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

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When Criticism Becomes Agenda-Setting: In Defense of “After Earth”

AfterEarthSCREENCAP13I need to take a moment here to acknowledge an alarming trend in critic circles spurred by May’s After Earth. I’m currently writing my review of the film for the Erie Reader (check out my work so far here), when I started seeing some pretty disturbing reviews of the film online, and from mostly respectable critics. Amongst a sea of ridiculous, trivial complaints for what I’m calling Shyamalan’s best film since Unbreakable, one general comment in particular stood out above the rest:

“Worst sci-fi movie since Battlefield Earth.”

It’s a comment spearheaded by two articles posted on The Hollywood Reporter, claiming the film to be “scientology propaganda.”

No. That is a heinously outlandish claim that deserves to be fought against in the hardest way possible. I’ll direct you to Roger Ebert’s response to the backlash of his negative Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review, wherein the critic described a fine line between, “we don’t agree, but you’re entitled to your opinion,” and “you’re wrong.” Though the scenario is reversed, the principle very much applies. I’m calling out these so-called critics. To anyone who truly believes After Earth is even minutely comparable to Battlefield Earth in terms of quality: you are wrong. You are horribly, horribly wrong. You are no more right than an internet troll who claims Iron Man was the worst comic book movie since Batman & Robin. And you should be ashamed for writing as much.

The truth is, from what I can gather, it seems critics went in, guns loaded, looking for ways to slander Shyamalan, Smith, his 14-year-old son, and their film in any possible way, including naturally scouring the film for any and all connections, however fleeting, to Scientology, just based on Smith’s reported beliefs. And apart from now completely losing my readership, The Hollywood Reporter has done quite a lot to purport its message as truth, even bringing in a “former scientologist” to back up its claims. And really, what better ploy to hurt After Earth commercially then to claim its star is somehow conspiring to use his latest film as propaganda? That’s right folks, lock your doors, Will Smith is trying to brainwash your children!

But let’s address some of the more, shall we say, legitimate critiques of the film first.

Quite a few reviews have called Will Smith’s acting wooden, a wholly ridiculous claim. Smith’s performance was excellent, a surprising sign of maturation from an actor most known for his comic relief. His stoic, stern mannerisms in After Earth are a part of the performance – he’s playing a hard-ass army commander who has learned to control and suppress his fear. So if the performance calls for that level of restraint, what’s the problem? Sure, the criticism might be legitimate if Smith weren’t a proven, capable actor whose considerable abilities weren’t well known. But even then, the film clearly called for a restrained performance, something which should also dispel many critics’ whining that the film is “humorless.” Yes, because when I go to see a movie from the director of The Sixth Sense, I’m expecting a laugh riot. Excluding, of course, the unintentional hilarity of The Happening.

I’ve also seen complaints about the dialogue in the film.  Yet this is a sci-fi film; nobody complains about the ridiculous dialogue of, say, Star Wars, because not only are the line readings excellent, but the fact that the dialogue seems so removed from present-day dialect really helps transport the viewer into that galaxy far, far, away. The same applies to After Earth – near-otherworldly dialect, or “bad” writing, whatever you want to call it, actually works in the film’s favor.

Critics have also flung accusations of nepotism onto the elder Smith, with in reality, the film plays all the better with the inclusion of the real-life relationship, acting as a heartfelt, emotional passing-of-the-torch between father and son, within and outside of the context of the film. Would critics have preferred some other, random 14-year-old African-American child to replace Jaden? Why, when Jaden is clearly perfectly capable of carrying the role himself? He’s a bit rough around the edges, sure, but he’s certainly got potential, something which again works in the film’s favor, given its subject matter about a boy coming of age.

Finally, we have the rather complicated issue that The Hollywood Reporter has graciously presented us with, that somehow After Earth is comparable to Battlefield Earth and contains several connections to Scientology. This is where legitimate criticism of the film itself ends and sensationalism begins. It’s also the kind of thing that gives film criticism a bad name – there’s nothing wrong with giving a film its day in court and reacting negatively, but when you’re trashing a film based on its star’s belief system, you’ve ceased to criticize. You’re now spearheading an agenda.

