Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film Review: The Visit (2015)

Image result for the visit 2015I find myself defending M. Night Shyamalan more than I'd like to. I make no excuses for Lady in the Water, The Happening still gives me migraines, and even though he wasn't as in control of studio films like The Last Air Bender or After Earth, he still has to answer for his involvement as a filmmaker. Those are the rules. But his twist endings (show me a film that doesn't have a third act revelation) and distinctive directing style have become more of an excuse to bash him and his body of work, and it has reached the point where you can predict the complaints about his films ("I guessed the twist right away," blah blah blah) before they're posted in the IMDB message boards. M. Night has had the unfortunate task of having to live up to the hype created by the overwhelming success and acclaim of The Sixth Sense, and the decreasing quality of his work after The Village (some would argue sooner; I disagree) has done nothing but fueled the ire of his detractors.

Which is why I am so glad that The Visit has proven to be a sort of redemption for M. Night. Don't get your hopes up too high - this low-budget found footage thriller isn't out to break new ground or redefine the horror genre. Instead, it's doing what it set out to do, which is make an entertaining low-budget found footage horror film. Of course, you're going to have to deal with M. Night's trademark emotional soul-searching in between jump-scares, but that just comes with the territory. Beyond that, there is little here to hate (rationally, at least). The premise is plausible enough for a horror film, the characters and dialogue are as realistic as you are willing to allow (more on that in a moment), and M. Night drops hints and shuffles scenes of tension and levity back and forth enough to be textbook examples of storytelling.

Image result for the visit 2015The setup is straightforward and to the point: A single mother hasn't spoken to her parents since she fought with them about marrying the father of her two children, and who eventually left them. The grandparents contact her online asking to see their grandchildren, the kids agree, and so she reluctantly ships them off to a week with mom-mom and pop-pop at her childhood home while she goes on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (insert blatant product placement here) with her new boyfriend. Becca, the older daughter and film enthusiast, decides to make a documentary of the visit, giving us our excuse for the found-footage nature of the film. The situation is simple and setup early on, giving us plenty of time for slow tension-building and character development as Becca's cameras record far more than she had ever intended.

Yes, regardless of the setup, a found-footage horror films is already far from original. But that doesn't mean it is bad from the start, and compared to some of the dismal recent entries into this genre - such as The Gallows, or whichever Paranormal Activity film we were subjected to last - The Visit works at the top of the form. Less gimmicky than most, the POV nature of this film is actually used to develop the story and immerse the viewer in the main characters' perception, something a lot of the more recent found footage films have abandoned for slight-of-hand optical tricks and repeated jump scares. In short: it was fun, and I enjoyed it.

Not that I didn't have issues with the film. The Title, for starters. M. Night has never excelled at naming his films, seemingly opting for the plainly descriptive titles that actively describe the main plot or location - the worst of these being The Happening, which might as well have been called Vague Plot Description, and the best of these being Signs, which actually manages enough of a double meaning within the film to pass as clever. The Visit has that same problem, and at one point during the film I found myself wondering he didn't call the film Sundown, which for reasons evident upon viewing would have made a much better title. To his credit (and mine), I discovered later that the working title of the film was originally Sundowning, so it's probably safe to assume that the title change was a corporate marketing decision, so I'm ultimately neutral on that point.

Image result for the visit 2015Then there's the location. Yeah, I get it. You really like Pennsylvania. Enough already. The specific location itself doesn't actually have any bearing on the story, but just being actively aware that I'm being subjected to something for no other reason than the filmmaker's personal obsession makes this irritating to me. It's like watching a Tarantino film. Okay Quentin, you have a severe foot fetish. Very Nice. Back to the film now, please.

