Sunday, October 11, 2015

“99 Homes” - …to evict people from. 99 Homes on the block. Evict them now. Move to the next. 98 Homes to evict people from.

Is it okay that I’m being glib about a movie containing realistic depictions of people being evicted from their homes? On the one hand, it’s really sad and depressing to watch people go through that. On the other hand, it’s just a movie. Well, you know what they say – when life gives you lemons, punch life in the throat for giving you the worst fruit you can think of. At least, that’s the lesson Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) tries to impart on Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in 99 Homes.

In all seriousness, eviction is something that I (and nearly every other homeowner) worry about. Nothing so drastic as keeping me up at night – I’m fortunate enough to have a steady income and a wife with a steady income as well, but there’s an occasional tickle every now and then where I can’t help but think of the worst case scenario. This movie brings life to that tickle and it doesn’t discriminate between race or social class in showing us who gets evicted. I wouldn’t call it a horror movie, but it does more to induce nightmares than most typical horror flicks do.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Dennis Nash is a construction worker who lives with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) and Dennis is struggling to pay the bills and keep up with the house mortgage. When his current job abruptly ends, he is unable to find more work and finds himself in court, desperate to keep the bank from foreclosing and evicting his family. Obviously, he fails and finds himself and family ousted from their home by the Orlando police and real estate agent, Rick Carver. Carver’s business model is representing the banks who own the loans, executing the evictions, and flipping the houses for a profit. Quickly thereafter, Dennis finds himself working for Rick, whom Dennis essentially wanted dead just a day earlier. Carver sees someone he can manipulate in Dennis, but also sees in him someone that can increase Carver’s profits. Dennis gets a crash course in Carver’s operations and soon finds himself as the guy everybody, including himself, hates – the repo man.

While this movie steers away from over-dramatizing the eviction run-ins, it does a fantastic job of displaying a few different scenarios. There are deadbeats, there are defeated families, there are rational people, there are old people verging on Alzheimer’s, there are people who threaten violence, and there are people who sabotage the house prior to leaving (this particular scene is so good you can almost smell what they did – that’s all I’ll say). But all of them have one thing in common – they all just need a little more time and the desperation is palpable. After about five minutes of this (and that’s just the beginning), I was more uncomfortable than a scientist in a room full of creationists. And it wasn’t just because of the situations; it was because Michael Shannon was awesome.

Besides his legitimate business practices, Carver is fully engaged in questionable/illegal activities to keep him ahead in the real estate game. Among his shady practices, he has figured out ways to scam Fannie Mae out of money in the form of reimbursements (he steals appliances from the homes, gets reimbursed for new appliances, then just reinstalls the stolen ones) and is constantly driving around looking for signs of distressed homeowners so he can expedite their evictions. Shannon delivers one of the sleaziest characters on screen since Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler and a much more frightening character than his General Zod in Man of Steel.

Speaking of bad superhero movies, Garfield also redeems himself after the dismal Amazing Spider-Man movies (despite what some people say, he was not a good Spider-Man). Unlike in those past films, Garfield is given good writing and asked to actually, you know, act. Throughout the film, Dennis is visibly disturbed by what he is doing to take care of his family. It’s a little like the way Walter White started out before he saw nothing but dollar signs, but without all the murder and meth. Dennis can’t sleep at night, he’s looking over his shoulder, and doing everything he can to not feel emotions for the evictees, all while Carver is molding him into a version of Carver himself. Garfield does such a good job of emoting that you end up feeling the same emotions as him, right up until the credits role.

The best thing about this movie is that it doesn’t take a hard political line on the topic. In fact, it does a really good job of balancing between people who sympathize with evictees and don’t think they should lose their homes and people who say “tough shit – that is the consequence of borrowing and not paying back” (comment trolls would call them liberal democrats and conservative republicans, respectively – or something much less respectful). The scene that really hits this dichotomy home is in one of the lessons Carver is bestowing on Dennis in which Carver simultaneously rants against the homeowners for doing stupid things like financing enclosed patios and borrowing too much money and the banks for doing stupid things like loaning money to those people and other people who can’t possibly pay it back.

While I think this was a very good movie with two fantastic performances from Garfield and Shannon, I will never watch this movie again. That’s not a backhanded compliment or me being glib again – that’s just how uncomfortable this movie made me. Like American History X and Requiem for a Dream, it’s on my list of movies that I would recommend everybody sit through only once…because that amount of cringing in one showing is enough for ten.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and try to get a good night’s sleep.

Friday, October 2, 2015

“The Martian” – Fictional humans on Mars is better than nothing.

A friend and I were chatting about space stuff, and one of the things we discussed was NASA’s current estimate of launching a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030’s. She was crestfallen when I said “no chance” and explained to her why that’s a pipe dream. (We were supposed to have a replacement for the space shuttle by 2010 – which is now estimated for 2024 – and that was just for lifting astronauts to the International Space Station just 250 miles above the Earth, as opposed to the roughly 35 million miles to Mars. You do the math.) So, both of us will most likely be dead before that ever happens (and I’m still in my thirties). The closest she and I will get to seeing that achievement is by watching movies like The Martian.

There are many movies that are easy comparisons to The Martian. Gravity, Apollo 13, Red Planet – really, any space movie in which disaster strikes and the character(s) must survive an impossible situation. (Castaway is an appropriate comparison as well). The one thing that differentiates The Martian from those other films is that The Martian doesn’t take itself so seriously. That’s not a complaint about those other films, but it’s what makes The Martian feel like a breath of fresh air (and a sorely needed one in this genre). It’s nice sitting through a movie in which characters aren’t hyperventilating every other scene or playing tic-tac-toe to decide which button she should push because the writer or director was too lazy to make the character smarter than an airlock.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead and, also, he dies at the end. Or not. Gotcha.)

Matt Damon plays the title character, astronaut Mark Watney. He and his team are on the surface of Mars when a massive storm forces them to evacuate to the relative safety of space. While making their way toward their escape rocket, Mark is hit by a piece of debris that destroys his health monitor, renders him unconscious, and knocks him out of visual range of the rest of the crew. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to leave him for dead in order to save the rest of the crew and they all leave the planet. When Mark awakes, he is alone, but his suit is intact and their habitat survived the storm. Since you are an intelligent movie goer, you immediately begin to list problems because you understand that (a) the ship cannot turn around because they don’t have the supplies to do that and still make it back to Earth alive, (b) the shortest current travel time to Mars is eight months, so Mark must survive at least that long, and (c) how long can Mark survive in the habitat given there is most definitely not enough food and water to last even the minimum eight months? Those are all good points and I’m not going to address any of them because I think you should pay money to watch this film.

But I will tell you a little bit about the characters, which will give some hints as to what happens. For starters, Mark is a botanist and the previews show him growing stuff. Part of the fun of this movie is how he solves problems like that, so from now until you see this movie, see if you can figure out how he does that (and, no, there are no plants of any kind already growing in the habitat prior to the disaster). Going back to what I said earlier, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, so Mark is presented as a rational, level-headed, non-panicky guy trying to make the best out of the worst possible situation imaginable. Much of the movie is presented as him speaking to recording devices throughout the habitat and we see him making light of situations, thinking and talking out problems and solutions, and choosing the exact right moments to cuss. It’s the perfect way to present this movie because there is always tension in the background (you are always waiting for something to go wrong), but is overshadowed by Mark’s resiliency.

The crew is presented the same way, but the five of them are really the equivalent of one character. Captain Lewis is the brain, the serious leader who must make all the hard choices. Martinez (Michael Pena) is the mouth, providing the comic relief. Johanssen (Kate Mara) is the heart, balancing the voices of reason with the voices of emotion. Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Vogel (Aksel Hennie) are the limbs, providing feedback to the body, but mostly just doing what they are asked. While it seems like they should have a bigger role in the movie (considering their acting chops), they are minor supporting characters. And, of course they are, they’re on their way home – what can they do?

The major supporting characters are the folks at NASA who are trying to figure out how to keep Mark alive long enough to mount a rescue mission. The main players are Director Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and his direct reports – Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supported by a mix of managers (Sean Bean, Benedict Wong) and techies (Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong). Like the Mars crew, the NASA crew Voltron themselves (yes, I just made a verb out of Voltron) into a single entity, each character providing a different trait. The difference is Sanders, Montrose, and Kapoor have the most screen time, aside from Matt Damon, so they are much more fleshed-out than the ship crew and provide more than a single trait. The biggest surprise for me was Wiig. I normally end up despising her characters, but her Montrose was a much more likable character and her delivery was far superior than past performances (especially when delivering humor). This time, I actually wanted her character to succeed rather than die in a spontaneous mission control accident.

