Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: "The Visit"

Time turns on, whether we acknowledge it or no. In my mind M. Night Shyamalan is still the young wunderkind who dazzles us with dark, artful dodges of cinematic confection, the master of mind-rocking plot twists. He feints here, we look there, he wallops us backside of the head, and we are grateful.

Of course, Shyamalan's star has been falling almost since it first shone, his punches becoming more telegraphed and his storytelling frameworks ever more rickety. Alerted to the certainty of a surprise, audiences got better at sniffing them out beforehand.

People began to greet the arrival of his films not with anticipation but a sigh of awaited disappointment. His last two forays were into big-budget science fiction, a place where he knows the words but not the music, and the results spoke for themselves.

So here we are in the second week of September, filmdom's arid purgatory, and Shyamalan is back in his familiar territory of dread-filled mysteries with a supernatural bent. The setup is that two precocious teens are meeting their grandparents for the first time, staying a week at their remote Pennsylvania farm, and the oldsters turn out to be a bit strange, and then more than a bit.

It's an intriguing premise, and the actors playing the grandparents, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, are sly and scary, and even silly when called for. The kids aren't bad, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, though memories of Haley Joel Osment leave most child actors seeming a pale gossamer.

The movie's biggest failing is falling back on the now-moldy canard of "found footage." We're expected to believe that everything in the film was shot by the characters as they experienced it. It was a groundbreaking idea in 1999 when "The Blair Witch Project" first did it, subsequently copied endlessly, with more recent iterations including the "Paranormal Activity" series and "Unfriended."

Of course, the question at hand is always why the people keep filming themselves when they're being chased by a witch or chainsaw-wielding madman or whatever. Shyamalan's footage looks way too polished and high-definition to be the jittery recordings of teen amateurs, so the effect never really takes hold. It ends up seeming like a tacked-on gimmick.

Here, the 15-year-old, Becca (DeJonge), is a budding filmmaker who's making a documentary about meeting their grandparents, and also discovering what caused the terrible break between them and her mother (a vibrant Kathyry Hahn) years ago. The days are announced in title cards, with what we're seeing consisting of what was shot the day before as the girl edits it.

Becca's brother, Tyler (Oxenbould), is a 13-year-old wannabe rapper whose slams are mostly theoretical boasts about his finesse with girls and sports. In reality he's a bucktoothed loner who froze up during his last game in peewee football.

They all settle in for a nice week at Nana and Pop Pop's big country house, with the only rule being that the kids are not to leave their room after 9:30 at night. Of course they do, and observe grandma acting strangely, scampering about in her nightie (or less), moaning and vomiting. Grandpa explains that this is "sundowning," a common malady of the elderly in which they become agitated during the transition from day to night.

She also cooks a lot, and has the unfortunate habit of asking Becca to physically climb into the oven -- all the way, dear! -- to clean it. Could she be pinching their arms on the sly? "I have the deep darkies" is all she'll say.

Pop pop's got his own foibles. He seems preternaturally strong for a man over 70, heaving hay bales like Styrofoam packing. He avoids looking people in the eye, gets confused easily, accosts strangers he imagines are following him, and tells unnerving tales of glimpsing "a white thing with yellow eyes" in the factory, but nobody believed him.

Things go on from there, which obviously I'll not reveal. Here Shyamalan is consciously working against the audience's expectations, not trying to hide the fact a big twist is coming but keeping us guessing about what form it'll take.

"The Visit" is engaging enough as a mood piece, more about generating a pervading sense of dread than truly scaring us. If this is to be Shyamalan's last shot as a celebrity filmmaker, he could do worse.

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