Movie Review ~ Oculus

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you were to dismiss Oculus as another haunted house horror flick made on the cheap and released in theaters right about the time that audiences are clamoring for some springtime terror. Further, the trailer for Oculus sells the film as a scream fest surrounding an old mirror that has dark secrets. What Oculus isn’t, however, is your run-of-the-mill fright flick that saves its best scares for the final moments. This mirror is polished.

I’ll take a good scare any way I can get it…be it slow burn (Sinister), all out gore-fest (Cabin in the Woods), or failed attempt to cash in on a better concept (Silent House, The Apparition, etc) so I went into Oculus willing to receive it however it chose to present itself. I’ll admit at first I didn’t quite know what to make of the film as it bounced back and forth between a brother and sister exorcising some old demons and a flashback to 11 years earlier when the siblings dealt with some deadly family issues.

At the center of it all is a majestic mirror, said to be responsible for the death of close to 50 people since the 18th century and highly valuable. How a software designer (Rory Cochrane) had the cashola to purchase such a coveted antique is a plot point best filed away under “Don’t Think Too Hard” but it isn’t long before the past and present collide with some seriously spooky sequences where the line between reality and imagination gets hazy.

With an adequate amount of gore that plays second fiddle to bump in the night style scares, the film has the feeling of a sequel to The Amityville Horror (actually, an Amityville TV movie did deal with a haunted mirror now that I think about it) mixed in with dashes of fractured reality of the bloody Mirrors from 2008. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has thought out his film well, introducing not merely themes of post traumatic healing but of mental illness brought on by a tragedy. The film isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tie everything together but the effort is clear and purposeful.

Dealing with a small cast, the film could have been a pain to sit through had Flanagan not assembled such a strong group of actors. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) ably handle the adult siblings while Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) are impressive handling with their heavy lifting in flashbacks. The first shot of Gillan is her fire red ponytail swinging back and forth almost as if it’s possessed and both she and Thwaites work cohesively to build a believable bond. Cochrane and Katee Sackoff (Riddick) make good use of their slightly underwritten roles.

If there are cracks in Oculus, they are of the minor variety and truth being told I’m not sure if the film will hold up on future viewings. Though the ending rises to the occasion for making the goose bumps rise on your skin, a too short wrap-up left me feeling a little cold to the whole affair. Feeling just a tad long at 105 minutes, Flanagan working as his own edtior could have benefited from having someone else edit the film that was more objective to pacing.

More spooky than terrifying, Oculus earns points for restraint and solid performances. The scares are mostly satisfying and I appreciated that Flanagan developed material that felt fresh and not your average shriek-out.

Movie Review ~ The Raid 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Only a short time after the first raid, Rama goes undercover with the thugs of Jakarta and plans to bring down the syndicate and uncover the corruption within his police force.

Stars: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Tio Pakusadewo, Oka Antara, Julie Estelle, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kenichi Endo, Kazuki Kitamura

Director: Gareth Evans

Rated: R

Running Length: 150 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In my first year of reviewing movies for this blog, one of the standout films was most definitely The Raid: Redemption. Not only was it a rip-roaring muscle knuckle of an action film, it arrived in my field of vision without any previous warning. A thrilling ride following a good cop that finds himself trying to get to the top floor of a slum building to nab a bad guy and dealing with the violent residents on his way up, The Raid: Redemption was a take no prisoners kitchen sink sorta film that was deliriously violent and over-the-top but worked like a charm.

Normally, when a sequel is coming out I try to watch the films that preceded it but I didn’t quite have the time to do that before catching The Raid 2…and originally I thought I was in trouble. The first 10-15 minutes of the sequel had me grasping at characters to try and remember how they played into the first film and who was being newly introduced. I almost gave up and left (something I’ve never done) because I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through the rest of the movie if I had no idea who was whom.

Thankfully, I stayed and the memories came back in the midst of some of the most jaw-dropping action sequences you’re likely to see and a plot so twisty that French braid aficionados and pretzel makers should take notes.

I’ve been referring to The Raid 2 at The Godfather Part II of Indonesian gangster films and the comparison isn’t that far off. Originally intended as the first film, director Gareth Evans had to make due with a smaller budget and found that his script that became The Raid: Redemption fit more into the budgetary constraints. When that film was a hit, it was no problem finding funding for this bigger, badder, meaner, bloodier, and overall totally different sequel which kicks its way to being awfully close to the top of my list for best films so far in 2014.

