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‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is a winning move for Maguire


Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Directed by Edward Zwick

7.5/10  PG-13

Remember in 2007 when Tobey Maguire gave us that absolutely batshit version of Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3”? At the height of his fame/infamy in the 1970s, Bobby Fischer acted just like that, but also feverishly paranoid and conspiratorial. pawn-sacrifice05So who better to play the disputed world champion chess superstar than guy-who-only-has-an-outside-voice Tobey Maguire? Nobody, that’s who.

Born in Chicago and raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, Robert James “Bobby” Fischer (Tobey Maguire) taught himself to play chess when he was just 6 years old. At 15, he was a grandmaster. At 20, he became the youngest U.S. chess championship. “Pawn Sacrifice” efficiently breezes through these prodigal years, but it’s Fischer in his late 20s that the movie chooses to focus on. In the thick of the Cold War, the USSR considered any advantage over the US a political victory. That included a world champion in chess, which at the time happened to be Soviet juggernaut Boris Pawn Sacrifice stillSpassky (Liev Schreiber). So secretive government adviser Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to convince the 29-year-old Fischer to compete in the World Championships to take down Spassky in an effort to help win the Cold War. But 23 years of chess has driven Fischer to the brink. He checks his hotel phones for bugs. He makes demands of the chess federation before he agrees to play. He snaps whenever his concentration is broken. Bobby Fischer was sent to Iceland to advance America’s position against the Soviet Union, but his maddening psychosis almost worsened tensions.

Tobey Maguire, despite some questionable career movies over the years, has shown that he can be an elite actor. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in “Brothers,” and even “The Great Gatsby” showed that if he believes in a character he can make it work well. So it’s not all that surprising that Maguire reaches a level in “Pawn Sacrifice” that few actors have reached this year. If I had to nominate five men for Best Actor right now, having seen what I’ve seen so far this year, Maguire would be in that group. He makes chess come pawnsacrifice-mv-3alive, which isn’t an easy thing to do. He gets strong support from fellow Golden Globe nominees Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a priest and former chess champ who helps Fischer as he prepares for the World Championship. They provide the logic to Fischer’s lunacy.

With a writing staff that consists of two masters of historical biopics (Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, who wrote “Nixon” and “Ali”) and one Oscar nominee who has a history with thrillers (Steven Knight, who created Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders”), it also shouldn’t come as a shock that “Pawn Sacrifice” has an effectively engaging script. It covers enough of Fischer’s history to understand his present, and while it lasts nearly two hours you don’t feel the time go by. Even long periods of silence, followed only by the click of chess piece to board, don’t bother you. You’re too busy watching a master at work…Fischer, yes, but also Maguire. But “Pawn Sacrifice” also moans a dramatic score from 8-time Oscar nominee James Pawn-Sacrifice-unstableNewton Howard (“The Dark Knight”) that’s worth looking up on Spotify the next day at work. Plus, Sundance award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”) paints this troubled portrait beautifully. Truly, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a successful collaboration on many fronts. A story about a game of chess, even one with political implications, is not going to draw everyone on board. Could it have been more exciting? Probably. But “Pawn Sacrifice” tells one of history’s most interesting true stories. And Tobey Maguire makes that story come to exhilarating life.

‘Sicario’ is worth the hype


Sicario (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

8.5/10  R

In my opinion, the best low-key movie of 2013 was French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s incredible thriller “Prisoners.” I say low-key because while it got a lot of serious buzz from the fans that saw it (it’s the 230th best movie of all time, according to IMDb users), most people didn’t see it (it’s the 1,163rd highest-grossing of all time, according to Box SicarioOffice Mojo) and it only received one nomination at the Academy Awards. So far this year, Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is set to follow in the same path. This time, let’s hope Villeneuve’s dramatic thriller gets the attention it deserves.