Besides all of that, the most enjoyable thing about the movie is the realism. Unlike the pie-in-the-sky science of Red Planet or the idiocy of Gravity’s physics, everything that happened in The Martian seems like someone thought about it for more time than it takes to toast bread. From the food to the fuel to the travelling to the air to the rescue mission solutions to the matching relative velocities, it never felt like the movie was asking me to stretch the definition of “suspend your disbelief” to the point of making my brain cry. I’m sure there is some liberty taken with the science, but if the average layperson (me) didn’t spot it without Neil Tyson DeGrasse pointing it out, then the filmmakers did a good job.

Thinking about this movie afterward, it might just be the best film I’ve seen all year. At the very least, it’s the most complete. The story is simple, thoughtful, and doesn’t have any glaring, obvious plot holes (this isn’t a surprise considering it’s based on a novel of the same name by Andy Weir. But, nice adaptation by Drew Goddard). The visuals are wonderful and even the 3-D was better than usual, providing some amazing depth and color (though I did learn a tip for 3-D viewing, you must sit dead center on the screen – I know, duh, right?). Matt Damon nails his performance, as do the make-up and costume guys (I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned them before, but it had to be said here). But most importantly, it’s a movie you’ll want to watch many times over, because besides being a great movie, at this point, the zombie apocalypse is going to happen before we see an actual human on Mars.

Rating: You definitely underpaid for this movie. Even if you paid twice.

Friday, September 25, 2015

“Everest” – Don’t go up there.

There are some risks that I am willing to take – watching the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie, trying my friend’s latest red chile, using the bathroom after my brother after he ate that red chile. Then, there are risks that I won’t take – watching the latest Melissa McCarthy movie, trying my wife’s latest quiche, using the bathroom after my wife ate that quiche (just kidding – love you!). But there also are risks that nobody should take and that list begins with climbing Mount Everest (it ends with using the bathroom after Gary Busey, ever).

At one point during Everest, one of the characters (Michael Kelly) ask the rest of the team why they are climbing Mount Everest. It’s a very interesting question, and the movie does pretty much everything it can to avoid having its characters answer it. It’s hard to blame the writers, though, because there is pretty much only one reason – narcissism – and that makes it harder for the audience to sympathize with characters. There is no monetary or physical reward and since it’s been done before, nobody is going to make a big deal out of it or remember that you did it outside of people who already know you. So, the only thing you get out of it is bragging rights and $65,000 less in your bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an amazing physical achievement, but then so is the ability to eat sixty-nine hot dogs in ten minutes (which is also on the list of risks you should never take).

Everest is based on an event that happened in 1996 when several teams of climbers tried to summit Mount Everest at the same time. The film focuses on two groups, one led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and the other led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), that end up teaming together for their final ascent, but meeting with disaster. Now, before you get all huffy about spoilers, I promise I won’t tell you who lives or dies. I purposely avoided watching previews and reading anything about the actual event for that same reason. But, if going into this film you aren’t expecting some of them to die, you should know the movie begins by telling the audience that one out of four people who try to climb Everest die. In other words, you will spend the movie trying to guess which of them will become corpsicles. In case you think I’m being glib, it’s 100% true that the bodies of people who die while climbing Mount Everest are left there. As Hall puts it during an early briefing to his team, “your body will literally be dying” as you try to climb. There is simply no way the living can drag bodies down without dying themselves.

Since there’s nothing more to the plot than that, let’s go back to that WHY question for a moment. Among Hall’s team who kinda, sorta answer the question are:

• Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) – a rich Texan who says he only feels alive when he is climbing and not when he is with his wife and kids. If there is one character in this movie you won’t sympathize with, it’s him.
• Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) – an ordinary man who works multiple mundane jobs to make ends meet. He says he is doing it to show a classroom full of kids that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. This is one of those times when kids should heed the advice, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In other words, achieve extraordinary things, but some of you will definitely die if you try to climb Everest.
• Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) – a Japanese woman who has climbed to the highest point on every continent except Asia. She is the ultimate hoarder, er…collector.

