The Visit

Grandparents are weird. They talk funny, they smell funny, they act funny. And those are your normal, run-of-the-mill grandparents!

In The Visit, Becca and Tyler (ages 15 and 13) take a train ride from Philly to rural Pennsylvania to spend a week with grandparents they’ve never met. Their single mom has been estranged from her parents for years, until they find their daughter online and ask to see the grandkids.

Why would a mother (Kathryn Hahn) allow such a thing? Well, the teens (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are bright and self-assured. And mom wants to go away on a cruise with her new guy.

The grandkids are delightfully chatty, always recording video. Many of the film’s key scenes include their “found footage.” They engage in Skype conversations with their mom while she cruises. Tyler’s white-kid raps are clever and hilarious.

The grandparents Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem like sweet people. They pick up the kids at the train station and bring them back to their farmhouse. Soon, weird things begin to happen. Frightening things. Funny things.

As nights and days go by, the grandparents are revealed to be a bit stranger than your grandparents or mine. The Visit establishes a solid level of creepiness. There’s a visual shout out to a horror/suspense classic. Suspense builds.

Two questions need answering: What the heck is going on? And… Is writer/director M. Night Shyamalan still capable of making an engaging movie?

Second question first. Shyamalan, who burst onto the movie scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and followed with Unbreakable in 2000, went into an artistic slump after 2002’s Signs. With The Visit, he shows that he maintains the ability to merge strong characters with a plot that keeps an audience engaged and wondering.

Regarding what the heck is going on… well, no spoilers here. But… A key element of a successful suspense thriller is a decent payoff to the setup. The Visit accomplishes that trick and delivers a fast-moving hour and a half of creepy fun. It’s a movie to enjoy.

Call your grandma and see if she’d like to go with you!

Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.