The Visit (2015)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Olivia deJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, and Peter McRobbie
The Visit has been hailed as a minor return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll agree, in that for once the faults with the movie have absolutely nothing to do with the writing or story, which is actually quite great for relatively disposable horror (more along the lines of 2010’s Devil, a fun little movie that he was involved with but didn’t direct). The setup, where two kids stay with the grandparents they never met and find that they’re dangerously out of sorts, is workable, and the twists the story takes are legitimately fantastic. It even finds a believable, narratively satisfying, and often funny use of the found footage conceit, by making granddaughter Becca a budding documentarian. However, its far from scary, its scares often literally arising from an old lady jumping in front of the camera and growling. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t need to, but there’s potential for some very unnerving work here. M. Night picked a bad time to attempt to develop a sense of humour.
Mistress America (2015)
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, and Heather Lind
Stories about aimless twenty-somethings in New York are a dime a dozen, but Noah Baumbach proved that he had an eye for it with 2014’s Frances Ha. As if trying to top that film, Greta Gerwig’s character in Mistress America is the cartoonish epitome of self-actualizing success-or-bust entitled go-getter culture, known in all the clubs, claims to have numerous writing ideas, and has big ideas of opening a earthy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. If the American dream was once comfort, Gerwig’s Brooke instead treats it as a whirlwind checklist. It’s utterly unreal, and the fascination she inspires in her college student soon-to-be-sister played by Lola Kirke is earned. When the two of them embark on a quest to save the restaurant, Mistress America’s second half plays as a giant single-stage comedy, with characters zipping in and out in hilarious fashions (looking at you, Karen). It has a distinctive rhythm to it, especially in its dialogue which sounds very staged but gives the movie its own voice. It’s a highly enjoyable, endlessly quotable romp, and I look forward to watching it again when not on an airplane.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner
The Mission Impossible movies as of late seem to be reliable critical and commercial performers that I’m unable to really get into, despite appreciating the fantastic stunt work. Rogue Nation is no exception, and even the stunts aren’t as impressive as they have been in the past. An underwater sequence that was supposedly very difficult to shoot never inspires a level of thrill to match the effort, although a subdued high-wire act at the Vienna Opera works quite well. The subplot involving the dissolution of the IMF is tired, as is Alec Baldwin’s haughty CIA boss stock character. The main villain is forgettable, ineffectual, and cliched, ringing too many familiar beats from Spectre-style organized supervillainy without having any fun with it. Most despressingly, Tom Cruise is finally starting to show some age. Thankfully, Simon Pegg remains a fantastic secondary presence, and newcomer Rebecca Ferguson has astounding screen presence as Cruise’s British undercover counterpart. Scenes with her come alive in a way the rest of the movie just doesn’t. Maybe give the franchise to Ferguson and Pegg, and put the rest of it back in the stable.
Better Call Saul, Season Two (2016)
Showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Jonathan Banks
Better Call Saul obviously had big shoes to fill, and has established itself throughout two seasons as less reliant on action and big climaxes than its parent. It mostly succeeds in this, thanks to maintaining Breaking Bad’s habit of inventive cinematography and crafting some slow-building greatness in some of its main characters, namely Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill, both of whom have a much more interesting presence here than in Season One. However, Better Call Saul seems to behaving a problem creating memorable characters in its supporting roles. While the odd supporter makes an impression, such as Jimmy’s film student lackies or Chuck’s gopher Ernesto, it still relies very heavily on bringing in familiar faces from Breaking Bad to fill its world, particularly in Mike Ehrmantraut’s side story. Mike’s story is generally a problem despite being interesting, as it stubbornly refuses to integrate into the main action. But even Jimmy/Saul’s story in season two has its faults. It opens by effectively undoing the end of the previous season, only to spend a half-season building to the same point (in an admittedly more natural way). Odenkirk is still fantastic, and the camera work and family-based storyline make Better Call Saul a very worthwhile watch. Check out Polite Fight over at The AV Club for some great in-depth analysis of the shot construction of the show, while only occasional devolving into conspiracy theory.