Elite FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) specializes in kidnappings, mostly carried out by Mexican cartel members near the border. But regardless of the number of guys she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) have taken down, they recognize that they’re not getting to the root of the evil. The root that lives across the border in Juarez, Mexico. That’s where special agents and Department of Defense advisers Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) come in. With permission from her boss (Victor Garber), they’ll acquire Kate’s help in a secretive operation to Sicario-3take down the head of the Juarez cartel, Fausto Alarcon. But Kate’s kept in the dark, blindly following orders as jurisdictional lines are crossed for the greater good. Like “Prisoners,” Villeneuve asks, “Do the ends justify the means?” A cast of anti-heroes will let you make the final call.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been shooting films since the late-1970s. In 1995, Deakins received his first Academy Award nomination—for shooting “The Shawshank Redemption.” 20 years and 11 additional nominations later (including the well-deserved nod for “Prisoners,” the film’s only nomination), Deakins sees himself set for another mention at the Oscars. This time, despite Oscar’s tendency to award period pieces, Deakins finally deserves the ultimate recognition. “Sicario” is by far the year’s most impeccably-shot film, a visual marvel that uses all sorts of tricks but mostly settles for simple shots that are just as gorgeous. Real-time scenes create a palpable excitement and also incredible fear. Plenty of aerial shots provide context for the world we’re being transplanted to as an audience. “Sicario” is an unforgettable movie all-around, but what you Sicario-Josh-Brolinremember most are the striking moments captured by this master of the art. You may question why I’m leading off by praising such a seemingly minor player, but that’s only because you’ve yet to see what I’m talking about.

It helps that he has such fine actors to film. Badass it-girl Emily Blunt will soon become a go-to in Hollywood. Whether it’s a thrilling drama or a comedic musical, Blunt steps up to the plate and gives it her all every time. Her effort is not lost on the audience, who empathizes with her character. Every time Macer isn’t informed about her mission’s objective, the audience is left on-edge, too. The result? An aching suspense, deep in my gut, like I haven’t felt since the last time I watched the ending of “The Silence of the Lambs.” And yes, “Sicario” also has a real-SICARIO Day 01time night vision scene that gives the greatest thriller of all-time a run for its money. Anyway, Blunt’s monumental performance may see her nominated for her first Academy Award. In a year of strong female leads, Emily Blunt epitomizes that strength. For the film’s third possible Oscar, I’d go with Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro. Like “Prisoners” (I swear this is my last comparison), “Sicario” benefits from realistic characters that cover the full spectrum of moral ambiguity. No all-good protagonists or caricatured villains. There’s good and bad in everyone. Del Toro’s Alejandro doesn’t let you forget that. Del Toro is entirely in his element, freely going back and forth between English and Spanish. This is his role, and he commands the screen whenever he graces it.

A loud, ominous score, stunning camerawork, and flawless acting make “Sicario” the coolest and most intense movie of the year. So far, it’s also the best. Welcome to Oscar season, everybody.

‘The Walk’ only talks the talk


The Walk (2015)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

6/10  PG-13

Robert Zemeckis has been a pretty consistent director for the last 30 years. Movies like “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Flight” are some of his best, while movies like “Death Becomes Her” and “A Christmas Carol” will go down as a couple of his unfortunate blunders. But what about the showy, visually magical adventure “The Walk”? In what camp will the future place Zemeckis’s latest film?18854884-standard

When amateur wire-walker Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees a perfect place to hang his wire, he won’t stop until he walks across the void. So when the World Trade Center towers in New York City neared the end of construction in 1974, Petit knew what he had to do. But Petit (as you might have guessed) hails from France. So he gathers his closest companions, all of them recent acquaintances, and takes them with him to New York. Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) was the official photographer. Albert (Ben Schwartz) became Petit’s right-hand man, helping him on the South Tower as Petit prepared his walk. Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine) was the inside man, working on the 82nd floor of the North Tower. And Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) was Petit’s new girlfriend and confidante on his long-awaited dream. joseph-gordon-levitt-discusses-robert-zemeckis-film-the-walkBut as the time draws near, obstacles (the law not the least of them) threaten to delay the walk or halt it altogether.

