Review of “The Visit”

Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents on their mother’s side. Paula (Kathryn Hahn) left home at 19, against her parent’s wishes, when she fell in love with one of her high school teachers and ran off with him. Her last interaction with her parents was ugly and she’s never talked about it nor has she spoken with them. Now divorced from Becca and Tyler’s dad, Paula is in a new relationship. The kids like her boyfriend and want them to be able to spend time together so they ask to visit their grandparents while mom and her boyfriend go on a cruise. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to video everything on their trip and turn it into a documentary. Arriving via train, Becca and Tyler are met at the station by Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie). They arrive at their grandparent’s farm house way out in the country with no cell reception. Nana is constantly cooking and cleaning in the kitchen and Pop Pop is doing chores around the farm. Pop Pop explains bedtime is 9:30 p.m. since they are old. He also warns the children they shouldn’t leave their rooms after bedtime. Wanting some more of Nana’s cookies, Becca tries to sneak downstairs to the kitchen an hour after lights out but sees Nana walking around the living room vomiting. Asking about it the next day, Pop Pop tells Becca Nana had a touch of stomach flu. Tyler sees Pop Pop putting something in a storage building away from the house. Investigating, he finds a table filled with soiled adult diapers. Nana explains that Pop Pop has incontinence and puts the diapers in the storage building and burns them in the fields later. The pair also sees Nana wondering around the house after bedtime naked and scratching at the walls. Pop Pop says she has a form of dementia called Sundown Syndrome and that’s why they shouldn’t leave their rooms at night. Becca is satisfied with the explanations but Tyler is suspicious that there’s more going on.

The last film directed by M. Night Shyamalan I saw was “The Last Airbender” in 2010. It took the Nickelodeon cartoon and turned it into a choppy and chatty mess. I had hoped after the disaster that was “The Happening” that Shyamalan would bounce back with his take on a cartoon; but sadly, it was quite the disappointment. I have to say I didn’t hold out much hope “The Visit” would be worth the price of a ticket and my time but fortunately the director that gave us “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” appears to have found his groove again.

“The Visit” is being sold as a horror movie but once you see it, you’ll realize it is almost as comedic as it is scary. Sometimes the humor is generated intentionally like when Ed Oxenbould’s Tyler busts out some freestyle. Watching this cherubic white kid attempt to channel the spirit of Dr. Dre is a hoot. Other times the humor comes from the horror such as when the kids are playing hide and seek under the house and discover Nana is down there with them, crawling around and growling. When they all get outside, Nana giggles and tells them what she’s making for dinner then turns to walk in the house showing her skirt is ripped up the back and half her behind is showing.

Humor is scattered throughout “The Visit” and that’s quite a departure from some of the most recent works of Shyamalan. Both “The Village” and “The Happening” take themselves very seriously. Even “The Last Airbender” was devoid of the lightness and joy that made the cartoon so appealing. Perhaps some knowing winks at the weirdness of what is going on would have helped make those films somewhat more watchable.

The cast of “The Visit” all turn in stellar performances. Both Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould make their characters, written like stereotypical sitcom too-smart-for-their-own-good teenagers, rise above the cuteness of the script and actually show us some interesting people. DeJonge’s super artsy Becca is burying a lot of pain under the façade of her wannabe auteur. A scene where that is teased to the surface by Tyler is heartbreaking to watch as Becca comes to grips with the anger she feels over her father leaving the family. Oxenbould’s Tyler is dealing with some abandonment issues of his own. They present themselves as a germ phobia and his bravado when it comes to girls. Tyler also tells a story about a peewee football game that shines a light on how a child can connect two events and come to a conclusion of they are to blame for being left by a parent. While not as gut wrenching as Becca’s realization, Tyler’s pain is brought into sharper focus with the story. Both these young actors add a level of relatability to what is an otherwise fantastical situation.

While I enjoyed the movie very much there were some aspects of the story I found a little contradictory. It’s time for what I like to call “Giving Too Much Thought to the Story.” First, the grandparents live on a farm in the middle of the country in an area that doesn’t have cellphone service; yet, they apparently spring for broadband internet since the kids converse with their mother over the computer via Skype. There isn’t a desktop or laptop to be seen anywhere in the grandparents’ house but we are told they run a counseling service online. The kids never went to the site since they have no idea what the grandparents look like they are very connected to the internet so it would seem they would have at least checked to see if their grandparents’ pictures were posted. As the situation deteriorates, Becca and Tyler never give voice to stealing their grandparents’ car in an effort to get away. While Becca is supposed to be 15 and wouldn’t have her license yet, there aren’t many 15-year olds that haven’t logged at least a little time behind the wheel. Also, Becca is very smart as she is editing her video on her laptop as she is shooting it. Even with my little experience at video editing, I know it is far simpler to drive a car than to learn most editing software. And that’s been another edition of “Giving Too Much Thought to the Story.”

