Archive for February 15, 2016

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Let’s be honest : for at least a good decade or more, the only reason to follow M. Night Shyamalan’s once-promising career (remember when Time called him “The Next Spielberg”?) has been to see just exactly how much further it can plummet. Every time he directs a new film, he seems to dig himself in a little deeper : you think The Village is going to be as bad as it gets and then he serves up Lady In The Water. Followed by The Happening. Followed by The Last Airbender. Followed by After Earth. Are you detecting a pattern yet?

Of course you are. And so is everyone else. This guy’s movies just keep getting worse, and not just by small steps, but by leaps and goddamn bounds. Clearly, he seems to be following some sign that says “this way to rock bottom,” and that sign keeps moving further and further down the pit as he chases it. Maybe a change of strategy is in order.

Enter 2015’s The Visit — a film that I admit I skipped when it hit theaters but recently watched via our cable company’s “on-demand” streaming service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal now) — which represents exactly that. No more big stars and big budgets. No more big concepts and big effects. Just a simple, bare-bones, “found footage” horror flick —produced by Jason Blum’s factory for same, BlumHouse productions — that is about as far-removed from “wannabe-blockbuster” territory as you can get. And, whaddya know, all in all it’s pretty good stuff.

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The story is pretty simple : amateur filmmaker Becca (played by Olivia DeJonge) and her would-be rapper younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going away for a week to meet their estranged grandparents, who they just call Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), for the first time while their freshly-divorced/abandoned mother (Kathryn Hahn) heads off on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The family sort of tore itself apart when the grandparents made it clear they didn’t approve of the older man their daughter was marrying, but when he turned out to be every bit the piece of shit they had warned her that he was, rather than saying “I told you so,” all they wanted to do was finally get to spend some time with their now-teenage grandkids, and so our youthful ostensible “stars” are off to a farmhouse in BF Pennsylwania while mom takes in the Caribbean.

Things seem absolutely swell at first, but pretty soon gramps’ and grams’  weird “house rules” come into play : Don’t go in the basement. Don’t leave your room after 9:30. Don’t mind grandma’s scratching on the walls and puking in the hallway.  Climb inside the oven when we ask you to clean it. That sort of thing. And as the week goes on, events only get stranger and stranger.

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Credit where it’s due : all four leads in this film do a super job, and that’s absolutely essential for a character-driven story like this. Shyamalan has always been big on the morality lectures and they’re as unsubtle here as ever, but even when the story starts to lag in the middle thanks to his proselytizing our principal actors are able to see us through the lull and carry us into the film’s frenetic final act. Dunagan and McRobbie are staggeringly kind and creepy in equal measure, and their performances seem even more impressive once Shyamalan hits us with his customary — and, in this case, surprisingly reality-based given his track record/pedigree — “big revelation” about them, and the kids, who easily could (and probably by all rights should, especially Tyler) come off as annoying little shits are actually quite likable and, dare I say it, even charming.  You’re going to like everybody in The Visit — even the people who confuse and scare you. That’s pretty damn remarkable right there.

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And what the hell — I’ve enjoyed hating Shyamalan over the years almost as much as I’ve enjoyed hating Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, but maybe it’s time to let that go. I already mentioned that his moralizing is as heavy-handed as ever here, and yeah, that’s still fucking annoying, but he’s concocted a really involving and unassuming film here that wins you over pretty quickly and rewards your trust with an extremely satisfying payoff.

The Visit, then, perhaps shows us the M. Night Shymalan that could have been and could hopefully still be : a guy who’s more suited to being the next Rod Serling than he is the next Steven Spielberg and who’s more at home telling tales of the inexplicable, uncanny and unthinkable that happen in our own homes and towns rather than on other worlds or in other dimensions or whatever the hell. If the relative critical and commercial success of this film gets him back on Hollywood’s “A list” and Warner Brothers or 2oth Century Fox or whoever shows up at his doorstep with millions of dollars and an offer to direct the next Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise blockbuster, I hope he’ll have the good sense to say “thanks, but no thanks.” We know what he’s good at, and it isn’t that sort of thing — it’s this sort of thing.