Let’s first point out that the articles namedrop Tom Cruise’s Oblivion as also bearing traits in common with Scientology. So we’re to believe that literally any time an actor with connections to the group stars in a sci-fi film, that the film is automatically “propaganda” for said group? Sounds fair…

The Reporter article provides some “evidence” of the film’s Scientology connection, citing elements such as the volcano, present in a single shot of the film, as a common image in the religion. What the article doesn’t acknowledge is that, believe it or not, volcanoes aren’t exactly limited to Scientologist imagery. Hell, just look at the hero’s journey, which sees the hero travel to hell and back, a quest which often manifests itself as a literal hell with fire and brimstone. Could this volcano not represent Hades, or Hell, or any other cave/underworld for which the hero to enter and overcome? My point is, every bit of “evidence” from the film the Reporter argues is derived from Scientology – the white uniforms, shapes of spacecraft, etc. – can just as easily be tied to any other religion or mythology. So what if Will Smith is a Scientologist? Director M. Night Shyamalan went to Catholic and Episcopal schools, and is Buddhist. I’d like to think the guy knows a thing or two about the commonalities between religions. Is it so far-fetched to believe After Earth shares many spiritual tropes with mythology/religion in general, not just Scientology? And are we really claiming that Shyamalan agreed to use his soulful directorial talents to helm a fucking Scientology commercial? Seriously?

This is of course ignoring the fact that After Earth is a good film regardless of its potential religious ties. Which is why I’m so offended by the Battlefield Earth comparison – that film is regarded as one of the worst ever made, not because of its connection to Scientology, but because it was so poorly made. Barring the films sharing a genre and the second word of their titles, After Earth is, again, not even remotely comparable. So with the stigma Scientology has in society, the Reporter has, intentionally or not (likely the former), driven people away from After Earth, thereby robbing it of a chance to be fairly evaluated and appreciated by the public. Essentially, After Earth, a film which a lot of talented people clearly worked very hard on, is now the victim of a Scientology witch hunt.

Eek! A Scientologist! BURN HIM!

And really, dismissing any film because of the belief system of its cast and crew is childish, textbook xenophobia that has no place in respectable journalism. Far be it from me to defend Scientology, but there’s something to be said when a news organization is plugging their own divisive, rabble-rousing agenda over legitimate analysis. Here’s a thought: how about just letting people believe what they want to believe?

My point is twofold: Not only does After Earth have zero concrete evidence of Scientologist propaganda, but attacking Scientology to get at a film just because you didn’t like it is wrong, wrong, wrong. As is prolonging further misunderstanding and disdain for peoples with different beliefs, for that matter. I feel truly sorry for the people involved in the making of After Earth, their efforts now thankless in part due to the misinformation spread by certain critics. But not by me; I maintain that the film is rich in spirituality, a smart, solid sci-fi blockbuster with more heart than most other films released thus far in the year.

And, most importantly, it deserves to be seen and appreciated by a fair, unbiased audience.

To sum up, let’s look at a couple comments from the article that were clearly more informed than the articles themselves:

Says Angelo Barovier:

So, let’s say the movie intentionally uses themes from Scientology and is either propagandist or just preachy. Is it still an entertaining sci-fi film? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was steeped in Christendom but it was still thoroughly entertaining. Everything from The Exorcist to Bruce Almighty all hit their marks regardless of the source of their content.

So, are we just being spiteful and ruining a chance at quality entertainment or is the movie just not enjoyable?

And another comment from KeepOnLearning:

Plan on seeing it! Worth it as a good sci-fi romp.

And if you don’t like a movie with any philosophical or life message, stick to TV cartoons. OOPS! Even they are rife with helpful and usable moral lessons. But no one complains about them.

Yet pot-head and psych-med shills complain about anything that can be tangentially connected to Scientology.

OR…they could step back and ask, “Do those life lessons actually make sense? Do we need an occasional reminder in those directions?”

Naah. That’s too much like honesty.

Bingo.