“The Visit” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and brief language. There are numerous scares in the movie including naked Nana scratching at the walls and running around the living room vomiting. The discovery of the dirty adult diapers is rather disgusting. A dirty diaper plays a big part in the film’s conclusion. We also briefly see a woman hanging from a tree and two bodies in a garbage pile. There is also a stabbing that is seen in bits and pieces. Foul language is wide scattered and used almost exclusively by Tyler.

Despite my lack of faith in director and script writer M. Night Shyamalan, “The Visit” delivers some quality scares and healthy laughs. It also knows how to mix and match the fright and humor to keep the audience guessing at what they will get next. It’s a winning formula that I hope Shyamalan is able to maintain and refine to put himself back on top. We need more quality scary films that also include some lighter moments just to keep the viewer off balance. This winning combination makes “The Visit” worth the trip.

“The Visit” gets five stars out of five.

This week, the highest peak, the lowest life, the hardest trial and a test of faith all come to theatre screens. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

Black Mass—



Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials—

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Review of “Tomorrowland”

Frank Walker (played as a child by Thomas Robinson and as an adult by George Clooney) was a dreamer that, as a child, made a jet pack out of an old vacuum cleaner and other spare parts and entered it into an invention competition at the 1964 World’s Fair. The judge, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), was unimpressed since it didn’t work; but Athena (Raffey Cassidy) was taken with Frank’s enthusiasm. She secretly gave Frank a pin and told her to follow Nix and a group of other inventors as they took the Small World ride through the fair. Doing so transports Frank to an amazing world called Tomorrowland. A real place filled with dreamers like him who are allowed to turn those dreams into reality. In the present, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is also a dreamer who lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a NASA engineer who will be laid off soon since the space agency doesn’t launch rockets for the foreseeable future. Casey tries to put off that future by sabotaging the cranes used to dismantle the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Casey is arrested for her actions and when she gets bailed out finds in her belongings a pin like the one Athena gave Frank. When she touches it, she sees Tomorrowland; but it is an interactive virtual reality recording. Desperate to get there, Casey begins a search that takes her across the country, to a sci-fi/fantasy memorabilia shop run by murderous androids, meeting Athena and a decidedly grumpy grown up Frank. Casey is determined to get to Tomorrowland even if nearly everyone she encounters is equally determined to stop her.

“Tomorrowland” is a political statement delivered in the mildest of terms. It encourages public action wrapped up in a package of light entertainment. It is radical manifesto from the people who brought you “Snow White” and “Dumbo.” It’s a call to action that is delivered far too subtly to actually lead to any change. Perhaps the mild delivery was a compromise in an effort to not anger certain segments of the political spectrum but it may have been a waste of Disney’s $190-million investment. Sometimes you have to kick the bee’s nest to stir up the queen. Otherwise, “Tomorrowland” is pretty good.

What will strike audiences most is the visuals of the film. Director Brad Bird has dipped into his Pixar history to make “Tomorrowland” look absolutely amazing. From jet packs to rocket ships, everything in the city of the future looks retro cool. Based in part on the look of the attraction in Disney’s theme parks, “Tomorrowland” is glistening spires, levitating swimming pools and hover scooters all in a land surrounded by golden wheat fields, glowing trees and clear blue skies. It is the kind of utopia that writers have been dreaming of for over a century. Bird’s visual effects team is likely to receive an Oscar nod for their work and it would be much deserved.

Just behind the look of the film is the tone: Hope gushes forth from “Tomorrowland” like a geyser. There’s innocence and wide-eyed wonder infusing most of the movie that I must admit was infectious. Leaving the film, I felt good and like anything was possible. That lasted about half an hour as reality crushed my buzz. That may be the film’s biggest weakness: It doesn’t have much staying power. While it offers hope, it’s in the form of those old musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney where the clichéd line, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” comes from. In this case, “Tomorrowland” wants us to come together and save the world. The movie implies we can do that with technology and cooperation. I don’t argue that point but I do question the film suggests to get the ball rolling. In the movie, dreamers are introduced to Tomorrowland and are invited to take part. Here in the real world, the only way things happen is with political action. Political action appears to only happen when it appeals to the base supporters of a politician. Politicians appear to only involve themselves in real change when the lobbyists support it. Lobbyists support it only if it makes their client’s money. Sadly, nobody makes any profit from the “Tomorrowland” idea hence it will never happen. Sorry if I just crushed your buzz but at my age I’ve seen too many good ideas buried under political rhetoric and inaction. It appears our leaders lack the ability to dream, to ask “what if.” Had I the power, I’d force every member of Congress, the Supreme Court and the President to watch “Tomorrowland.” I’m sure it would be fodder for the talking heads on cable news channels to rail against the filmmaker’s agenda and draw unflattering comparisons to communism, socialism, environmentalism and any other –ism they can think of. I didn’t used to be so cynical but time and experience has beaten much of my own dreamer out of me. I guess I’m far more like Clooney’s character than I am Robertson’s. That’s sad.