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So, I’m looking around online for an image of the poster for director Iain Softley’s 2015 BlumHouse-distributed horror flick Curve and I notice that all of them have that little “bonus :  a twisted alternate storyline” blurb on them, which tells me that not only was this thing released straight to video (since I’m assuming the “bonus alternate storyline” is some sort of Blu-ray/DVD extra), but that there was never even any intention of giving it any sort of theatrical play, even as a limited release or a one-off screening, given that a “proper” movie poster, complete with credits, is usually done up for films that are going to get some action on the festival circuit or, at the very least, a single-showing “premier” at a rented theater in LA. Hell, poster mock-ups of some sort are usually done even for films where the distributor/production company might be considering having a “one-and-done” screening. The fact that one was apparently never made for Curve, then, tells me that BlumHouse knew exactly what they had on their hands here from the outset — and so should we.

I’ll confess right out of the gate that I saw this thing on Netflix and therefore can’t comment on this whole “alternate storyline” thing, but I will say this much : whatever it is, it has to be better than the film itself, because while Curve is in no way especially awful, it most certainly is one of the most formulaic, “cookie-cutter,” by-the-numbers “survival horror” movies you’ll ever see, and fades from memory more or less the instant the end credits stop rolling — assuming you even make it that far.

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Our set-up goes as follows : idealistic young lovebird Mallory Rutledge (played by Julianne Hough) is moving cross-country to Denver to marry the man of her dreams when a phone conversation with her sister, Ella (Penelope Mitchell) plants the “wild hair” idea in her mind to go and check out the Grand Canyon. Out of the blue, though, her rental truck up and dies in the middle of nowhere and, lo and behold, she can’t get any cell phone service to call for help. Never fear, though : a handy young drifter who knows his way around an engine named Christian Laughton (Teddy Sears, perhaps best known as Jay Garrick on TV’s The Flash) is there to lend assistance, and Mallory offers him a lift in exchange for his “Good Samaritan” routine once he’s got them all “road-ready” again. The ride goes south pretty quickly, though, once Christian starts talking dirty to her, pulls a knife, and orders her to take them to the nearest fleabag motel, and Mallory, upstanding young lady of virtue that she is, figures her best bet is to intentionally run off the road and hope that, I dunno, she lives, he dies, and she can crawl her way to safety.

Okay, so it’s not the best plan, but it’s all she’s got — and it meets with a mixed level of what passes for “success” when she wakes up to find herself still among the living, but with her leg trapped under all manner of vehicular wreckage and her would-be “suitor” nowhere to be found. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt, so presumably he was thrown either clear or to his doom, but will she live long enough to find out if he’s still both out there and in any condition to stalk her? Blazing desert heat, a bum leg, numerous internal injuries, and a foggy head are enough to contend with in and of themselves, especially in the middle of fucking nowhere, but throw in a revenge-hungry psychopath and your odds of making it to sundown become even slimmer.

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If all of this sounds almost atrociously familiar, rest assured that Softley — who proved with The Skeleton Key that he’s capable of directing a good horror film — does nothing to dispel that feeling as he methodically goes about his lackluster business here. Admittedly, Kimberly Lofstrom Johnson’s script doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with, but he’s so clearly phoning it in here (wait! I thought there was no service?) that you’re to be congratulated for your perseverance if you don’t start tuning this out at about the 30-minute mark. Sears makes for a convincing-enough predator in the early going, but when he’s (mostly) absent and the film starts depending almost entirely on Hough to carry it, well — she struggles, let’s just leave it at that.

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And, I must confess, I’m struggling a bit myself to think of anything else to say about Curve. If it were standing in the middle of the road, I’d do whatever I could to avoid it, even if it meant throwing my car off an embankment and taking my chances.