Monday, September 28, 2015

Everest (2015)

I'm going to try not to have too many spoilers in this review. But I will be referring to the true story here and there, so I'll probably end up giving a few things away.

After watching the trailer for the new film Everest and seeing the tagline "NEVER LET GO," you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just another one of those rousing man-conquers-nature, triumphs-over-adversity movies like Alive or Apollo 13

But if you have even a passing recollection of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster upon which this story is based, you'll know enough to suspect that's not going to be the case. Man didn't conquer shit in 1996, and there wasn't a lot of triumph to go around — unless you count losing only your nose and both of your hands to frostbite as a triumph.

I've read Into Thin AirJon Krakauer's first-person account of the disaster, a couple times, and it's one of the most harrowing non-fiction books I've ever encountered. Everest isn't based on his book (in fact, Krakauer is pretty pissed about how he was portrayed), but from what I remember of the story it seems to be a pretty accurate retelling, even if a lot of the edges have been smoothed over and spackled under a layer of Hollywood gloss. 

But even with its faults, it's a pretty riveting film.

Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, an Everest guide from New Zealand whose company Adventure Consultants was one of several expeditions stranded on the south face of the mountain during a blistering storm on the night of May 10, 1996. Hall's friendly rival was Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, oddly underused here), whose Mountain Madness team was also caught in the "Death Zone" (a third expedition, comprised of a group of Tibetan police officers, was trapped on the north face and isn't mentioned in the film). A few of the people in Hall's group were Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Seattle mail man Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and Japanese businesswoman Yasuko Namba  (Naoko Mori). 

And, of course, there was journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose employer, Outside magazine, had been paid by Hall to document the excursion and (hopefully) bring some good press to his company. It didn't really work out that way.

Everest, for its first half, is a pretty able if not terribly impressive adventure film. There are some good performances. Clarke is the standout, but Hawkes and Emily Watson (as Adventure Consultants base camp manager Helen Wilton) are also quite good. Gyllenhaal is fine, but he doesn't have a lot to do. I expected there to be more focus on Kelly, but maybe that's because I'm mostly familiar with Krakauer's account. He's also underused, but has a few nice moments here and there. 

Director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, 2 Guns) doesn't overload us too early with the sort of majestic/terrifying vista shots we saw jammed into the trailer. The focus is (rightly) on the characters, which would be great except none of them are terribly interesting. Hall — a professional mountaineer profiting (perhaps against his better judgment) off a bunch of rich wannabes — is the most developed. Clarke paints a portrait of a decent, well-meaning guy who's so able at what he does that maybe it doesn't occur to him he might screw up.

For about an hour, we do get some nice (if a bit clichéd) triumph-over-adversity stuff, and we get a few little glimpses into the family lives of Hall and Weathers (Brolin is ostensibly the second lead, but frankly I can't say he brought a whole lot to the table here). The trek up the mountain certainly feels triumphant, but we get a few little shadings of what's to come: logjams on the way up, an uneasy partnership between Hall and Fischer (whose Sherpas inexplicably seem to hate each other), rumblings about bad weather on the way.

Things go sideways as the groups reach the top, and Hall — wanting to see his buddy Hansen, who tried and failed to summit the year before, succeed — makes an understandable but tragic mistake.

It's in the second half that the film really comes alive (sorry about the unintended mordent irony there). When disaster strikes, Kormákur throws us right into it. It's stunning (and likely pretty true to life) how quickly things fall apart when there's literally no margin of error for survival. A few minor mistakes and miscommunications early on lead to an alarming descent into chaos. The film necessarily skips over some details (if you want more, read Krakauer's book), but it captures the sudden and inexorable sense of doom as the situation goes rapidly from problematic to absolutely dire.

Kormákur also heaps in a few heavy shovelfuls of rank emotional manipulation, but I don't fault him for it. He's got a highly developed, almost Spielbergian sense of how to play an audience's fear and empathy for maximum effect. And Clarke quietly delivers a performance of such crushing tragic weight that you don't notice the incredible feat of it until the movie is over. The final shot of the movie will haunt me for awhile.

Everest isn't a great movie. It doesn't quite reconcile the disparate tones of its first and second halves, and too many of the characters are underdeveloped (likely unavoidable with the size of this cast). But overall it's a damn effective one, and worth seeing while it's in theaters.

