September 17, 2015
The Visit (**) PG- 13
Like an abused and unwanted pet that keeps returning to its negligent owner, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan refuses to know when to call it quits. Although the ashes leftover from the megaton bombs that were the filmmaker’s last two pictures — After Earth, The Last Airbender — continue to linger, Shyamalan has returned once again to multiplexes with The Visit. The good news is that he’s had the good sense to stay away from the big budget, sci-fi pond in which he’s been swimming for half a decade. It’s clearly a pool of water that’s way over Shyamalan’s head. The bad news is that he has nothing new to say.
It is true that The Visit is probably the best thing the once promising filmmaker has churned out in nearly a decade and a half. The 2002 film Signs was the last thing of note that garnered any sort of respect from yours truly and most of Shyamalan’s ardent followers. Still one shouldn’t get the idea that The Visit is any piece of groundbreaking and/or visionary filmmaking. Anyone that expects those kinds of things from this film will come away sorely disappointed. The budget has been scaled down and the once celebrated filmmaker is clearly being forced to rely on his imagination instead of high-end visual effects that a much larger and bloated budget clearly afforded him. It’s just a shame that The Visit ends up being the relatively pitiful trifle that it eventually becomes, succumbing to Shyamalan’s penchant for the twist ending and ending with a truly bizarre coda that is out of tone and synch with the rest of the film.
The premise does require a bit of a suspension of disbelief but not to the point that you can’t buy in to it, at least during the first act.
Kids facetime with mom in a scene from The Visit
Since this is a found footage film in the mold of the Paranormal Activity films, the film opens with a woman breaking the fourth wall and setting up the film’s premise by talking directly to the audience. The woman, only identified as Mom in the credits, is sending her two kids to spend a week with her estranged parents. She hasn’t had any contact with the parents since she left them not long after her high school graduation but now feels that reconciliation may be in the cards. Thus she sends the kids to spend the week with dear old mom and dad, whom they’ve never met.
The kids, Tyler and Becca, soon realize upon their arrival that things are not well with Nana and Pop Pop. For starters, Nana howls at the moon after the sun goes down each night and Pop Pop collects his soiled diapers in the basement and dresses in a tuxedo each morning, believing he’s going to a costume party. There’s the inevitable twist that’s a trademark of Shyamalan’s work but it’s not enough of a surprise that most astute audience members won’t see it coming way in advance.
What we’re left with is a horror film that isn’t really scary and occasional stabs at gallows humor that aren’t really funny. Apparently, Shyamalan needs to go back to the well yet again. Then again, maybe it’s best he stay away if this is the best he has to offer.
Black Mass (** ½) R
Johnny Depp is really the best thing going for the new film Black Mass, a dramatization of events in the life of notorious mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Depp’s performance may be the first one in a awhile that doesn’t require the actor to rely on mascara as part of his acting rituals and its refreshing. With his steely blue eyes — courtesy of hand painted contact lenses — and pate of thinning hair, Depp inhabits the role in a way I can’t recall the actor doing since the heady early days of his career some twenty plus years ago. It’s a performance that’s most likely going to be remembered in a couple of months when the water cooler movie talk begins to turn to discussions of Oscars and Golden Globes and such. If only his performance were enough to rescue the film from its shortcomings.
One of the major problems with Black Mass is its script. Obviously, there’s a huge story to tell in terms of Bulger and his reign of terror but the film feels like a greatest hits version of events.
Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass
There seems to be a conscious effort on the part of the writers to touch on all of the most notorious shenanigans that Bulger orchestrated during his criminal career but it never feels like it gels into a cohesive whole. The first hour of the film suffers from a real choppy feel that left me wondering how much footage hit the cutting room floor and if some of that footage and a longer running time might have made the film more involving. There are some great scenes in the midst of the film to be sure but it’s a classic case of the film’s parts being better than the whole.
The narrative opens in 1975 as Bulger is beginning his eventual rise to the top, killing his rivals and literally climbing over their lifeless bodies, in his ascent to the upper echelons of the underground criminal world. Bulger is somewhat protected by his politically connected brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) and so it makes sense to the FBI to utilize Bulger as an informant. Joel Edgerton is John Connolly, the agent who constantly sticks up for Bulger in spite of the constant protestations of his boss (Kevin Bacon) who insists that the inside information the department is receiving from Bulger is utterly useless. Meanwhile, Bulger continues to play both sides of his cards, running the drug trade while simultaneously remaining protected by the police under the guise of an informant.
Bulger as written in the film’s script is never really humanized in a way that I would have liked. Rudimentary scenes involving Bulger’s home life seem forced and unconvincing and don’t really seem to belong. Still, the biggest problem of all with the film is its lack of style. Had a director along the lines of Martin Scorsese chosen to tackle this material, the film probably would have been infinitely better. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) tries his best but Black Mass never really seems to catch fire in the way that it should.
Both The Visit and Black Mass are playing everywhere in North Carolina.
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