Picking up almost exactly where the first film left off but introducing new threads that happened concurrently, The Raid 2 as I mentioned before is counting on the audience being familiar with the original. Though it runs an incredible and not the least bit boring 150 minutes, Evans doesn’t have time to bring you up to speed because he’s got a ton of double crosses to make, throats to slit, and various bones/joints to break as he follows honest cop Rama (action star Iko Uwais making another strong impression) who infiltrates the same crime syndicate he went after in The Raid: Redemption.

It’s a bit of The Departed as Rama gets embroiled in the crime family from within, even as the family is fending off a rival syndicate that has its own set of spies working to obliterate their enemy. With various assassins employed to get the job done (with names like Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man), Rama has to keep his eyes open for backstabbers even though he’s operating on his own agenda.

Evans gives as much thought to the plot as he does to staging some grandly operatic fights. From a bone crunching prison fight in a muddy open air exercise area to the final showdown in a pristine white kitchen that soon is drenched in red I’m not sure if any of the punches, kicks, chops, and snaps are ever delivered the same way twice. It’s as if everything was filmed on fast forward with the camera swinging left-right-up-down to capture it all. Several times I was so stunned that I couldn’t help but let out a guffaw at the sheer boldness of it all.

As good an action flick as anything Hollywood has produced in the last decade, The Raid 2 becomes an instant classic in my book and a must see for fans of the genre and anyone that grew up watching Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme pics…it’s just a gloriously exciting film as rich in action as it is in crime drama.

 

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Movie Review ~ Under the Skin

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An alien seductress preys upon hitchhikers in Scotland.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m glad I’ve had some time to digest the experience I had watching Under the Skin because it’s a film that doesn’t warrant a knee-jerk reaction. In fact, if you see Under the Skin (and you really should), resist the urge from asking/giving your opinion on it until you’ve had a chance to let it settle. You may still find you feel the same as you did weeks later as when you originally saw it, but the film provided me more than a little food for thought after the fact.

I get the impression that quite a lot of people will be turned off by the structure of the near wordless film that takes almost two hours to say what could have been conveyed in a 40 minute short. Offering little to no explanation/exposition, you’re left to fend for yourself to piece together what’s going on with a beautiful woman driving around the Scotland countryside picking up random men and bringing them back to a house of horror for…well…I’m still not quite sure.

Even if I did have a strong opinion as to what the shady lady is doing, I wouldn’t spill the beans here because as I thought more about the film it was that ambiguity and unknown motivation that began to gnaw at me. I’ve been weaned on movies and television shows that can’t help but explain everything so the audience can feel better about what they’re watching and that reluctance by director Jonathan Glazer to force-feed us an easy solution makes the film quite fascinating.

I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Scarlett Johansson (in a complete 180 from last week’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), finding her to be a bit on the dull side and its precisely her vanilla style that makes her near perfect for the role. Clearly not of this earth, Johansson nails the “stranger in a strange land” arc, giving her all to the role which requires her to show full nudity portrayed quite tastefully in an art-house chic sort of way. With less than a page of dialogue in the entire film, it’s up to Johansson to play several different themes: the huntress and the innocent being the most predominant.

As Johansson captures these men (many of whom were non-actors picked up by the actress on the street who didn’t know they were being filmed) the film settles into a cyclic style that’s heavy on repetition…an important piece of structure because when she deviates from the plan we begin to see why things may be going awry. When she sets her sights on a disfigured man, a fracture occurs inside whatever her endgame is that sets into motion a riveting and tense third act.

If I’m being deliberately vague about the film, it’s partly because the film is hard to pin down and partly because I don’t want to give details away that will take away from what you may get out of the film. I found the film to be frustrating at times, brilliant at others. In fact, the final five minutes of the film were so haunting, I still have trouble shaking some of the images out of my brain.

Definitely not for everyone, Under the Skin is also not quite in the realm of being solely for art-house prigs that would sit for two hours in silence watching a bird build a nest. Though it seems a solemn nut to crack, it’s worth the effort.