The Visit

VisitDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn

After 2002’s Signs, a director named M. Night Shyamalan went into a tailspin the likes of which have not been seen since, well, the star of Signs, Mel Gibson.  Of course, Shyamalan’s tailspin was creative in nature, while Gibson’s was…well the opposite.  Six films have borne the Shyamalan name since 2002, each literally worse than the previous.  Fast forward to 2015.  Fox airs a little “event” series on Thursday nights called Wayward Pines adapted, produced, and occasionally directed by Shyamalan that aired over the summer and ended up being a modest hit.  Now with The Visit, Shyamalan strikes while the iron’s hot, delivering his best film in 13 years and combined with Wayward Pines, successfully reminding us of what a talent he really is.

The Visit represents both a return to form as well as a departure for the eccentric director.  First, after multiple flops in the science fiction genre, Shyamalan returns to what put him on the map – scares.  However, no doubt inspired by his producing partners Blumhouse Productions – the company that produced Paranormal Activity– this is Shyamalan’s first “found footage” style film.  Like mockumentary television comedies, I think the sun is quickly setting on the “found footage horror film,” but Shyamalan manages to pull it off here with a personally financed lightning fast production that took 25 crew members 30 days to shoot.

The Visit follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge) as she determines to film a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) first encounter with their estranged grandparents whom they’ve never met.  Now adolescents, Becca and Tyler have finally decided to start a dialogue with their mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn) that revealed a mysterious falling out had occurred between Paula and her parents.  Consequently, Becca forces her mother to arrange a visit so that she and Tyler can finally meet their grandparents, with a covert agenda that Paula can take a much deserved cruise with her serious boyfriend, Robert (Benjamin Kanes).

Becca and Tyler get their wish and with video camera in hand, they arrive by train somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, greeted by grandparents John (Peter McRobbie), and Dorris (Deanna Dunagan).  Becca and Tyler are driven to their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse where they expect to spend a week getting to know each other and making family memories.  On the surface, all seems to be on the up and up, except for two rules John and Dorris have for the kids: 1.  Don’t go in the basement and 2.  Don’t leave your room after 9:30 PM.  These two rules act as the catalyst for the film’s simple yet unrelenting tension.  What’s outside the bedroom door?  What’s that sound?  What’s in the basement?  You’ll have to see the film to find out.

The Visit capitalizes on simple, primal fear.  It is a potboiler that while effective, still does not quite measure up when compared to Shyamalan’s early work.  However, the film is a major step in the right direction for the auteur who like his Sixth Sense protagonist, was in danger of permanently fading from the public eye (and don’t give me that spoiler alert garbage, it was 1999!).  As a critic, The Visit does little to affect my annual lament about the lack of inspired, diverse, original content in the horror genre.  Still, it does offer some good scares and a reasonably effective twist.  Also Oxenbould is fantastic as the younger brother, Tyler.  The infusion of humor that Tyler’s character brings to the film is perhaps its greatest achievement.  While most horror films tend to feel like clones of others, The Visit does attempt to cross genres not unlike the Evil Dead sequels or Gremlins.  Shyamalan still has something left to prove, but now at least we’re much more interested in watching him try.  B

The Visit is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.    

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Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta ComptonDirector: F. Gary Gray

Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti

When one considers the characteristics of the “movie musical,” things like big, grand orchestrated song and dance numbers and big set pieces often spring to mind. Conversely, crack houses, the L.A. riots, and hip hop music are not usually the first things associated with the genre. Nonetheless, the genre of musical cinema, in its simplest terms, explores characters who engage with music in a way that reveals something about them. And it is within these terms that I suggest the new biopic Straight Outta Compton, about hip-hop group N.W.A., is most certainly a movie musical!

Now Straight Outta Compton may not have big song and dance numbers or big set pieces, but the film is most certainly big. Its ambitions are big, its cast is big, its running time is big, and currently sitting at number one for its third week in a row – its box office is big. The film opens with a tense drug deal gone wrong where Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) narrowly escapes an unsatisfied customer and the LAPD. Director F. Gary Gray then takes us on a quick tour of the city of Compton via introductions of the other four soon-to-be members of N.W.A. including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins). Compton has its nails dug into each of these boys one way or another, but if there’s one thing the streets have taught them, it’s that their stories are worth telling. What follows is a fairly conventional rise to and fall from fame story, complete with corrupt managers like Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), struggles with the excess that come from success, and acts of retribution by those who have been wronged.

The element that makes this film rise above the conventional is, of course, the music. Like any good musical, the songs play a role as big as any character. The evolution of the group’s most famous anthems are well documented and the group’s cause against the corrupt and downright racist establishment that they have been victimized by is “expressed” with great care. I found myself engrossed in the way this film presented the record business. Many films have depicted the rise of the music artist and the corporate paradox between the money and the art, but Straight Outta Compton shows how unique that process is for Rap and Hip-Hop, especially for a group that was such a trailblazer. It is in this facet that Straight Outta Compton is most impressive. Also, keep an eye out for “cameos” from some of the other key players on the scene as street rap started taking off.

On the other hand, the genre of street rap is admittedly not very “woman friendly” and the same can be said about this film. Female characters are few, far between, shallow, and flat (in the character development sense). Recently, Dr. Dre made a public apology to the women he has hurt, and while much of his misogyny is rather glossed over in the film, the tone is undeniably present with what little dealings with women the film displays. This is not a new criticism when it comes to the latest blockbusters (see my San Andreas review or any Transformers film for more evidence), but a desensitization is emerging. Maybe it’s not a film like Straight Outta Compton’s job to start swinging the pendulum the other way, but that doesn’t excuse the gauche factual omissions that consequently rebrand these men as complete saints.

Still, Straight Outta Compton is successful mostly due to its confidence, which its principle subjects have in spades. The cast captures the spirit of these “boyz in the hood” to an almost eerie degree, and there are some great decisions made in the way that the music is featured. Ice Cube said, “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.” While we may not be dealing with the whole truth here, Straight Outta Compton does give you a little truth, so go crazy! B+

Straight Outta Compton is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.