And on a personal level, I always hate it when a filmmaker introduces a filmmaker as a main character. There's something a bit myopic and narcissistic about this setup, as it always feels like the filmmaker is begging for understand. M. Night was guilty of this to such a major degree with Lady in the Water - introducing an evil critic character who admits to giving negative reviews out of spite and then killing him, an obvious reference to his own negative reviews - that I still feel he needs to stay as far away from this type of setup as possible. It didn't have a negative impact on the film itself, but it still left a bad taste.

So altogether, most of my issues with The Visit were minor and cosmetic. Much of the other negative criticism I've seen that isn't Shyamalan-centric is mostly nitpicking about stuff that shouldn't need a back story explanation ("Where did they get the tripods?" I'm guessing they packed them with the cameras...), and much of them aren't worth discussing. The one I feel needs some attention is one that I had issues with initially while watching the film, the dialogue spoken by the main characters, Becca and Tyler. Throughout the film, the older sister Becca is overly erudite in her speech patterns, while younger brother Tyler is incessantly uses slang ("Swerve.") and gives impromptu rap numbers more often than anybody is probably comfortable with. And yes, after an hour of this even I'm thinking that the girl is using way too many fifty-cent words and hip-hop lad needs to tone it down a bit. Most people complaining about this are resorting to the overall argument that the dialogue for the kids is "not real" or sounds "phony and unnatural." And at first I was probably in agreement.

But M. Night doesn't make normal films, and in the case of this story, these are NOT normal kids. It is explained very early in the film that the father literally picked up and left one day, severing all contact with his wife and children, and that at least two of them (the mother and Tyler) sought out therapy to cope with severe abandonment issues. In a film that involves a subtext of people playing parts - hinted to by a couple of random characters in the first act who begin reciting Shakespeare as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction - we are dealing with two children who are coping with abandonment issues by constructing personalities around their true selves, something that most children do at one point or another without a severe psychological trauma to trigger feelings of inadequacy. So in this situation, yes, we are watching two children who are not necessarily acting "naturally," whatever that is. Becca purposely attempts to act and sound important and intelligent, and Tyler seeks out attention through popular cultural signals and actions. So, in my opinion, this is more a creative decision than it is the poor screenwriting that many have labeled it as, like it or not.
Image result for the visit 2015

As someone who recommended I see the film said to me, if you aren't expecting something completely original and groundbreaking, you're going to enjoy yourself. I wasn't, and I did, much more so than many of this year's horror film offerings.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Now Boarding Zone Four

I'm sitting in a hotel room on a Friday night in Florida, the torrential downpour that my flight beat by three hours rattling against the metal of the suicide-proof windows and defeating my hopes of trying out the outdoor pool after hours. The current forecast is for thunderstorms until just after I leave Monday morning. The lobby has free popcorn, however, so I have that going for me.

The hotel is in a 55-and-over gated community built around golf courses and on top of numerous historical lies involving the civil war. This senior citizen wasteland is notorious for acts of public debauchery - such as golf-cart quickies and Viagra parties - and the real-estate mogul who created this miniature elderly Disneyland is supposedly under investigation for tax evasion. My GPS dragged me through a cul-de-sac labyrinth of manicured lawns and sun porches for fifteen minutes to get to the hotel, during which speed-demon golf-cart racers nearly clipped the rental car twice, and a cliche elderly woman - complete with head below the steering wheel - mounted the curb trying to turn into a parking lot and diverted traffic through a shopping plaza complete with golf pro outlet and hearing aide repair. Exactly what I need after eight hours of air travel and an hour-long introduction to the Florida Expressway.

(While writing the above paragraph, I Googled cul-de-sac to see if it required hyphens, and discovered that there was a serial killer of Nigerian descent dubbed the "cul-de-sac killer" due to his penchant for killing elderly people on quiet suburban streets. It reminded me of the poet I bumped heads with at the hippie school where I got my BFA, who argued that there were no documented cases of black serial killers, and that serial murder was solely a white male enterprise. My argument was that criminal justice may still be influenced by institutionalized racism, but murder has always been equal opportunity. Which proves not only that I was right about the serial killer thing, but that there is an undeniable futility in debating crime statistics with somebody who writes poems about whales.)

