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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oculus

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

Release Date: April 11, 2014

Thoughts: First things first…I appreciate that this is truly a teaser trailer.  We all know how much I’m in favor of the less is more approach and while a longer version of this may be released before the film comes out in April, I have to say that this first look at another low-budget horror film from wunderkind producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity 4, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, The Purge, Lawless, Sinister, Lords of Salem) gets the job done.  That being said, these movies tend to open big (usually without advance screenings) and then sink like a stone once word of mouth makes its way around.  One can only hope that Oculus will wind up being more ambitious than the rest and strike gold not only in the box office but with critics desperate for a good scare.

Movie Review ~ Out of the Furnace

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.

Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: One could be forgiven if one missed the fact that the crime drama Out of the Furnace was released amongst the higher profile films this holiday season.  With so many choices up for consumption in our multiplexes it can be easy to miss these more character driven films that eschew mind numbing special effects in favor of honest performances that work their own kind of magic on an audience.

I myself almost missed the movie, nearly letting it slide to my “Watch at Home” pile that tends to get loaded up around this time of year.  Something drew me to the film, however, and I’m glad I made the effort because with stellar performances, crafty direction, and an overall ominous feeling of danger Out of the Furnace may just find itself on my shortlist for favorite films of 2013.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) proves again that he doesn’t need a batsuit or a big budget to show he’s a helluva good actor in his performance as Russell Baze.  A good natured man that keeps a watchful eye over his brother (Casey Affleck, ParaNorman, showing again that the Affleck Talent gets better with age), uncle (Sam Shepard, Mud) and his dying father, all while holding down a job in the town mill.  When a mistake puts Russell in prison for several years, he’s faced with finding new ground in his old life when he returns home.  What could have been another reworking of a tired plotline turns dark when Russell’s brother goes missing and he sets out to find the people responsible.

Don’t think that this is a variance on Death Wish, though, even if the look, feel, and performances seem to be plucked right out of the mid 70’s.  This is a character driven story written by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) that lets the actors do the heavy lifting in a script that’s relatively light on dialogue if you really sit down and think about it.

Along with Bale and Affleck’s rock solid performances, Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) makes for a frightening hick at the center of a ring of bare knuckle fighting and drugs.  Harrelson started out as a dim bulb light comic on Cheers and continues to produce diverse and interesting performances, refusing to be pigeon-holed in one genre.  I wasn’t sure about Willem Dafoe’s (John Carter) greasy loan shark at first, thinking that 10 years ago he would have played Harrelson’s role but something about his duck tailed hair and cheaply fancy clothing rang true.  Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) seems a tad too old for his character but still manages to smooth things out thanks to his smartly restrained instincts.  If there’s a nitpick to pick, I’d say that everyone in the film seemed to be going for a whiskey soaked manner of speaking that came off feeling like everyone was trying to “out gravelly voice” each other.  Whitaker, in particular, sounds just this shade of producing a sound that appears to have originated near his belly button.

This is male heavy film with only Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the lone female with a substantial role (I’d say there are about 4 small female speaking roles in the entire film).  In fact, the movie is so testosterone heavy that even the daintiest of ladies should bring their travel Nair with them in case they were to sprout a mustache during the films running length.

Cooper has assembled all these strong parts into a grim, gritty experience that’s aided by strong location shooting from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey) in a Pennsylvania industrial town and a moody score from Dickon Hinchliffe.  I don’t think Cooper needed an extra shot in the final moments of the film but aside from that the movie is edited to keep things moving without sacrificing the strong work the cast is putting forth.

So if you can find this one in theaters, know that the other blockbuster choices will still be waiting for you in a few weeks and try this one out instead.  Those who warm to smoldering dramas with a hard edge will find a reason to head into Cooper’s Furnace.