As you can see, it’s a little difficult to root for any of those people, even Doug because this is his second shot at it (I’m sorry, but he’s not just doing it for the kids at this point). That leaves us with Fischer and Hall, both of whom lead expeditions as their business. On one hand we have Fischer, who previously worked with Hall, but broke off on his own. He’s a great climber, but he drinks and takes unnecessary risks in the worst possible place to do either, so he’s out. On the other hand we have Hall. He has a pregnant wife at home (Keira Knightley) and is considered the best in the business. But he has a fatal flaw in that he’s a little too nice – covering people’s satellite phone expenses and not forcing clients to turn around when he absolutely knows better. You can forgive him for the first one, but the second one can get people killed. If not for the pregnant wife, it would be hard to root for him as well.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, not answering the WHY question is the biggest problem with this film. But, the good news is that everything else about the movie is very good. The pacing is done very well as the movie slowly moves us closer and closer to the final ascent and descent by precluding it with scenes of the climbers acclimating to the environment (or not, in some of their cases). It builds good relationships between the characters and does an exceptional job of not giving obvious hints as to who doesn’t make it back down. Even better, the special effects are top notch and the views we see are amazing. It’s definitely worth a viewing on the Imax, though without the 3-D if you can find it (unless you are sitting just right, 3-D loses the depth that this movie is touting).

When we walked out of the theater, some people were crying but I wasn’t one of them. Like I said, I think it’s an amazing feat, but I’m not going to feel bad for anyone who dies trying to do something so hilariously dangerous when the only benefit is their name on a plaque. At least the hot dog guys win a prize for their achievement and the next people to try it don’t have to step over their frozen bodies.

Rating: Despite the tone of this review, I do think it was a pretty good movie and that you should only ask for the 3-D surcharge money back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“Pawn Sacrifice” – My move.

I’m currently in the middle of a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen. The subtitle tells you everything you need to know about its content and the book covers a wide range of topics, including a section on heroification. Heroification is what you think it is – making a hero out of a person – and requires that anything bad about the person either be excused away or flat-out omitted. It was this section of the book that I kept thinking of while watching Pawn Sacrifice.

If you know anything about chess besides how to play it, you know that American Bobby Fischer became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating a Russian guy and that Garry Kasparov lost to a computer named Deep Blue in 1997. If you know any more than that, it’s because you are a much bigger dork than I am, and I own an American Civil War chess set. Pawn Sacrifice is a biopic about that first man – Bobby Fischer – and focuses on the time from Bobby’s childhood to the penultimate match with Boris Spassky (that Russian guy), the reigning world champion. Since this is obviously the first entry in Oscar-bait season, it’s not surprising that the film focuses much more heavily on the characters than on its own plot.

The obvious character to start with is Fischer (Tobey Maguire). Fischer is portrayed as a brilliant chess player, but a wholly unlikable human. Almost immediately into his chess career, he starts demanding things – more money, specific venues, absolute silence, among other things. In addition, he becomes more and more paranoid as time goes on. This time period being the height of the Cold War, Fischer becomes convinced that the government is spying on him; tapping every object in every house or hotel he stays in. Eventually, he starts accusing his friends (we’ll get to them in a minute) of being complicit, as well as the Jews (which is ironic because he’s Jewish). In addition, the stress of his three-year playing tour around the world (in order to be able to challenge Spassky for the world title) is exacerbating both his paranoia and demands. Like I said, he’s a very unlikable human, and Maguire does a great job in making you root against Fischer in the final showdown with Spassky.

On the flip side, Spassky (Liev Schreiber) is the opposite of Fischer. He’s cool and collected, tall and handsome, and, unlike Fischer, never comes off as cocky little asshole. But, besides chess, he does have one other thing in common with Fischer – he is certain that his Russian handlers are spying on him. He doesn’t go full-bore crazy searching for bugs like Fischer does (at one point Fischer is cutting the backs off picture frames), but he does start to exhibit little signs of paranoia, including a run-in with an office chair. Like Maguire, Schreiber does an excellent job portraying his character, and you will sympathize with Spassky as he has to put up with Fischer’s dickishness.