Sorry this hasn’t been much of a movie review and more of a diatribe. Please forgive me and I’ll try to do better next time.

“Tomorrowland” is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language. As violence and action go, the film is very mild on both counts. Younger children might be troubled by the various bits of danger young Frank gets into when he enters Tomorrowland the first time. There is a fight between two characters at the end of the film. One character is crushed to death by falling debris. Another character is shot by a ray gun of some sort and knocked across a room. Various androids are dispatched in various violent ways including being beaten by a baseball bat repeatedly. There is some foul language that is widely scattered and gets no fouler than the “S” word. There is also a British slang term for testicles used once near the end of the film.

While it tends to drag at times and could have been shorter, “Tomorrowland” is visually stunning and chocked full of hope. It is also simplistic and offers no real answers as to how to solve the world’s problems. Maybe that’s asking too much of a Disney movie but it seems like we have to start somewhere so why not in a darkened theatre.

“Tomorrowland” gets four hopeful stars out of five.

Three new films open this week ranging from classic literature to disaster porn and I’ll see at least one of them.


Far From the Maddening Crowd—

San Andreas—

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Review of “The D Train”

Have you ever heard the expression, “He/She peaked in high school”? It isn’t meant as a compliment and suggests every aspect of that person’s life since graduation has been less than spectacular. Some people (i.e. me) wish that fate on their fellow students. At one of my reunions the jock that had made my life miserable since fourth grade was sitting alone at the bar. He had gotten fat and while everyone else was dressed for a night on the town he had on cutoff jean shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops and a ball cap. I secretly smirked at how his life appeared to have gone in the gutter but then realized how petty that was. He and I are now Facebook friends and he appears to have a very nice life. The point of all of this is that we sometimes carry our high school personas through our lives while also applying what we thought of classmates to theirs. It isn’t until we’ve grown up some that we let these trivial resentments fall away and accept classmates for what they are now instead of who they were then. In “The D Train,” one person who is in a near constant state of delusion approaches the king of the class to attend the high school reunion. The affect it has on both their lives is profound.

Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is the self-appointed head of his high school graduating class’ alumni committee. He and a group of fellow alumni are making calls to other classmates as the date of their 20 year reunion approaches. They aren’t having much luck getting commitments and it looks like very few, if any, will attend. Sitting at home watching TV one evening, Dan sees classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) doing a commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. Oliver was who every guy wanted to hang out with and every girl wanted to sleep with. Dan thinks if he can get Oliver, a big-time actor in Hollywood, to come to the reunion it will encourage others to attend. Telling everyone on the alumni committee he is a good friend of Oliver’s, Dan concocts a plan to head out to L.A. on a bogus business trip to get Oliver to commit to coming to the reunion. He tells his boss Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey Tambor) at the small consulting firm for whom he works that he has been in contact with at possible new client and needs to fly out to L.A. to meet with him. Bill surprises Dan and says he will go as well. Dan does everything to get Bill to stay home but he insists. On the trip, Dan calls Oliver and the two meet up for drinks. Oliver loves to drink and uses cocaine as well. Dan jumps in with both feet to impress Oliver. Dan still has to take care of the fake business meeting Bill expects and Oliver agrees to pose as the prospective client. Oliver tells Bill that while he’s impressed with the company they don’t have the budget to make any deals. Bill agrees to cut their consulting fee by 50 percent and, caught up in the moment and his performance, Oliver agrees. After a second night on the town, Dan convinces Oliver to attend the reunion. The pair, drunk and strung out on cocaine, return to Oliver’s apartment where their friendship takes a significant turn that leaves Dan questioning everything about his life. The trip to L.A. has spun wildly out of control. The only good thing that has happened is Oliver has agreed to come to the reunion. That should go off without a hitch, right?

