A Visit to avoid

Since striking gold with The Sixth Sense (1999), the fall from grace for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has been long, protracted, and painful – particularly for audiences waiting for lightning to strike twice.

With his latest film, The Visit, Shyamalan appears firmly ensconced in the realm of hackdom.

Not even a pairing with prolific genre producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, et al) can reverse his sinking fortune. Simply put, The Visit isn’t worth one.

Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould play Becca and Tyler, precocious siblings visiting their grandparents for the first time.

She’s an aspiring filmmaker and is recording the event … for posterity, one assumes.

(It certainly isn’t for entertainment value.) This, of course, allows Shyamalan to embark upon the “found-footage” route, of which Blum is much more experienced – and which has been done to death.

Nana (Tony winner Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) live in a remote house in the country, and appear to be prototypical cute and cuddly grandparents, despite laying down ground rules like going to bed at 9:30 and not venturing into the basement. (There’s mold, they say.)

The film’s talky build-up sees Nana and Pop Pop acting weirder and weirder as the week progresses, with everything captured on camera. Dunagan and McRobbie have their amusing moments as the oddball oldsters, but the anticipation for Shyamalan’s patented late-inning plot twist proves, once again, an empty promise. (For veteran horror fans, it’s safe to say that Shyamalan is familiar with a ‘70s drive-in favorite titled, ironically enough, Don’t Look in the Basement.)

By the time film goes hog wild at the climax – and not in a good way – it’s clear that the film, flimsy to begin with, has far outstayed its welcome. In the Halloween season screen sweepstakes, The Visit is all trick, and no treat at all.

Grandma: Full-tilt Tomlin

Grandma affords Lily Tomlin the most smashing showcase of her acting career. In the title role, she plays Elle Reid, a depressed poet whose caustic attitude masks an untapped reservoir of vulnerability.

Elle has just broken up with muchyounger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and pines for a long-term lover who has died, but those personal problems are displaced when granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turns up on her doorstep – needing money for an abortion.

Elle, long estranged from Sage’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden), is none too thrilled by this unexpected disclosure, but she’s determined to help Sage – and heaven help anyone who gets in their way.

A day-long misadventure sees Elle confronting her past and renewing ties with her granddaughter. Grandma could easily have lapsed into maudlin sentiment, but writer/director Paul Weitz and a sterling cast keep the film on track throughout. The film is outrageously funny but emotionally resonant, and with a running time of barely 80 minutes, there’s nary a wasted moment.

Tomlin blazes through the film like a comet (the talk of a possible Oscar nomination is justified), yet there’s ample opportunity for the other actors – even those in small roles – to shine, including Garner, Harden, Greer, John Cho, Judy Geeson, Colleen Camp, the late Elizabeth Pena, and especially Sam Elliott, whose smashing performance as Elle’s old flame is a textbook example of a great actor making his every onscreen moment count. Grandma enforces an old show-biz adage: There are no small parts, only small actors.

Grandma opens Friday.

Coming of rage

Breathe, actress-turned-screenwriter/director Melanie Laurent’s screen adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s novel Respire, is a coming-of-age drama tinged with suspense and adolescent rage.

Laurent has coaxed excellent, deeply felt performances by Josephine Japy and Lou de Laage, who occupy the central roles as troubled teens. Charlie (Japy) is the withdrawn one and Sarah (de Laage) the assertive one, yet both have deep-rooted insecurities. Their friendship is instantaneous, to the point where Sarah almost becomes an unofficial member of Charlie’s family.

But then there are twinges of discomfort and notes of jealousy between the two girls that grow more pronounced, and begin to fester, as their friendship grinds to a halt. Their falling-out is inevitable, much as the secrets they have shared with each other will come back to haunt them. But when Sarah begins to lash out, it’s Charlie who takes matters into her own hands in a final, fateful action.

Although Laurent maintains tension throughout and offers a credible portrayal of teen angst, Breathe never quite peaks. Its conclusion somehow seems inevitable, and is arrived at in almost anti-climactic fashion. (In French with English subtitles)

Breathe opens Friday. !

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