In 2009, director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”) won an Oscar for his exhilarating documentary “Man on Wire,” which included extensive interviews with Petit and some of his accomplices, photographs of his daring stunt, and recreations of some of his preparations for the walk. It was a complete success. The real Petit is a bubbly, charismatic personality. He commands the screen more than any Hollywood star could dream of. His larger-than-life personality made his story come to life. After “Man on Wire,” any other movie seemed completely unnecessary. Especially not a slightly fictionalized account starring a pale Joseph Gordon-Levitt with an atrocious French accent. I still think that. “The Walk” does show what the dangerous feat may have looked like by recreating ‘70s NYC and using a lot of effects. But it tells you nothing that “Man on Wire” doesn’t already. So skip the theaters and go watch “Man on Wire” on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Sure, yes, Zemeckis’s film is a visual marvel. It puts us 110 stories high on top of the tallest building in the world, looking atthe-walk-movie-1 the vast landscape of NYC. The visual effects team got a real workout editing “The Walk.” The 17-minute wore-walking scene is extremely well-done. But after the dazzle of IMAX 3D wears off, what’s left? A theatrical cast with bushy mustaches and aviators overdoing the 1970s shtick. A script that somehow feels like it’s speeding through Petit’s story, even though it’s a full 30 minutes longer than the documentary. Tacky narration that means we hear JGL’s horrific accent even when we don’t see his messy six-year-old boy haircut and tight black turtle neck. (To be fair, this is what Petit looks and sounds like. But it’s distracting coming from JGL. A French actor would have been more effective.)

The showy effects and quirky narrative style can’t cover for a dull movie. At one point, Ben Kingsley (playing Petit’s Czech mentor, veteran wire walker Papa Rudy), tells Petit: “That was terrible, you’re doing too much… Stop trying so hard.” Exactly. I feel the same way about “The Walk.”

‘Wildlike’ is a walk in the park…and not much more


Wildlike (2015)

Directed by Frank Hall Green

6/10  NR

Some movies are unpredictable not because you can’t predict what happens next, but because you don’t care enough to try. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned but sloppy drama “Wildlike” falls into this category.

Girl-on-the-run Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is stuck in the suburban wilderness of one of Alaska’s bustling, but inaccessible wildlike (1)towns. When she stumbles upon lone hiker Rene Bartlett (Bruce Greenwood), in town to hike across Denali, Mackenzie tricks him into taking her along. She needs someone to stick with until she can find a ferry out of the state. He reluctantly agrees to let her hike with him, even though she’s hesitant to tell him anything about herself—mainly, what she’s running from. Eventually, though, she’ll have to confront her predator. But will Rene be sympathetic to her plight?

Greenwood, at least recently, hasn’t gotten the leading roles he deserves. He makes this one work well, even without A-list star power to aid him. Purnell fits her character well, though she at times struggles to convincingly play out her character’s complicated emotions. You can tell she has to force it. You can tell she’s acting. But she doesn’t have the easiest job, I guess. Writer-director Frank Hall Green’s story is slow, and it’s filled with dialogue that struggles to push the narrative forward. After about an hour, the film WildLike Production Stillsseems to be about a girl taking a hike with a new acquaintance. The dramatic context of her escape (which the audience sees in the movie’s first ten or fifteen minutes) is barely mentioned again until the end, so the film’s real purpose and path is anyone’s guess. An entire hour in the middle of the movie should have been devoted to building suspense, but there was no attempt to hook us. Thankfully, we get a great view of several picturesque Alaskan filming locations in the meantime. But the story isn’t enough to keep us interested. At the end, “Wildlike” wraps up neatly. It’s cute, but anti-climactic. There’s a good thirty minutes of movie in “Wildlike.” The surrounding hour is just weeds.

