Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mirror Mirror: “Oculus” is a Decent and Disturbing Thriller

The evil mirror thriller “Oculus” (which actually bears little resemblance to the 2008 thriller "Mirrors") attempts to do something that many modern horror films never really do. It tells two stories at the same time while using the classic cinema narrative trick known as “cross-cutting.” Sure this isn’t exactly “The Godfather Part II” but I admire the film’s attempts to take a stale premise “haunted object causes chaos for suburban family” and at least try to do something a little different. Even if the results aren’t particularly amazing, I give the film extra points for its creepiness and disturbing elements.

“Oculus,” which is Latin for “eye” in case you were wondering, like I said, tells two stories. It tells the story of two twenty something siblings: 23-year-old Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her 21-year-old brother Tim (Brenton Twaites, who’s about to become a big deal I’m sure). Tim has just been released from a mental hospital. Kaylie works for an auction house and joins forces with her reluctant brother to vanish some sort of malevolent spirit from an antique mirror. The parallel story revolves around these siblings’ past in which their parents succumb to the mirror’s evil and manipulative forces and the tragedy that eventually befalls them.

First of all, both stories are completely watchable and entertaining. I liked how, as young adults, you don’t quite know all the pieces of Kaylie and Tim’s past. You know Tim did something bad that was the cause of his incarceration, but you don’t know what exactly drove him to commit the crime.  And as ridiculous and silly as it is Kaylie’s “plan” to “exorcise” the mirror is as well-thought out as it is unnecessary. The mirror has been bought by some rich art collector and she “borrows” it for a few day – best to leave it alone if you ask me.  She even includes a tight rundown of the mirror’s evil history for the benefit of the audience and whoever finds the video that she plans on recording of the exorcism.

 The film’s truly disturbing sequences involve the pair’s younger selves (played as kids by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) as they settle into their new home with their parents Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and Alan (Rory Cochran). Something doesn’t seem quite right, as tends to happen in movies like this. Dad and mom keep arguing as there’s something about perhaps “another woman.”Although she isn’t exactly your normal home wrecker. I like how these flashback sequences are really told through the point-of-view of the kids which makes it all the more frightening. The film, in a way, borrows heavily from “The Amityville Horror” in that the father begins to go mad and something, specifically in this mirror, is making him go mad. And the performances here are solid and convincing.

Director Mike Flangan, who co-wrote the film with Jeff Howard, based it on a short film he had previously directed.  They keep things a fairly swift pace, but take time in revealing the horror of the situation. Flangan, who also served as the film’s editor, expertly pieces these two concurrent stories together pretty interesting ways, as if they were happening at the same time. This is another solid entry in the Jason Blum-produced (Indisious, Paranormal Activity, The Purge) line of modern horror films that harkens back to a time when horror films not only felt original, but were at least scary enough to recommend the film to others. “Oculus” won’t really stay with you or haunt your dreams, but the almost “Nightmare on Elm Street” is-this-reality-or-not scenarios are a truly something worth watching for any horror fan.  GRADE: B

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Winter Soldier is Coming: The Second “Captain America” is Another Marvel Cinematic Universe Winner

From the directors of “You, Me, and Dupree” and TV’s “Community” and “Arrested Development” comes Marvel’s latest superhero epic: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Something about that sentence, which is 100% accurate, sounds… just off. How did two guys, brothers in case you wondered, go from directing silly comedies, mostly on the small screen, turn in one of the best films in Marvel’s seemingly unstoppable and hugely successful “cinematic universe?” I have absolutely no idea, but they have made a supremely entertaining film with extremely well-crafted action sequences and is arguably one of the best of the entire Marvel franchise.

I must admit that I was hesitant about the second “Captain America” film going in. I really enjoyed the first film and even back then wondered how the heck they’d tie in the 1940s character with the other modern Marvel characters. As it turned out that wonderfully stylized film actually worked as a direct prequel to “The Avengers.” And now the modern day set sequel “The Winter Soldier” now works as a direct prequel to the “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” coming next summer to a theater near you. Even if the first film and this sequel is set approximately 70 years apart the filmmakers have done a terrific job of branching the two films and making this feel like a legitimate “Captain America” sequel, even if it also feels like yet another “Avengers” sequel (along with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World).

Chris Evans is great (for the third time if you’re keeping count) at playing Steve Rogers, the patriotic good guy who went from skinny boy to genetically altered super soldier in his first film. Captain America is arguably one of the less interesting main Marvel characters (though he wears my favorite costume) but Evans has just enough charm to really sell this character. He works wonders with “Black Widow” played again by Scarlett Johansson. Their repertoire of back-and-forth banter is comically on target. They even introduce “Falcon” played here by Anthony Mackie as a soldier who rigs a flying device. All these guys have great chemistry. And Samuel L. Jackson is back yet again as Nick Fury the director S.H.I.E.L.D and even though he’s appeared in all of the films in some form, he gets the most to do here as the film’s plot involves his organization being infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi science division featured in the first “Captain America.”

Anthony and Joe Russo, who have mostly cut their teeth on television series like “Community” and “Arrested Development,” must be pure grade film nerds because they seem to know exactly how to make a simply kick-ass, and well-paced action film. Take the film’s opening sequence aboard a ship taken over by pirates. It’s a thrilling set piece as is the car chase involving assailants who target Nick Fury. It turns out S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the bad guys and Captain America and his allies must save the day. And then there’s the prickly S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce played by a game Robert Redford. Not to mention the villainous and brawny “Winter Soldier” who is a surprising link to Steve’s past. With all of this going on, you’d think maybe at least Iron Man could show up to help out right?

“Captain America: The Winter Solider” is extremely solid. Anyone looking for the style employed in the first captain America film will be sorely disappointed as this feels much more like “The Avengers” than “The Rocketeer” feel of the first film. Yeah it’s true that all of these Marvel films are beginning to all feel the same, but at least they all feature great action, fun characters, and interconnecting plot lines that is certainly one of the more ambitious set of big budget films ever produced. And it’s just a heck of a lot of fun.  GRADE: A-