Speaking of putting up with Fischer, he has two friends in the entire world – Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). Marshall meets Fischer early in his career and offers to represent him as his agent. He is the guy who has to take the most shit from Fischer – he’s the guy that has to deliver Fischer’s demands and help make them happen – while also being constantly prodded by the government to make sure Fischer keeps playing until he beats the Russians. As Marshall puts it, “we lost China and we’re losing Vietnam. We can’t lose this.” If you don’t feel for Spassky by the end, you will feel for Marshall because it sure seems as if the victory for him is hollow after so many years of dealing with a Napoleonic narcissist.

Father Lombardy’s role is much fuzzier than Marshall’s. His job appears to be both babysitter and counselor, with the goal of keeping Fischer’s head just right enough to show up for his matches (and he fails more often than once). He also seems to have genuine concern for Fischer’s mental state and his only recourse is to play air chess with Fischer (they visualize the board and call out moves, but the first picture in your head was funny). As good a job as Stuhlbarg does (and Maguire and Schreiber), Sarsgaard steals the movie. There are parts of the movie that feel like he is the main character and his portrayal accomplishes the same level of sympathy as do the other actors, but with far more subtlety. It also helps (for me at least) that his character might be the least-holy priest ever portrayed in a movie, while still coming off as legitimate holy man.

The last character worth mentioning is Fischer’s sister, Joan (Lily Rabe). She has a small role, but it’s the one that introduces the flaw with this film – it feels like an unfinished game of chess itself. Through most of the movie, Joan becomes increasingly concerned for Bobby’s mental health, even to the point of talking with Marshall about it. She isn’t at all interested in the chess matches – until the last one. When Bobby wins, she leaps in joy in her living room and all concern for Bobby’s well-being is gone, never to be mentioned again. And, it’s the same with Lombardy. He actually quits the tour at one point, reluctantly returning in concern for Bobby. He even spells out the problem for Marshall – “Bobby isn’t afraid of what happens if he loses; he’s afraid of what happens if he wins.” This should have been the central question of the entire movie, but it’s tossed out the window with Joan’s concern and barely addressed as bullet points at the end of the film. Seriously, the film ends with title blocks listing a small handful of Fischer-related events, including the final score of the 24-game match with Spassky.

Do you see what I mean about heroification? The film presents Fischer as a hero of the cold war and makes Fischer’s chess game much more important than the game being played between governments and characters. They missed a chance to capitalize on the metaphor. Case in point, several scenes depict Bobby being photographed, followed by typewriter noises and the spelling out of a location and date on the screen, like a dossier of a secret agency. Yet, the film never answers the question as to whether Bobby’s paranoia was justified or if the camera was a figment of his imagination. It also treats everything that happens after the penultimate match as barely worth mentioning because virtually everything Fischer did after that (tax evasion, vagrancy, defying American embargos, to name three) are considered extremely un-American. Obviously, that book I’m reading is influencing the way I viewed this movie, but even if it wasn’t, I still would have noticed the unfinished storylines. Your move.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. As incomplete as the storylines were, the performances were fantastic.

Friday, September 18, 2015

“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” – Forget the book.

In the year that has passed since The Maze Runner was released in theaters, I’ve read a lot of books, including all four in The Maze Runner series. I’ve also read all five Game of Thrones books in that time (yes, I know they’re actually called A Song of Ice and Fire), but that’s a conversation for another day. Though, it is a fun coincidence that two GoT actors feature in The Scorch Trials (Littlefinger – Aidan Gillen; Jojen – Thomas Brodie-Sangster). The reason I bring up GoT is because one of the big complaints from some of the GoT book fanatics is that the show diverges too much from the books (they’re wrong). Well, if they think that’s bad, they should burst into flames at how much The Scorch Trials film diverged from its source material. As a friend and I agreed – the characters’ names were the same and there was, in fact, a scorch.

The Scorch Trials picks up right where the previous film left off – Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends have escaped the maze and are taken by helicopter to a distant compound. As they are exiting the helicopter, they are attacked by what appear to be fast zombies and are rushed into the compound. Inside, they find hot showers, good food, fresh clothes, and dozens of other young men and women from other mazes, and all of this run by a man named Janson (Gillen). Right away, that’s two things different from the book – fast zombies and lots of other maze people. So, if you were hoping for the film to at least start out like the book, you will be sorely disappointed.

After a couple of days at the compound, Thomas starts to get angry because they won’t let him see Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). When another boy shows Thomas a room where other maze folk are taken (they go in, but never come out), Thomas decides to break into the room to find out what’s really going on. Once in the room, we discover that this movie has ripped off The Island – Thomas discovers that instead of taking people to the safe sanctuary Janson promised, they have put them into comas and are draining a blue fluid from them that can cure the zombie disease (called The Flare). Also, they are the same organization responsible for putting them in the maze. At this point, the movie is so far away from the book that it’s not even worth mentioning anymore.

Well, actually there is one thing worth mentioning and then I swear I’ll stop. In the first movie and book, the maze is considered the first phase of tests they are running to discover a cure. The reason the second book has the word “trials” in its title is because it’s the second phase of the testing. But in the second film, they’ve completely written that out. Instead, the second film is Janson and company trying to recapture Thomas and gang (the original maze group) as they cross the desolate landscape outside of the compound. Guess what they call that landscape?

The rest of the movie is pretty generic action movie fare. The group runs into several hurdles, there’s shooting, there’s chasing, there are fast zombies trying to eat them, all while they are trying to make contact with a resistance group called “the right hand.” There isn’t much else to talk about, though I do have two observations I want to share. The first is that there is a shot of a bridge that looks like the Brooklyn Bridge and they are in a city that is definitely large. Yet, after a short walk, they are heading into some rocky mountains that are clearly taller than anything east of the Mississippi River. Either the filmmakers weren’t very concerned with location or the solar flares that caused the apocalypse were so powerful they made mountains rise up several thousand feet. This isn’t important, just something I noticed.

The second thing is that there was a very impressive bit of acting in a scene halfway through the movie. Thomas and a new girl they met in the city, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), are looking for some help at a place that can only be described as a rave. Alan Tudyk (who is as delightful as ever) runs the party, gives them something to drink, and the rest of the scene plays out with Thomas and Brenda quickly becoming fall-down drunk while searching for the man they need help from. Salazar and O’Brien do a fantastic job of convincing the viewer they really are drunk, then share one of the most passionate kisses I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s the kind of kiss that every Twilight movie was missing. Come to think of it, it was missing from The Scorch Trials book as well.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back if you haven’t read the book. If you are the kind of person that hates when movies/shows diverge from the book, you probably shouldn’t go to movies ever again.

Friday, September 11, 2015

“The Visit” – The rules are…there are no rules.

As you can see from the movie poster (and which are verbalized in the previews), The Visit has some ground rules and the third is the one that is the most heavily emphasized. If you are foolish enough to sit through another M. Night Shyamalan movie, know that you can ignore those rules because Shyamalan definitely did. You should also know that Shyamalan has fallen so far from the graces of Hollywood that he is now making found-footage flicks on shoestring budgets ($5 million), which is the nicest way to describe The Visit. The meanest way to describe it is that it is, like one of its props, a pile of shit (seriously, there are two scenes in the movie featuring poop).

(Massive SPOILERS coming, including Shyamalan’s patented twist because you should definitely not waste your time and money to see this movie.)

The premise of the movie is simple – mom (Kathryn Hahn) sends her two teenage children, Rebecca and Tyler (Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively) to spend a week with her parents, their grandparents. Something is off with the grandparents, highlighted by grandpa (Peter McRobbie) telling them that bedtime is 9:30 and they aren’t allowed in the basement because it’s moldy, and since this is a horror movie, the questions are (1) what is wrong with the grandparents, (2) how long before we see what’s in the basement, and (3) will the children survive the week? The problem is that in order for the twist to work, there have to be massive plot holes.

To begin with, mom and her parents are not on good terms. In fact, they haven’t spoken in fifteen years. So, it makes perfect sense that she would send her children to stay with people the kids have never met and whom she doesn’t like. And it also makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t even go with the kids, but rather puts them on a train heading for the Pennsylvania countryside. I mean, what teenage children wouldn’t want to hang out with two really old strangers in the middle of nowhere for a week and not even have their only parent facilitate the introduction? But it’s all okay because Rebecca is going to make a documentary in the hopes of helping the adults reconcile and Tyler is going to be there too. And don’t worry about the kids being shy around two total strangers - when they meet, the kids immediately refer to them as Nana and Pop-Pop (yes, this actually happened).