‘Grandma’ is too much of a Sunday drive


Grandma (2015)

Directed by Paul Weitz

6.5/10  R

I can barely write today, for the pangs of disappointment burden me so. I just saw “Grandma,” Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Weitz’s (“About a Boy”) critically-acclaimed dramedy. For anyone that has seen Lily Tomlin star in “Grace and Frankie,” or anything else she’s been in, you won’t be surprised to discover she nails her role as the wry and outspoken hero_Grandma-2015-1grandmother of a teenage daughter (Julia Garner) seeking $600 to get an abortion. It’s everything besides Tomlin’s performance that makes “Grandma” such a bust.

As once-admired feminist poet Elle Reid (Tomlin) and her granddaughter Sage (Garner) hit up Elle’s old friends all over town for cash, they begin to confront what brought them both to this impasse. Elle recently left a short-term relationship with Olivia (Julie Greer), after her partner Violet passed away a couple years prior. Sage’s sorta-boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff) is far from the guy her disapproving mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), wants her to be with. And both Elle and LilyTomlinLaverneCoxGrandmaSage have troubled, splintered relationships with Judy as it is.

Even a movie as small as “Grandma” (it’s low-budget and only 79 minutes long) can be a big undertaking when it’s about a topic as delicate as abortion. For Lily Tomlin, any task can look like a cakewalk. She plays what I imagine is a slightly played-up version of herself, with only a few moment where it looks like she had to put in much additional effort. Garner, however, doesn’t seem up to the task. Perhaps the aim was to hire a relatively up-and-coming young actress, but filmmakers probably would have been better off hiring someone with some experience—Chloe Grace Moretz or Dakota Fanning, maybe? dt.common.streams.StreamServerWhen Sam Elliot enters the picture as Karl, Elle’s ex-husband from fifty year ago, “Grandma” finally has a moment where it becomes exactly what I had hoped it would be—moving, emotional, and brilliantly-acted. The story becomes multi-faceted and the characters are forced to confront the issues head-on. After that, though, “Grandma” falters to the lowly state in which we found it. “Grandma” could have been a deft character study and timely feminist manifesto, but its uninspired script and seemingly unmotivated cast just wasn’t up to bluff.

‘The Scorch Trials’ continues in exciting footsteps of ‘Maze Runner’


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Directed by Wes Ball

7/10  PG-13

“The Scorch Trials” does what very few sequels do by keeping viewers totally absorbed and interested in what each chapter holds. For those who saw last year’s “The Maze Runner,” this follow-up is a must-see.

The boys and girl—Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Fry (Dexter Darden), MazeRunnerScorchTrials-Image2-750x497Winston (Alexander Flores), and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario)—who made it out of that grueling living maze have more questions than answers when they’re rescued by a group of strangers and taken on helicopters to a new facility. Now, they have food, beds, and showers. And they’re not alone. There are more kids from different mazes, living amongst them. But every day, a handful of them are selected to be transferred to a better place. But nobody sees these people actually leave the building. When Thomas and the gang (plus a newbie, Aris, played by Jacob Lofland) discovers the truth, they’ll attempt their daring jailbreak. The WICKD man in charge of operations (Aiden Gillen) will fail to stop their escape. But the outside world is even more daunting than the threat they face within. If you thought the Grievers of the last movie were frightening, wait until you see the loud, fast-moving sickies (made violently ill by the scorch) who turn blood-thirsty at the sound of a pin drop. The group finds what theymaze-runner-scorch-trials-1 hope are allies in Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar), but who can be trusted when everyone is a stranger?

