather than his strengths, to serve its dual genres.

Somehow that didn’t stop the audience at my screening from yukking and screaming it up (caught quite a few “oh hell no!”’s at the oven line). But I think history will favor my take on Shyamalan’s big middle-finger to critics: “what the fuck happened to the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable?”

At least The Visit isn’t Tusk. But it’s close. Damn close.

1/10

Micro-Managing: Edgar Wright’s ‘Ant-Man’ and the Arrogance of Disney/Marvel

Comic-Con-Marvel-Panel-AntMan-Edgar-WrightWithin mere weeks, the long-gestating comic book adaptation Ant-Man has gone from one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2015 to a buzzword for crushing disappointment and the ugliness of Hollywood’s corporate sector. The film was my most anticipated Marvel venture to date; an original superhero property, a great story outline, the writer/director of some fantastic action-comedies helming, and a stellar cast, all promising to comprise the studio’s most exciting film in years.

No longer.

As announced last month, Edgar Wright has departed Ant-Man after Disney and Marvel, taking issue with his script, reportedly sanctioned rewrites without Wright’s knowledge. The rewrites, said to be, “poorer, homogenized, and not Edgar’s vision,” were apparently commissioned from Disney, who had concerns with the “morality of the piece.” Could Scott Lang, a thief who steals the Ant-Man tech to save his daughter’s life, have been written too morally complex a character for the kid-friendly Disney to get behind?

I’ve followed Ant-Man’s development pretty closely over its 8-year (!) development period. I remember thinking how lucky Marvel was to have found a filmmaker whose talent is only equaled by his passion, and for a C-lister like Ant-Man no less. I remember when, after years of uncertainty, Wright finally showed up at Comic-Con 2012, his treasured copy of Marvel Premiere #47 in hand, to announce the film’s impending production, and even screen some test footage he’d shot that Spring to showcase the film’s action sequences.

Ant-Man is a project that has taken a great deal of time and care to get this far. It’s also a project that would be on absolutely no one’s radar if it weren’t for Wright’sant.man name being attached, and the lengthy development period has only served to build fan hype. For Disney to throw that investment to the wind, to disrespect the one director who made Ant-Man, of all characters, a hot property…well, there’s definitely something to be said about both creative and professional integrity there.

I refrained from commenting in full on my Twitter when the news of Wright’s departure first broke, just until I could get the full story. Now that we appear to have it, the verdict is practically unanimous. No matter which way you paint it, Disney and Marvel are completely at fault.

The debacle presents a growing issue I have with Marvel Studios – big money precedes big talent. Back in 2009, Disney seemed content to stay out of Marvel’s business, yet now, it seems Marvel chief Kevin Feige reportedly, “went to bat for Wright and lost,” meaning now it’s Disney’s shareholders dictating the major creative decisions of Marvel’s films. Like it or not, the company is now fully part of the Disney machine, which will spell the death knell for its creative properties.

In the beginning, Marvel were consciously hiring A-list directors for their films – Kenneth Branagh on Thor, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. Those films proved the company was willing to work with directors to make solid, creatively sound films. Yet since the Disney acquisition and the colossal success of Avengers, that mentality seems to 15742Marvel_Disney_logo-mdhave shifted from hiring big talent to hiring cheap talent, replacing director’s visions with the stink of corporate synergy and cohesive universe-building. Marvel knows it’s making billions on every movie anyway; instead of hiring someone like Edgar Wright, whom they’ll pay top dollar for and who’ll, if need be, fight them for what he believes is right for the film, why not hire “yes” men, nobody directors to direct quick-and-dirty crowd pleasers? Why take chances, make mistakes, and potentially create something big and bold and wonderful, when you can continue making safe, proven moneymakers?