Don’t go to “The D Train” expecting to see Jack Black be his usual wild and crazy self for the entire film. While he shows some of his wide-eyed enthusiasm and take-no-prisoners humor for part of the film, the trip to L.A. causes a change in his character that can only be described as dark. Black plays a man whose entire world is teetering on a knife’s edge. He’s close to losing his comfortable life with a wife, two kids, a nice house and steady job just to get a classmate that he idolizes to come to the reunion and reap the reward of respect and adulation he expects from his friends at home. “The D Train” is a study of a man melting down due to the heat of his own insecurities. While Black’s performance is riveting, the story that surrounds it is disappointing.

Jack Black is one of those actors I can usually only take in small doses. His manic energy and machine gun delivery tends to wear thin for me fairly quickly; however, Black is both bouncing off the walls and fascinating to watch as Dan scrambles to keep all the flaming batons he’s juggling in the air without getting burned. Dan isn’t a bad guy but he is a bit delusional. In his phone calls to former classmates, Dan has to go to great lengths to remind people who he is and most of them never do remember. Dan wants to be remembered as the life of the party and friends with everyone. Sadly, he was the guy who was always in the back of the yearbook photos for any club or group pictures. Black makes us feel Dan’s desperation and while it is often annoying, we feel for him as he just wants to be liked. That need for approval is at the core of all Dan’s bad decisions and lies. He needlessly involves his boss in his lie and ends up costing the company thousands of dollars when Bill decides to expand when Oliver agrees to the deal. Black is firing on all cylinders in “The D Train.” Later in the film, his jealousy of Oliver leads to all his dirty secrets coming out in front of everyone at the reunion. It is a painful scene to watch and will make you cringe in your seat. Watching as Dan is eviscerated in front of all the people he so desperately wants to impress is heartbreaking as you watch his ego and self-worth drain away with every word. If this was a better film and came out later in the year, Jack Black might have gotten nominated for some awards.

James Marsden, Jeffrey Tambor and Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s wife Stacey are all very good. Tambor plays Bill as a befuddled businessman who is stuck in the 1980’s. He doesn’t trust technology so he has very little in his office. Bill isn’t an annoying technophobe, he just likes things simple. Dan thinks this gets in the way of the business and eventually leads to some of the fallout over his lies. Kathryn Hahn is the much put upon wife of Dan. Several times in the film, Dan wakes her up out of a sound sleep and this annoys her greatly. Hahn isn’t given the chance to be funny like many of her movie roles have been; however, she is given opportunities to do some serious acting and she handles it very well. James Marsden plays a convincing burnt out actor. Marsden’s eyes always appear kind of sleepy and his constantly tousled hair gives Oliver the look of someone who has given up trying to look perfect. Oliver is just looking for the next good time because the next job is way down the road. Dan thinks he’s living the dream but, without telling us with words, Oliver makes it clear he’s it’s not nearly as idyllic as Dan thinks. Much of Marsden’s performance drips with a false bravado that barely hides his desperation. It’s only late in the film that Oliver admits to Dan what the audience has known the whole time. That’s part of what brings the film down in my opinion.

My biggest issue with the film is how the story chickens out with a hopeful ending. After all Dan’s shenanigans the movie ends with the implication that everything is forgiven. Considering all the lies he’s told his wife, his boss, his friends and himself, it seems unlikely Dan would escape largely unscathed. While the film is fairly confident in itself most of the time, it takes the easy way out in its conclusion. Maybe someone with the studio or one of the financiers wanted there to be some hope at the end of “The D Train” so the co-writers/co-directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel gave Dan a neat and tidy ending. Considering what comes before, the ending feels dishonest and like the filmmakers don’t trust the audience with the consequences Dan’s choices would likely bring.

“The D Train” is rated R for strong sexual material, drug use, nudity and language. There are discussions of sex that are sometimes rather crude. There are two sex scenes: One is merely glimpsed in flashbacks while another comes off as mostly comical. Both prescription and illegal drugs are shown being used to enhance the characters night on the town. We briefly see a couple of naked male backsides as well as topless women at a strip bar. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

As the film ended, I found myself feeling conflicted about the movie. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or if I hated it. The movie is certainly unlike many summer films and is aimed squarely at adults. The tone feels a bit flat and the ending is too kind to Dan. I wish those who made the film had been willing to give the audience an honest ending; however, the performances make “The D Train” worth seeing although you may feel conflicted as well about how the film affects you.

“The D Train” gets a C…or three stars out of five.

Three new films open this week and I’ll probably see “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Then again, who knows?

Mad Max: Fury Road—

Pitch Perfect 2—

Where Hope Grows—

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