(Note: I refuse to use those names for the grandparents throughout my review because it was arguably the worst thing in a screenplay that also involved poopy diapers and vomiting.)

For the first day, everything seems normal. Grandma (Deanna Dunagan) makes food, the kids get settled in, and when it’s time for bed, grandpa tells the kids that bedtime is 9:30 because he and grandma are old. Seriously, that’s what he says. No ominous warning like the movie poster and trailer say, just “we’re old.” Because this is a clichéd horror movie and Shyamalan blew his writing wad with The Sixth Sense (fine, I‘ll give you Unbreakable – let it go already), there is absolutely no chance the kids will stay in their room for even one night. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if the warning were heeded in this type of movie? Rather than have the kids immediately do what they shouldn’t do (like every scary movie ever made), wake them up with sounds coming from the house and let them explore the next night (after more sounds) after finding signs of weirdness in the house during the day. Instead, Shyamalan chose to have Rebecca leave the room and walk to the top of the stairs, where she sees grandma puking her way across the landing.

The next three days are basically all the same. The kids discover more weird behavior, but the grandparents explain it all away as “we’re old.” And the problem is that they are right. Yes, grandma moves a little fast on all fours (she does a lot of crawling around), but everything else that is happening can definitely be attributed to senility and advanced age. Grandma loses her clothes more than once and laughs at the wall while grandpa wears adult diapers and keeps dressing up for a costume party from the past. If anything, this movie is a sad comedy about two kids stuck with crazy old coots rather than a horror flick. And, yes, that turns out to be half the twist (and the extremely predictable half) – the grandparents are crazy.

By the fourth night, the film finally starts to escalate the tension when grandma discovers the kids’ hidden camera in the living room and slams into their bedroom door while wielding a carving knife. Unfortunately, the film takes nearly its entire running time to escalate to something beyond kooky, so by this point you will be thoroughly bored. The final morning of the trip, the kids are Skype-ing with mom and they tell her to come get them. They aim the laptop camera at the grandparents and the other half of the twist is revealed – (one more time…SPOILER ALERT) – they aren’t mom’s parents. Now that that’s out of the way, the film goes into full-blown stupid horror movie clichés, such as…
• Rebecca leaves Tyler alone with the grandparents.
• Rebecca decides to investigate the basement – by herself.
• Rebecca discovers that the fake grandparents are escaped mental patients, and also discovers the dead bodies of her actual grandparents.
• While locked in a dark room with grandma, Rebecca keeps moving the light off of grandma, even though grandma appears to be paralyzed when the light is on her.
• Both kids refuse to pick up weapons during the battle with the grandparents (we literally see fire pokers and cast-iron skillets), choosing to tackle and jump on them instead.
• Wait. Rebecca did pick up a weapon – a shard of broken glass from a mirror, but decided not to keep it when she attacks grandpa.
• (Is it just me, or is Rebecca awfully stupid for a character portrayed as a super-brainy film nerd?)
• The kids overcome ridiculously specific issues (Rebecca won’t look in mirrors and Tyler freezes up during football games) to defeat the grandparents.
• Cops don’t show up until three seconds after the kids have dispatched with the grandparents even though they alerted their mom to the issue that morning.

To be fair, my immediate reaction to the film upon leaving the theater was that it was really boring, but not Shyamalan’s worst film. But on the drive home, my friend and I went from thinking it was merely a waste of time to a wretched piece of crap. Now that you know the twist, you can see how enormous a plot hole the premise itself presents and it led use to realize even more plot holes, like…
• Why is nobody in town searching for two escaped mental patients who killed their own children decades earlier?
• Why doesn’t mom tell the kids to just run from the house?
• Why does Rebecca wait three days to clean the food off the laptop camera that grandma “accidentally” put there?
• Wait – grandma was savvy enough to block one camera and find another, but not savvy enough to cut the Internet cable in the house?
• Wouldn’t the kids be able to smell the bodies of two corpses that have been rotting for at least a week?
• And my personal favorite – what kind of terrible mom sends her children to meet two strangers and doesn’t bother to show them a picture of the people they are supposed to be looking for when they get off the train?