At first, “The Scorch Trials” moves too quickly to get into. I was caught off-guard, certain it would be a let-down. It jumps off to a far lead. But once you catch up and keep up, it’s an excitingly fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping adventure. It picks up with the help of an intense score and quick-moving cinematography that puts us right alongside our runners. In terms of plot, the 200-word synopsis above is just the start. “The Scorch Trials” is far more complex than “The Maze Runner,” but for those of us who have seen the first one it’s not incomprehensible. “The Scorch Trials” looks like an incredible video game brought to life. Every series of rock-and-a-hard-place, pick-your-poison situations is thought through by the audience, too. I put myself in their shoes, thinking Maze-Runner-Scorch-Trials-Movie-Still-1of how I would try to get myself out of their situations and cheering when they received by telepathic signal…or fretted when they didn’t. You root for this strong cast of kiddos to make it out with their lives. Each one of them plays their part well. Nobody gives me that all-too-common feeling of disappointment that kid actors (even teenage ones) sometimes do. You’re never distracted by a character’s failure to act convincingly.

An aching sense of curiosity is the driving force of this franchise. It’s completely unpredictable and engrossingly entertaining. Does it have a high-class pedigree? Of course not. But it’s more consistent than “The Hunger Games” and more engaging than so many other franchises being made today. That’s reason enough to catch this one in theaters.

‘Black Mass’ is a showcase of acting nobility


Black Mass (2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper

8/10  R

In recent years, the race for Best Actor has been full of leading men all worthy of gold. So far, though, 2015 has seen few strong contenders. Ian McKellen in “Mr. Holmes.” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw,” maybe. But the tides have turned with “Black Mass.” Johnny Depp is almost a shoo-in for a Best Actor nod. But Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon Black-Mass-27all give nomination-worthy performances in their supporting roles, too. What’s more, “Black Mass” also excels in almost every other facet of filmmaking.

James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, covered seamlessly in prosthetics) began informing to the FBI in 1975, when his childhood friend, Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), came to him for information on an enemy gang. Bulger and his partners (like those played by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons) used their new immunity to commit crimes all across South Boston. Connolly used his new favor with the criminals to finance a fancy new house for him and his wife (Julianne Nicholson). Billie (Benedict Cumberbatch), Massachusetts state senator and Whitey’s brother, tries to keep his distance. But when FBI Black-Mass-20Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) realizes Bulger has been giving them information that he couldn’t have known without insider knowledge, he puts pressure on Connolly to help him take Bulger down. Where will the shady agent’s allegiances lie?

At this point in the year, I’d bet money that the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor comes from this “Black Mass” bunch. Edgerton gives the Southie accent his best effort in a starring turn. The crooked agent bit is given human characteristics by the recent director/star of “The Gift.” He shines here. Cumberbatch did a lot of research to match the mannerisms of the senator. In his smaller role, he excels. But that shouldn’t surprise you. And Bacon gives his best performance in years, reminding us of the old days. He’s more emotionally charged than we saw him in “Mystic River,” for instance. But this was always Johnny Depp’s movie. As the notorious criminal, Depp wore contacts to change the color of his eyes, put in some fake teeth, lost a few pounds, and I won’t mention the balding mess atop his head. He looks the part. But more so, he black_mass_39907plays the role to near perfection. He’s equal parts doting family man and intimidating mobster. He’s a leading contender for Best Actor, with the best chances that I’ve seen all year. How could he have played the bumbling spy Mortdecai just eight months ago?

But “Black Mass” isn’t just an unmatched showcase of talented actors. It’s an all-around great effort, with strong direction and an adapted script that could itself earn accolades. First-time screenwriter Mark Mallouk paired with Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “Spectre”) to adapt the 2001 book about the kingpin’s life in crime. The script throws out all of the classic gangster tropes in favor of something more timeless and real. This isn’t to be enjoyed only by those who can relate to the 1970s and 80s. Black-Mass_HeaderThe time plays less into the story than the inherent evil, an evil that lives today as much as ever. “Black Mass” is far from a stuffy period piece. Mallouk and Butterworth bring Bulger’s complex decades-long story to riveting life.

“Black Mass” is one of the best movies of the year. Depp has what could be his best chance at winning an Oscar, with a truly remarkable performance that easily forgives all the questionable roles he’s ever had. But he has a strong supporting cast. Together they make up one of the best ensembles of the year. This one shouldn’t be missed.

‘The Perfect Guy’ never even puts in the effort


The Perfect Guy (2015)

Directed by David M. Rosenthal

5.5/10  PG-13

The 1990s produced more than its fair share of incredible movies. But it also started a ridiculous strain of romantic thrillers that saw strong leading ladies crawling on the floor away from the man they thought they loved. Knives and furniture (and then, eventually, the man’s discarded gun) are the weapons of choice. More often than not, the man won’t go down juntil after a few bullets. Movies like “Sleeping with the Enemy” and “Enough” typified the form, but 2015’s “The Perfect Guy” shows us that it’s still around if you look hard enough.

Successful lobbyist Leah (Sanaa Lathan) and her boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) are the portrait of a happy couple in public, but there’s a rift that’s been growing between them. Leah wants to settle down, but Dave isn’t ready. He says he’s going to move on his own schedule. So Leah kicks him out. Months down the road, Leah meets the perfect guy, Carter (Michael Ealy), an IT professional who treats her like a lady and even wins over her hard-to-please daddy. But after he snaps one evening, beating up a man after an innocent mistake, Leah can’t continue seeing him. But “no” isn’t an answer Carter is willing to accept. Detectives can’t find evidence, a restraining order fails to keep himtheperfectguy2 away, and even Dave—now back together with Leah after some time to clear his head—can’t stop Carter from keeping constant tabs on his woman.

Screenwriter Tyger Williams’s only other writing effort, “Menace II Society,” released 22 years ago—for “The Perfect Guy,” Williams seems to have recycled a movie plot about as old. This one is totally ‘90s. Heck, even in the ‘90s this would have been bad. Weird scene transitions (who fades into scenes anymore?) and an overly romantic, piano-heavy score round out an all-around bad effort on the part of filmmakers. Working with such a bad script, it’d be hard to play any role convincingly. Carter comes across as unlikable from the start, but I’d bet that has more to do with Ealy’s stiff acting than anything else. The cast seems to be simply going through the motions, following sloppy directions in the hopes of coming off as genuine. It doesn’t work. Terrible movies of gggggthis sort can save itself with a few jump scares or some suspense, but this story moves too quickly to even build any interest. Characters have no context, no background. Why was Carter so obsessive? The characters’ histories were so thin and flimsy, awkwardly stuffed into conversations in an attempt to give them some depth. Nothing could help this paper-thin plot, though. “The Perfect Guy” might have been creepy if it wasn’t so predictable. Nothing stood out as something we’ve never seen from this genre before. I hope you have better luck keeping your distance.

‘The Visit’ isn’t always as it seems


The Visit (2015)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

6.5/10  R

Director M. Night Shyamalan had never tried to write a horror-comedy, though some of his previous attempts at filmmaking have been laughable. That changed with “The Visit,” which made theatergoers shout…both of horror and laughter. Shyamalan seems to strike a balance some horror-comedies never find. It’s his best film in over a decade. The-Visit-trailer“Shyamalanaissance” is a mouthful, but I’m gonna go ahead and declare it anyway.

It’s been fifteen years since divorcee Miss Jamison (Kathryn Hahn) has seen her parents, and her children Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met them. Out of the blue, they contact their daughter and ask if they can spend the week with the grandchildren they never got the chance to meet. Mom is hesitant, but the kids are excited for the chance to see their mother’s childhood home. So excited, in fact, they decide to record the trip in order to bring mom back a keepsake. When we meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie), they seem a little…off. But the kids understandably write it off as the kooky effects of old age. Grandma is prone to walk around the house naked. Grandpa has incontinence. Gross and weird, sure…but not concerning. But then weird turns to the-visit-11creepy and creepy turns to petrifying. That’s when the real fun begins.

I absolutely doubted the success of “The Visit” before I ever stepped foot in the theater. After seeing the trailer, I didn’t feel that it would be scary or that there would ever be any sense of danger. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, the trailer gives away almost nothing, showing only scenes from the first thirty or forty minutes of the movie. Throughout, “The Visit” fills you with an aching sense of dread. My palms were sweaty. I was shaky and nervous. And that was before the climactic twist. The creepy granny character has never been creepier than Dunagan’s classic horror performance (the Tony-winning actress has been in the business for decades). Oxenbould is hysterical. He had the theater laughing, when they weren’t shrieking in shock. “The Visit” mixed horror and comedy well—like the best of them, it let you believe that it would end like a comedy; that the laughs would win out. Instead, it definitely favored fright. M. Night Shyamalan, for as the-visitmuch as I distrusted him after his last two movies, “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender” (both major box office flops), knows how to construct an effective horror movie. Sure, he borrows a few overused archetypes. But he mixes his jump scares (what you can see) with the horrifying sense of anxiety (what you can’t) like a true professional. It’s full of classic WTF moments, leaving a weird feeling in your gut. Good horror movies never really leave you. They can be some of the most unforgettable films, no matter how hard you try to forget them. “The Visit” stayed with me through the night. You’ll never look at your grandparents the same way again.

‘Best of Enemies’ revives fascinating celebrity feud


Best of Enemies (2015)

Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

7/10  R

With a haze of racial inequality and Presidential politics in the air, two political pundits—one liberal and one conservative—took to television to challenge the political discourse. I could be describing any cable news channel on any number of nights in the past four or five months, but I’m not. This is the impossibly relevant backdrop of the 1968 Gore Vidal v. William best-of-enemies-560x368Buckley debates, documented in the culturally important “Best of Enemies.”

Of the three network television channels in 1968, ABC was undisputedly in third place. They didn’t have the money or the manpower to cover the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions gavel-to-gavel, like their competitors NBC and CBS were doing. So they decided to bring in liberal author and playwright Gore Vidal and conservative essayist and National Review editor William Buckley, for a series of ten televised debates (five for each convention). During their often colorful and sometimes heated exchanges, the two men—who had for years despised one another—challenged political opinions and changed the way politics would be covered on television to this very day. After 1968, political punditry ran wild. But was that their intention?

If “Best of Enemies” fails in any way, it’s that the importance of it is not clearly outlined until the end. Without a foreseeable story arc, the documentary simply follows the timeline of the men’s lives and interactions with one another. Sometimes, the1200x630xbest-of-enemies1.jpg.pagespeed.ic.zBdm1_SFc7 chronology isn’t even exactly linear. And the debates themselves seemed personal and self-contained, though the context surrounding them had wide-reaching effects—the importance of which wouldn’t be fully recognized until years later. “Best of Enemies” keeps you interested (not to mention entertained) by using interviews with family, friends, biographers, historians, and media moguls. All of them take sides, but “Best of Enemies remains neutral by showing the pros and cons of both men. It paints hauntingly clear pictures of who these two men were, to the point that you feel like you know them. Of course, the biggest draw is seeing these two intellectuals challenge one another on issues that still loom large today—war and race not the least of them. This was a time when celebrity spats were about issues more substantial than ex-boyfriends or sub-Tweets. These feuds weren’t ended with a musical collaboration on the VMAs. One of the men interviewed quipped, “Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” That’s truer now than ever. But “Best of Enemies” is also an autopsy of today’s 24-hour cable news cycle, and how it has evolved in the decades since the Vidal v. Buckley debates. The volume of your words has seemingly surpassed the words themselves when it comes to importance. Now, Best-of-Enemies2heated argument is what we crave, not just the occasional byproduct of a disagreement.

“Best of Enemies” is one of 2015’s most culturally significant films. It’s even more relevant at this moment than the filmmakers—who I’m sure were keenly aware of the relevance—could have possibly realized. The role of media is ever-changing. The 24-hour news cycle has greatly increased the role of the media in directing public opinion. That’s not always a good thing. In a way, Gore Vidal and William Buckley are directly to blame. “Best of Enemies” examines that very idea smartly and satirically.