Whenever I fly to southern states, the racial disparity never fails to shock me. Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, you name it. The vast majority of travelers are white, but the workers of shit jobs at the airports are always black. I have yet to purchase a bottle of water or a breakfast sandwich from a white person. In Charlotte, while legging it to my connecting flight, I passed a shoeshine bench with three seats. I didn't even think shoeshine stations existed anymore, but there it was, like some ghostly remnant of the depression era haunting a modern airport to remind us that there's still a class structure to be maintained so we can pay people shit wages to do personal chores we're too good to do for ourselves. All three chairs were filled by white men in their twenties or thirties, no suits or briefcases. I think one of them was wearing work boots. The three young women working on their shoes/boots/whatever were all black. There's a racial divide in that image that this country is still doing its best to pretend doesn't exist.

Speaking of racial inequality, the Charlotte airport is the first airport I've been in with a bathroom attendant, complete with tip jar and tray of meats. Another antiquated career path. The cigarette girls must have been on break when I walked through the terminal. I'm half expecting there to be an elevator operator at the hotel, bellboy cap tipped jauntily to one side. Of course, the bathroom attendant is black as well. As I'm waiting for a stall to open, he nods at me and says, "You look like The Dude." I beg your pardon? "The Dude, from Big Lebowski. You look just like him." I'm thinking that I bear a closer resemblance to Walter than Jeff Bridges' titular character, but don't bother attempting to correct him or seek clarification. He hands me some paper towels after I wash my hands, and I take the time to slip a couple of singles into his jar. I don't take a mint.

There was a guy with his teenage daughter in the Allentown airport waiting for the same flight. They sat opposite me. Her slumped in the airport bench seat wearing a pair of daisy duke shorts and a midriff, tanned legs splayed wide open as she plays on her tablet or kindle or nook or whatever. Him striking up conversations with random strangers about where they're going or how they got to the airport. Me trying my best to pretend I don't notice either of them, reading a nineties horror novel that I just two chapters ago realized I've already read. The gate keeper is halfway through calling groups to board the plane when the father decides it's my turn to converse with.

"What group did they just call?" I'm not sure, probably zone two or three, I didn't catch it. "Man, I remember when they just used to say 'the plane is here, get on.' How many different groups are there?" I don't tell him he's right. Between the four boarding "Zones" and all of the different Priority, Premier, Advantage, Gold, and other special classifications, it feels like it would take just as long for them to call us each by name. After all, what fun would it be overpaying for glorified public transit without assigning enough arbitrary class distinctions to help remind us that some people are just better than others. I guess First Class and Coach wasn't enough, or maybe they're just bitter over not being able to call it Second or Third Class anymore because that was a bit too blatant. The funniest part is when they call for the Gold or Advantage Members to board using the "Premiere Ramp," but it's the same ten-foot stretch of carpet that everybody else crosses over to board the plane as well. Calling it different just adds to the special feeling, I guess. The funny becomes sad when they actually have a separate red carpet for the Special ones, and after they've boarded the gate keeper will block it off so the lesser passengers don't use the same carpet. My distastefor an d bewilderment at this practice is not bitterness because I'm usually in Zone Four.

I don't tell the man that I agree with him, but he decides that a conversation has still started. "What seat are you in?" I answer without thinking, reflex more than anything. Not that it's any of his business. It isn't exactly privileged information, either. I could have lied to him, but to what end? So I could snicker at him when he passed me in my assigned seat later and realized that he had been duped? Anyway, I tell him my seat number. He shakes his head in response. "We bought our tickets yesterday, and we couldn't get seats next to each other." He's trying to find out if I'll be sitting next to his daughter. He should probably be more concerned about who she is sitting across from.