I didn't see it in 3D, and for that I'm glad. I'm not sure I could have hung with it when shit gets dark.

My Top 10 Best Pink Floyd Songs

This is one of those posts born solely out of boredom and an intense desire to procrastinate. There are so many other things I really should be doing right now, but whatever. Pink Floyd has been my favorite band basically since I developed a concept of what a band is. I'm probably one of the few dudes of my generation who can accurately say I've been a Floyd superfan for thirty years.

So, from least to most, here are my top 10 favorite Pink Floyd songs of all time. These are the desert island tracks I couldn't live without.

And before anyone yells at me: no, I'm not including anything from the Syd Barrett era. I appreciate Barrett, find that part of the band's story fascinating, and do enjoy some of the music (particularly "Astronomy Domine" and "Bike"). But for you Syd hipsters out there, let me ask you this: do you really think that music holds up the way, say,  Dark Side and Wish You Were Here do? Would you be at all interested in any of it if not for the drama of Barrett's collapse?

If you say "yes" to either of those questions, I name you LIAR.

10. "Dogs of War," A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)

This choice will annoy a lot of people, because the general consensus is that A Momentary Lapse of Reason is the first Floyd "sellout" album, coming as it did after resident angry genius Roger Waters's acrimonious departure a few years earlier. I don't necessarily disagree (although I tend to be more forgiving of David Gilmour-era Floyd than most).

But this is one of those songs that caught me at just the right time (I was nine years old) and stuck with me in a big way. That ominous martial quality of the synthesizers (I was already into real dark shit, even at that age), Gilmour's strained rocker's rasp (deployed much more effectively on "Money"), the way it explodes into something approaching gospel and then swerves into one of those epiphanic saxophone solos that inspires little kids to pick up the sax and plunk their way through "Mary Had a Little Lamb" at their first school recital (as it did for this little kid, at least)... to nine-year-old me, this was rock music happening at a register I didn't know was possible.

In fact, now that I think about it, this is the Floyd song that had the most direct impact on the trajectory of my life. If I hadn't heard this song, I probably never would have wanted to learn the saxophone. Which, in turn, means I never would have ended up in the high school marching band and met my best friends (hey, Doug, Dan, and Karl). And I likely never would have gone to college in Alamosa, CO (went there for marching band, too), never would have become a college radio DJ, never would have moved to Pueblo for the summer (1998), which means I never would have met the girl who inspired me to write Dead Billy, and so on...


Of course, adult me can listen to "Dogs of War" and recognize that it doesn't approach anywhere near the heights the band reached at its peak. But it was my "first" favorite Floyd song, so it needs to be on this list.

9. "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" Ummagumma (1969)

Floyd from an entirely different era, when they were just beginning to be identified with that popular if meaningless term "prog rock."

It's always amused me how Pink Floyd continually gets lumped in with prog noodlers like Rush and Yes. The only similarity, as far as I can see, is their tendency toward long, abstract instrumentals (like this one). But listen to "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" after, say, Rush's "The Trees" or Yes's "Close to the Edge" and try to tell me that they're working in anywhere near the same genre.

Pink Floyd were always murkier, more cynical, much less concerned with virtuosity and psychedelia and much more concerned with exploring concepts like insanity and death. To me, they've always felt more of a piece with musicians like the Velvet Underground, Philip Glass, John Cage, and even weirdo poets like Tom Waits. They were mining the dark side long before it was cool to do so.

8. "Fearless" Meddle (1971)

Meddle is one of my least favorite Floyd albums. It's an interesting artifact, documenting their transition out of the schizophrenic music of their early years into the smooth, dark, oblong cohesiveness of the Dark Side - The Wall era (1973-1980). But as an album, it's a little bit of a lot of things but not really much of anything.

"Fearless," though — this is just a masterful song, and it showcases a side of Floyd hardly seen up to that point. It's just a great 70s rock and roll song, straightforward and to the point, infused with a deep sense of melancholy wrapped around a delicious acoustic melody. It's something that could have been penned by The Eagles, if The Eagles had anywhere near the depth of Pink Floyd. It's one of those songs that always makes my heart skip a beat.

