THE VISIT. It's been quite a while — probably a decade plus — since the opening of an M. Night Shyamalan movie was any kind of an event, local folderol over After Earth (2013) notwithstanding. Speaking only for myself, his reliance on twists and tricks got old even before the end of the vastly overrated, career-generating The Sixth Sense (1999). I will, however, continue to defend Unbreakable (2000), maybe because it doesn't lean so heavily on a third act surprise as the rest of the catalog. And I thought Signs (2002), with its hokey, 1950s-style creature animation, was kind of fun in spite of itself. Regardless of my minor enjoyment of some of it, it would seem that general enthusiasm for Shyamalan's work has gradually waned over the course of time. So, it would seem, has studio (read: moneyed) support for his projects. It's my understanding that this most recent offering, a modestly-budgeted horror thing made under the auspices of the going-gangbusters Blumhouse imprint, represents an effort to wrestle back creative control and final-cut privileges. I suspect there is also an impulse to reassert some sort of cultural relevancy, considering especially the youth focused, found-footage, genre-specific nature of The Visit. I'm not sure yet whether I care, but I don't think these efforts have succeeded.
It took an effort just to put away my prejudices and preconceptions about Shyamalan's body of work in the first place. Then, having achieved a decidedly non-Zen state of relative objectivity, I was immediately discomfited by the above mentioned found-footage-ness of The Visit. I've said before how it bespeaks laziness and lack of craft, that it undermines some of the most important aspects of moviemaking as art; it is a cheap-looking way to make a movie cheaply and it bugs. Because Shyamalan is a pro, despite anyone's protests and reservations, his lighting and editing make this movie look marginally better than most of its kind. The photographic style distracts and cheapens it, nonetheless.
The thinly constructed, painfully contrived plot line doesn't help much, either. Mom (Kathryn Hahn, usually delightful), estranged from her parents after a vaguely referenced incident 15 years ago, for some reason decides it would a good idea to send her young teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) for a week on the farm with Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie). There is no direct communication between Mom and the grandparents, for reasons of narrative laziness that will become abundantly clear by movie's end. Becca is, of course, a budding documentarian (complete with all the attendant pretention), and so records the events of the week with multiple cameras. Tyler is a wannabe rapper, which has nothing to do with the plot, but is probably intended to add color.
The trip starts out auspiciously enough: Nana and Pop Pop are warm and welcoming, if a little "off." Their remote farmhouse is cozy and comfortable, with just enough off-limits spaces to suggest something sinister. As the days wear on, though, the minor weirdnesses of the place and its inhabitants compound to a threatening degree. Which, in turn, leads to the twist we all knew was coming. But there's another twist: This one is the most hackneyed, most obvious, least plausible twist of all! Surprise!
I don't know why I feel compelled to defend this thing, but in its defense: The look and feel are slightly more effective than they might be; the young lead actors both give strong, if frequently annoying performances (they are teenagers, after all); and well, that's really about it. PG13. 94m.
THE PERFECT GUY. I watched this immediately after The Visit, in a self-flagellatory attempt at creating the worst double feature of all time. I may not have achieved this, but I came awfully goddamn close. Even though this is a completely redundant, derivative, style-less mess, it felt like a relief after being subjected to Shyamalan's latest.
Sanaa Lathan plays Leah, a fiercely independent career lobbyist who, somewhat inexplicably, breaks off her long-term relationship with Dave (Morris Chestnut) because he isn't quite ready to get married and have children. She, perhaps even less plausibly, rebounds almost immediately into the arms of Carter (Michael Ealy), who, no surprise, seems to be the eponymous perfect guy. He sweeps her off her feet, wins over her dad with Giants tickets, seems to have all the right moves. Then he brutalizes a guy because he seemed to be talking to Leah. She summarily breaks off the relationship and that's when the trouble starts. See, Carter isn't perfect at all; he's a rage monster with formidable creeper skills. Leah goes to the police, who can offer little in the way of help without tangible evidence of Carter's ongoing malfeasance. Things, as they often do in these cases, escalate dangerously.
The Perfect Guy is perfectly innocuous, and that is perhaps its greatest failing. For a movie about the constant threat of personal violation, there isn't, for a moment, any real sense of danger. Ealy gives a compelling-enough performance, but the movie is cut so that he switches, on a dime, from smooth operator to bug-eyed creeper. Lathan likewise does strong work, but is lost in a narrative that downplays both her character's strength and the horror of the situation in which she finds herself. PG13. 100m.
— John J. Bennett
BLACK MASS. Johnny Depp loses some hair and creeps us out as real-life Irish-American mobster/FBI informant Whitey Bulger, with Benedict Cumberbatch as his senator brother. R. 122m.
GRANDMA. Lily Tomlin plays a tough old bird taking her pregnant granddaughter around town to roust up $600 from friends and enemies alike by day's end. R. 80m.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS. Our clear-skinned teen heroes escape lockdown and battle the middle-aged powers that be in the wider post-apocalyptic dystopia. PG13. 131m.
MERU. Nosebleed-inducing, climber-filmed documentary about a trio scaling the near-impossible peak. R. 87m.
WAR ROOM. A troubled family prays together and (spoiler alert!) probably stays together. PG. 120m.
A WALK IN THE WOODS. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte star as old friends testing their knees and their bond by hiking the Appalachian Trail. R. 104m.
AMERICAN ULTRA. A stoner-Bourne action/comedy that feels lazy and rushed at the same time. R. 96m.
THE GIFT. This smart, mean, stylish little thriller about a marriage unraveling and past misdeeds is perfectly paced and brims with dread. R. 108m.
INSIDE OUT. Pixar renders our inner lives and the tumult of growing up with clarity, charm, poignancy and humor through the personified emotions of a girl named Riley. PG. 94m.
JURASSIC WORLD. A big, fun, well-executed popcorn movie that sticks with dinosaur action thrills rather than convoluted plot. PG13. 124m.
MINIONS. Sandra Bullock and John Hamm lend voices to the Despicable Me spin-off starring the goofy, Twinkie-esque henchmen. PG. 91m.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION. Cruise and company return with thrilling action (motorcycles! cargo planes!) and an under-developed plot that lacks real danger. PG13. 132m.
NO ESCAPE. Some style and originality in this story of a family caught in a revolution abroad, but not enough intensity. R. 103m.
PIXELS. Apparently it has some lives left. PG13. 106m.
RICKI AND THE FLASH. Meryl Streep plays a rock star reconnecting with her ex (Kevin Kline) and grown kids. PG13. 101m.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. A fluid and immersive drama with strong portrayals of NWA's now mythic members (give or take an assault). R. 147m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill