Sunday, May 25, 2014

Oculus


  It's really hard in this day and age to find a horror movie capable of actually scaring you. The craft of scaring an audience has been worked down to a formula and it's become a blueprint for clones. Horror movie clones that seem to play off the exact same tropes the one before it did. Yet, every so often you have one that either rises above the tropes to do something different altogether, or you have one that uses the tropes in it's favor to create a new experience. Oculus is the former. For that alone, I must give it applause.

  Oculus isn't something I was dying to see, but a friend of mine who's movie-watching judgment I trust said it was good. So after watching a few other movies, I decided to give it a go. I can see how people would really really like this movie. A fresh and unique story, great acting, unconventional plotting. All around, it's quite an experience. One that is keen on thinking outside of the box, and making you question what other horror movies would have you take for granted. So, I'm saying this right now... Oculus is worth a look. It deserves the time of day because it goes to great lengths to be an effective horror movie without relying on age old tropes that even movies like Insidious and The Conjuring relied on.

   Having said that... I don't think Oculus is a good movie. No sir. Oculus is a movie that is smart. Yet I firmly believe it runs out of steam about halfway through. The movie has lots of flashbacks, and I feel like everything it had to say in these flashbacks could've been told in a single flashback in the beginning of the movie. As it is, it starts to feel like padding because they don't know what else to do with their concept. The concept is actually quite creative. It's a haunted mirror that destroys people's lives. Yet, it's very different than you would expect. The mirror itself is... halfway given a personality all it's own. It wants to feed on misery and victims- yet on the other hand, in a massive effort to avoid tropes and pitfalls, the filmmakers chose not to make the mirror a character itself so to speak.

  This haunted mirror is simply that. A haunted mirror. We don't know why it kills, or if it has any ultimate motivation. That ambiguous approach doesn't work here. We're teased with backstory and character, but it's all dead ends. As a result, I feel like the movie is rather inert. We spend so much time with our main characters focusing on the mirror, yet it's a vicious circle that instead of suspenseful, quickly becomes nothing except exhausting. I feel like this one flaw exposes another, and another. For one, as I mentioned in passing earlier, the filmmakers really seemed to run out of things to do about halfway through.

  They pad out the suspense and use the same tricks they'd been using for the past hour on us, just kinda backwards or upside down. Yet unfortunately, I was actually wondering if they were building to some sort of twist or something, and they weren't. The ending tries to be something it can't. It tried to complete a character loop that just wasn't there. It's abrupt, and cheap, and doesn't evoke the proper response it wanted. Mind you, I have seen many endings that I wasn't a fan of, but for the most part I can understand those endings and respect them. By nature, I dig happy endings. Yet sometimes an unhappy ending is just... necessary. I'm not saying whether or not this had a happy ending, I'm just saying whether or not it did has no bearing on the fact I didn't like the ending. (mild spoilers ahead)

  The plot revolves around two siblings, a boy and a girl, whose lives were turned upside down when this mirror in their house began to mess with their parents' heads. It comes to a violent and tragic end with both parents dying and the boy being institutionalized.  Fast forward eleven years, and the boy is released from the institution with a clean bill of mental health. He finds out that his sister has tracked down the mirror, rigged it up in their old house, and has an elaborate system of checks and traps to not only break the mirror, but prove to everyone that the phenomenon is real.

  Okay, so. The mirror begins to gradually mess with the siblings. Show them things that aren't really there, immerse them in old memories, make them think they're in one room when they're actually in another. This leads to a series of wake-up moments, where the characters realize they're in a delusion and they snap out of it. They're always an inch away from accidentally killing themselves somehow when they snap out of it. This whole setup actually is pretty effective for the most part. As a viewer you're constantly on the edge of seat, wondering if what's going on is actually happening the way you see it happening.

  Yet, these wake-up moments begin to get tedious. Even a little redundant. The "shock" ending is another one of these wake-up moments. It's not shocking. It's a little frustrating, and it left me waiting for another wake-up moment. Alas, one that never comes. You know what does come though? The end credits.

  Oculus also shows us a very narrow story, one full of conflict and struggles too. The sister spends all of her free time researching the mirror- yet most, if not all of this research happens off screen. I love research scenes in horror movies. Where the heroine has to go to a dusty old library and dig through some historical records or something. The Conjuring dutifully had a few scenes like that. I enjoyed it. Oculus skips over things like that. More than that, the brother and the sister are not a united front against this evil threat.
Which may seem like a silly gripe, but it honestly just makes for long uncomfortable conversations that quickly get old. See, the brother has been convinced by endless psychiatrists that he made up the whole 'evil mirror' story to block out what really happened. The sister knows it wasn't made up, and she tirelessly tries to convince him it was all real.

  Now imagine for a second if he had always believed it was real and was dying to get out of the hospital so he could track down the mirror and destroy it. What do we really lose? Padding. Unnecessary padding. The tense dynamic between the two of them does nothing but waste time and detract from the events at hand. Subsequently, the mirror is never properly vilified. The movie spends so much time making you wonder if it's actually evil or if it's all made up that by the time you realize it's real it's too late to give character to the mirror. There was a brief scene, maybe a couple seconds, where the camera focuses on a part of the mirror that could look like eye sockets almost. It gave it a sinister scowl. An inert piece of furniture suddenly became scary... and then they never played to that tone again. The mirror itself was sidelined in the last act whereas I think it should've been center stage.

  In the end, I think the filmmaker's effort to be different was a double edged sword. Yes, they produced some genuine and unexpected scares, but they also sacrificed so much by tried to be different in every possible manner. The ending of the movie is the perfect example. The mirror is not destroyed. You could say it 'won', but there's no ominous vibe. In fact, there's no creepy victorious shot of the mirror to visually show us that it'll "live on" so to speak. The movie just ends. The mirror itself never gets an ending. The movie just kinda wraps up around it and doesn't even mention it when all is said and done. All of this because they wanted to stay away from even a vaguely stereotypical ending. So many loose ends, so many unresolved plot threads... the last act is a mess, albeit a scary and suspenseful mess. So, do I recommend Oculus? Yes. It it innovative and scary. Something which is rare in this day and age. Do I think it's a good movie though...? Not really.

  Some filmmakers should realize that employing certain tried and true tropes in your film won't hurt it, so long as you don't make your film entirely rely on those tropes. That's the lesson to be learned here. If you were hoping to learn how to destroy an evil haunted mirror... you're shit out of luck.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Shakedown


  Shakedown is part courtroom drama, and then... part arcade game. I say that with sincere affection. I also avoid the term 'video game' because, video games in this day and age are synonymous with choice and non-linear gameplay. As I pair the term 'arcade game' to the action/adventure element of the movie, I do not infer choice and in fact, I infer something very very linear. These car chases, and shootouts, and stunts, all remind me of those batshit crazy sidescroller action games in the arcade where you played the blue cop, and your buddy played the red cop, and you blasted your way through level after level of baddies, provided your pockets were deep enough...

  Pockets just so happen to run very deep in Shakedown, because (spoiler?) the climax includes a speeding Porsche, a runway shootout, and Sam Elliot clinging to the landing gear of a plane in-flight. Yep. Rewind to the beginning and watch the whole thing, and you'll find a surprisingly well thought out courtroom drama interspersed between these ballsy action scenes. The characters in Shakedown are fun. They're fun, because they're well acted, and well written. Which is more than I can say for most 50 cent movies I buy from the local goodwill on VHS, because also surprisingly... Shakedown was one of the them. Peter Weller plays a fed-up, overworked attorney, and Sam Elliot plays a rough-around-the-edges cop who ends up helping him out with a case.

  Weller is working a case about a drug dealer who's convicted of murdering a cop. Weller has to prove that it was merely self defense and said cop is a crooked cop who tried to steal the drug dealer's money. If that doesn't sound like an uphill battle, I don't know what does. Anyways, all roads lead to shootouts and drug lords, so naturally Weller, a mere lawyer, isn't going to go it alone- he has his cop buddy, (Sam Elliot) help him out with the shooting and stuff. It's an effective little duo, and one that made for a hell of a 90-something minute ride.