Last year a kid ended up sitting next to me, separated from his parents on the other side of the aisle. The kid was about nine or ten, I think, and they didn't bother introducing themselves to me or anything before abandoning him between me and the window for a three-hour flight. It seemed weird for them not to try and size up the large man who would be obscuring any visibility of their child for the entire flight. I remember him turning to me during takeoff and saying that this was the best part of flying, and me responding that this was actually the most terrifying part of flying, because takeoffs and landings are usually when something goes wrong. I wasn't trying to scare the kid, and he didn't react to what I said, but there's a part of me that hopes that our conversation resulted in some delayed night terrors that would convince his parents to shake hands with the next stranger they stick him next to on a plane.

My impulse is to be annoyed by the father as he continues to talk about his delayed travel arrangements, but who am I to begrudge him the polite familiarity that I've complained that public places seem to lack these days. I've often wondered why nobody talks to the other people standing around them waiting to board when there's a good chance that they will be sitting with one another for the next few hours, sharing drinks and armrests in the most communal activity they will participate in outside of shopping on Black Friday. We should all be asking each other for seat numbers while the airline whittles us into manageable caste system so they know who to give the free pretzels to first.

Still raining. The lady at the front desk said they put free cookies out in the evening. I wonder of there are any left.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm Not White

The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Over the past couple of years, I've found myself at odds with a growing portion of people on the left as well as the right. Ironically, most (if not all) of the people on the left who have taken exception to my comments or arguments hold very similar (if not identical) views regarding topics such as civil liberties and social justice. This has placed me in the unenviable position of being vilified by both liberal and conservative crusaders when discussing things like the whole Ferguson debacle, resulting in me being simultaneously labelled as a racist and a cop-hater in the same day. No small feat, I imagine.

I'm willing to take the blame on this, mind you, but only as far as acknowledging that I know why I get this kind of reaction. The truth is that I have gone through some major evolution throughout my life when it comes to philosophical ideals and world views, having run the gamut from right-wing conservative to left-wing hippie. I now feel that I have landed comfortably somewhere in the middle, that "middle" dictated by a conscious effort to remain neutral or average, but merely based on where other groups or parties tend to fall in comparison. Okay, to be fair, I'm probably a bit more left from center, but you get the idea.

One thing that I have gained from this rather full-rounded personal journey is an appreciation for how membership to a group or idealistic movement can influence beliefs rather than the other way around, and so I make it a point to be somewhat skeptical of rationalizations and arguments regardless of where they come from or whether or not my instinctive reaction is to agree or disagree. A healthy dose of skepticism is more than necessary to get to the truth behind anything, including our own motivations. So occasionally I will question or disagree with some major (or even minor) point or argument put forth by someone, and since this is taken as a personal challenge of somebody's deep-seated ideological beliefs, I find myself attacked for being "insensitive" or "antagonizing."

Just so we're clear, I am not implying that I am not capable of the same knee-jerk reactions when my own beliefs are challenged, nor am I under the assumption that my way of thinking is the only correct one. This isn't about claiming that I am right and everybody else is wrong, even if that is how most belief systems tend to work. What we're talking about is the actual public discourse of debating or discussing how certain views or beliefs are being supported. You can believe in the right thing for the wrong reasons, and you can also question your behavior or understanding without decimating everything you believe in. Skepticism, if healthy and honest, is applied to not only to others, but to oneself. Which is, of course, where it all falls apart.

I personally think that one of the biggest mistakes being made by many of these civil rights and social justice movements is that they try to rectify the problem of people being dismissed or demeaned for participation in certain groups by defending the status and feasibility of the perceived groups. For me, the logical way to combat prejudice towards groups is to remove the focus on groups and place it on the individual, instead of lending credibility to the idea that membership in perceived groups should be the way we identify people, as collections of specific traits rather than individuals. The true fight, after all, is not to create equal groups, but to ensure that people are treated equal despite of any perceived group they actively or involuntarily belong to.