Take Thor: the Dark World, a film entirely reliant on Kenneth Branagh’s infinitely superior 2011 original to tell its Asgard-based story. The film didn’t work nearly as well as it should have, largely because director Alan Taylor was hired to execute a pre-plotted, studio-bred story arc. Director and studio clashed behind the scenes over last-minute rewrites and reshoots, leading Taylor to diplomatically bow out of contention to direct the eventual threequel. It’s that increasingly creator-unfriendly atmosphere (coupled with Marvel’s growing history of snubbing talent from the get-go…Edward Norton, Jon Favreau, and Patty Jenkins say ‘hi’) that robs Marvel of even a chance at telling genuine, ballsy stories in favor of safe, formulaic ones which increasingly threaten audience indifference.

Even Captain America: the Winter Soldier, a success by most standards, felt largely a studio effort lacking any sort of directorial vision or identity. Its script was more or less completed long before directors Anthony and Joe Russo entered the picture, with the ready-made, Marvel-approved direction changing very little on its way to the silver screen. This is Marvel re-appropriating their comic book publishing mentality to for the silver screen – its publishing division has an even greater history of estranged writers and artists who’ve left the company over unreasonable editorial mandates. And it won’t end with Wright and Ant-Man – now there’s Scott Derrickson, hired to direct Dr. Strange. Though Derrickson directed Sinister, easily one of the finest horror films in years, he also helmed the Day The Earth Stood Still remake, one of Fox’s corporate ventures when the company was still under the director-unfriendly reign of Tom Rothman. Will Derrickson prove another Marvel “yes” man, or will the director’s penchant for dark, occult-ish mythology channeled so brilliantly in Sinister win out?

(Speaking of Fox, interesting to note how that company and Marvel appear to have switched places. Over the last decade, the former was infamous for taking movies out of its directors’ hands and robbing them of their creative vision. With the departure of Rothman, the company now seems content to let their top directors, among them Bryan Singer and James Mangold on X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Wolverine respectively, largely tell their own stories. In contrast, the entirely of Marvel’s Phase 2 seems to have been dictated entirely by corporate higher-ups.)

So what does this mean? After a frantic search for a replacement director to keep their coveted July 2015 release date, Marvel hired Yes Man director Peyton Reed to helm, with Anchorman’s Adam McKay helping out with the script, likely as a favor to actor Paul Rudd. Yet let’s examine this – the film is still fully on schedule, so Wright’s contributions to the project must’ve been significant enough to where scripting, pre-Marvel_Premiere_047_p02visualization, costume design, nearly everything about the film thus far has his signature all over it. With Reed shamelessly picking up where Wright left off, that leaves two things:

A. Where Wright’s style deftly balances action and comedy, Reed’s light, insubstantial style and background largely in comedy lacks that same kind of demanding, stylized prowess that the project calls for based on Wright’s contributions, and

B. Reed is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a Marvel “yes” man, directing what is essentially an abandoned Edgar Wright film. To our knowledge, and as is likely the case, he doesn’t bear even an ounce of the passion and investment Wright felt for the Ant-Man mythology. For superhero movies especially, genuine devotion to the material makes all the difference – compare the genuine, heartfelt approach of Kenneth Branagh on Thor to the mechanical, distant direction of Alan Taylor on its sequel.

At best, Ant-Man will retain enough of Wright’s vision to stand out amidst a growing mass of generic, lackluster Marvel films banking on undying audience loyalty rather than bothering to bring that audience something unexpected and, dare I say it, brilliant. Last year, I wrote in my Thor: the Dark World review that I’d rather sit through another Ang Lee Hulk, a film which takes big risks and fails miserably, than yet another “meh” Marvel movie playing it close to the chest. I have a nasty feeling Wright’s tenure on Ant-Man will be a cautionary tale for other auteurs, who will choose to stay far away from a company unwelcoming to risk, and one which threatens to fiercely stamp out their creativity.

Comic-Con will soon be upon us. I can only hope the company panel’s yearly theatrics don’t distract fans and journalists from voicing their disgust. Maybe a public crucifixion for those involved is the only way these studio bigwigs will learn not to make their directors feel small.

Edgar-Wright-Ant-Man