7. "Pigs: Three Different Ones" Animals (1977)

The record that came out the year I was born. I love that Floyd's answer to punk rock was to create an album where one of the shortest songs (this one) clocks in at over eleven minutes. But their gloomy riff on Orwell's Animal Farm is just as ferocious and blistering as anything The Sex Pistols or The Clash were doing at the time.

To my ears, Animals is Floyd's bitterest album (minus the shrill and nearly unlistenable The Final Cut), and one of their most underrated. "Pigs: Three Different Ones" was Roger Waters at his most sneering — but it was sneering with a purpose. Johnny Rotten could have learned a few things from this aging "dinosaur" if he'd ever bothered to listen.

Waters had one more great album in him (The Wall) before the anger that drove his creativity began to feed on itself.

6. "Brain Damage/Eclipse" The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

This two-song suite is, to me, the flip side of something like "Pigs: Three Different Ones." It's dark and it's got that Roger Waters snarl — but it's also oddly, nihilistically joyful. You listen to this song and you can just imagine Waters sailing off the edge of existence with a big, shit-eating grin on his face. And you can almost imagine sailing off right along with him.

5. "If" Atom Heart Mother (1970)

This is a pretty obscure track, sandwiched between the epic and orchestral (and nearly 25-minute)  "Atom Heart Mother Suite" and Rick Wright's much more bombastic "Summer '68" (both strong contenders for this list).

It's also deceptively gentle for a Roger Waters song. He doesn't sneer or shout, but rather sings in a delicate and tremulous whisper, accompanied mostly by nothing but an acoustic guitar, a few spacey Gilmour flourishes, and a bit of color from Wright's piano (drummer Nick Mason tosses in a few beats towards the end).

It's the type of song you put on a yoga mix. But this is still Roger Waters, and he can't entirely keep away from the macabre. That's what turns this song from something innocuously pleasant into a bonafide work of mad Waters genius. Lyrics like "if I go insane, please don't stick your wires in my brain" float by almost without you noticing them.

4. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)" Wish You Were Here (1975)

I almost wanted to leave this off the list because it's so fucking obvious. The only surprise, maybe, is that I didn't put it at number one.

But this is one of those rare 70s rock classics that is truly as great as everyone says it is. It sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, and it's the perfect symbiosis of all Floyd's disparate parts working perfectly together in absolute, clockwork harmony. Rick Wright's synthesizer has never been more haunting, and Gilmour manages to ring more emotion out of those four famous guitar notes than Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page do in an entire solo.

And it's probably Waters' crowning lyrical achievement, an ode to a fallen friend (Syd Barrett) that manages to both honor and skewer its subject in equal measure:

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter; come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr,
and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions; come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, 
and shine!

This is just a beautiful song — maybe the most beautiful in rock-and-roll history. That's not opinion; it's verifiable fact.

3. "Nobody Home" The Wall (1979)

I know I just said that "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is Roger Waters' standout lyrical achievement, but if that's true then The Wall's "Nobody Home" has to be a very close second. I think it's no coincidence that it's also about Syd Barrett; Waters was always at his best when he was reflecting back on his past and the fate of his former bandmate and friend.

"Dogs of War" was my first favorite Pink Floyd song. But A Momentary Lapse of Reason wasn't the first Floyd album that got its hooks into me. My brother had left a vinyl copy of The Wall in my parents' record cabinet. I don't remember how old I was the first time I listened to it, but I couldn't have been more than seven. I had been captivated by that stark black-and-white cover since as long as I can remember, and I can still recall the feelings of both utter hopelessness and transcendent joy that flooded into my young brain on that first spin.

I didn't get it at all, but something in this record spoke to me at an extremely impressionable age. And when I look at my own creative work, I see The Wall's dark influence all over it. To me this is and will always be the Pink Floyd record, the ultimate monument to all of Roger Waters' bleakest obsessions: madness, death, war, and rage. He has never been better, before or since.

2. "Hey You" The Wall (1979)

There's no Floyd song I find more haunting — and relatable — than this one. No piece of music has better captured that feeling of desperate, drowning loneliness. I don't even want to say how many hours I spent sitting alone in my bedroom in the dark, listening to this track over and over and over again. Even now, if I catch it in the right (or wrong) mood, it'll put me close to tears.