Let me take a moment to explain why I keep saying "perceived groups." My intent is not to question the credibility of any specific group, but merely to acknowledge that some groups seeking equality are more rigidly defined than others. In fact, sometimes I have found such lines drawn by groups with the direct intent to prevent other groups from sharing the victim spotlight, as it were. I've had it explained to me, for example, that you cannot compare the plight of "genetic" groups claiming prejudice to "non-genetic" groups complaining of the same, because the "genetically oppressed" cannot change their stripes, as it were. I reject this argument on the grounds that it assumes that people who belong to "non-genetic" groups are either not capable of experiencing prejudicial treatment to the same degree (or even worse), or are somehow more deserving of such treatment because they are technically capable of somehow avoiding that treatment. I find this argument detestable on several levels, including the fact that it implies the problem is whether you can avoid being mistreated, rather than arguing that nobody deserves such mistreatment in the first place.

So this is where I tend to piss people off despite our shared beliefs. Like the problems I mentioned having during the whole Ferguson thing; we would be in total agreement that there is clear evidence of institutionalized racism in the Ferguson police (and others) that needs to be addressed, and that the specific example of Michael Brown's shooting left way too many questions about how black people were being treated by the local police and how much cover-up took place directly after the shooting and throughout the trial of the cop that shot him. But then I would raise a polite objection when people said things like "It's hard to talk to white people about this," point out that it is an arguably prejudiced thing to say that does nothing but ignore the multitude of white people in agreement with their position on the Ferguson debacle, and POOF, now I'm the asshole.

And I'm not blind to where some of this reaction comes from. There are people out there who defend racist actions and attempt to deflect any attention to them by pushing the "Cops shoot white people too" argument, which ignores the specifics of the situations at hand by painting a broad enough picture to obscure any realities beyond racial identities. It's an underhanded trick using semantics, but it's good enough that people on the other side of the argument use it as well, so that anybody who does offer alternate viewpoints can be accused of not being the right color to have an opinion, or that they're blinded by "white privilege," which while is arguably a real thing, doesn't help further awareness of the direct problems of prejudice involved, especially when used as a blanket excuse to ignore or devalue the thoughts and opinions of an entire segment of society. See how that works?

But again, I think all of this stems back to the issue that people are adhering to the groups (and their dogmatic platforms) as opposed to the argument for the individual. We're so aware of the prejudices that exist against certain groups (be they genetically assigned or not) that we lose site of the true goal, which is to ensure that people are not abused or oppressed for ANY trait or allegiance or affiliation, no matter how large or how small. The more we argue who can or can't belong to which groups, or who is or isn't allowed to defend or support a group - which, honestly, has to be the dumbest side effect of this line-drawing - the more we're marginalizing anybody who doesn't fit into these groups based on whatever guidelines those shouting the loudest feel the need to impose. By trying so desperately to define these "legitimate" minorities or "underrepresented groups" or whatever we're calling them this week to try to fit yet another group under the umbrella, we're only creating more minorities, more groups of people being considered less valuable or less deserving of respect and kindness. The cause is just, but the argument ends up becoming circular.

I'm not saying we shouldn't recognize the origins of oppression and prejudice, or expose them when they take place. What I am saying is that if we cling to these groups as the ultimate definition of who we are, we are enabling the initial actions of those who chose to define us based on their opinions of whatever group it was they decided was less human than them. You don't abolish labeling by redefining the labels. You need to acknowledge that they are just that: labels. Otherwise, we stop defending individuals and end up defending our groups, and the individual we are trying to help gets lost in the worship of an ideal.

What it comes down to is this: I'm not white. I'm not fat, I'm not a man, I'm not Gen-X-er, I'm not an American, I'm not a race or a size or a gender or a demographic or religion or a political party. I can be described using these terms, but I do not let them define me, and I certainly don't let others who want to use them to define me do so without an argument. We are all more than the sum of our parts, and we are far greater than mere parts of some larger sum.