So, yes, The Visit is a giant, boring, steaming pile of Shyamalan. It has terrible pacing, the twist is completely unnecessary, it relies on predictable jump-scare tactics to make sure the audience hasn’t fallen into a coma, and doesn’t even bother to follow its own rules. In other words, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from M. Night.

Rating: Haha, good one.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

“No Escape” – Or is there?

About halfway through No Escape, I was ready to walk out of the theater. Up to that point in the film, people were slaughtering other people with no explanation, Pierce Brosnan had vanished from the film, and the plot was nothing more than “Run, Owen, Run!” Basically, we were watching a snuff film with decent casting. The only thing keeping me in my seat was the knowledge that Brosnan had to show up at some point and, despite the seemingly pointless and definitely gratuitous violence, it was the tensest film I’d seen since 2013’s The Call. When Brosnan did finally show back up, the film finally reveals the WHY, as in “why is half the population of Laos (or Cambodia – the film intentionally omits what country this is happening in, but we know it borders Vietnam and it’s definitely not China) trying to kill Owen Wilson and his family” and I couldn’t have been more satisfied.

There’s a book called Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins that I’m pretty sure nobody in the theater had read besides me. The book is Perkins’ account of roughly thirty years working for the NSA as a consulting engineer for a firm called Chas. T. Main. He describes his job as visits to impoverished nations where he would provide inflated economic forecasts in order to convince them to borrow huge sums of money to build infrastructure. Of course, their economies would never grow as predicted, they would default on their loans, and the companies/countries they borrowed the money from would own them. In other words (Perkins’ words), empire building by America and its corporations. I know it sounds a bit conspiratorial – and if you read the book, you can decide for yourself how much you want to believe – but it’s the perfect premise for a movie. When the film is transitioning to the third act, Brosnan explains this very idea to Wilson, though Brosnan’s character is a bit of a mix of Perkins and a lethal spy (Perkins never claims to have any kind of training beyond engineering forecasts).

That’s the entire plot of the film and is more of a political-statement film than a simple thriller that seeks dead Americans. Getting back to the film itself, the most notable thing is the tension that never ratchets down from nail-biting ass-clencher. It’s right there in the title, No Escape – you really don’t know if Wilson’s family is going to survive or if some or all of them (Brosnan as well) are going to die. The movie is one tense scene after another, one close encounter followed by another, all the while dripping/spraying/covered in blood from the numerous brutal murders occurring just steps behind the family.

Perhaps just as notable is the performance put forth by Wilson. In playing a father (Jack) trying to protect his family in a serious thriller, Wilson shows that he is capable of playing more than just a charming doofus, even managing to weave that doofus into the role to slightly ease the tension every now and again. Lake Bell (playing his wife Annie) is just as convincing, as are the two kids playing their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare as Lucy and Beeze, respectively). As opposed to most movies with families, these people are believable as kin and avoided many of the family clichés that Hollywood loves inserting into movies like this.

Kudos need also go to the writers, John and Drew Dowdle (John doubled as director). I’ve already mentioned the tension, but they also managed to make each character sympathetic, as well as the family as a whole. One scene in particular will stick in your mind – in one of the many places they hide, young Beeze whispers that she needs to pee. Annie and Jack exchange a quick glance of desperation, then Annie tells Beeze to go ahead and pee where she is (had this been a clichéd thriller, the parents would have tried convincing her to hold it until they were safe and Lucy would have teased her somehow). Beeze puts up a mild protest – that she isn’t a baby – and Annie and Jack assure her that it is okay this one time and that they love her. Beeze relents and puts on one of the saddest and pitiful faces you will ever see in a film. That little kid manages to look ashamed and embarrassed at what she is doing and if your heart doesn’t break a little right there (or a lot), you are dead inside.

After the film, the general consensus among my friends was that the movie was a solid B, but they had never heard of the book I mentioned. However, one of them had a much more visceral reaction to the film – he thought it was very good, but it made him a little disgusted at our country (and even more so after I explained the book to him). Regardless as to whether you believe our country does things like that, when a movie can have that kind of effect on a viewer, you know the filmmakers did something right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back and go read that book.