1. "The Trial" The Wall (1979)

The Wall's penultimate song and undisputed climax, "The Trial" is like the nuttiest Gilbert & Sullivan song you could imagine. It's a near perfect piece of theatre and a sublime work of black comedy, with Roger Waters playing the many roles with all the panache of a trained Broadway actor. No song in the English language gives me more joy than this.

I'm generally not a huge fan of The Wall movie (1982), but Gerald Scarfe's animation during this segment is an undisputed highlight. Watch the video above and marvel. Scarfe's depiction of the Judge as a giant, bleating asshole never fails to crack me up.

Honorable Mentions:
"One of These Days" Meddle
"Astronomy Domine" Piper at the Gates of Dawn
"Mother" The Wall
"The Great Gig in the Sky" The Dark Side of the Moon
"On the Turning Away" Momentary Lapse of Reason
"Waiting for the Worms" The Wall
"Welcome to the Machine" Wish You Were Here
"Sheep" Animals
"One of My Turns" The Wall
"Time" The Dark Side of the Moon
"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" A Saucerful of Secrets
"Comfortably Numb" The Wall
"In the Flesh" The Wall
"Summer '68" Atom Heart Mother
"The Nile Song" The More Soundtrack
"Free Four" Obscured by Clouds
"Bike" Piper at the Gates of Dawn
"Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" Ummagumma
"Atom Heart Mother Suite" Atom Heart Mother
"Wish You Were Here" Wish You Were Here

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

There are some spoilers in here. Nothing major — and nothing you wouldn't know from reading the newspaper accounts of the story. But be warned.

Scott Cooper's Black Mass is not only the movie I've been anticipating the most this year, but one of the top five movies I've been most dying to see for the last decade or so. I became obsessed with the whole James "Whitey" Bulger story back around 2004 when I was living in Boston and I stumbled on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.

That book (the basis for Cooper's film) is still considered by many to be the definitive text on Bulger's Winter Hill Gang, which terrorized Boston from the mid 1970s through the early 1990s. Lehr and O'Neill, both Boston Globe reporters, followed it up in 2013 with Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss after Whitey was finally caught hiding out in Santa Monica, California.

Bulger — a fugitive for many years and second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's most wanted list — wasn't really in the mass consciousness at the time (he would enter it again just a couple years later after Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in The Departed was reported to have been based on him). The story was entirely new to me. As a small-town kid from the lower Rockies, Boston already seemed pretty exotic to me; add in a fugitive, murderous gangster and I was hooked. I read everything I could on the subject, even Howie Carr's terrible The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century. I even met one of Bulger's main associates, Kevin Weeks (played with brooding menace by Jesse Plemmons in the new movie), in an encounter at a book signing at the Boston University book store that I found a little terrifying and that he probably doesn't remember at all.

I closely tracked the development of this movie from the start, and when they announced Johnny Depp as Bulger, I was cautiously optimistic; sure, he's been having a little too much fun at the Pirates of the Caribbean/Willy Wonka/Dark Shadows costume party for quite a long time now... but he did brilliantly portray FBI agent Joe Pistone in one of my all time favorite gangster movies, Donnie Brasco (1997). If he could tap back into that, maybe it would work.

I started to allow myself to get just a little excited when I saw the pictures of him in full Bulger regalia. The resemblance is pretty impressive:

And of course, there was that great first trailer.

So after all that, what's my verdict?

Meh. Pretty good, I guess.

Black Mass is a decent Hollywood gangster movie, ably told but fairly anonymous, nowhere near as great as a Donnie Brasco or Goodfellas but better than garbage like 2012's The Iceman. It's probably about on the level of something like Ben Affleck's The Town (2010) or Gone Baby Gone (2007). Maybe a little less interesting.

I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Bulger expert — and I certainly wasn't there for anything depicted in the movie — but I have read a lot about the case, from many different sources, so I know more about the true events than your average moviegoer. I can say that Black Mass gets many of the events pretty close to right in a very abbreviated, Cliff's Notes sort of way that I expected (I've always thought this story would have been best served as an HBO limit series like David Simon's Show Me A Hero). Right up until the end, that is, when they kind of just start making shit up. But okay, this is Hollywood. I'm not expecting exact fidelity to the truth — although I've never been able to understand why you'd invent stuff when the true story is far more interesting and cinematic.

I don't want to belabor this, but there are few details the movie got wrong that I want to mention for posterity. Minor spoilers ahead:

• Bulger's son actually died several years before the events of the movie. I'm not even sure why they included it, because the time wasted on that storyline took away from much needed development elsewhere.
• The film is oddly hands-off in the way it treats Bulger accomplice Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth portray him almost sympathetically as Bulger's reluctant subordinate. In fact Bulger and Flemmi were partners, and by many accounts Flemmi is a full-on psychopath who was as bad as Bulger, if not worse (he's currently serving a life sentence for 10 murders). Cochrane is a hell of an actor and he does everything he can with this underwritten role, but it's not enough.
• The movie suggests that it was Bulger who convinced Flemmi to join him as a top echelon informant with the FBI, when in fact Flemmi had been an informant since 1965 — about a decade before his partner.
• The film is also very careful in how it portrays Bulger's younger brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who just happened to be the president of the Massachusetts State Senate while Bulger was dominating the streets of Southie. Billy is hardly a presence in the film, and Cumberbatch plays him pretty close to the vest. It's been an open question for a long time how much Billy Bulger knew about his brother's activities and whether or not he helped him or covered for him in any way. Billy is still alive and (mostly) respected in Massachusetts, and I would guess that the studio didn't want to risk a lawsuit by suggesting anything that it couldn't prove.

I haven't seen Cooper's earlier work (been meaning to catch up with Crazy Heart for forever), but I think he did a solid job here, and with a decent amount of style. Overall the movie is well paced. And many of the performances are quite good — in particular David Harbour, who plays corrupt FBI agent John Connolly's (Joel Edgerton) equally compromised boss John Morris. I wish he'd had a stronger presence in the film, because Morris had the most human (and subtly tragic) arc of anyone involved in the case. But the movie does offer a piece of information I had never heard before (or somehow missed), and I wonder if it's true; it suggests that it was Morris, on deep background, who approached Lehr and O'Neill in the first place as a whistleblower.

My favorite performance, Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as US attorney Fred Wyshak, comes pretty late in the game. But it's a breath of fresh air as, according to the movie, Wyshak was the one guy willing to step up and call everyone on the bullshit they'd allowed to drop over the years. It's a much-needed muscular and no-nonsense performance that shows up at just the right time.

The two central performances, however, are pretty problematic. Edgerton's take on Connolly — who, as a Bulger's FBI handler, abetted Bulger's murderous rise and is now serving time for murder — seems off to me. Connolly was certainly an arrogant, blustery dude, but in the film he might as well have been walking around with a sign around his neck reading "CORRUPT FBI ASSHOLE!! ARREST ME NOW!!" I just can't believe Connolly could have been as blatant — and, frankly, as stupid — about his corruption as is portrayed in the film. Edgerton's dialogue is mostly reduced to various bromides about his "loyalty" to Southie and the brothers Bulger, who were "very good to him" as a child. And, for some reason, that's good enough for his FBI superiors and for the US attorneys, even though boss Charles MaGuire (Kevin Bacon) knows almost from the start that the deal with Bulger stinks. We're given to understand that the FBI was so desperate to bring down the Italian Mafia of Boston's North End that they were willing to tolerate Connolly's obvious transgressions. There's a lot of truth to that, but the two-hour running time doesn't allow for the type of development needed to make it really make sense within the film.

And Depp... well, I guess he hasn't left the costume party just yet. In his hands, Bulger is an entirely exterior creature who seems to operate on exactly one level: a sort of demonic, murderous lechery that smacks of caricature. There's one scene in particular between Bulger and Connolly's wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson, in one of the film's other unheralded small performances), that's meant to be terrifying but instead comes off almost laughable. They didn't allow Depp a mustache with which to twirl, so instead he uses Bulger's leather jacket like a greasy black snake's skin to telegraph the depth of his evil (that jacket, by the way, comes from exactly one photo of Bulger, pictured above. Most other shots I've seen of him show that he pretty much dressed like a regular guy most of the time).

Literally every moment Depp has onscreen — even an early one where he's playing gin rummy with his elderly mother — positively oozes with slime. It works great in the scene everyone knows from the trailer, the one where Bulger presses Morris about his steak marinade. But over the course of an entire movie, it comes pretty close to eye rolling. It's like one of Depp's performances from a Tim Burton movie was just dropped whole into an entirely different film.

In the end I didn't hate the movie (which I feared), and as I was watching it I mostly enjoyed it. It's worth catching if you've got an evening free, but it's not one you need to rush out for.

But is this the definitive take and final word on James "Whitey" Bulger? I sure hope not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Visit (2015)

I guess I don't really need to go too deep into the conversation about how M. Night Shyamalan's movies have been terrible for the last decade or so. They have been, in sometimes stunning fashion, and we all know it.  So let's just move on, ok?

And I'm not going to go so far as all the critics claiming that his new film, The Visit, is a return to form. This isn't on the level of The Sixth Sense... or even Signs, probably. A few critics are going nuts for it because Shyamalan's last five or so movies have been so godawful that the bar has been lowered basically to ground level.

But, for what it is, The Visit is pretty damn good.

Might it be that Shyamalan has finally been humbled after all the vitriol that has been thrown at him since roughly The Village (2004)? I'm guessing that's part of it. But there's another player in the game here, and I think its influence on the film — a sort of retro found-footage movie about two kids sent off to visit a pair of maniacal grandparents they've never met before — needs to be acknowledged.

That other player, of course, is Blumhouse Productions. The company basically owes its existence to the Paranormal Activity franchise, and is best known for producing generally unimpressive but successful horror movies like Sinister (2012), The Purge (2013), and the moderately more artful Insidious series. They made their bid for an Oscar last year with Whiplash, which managed to be more intense and horrifying than anything else they've produced.

It's a bit odd to imagine Blumhouse teaming up with Shyamalan, and I'd love to know the inside story of how this came together. I'm guessing a significant part of it is the fact that there aren't a lot of other companies willing to work with the director anymore, and Blumhouse knew they could probably get him cheap.

But somehow this collaboration becomes more than the sum of its parts, bringing out the best of each other without indulging in the worst. For his part, Shyamalan's most turgid instincts seem to have been somewhat mitigated by the lean-and-mean, straight-to-the-point Blumhouse ethos. The Visit falls pretty squarely between the Paranormal Activity found-footage thing and the slightly more elevated sensibility of Insidious, and the constraints don't allow him to go up his own ass the way he's been prone to do.

The constraints suit him well. He's still got enough storytelling spark and visual flare to class up the joint a bit, and in The Visit he managed to conjure up a few of the most startling and genuinely upsetting horror images I've seen in a while.

I don't want to oversell it; there's nothing particularly mind blowing here, and the movie doesn't have anywhere near the energy or originality of recent movies like It Follows and The Babadook. But by and large it all works, and some of what he delivers is truly scary.

It's also legitimately funny, which I didn't expect. Shyamalan has shown a moderate ability with humor in the past (particularly in Signs), but he manages to really nail it here. The two young leads, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, are saddled with the sort of cutesy precocious kid roles that normally make me want to claw my eyes out. But these kids can act, and they have a genuine sibling chemistry between them. DeJonge takes Rebecca, the older of a two and an aspiring filmmaker, and makes her pretensions charming rather than grating. And Oxenbould's Tyler, an aspiring rapper (yep, that's right), is often laugh-out-loud hilarious. But when it's time for them to be scared and deliver the horror-movie goods, they do. Oxenbould's is the showier performance, but he manages to spin Tyler's manic energy into a genuine ferocity toward the end that is more than a little frightening and definitely unexpected.

But the real stars of the show here are Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan as "Pop-Pop" and "Nana." They deliver the sort of tour-de-force genre performances that deserve Oscar consideration but never get it. At first you're charmed by them, then you're sort of laughing at them, then you're a little uncomfortable around them... and then you're absolutely terrified.

I kind of hope this Shyamalan/Blumhouse partnership continues. It's too early to call this a comeback, but I can say for the first time in years I'm actually excited to see his next movie.