  The big problem with this movie is that there's no development between Weller and Elliot, unless I nodded off or got distracted for huge chunks of the movie (unfortunately, it's very likely) but as far as I remember... they already knew each other, and just sorta kinda started working together. They have great chemistry, but no real connection. Weller is the main character, and he gets the lion's share of the screentime. Most of which is devoted to his personal relationship problems and an old flame coming back into his life. While this is all well written, I didn't really care. I mean, it kept my attention pretty damn well, but I didn't care. There was another buddy cop movie with James Woods and Michael J. Fox called The Hard Way which pulled it off much better.

  Again, I may have just... spectacularly forgotten stuff, cause it feels that way, but Sam Elliot's character is painfully peripheral here. He shows up when Weller needs him, and that's that. He has NO personal storyline that needs to be resolved in the end. He barely has a minute of speaking time. He probably fires more bullets than he speaks words. Not that he needs to. He's Sam fuckin' Elliot. The dude's stare alone is badass, and usually you get all of him when he's in a movie. They should name a gun after this dude. Anyways, his dynamic with Weller boils down to who drives, and who shoots. It's so much fun.

   They have great chemistry, and the action scenes definitely rely on that. This movie feels like half a Lethal Weapon, more action and less courtroom- and it'd be a whole Lethal Weapon-esque buddy cop movie. Alas, what we have is unique enough to warrant a viewing. I enjoyed myself, I'm glad I bought it, and I'll see it again sometime. It's nothing amazingly special, but it's fun and well made. What more can you ask for?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Brainscan


  I recently saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and you know, more or less... it's exactly what I expected. So my review of it would be a rundown of a checklist of things it did right and wrong. Don't get me wrong, I really liked it. However, it's not something I feel like reviewing right now, god forbid I try to be relevant. So! With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to a 90's sci-fi horror flick called Brainscan. Starring Edward Furlong, fresh off the heels of Terminator 2, and sharing top billing with him, is Frank Langella.

  Brainscan introduces us to our protagonist, Michael Brower, played by Edward Furlong. This character is into super violent movies, hardcore music, anything horror themed, computers and video games. Sounds like my kinda guy to be honest. Anyways, his buddy calls him up to tell him about a new video game being touted as the "ultimate experience in terror". So like a proper 'I've seen it all' skeptic (like me) Michael says, "yeah right..." but one thing leads to another, and he ends up trying out the game. Obviously, things get crazy- crazy bloody, and Michael starts freaking out. The game itself seems hellbent on turning Michael into a full blown real life serial killer.

  The strength of this movie isn't in the plot, or the acting, or the special effect- though to be clear, all of those elements are perfectly serviceable. The strength of this movie is in how it approaches it's material. Michael's Principal at school interrupts him and his friends watching a gory horror movie early on in the flick, and asks him "Tell me Michael, why do you watch these films?" and instead of a typical "You don't understand my generation..." eyeroll, Michael takes a stab at actually explaining it to him. Which actually kinda impressed me. "Well, it's kind of an escape..." I won't spoil the scene, but there's some wonderfully snappy dialog in that part which makes the movie worth watching by itself. However, to the point, the movie raises some serious questions about violence as entertainment, and moreover... why do we find it entertaining?

  I can't say it actually attempts to answer these questions, but kudos for raising them. At one point in the movie, Michael finds out that someone who he thought died in the video game, died for real. The antagonist muses something to the effect of 'unreal... real, what's the difference?'. Michael quickly retorts, "There's a difference! There's a big fucking difference!"  Michael is being faced with some heavy stuff. Real death being treated as a game, and the whole thing is placed on his shoulders. He's just a high school kid who's being prodded to analyze why violence is entertaining. Why he enjoys horror movies. Why blood and gore and depravity make for an escape.

  Michael can't answer these questions. He's not prepared to. He can only retort, that there is indeed a difference between fantasy and reality. He's appalled by real violence, yet attracted to it if he's sure it's not real. Why is that? Why are we like that as a people? Michael never really finds an answer, or even attempts to. He just knows what he knows. I feel like Michael is an easy character to relate to from the audience's standpoint, precisely because of this. Which is part of why the movie is so watchable. He's being forced to think about why blood and violence can be an escape, and here we are as an audience watching a bloody and violent movie. I don't think the movie is aware that it's that meta, but it adds a nice depth to it. Something to think about. The movie doesn't dwell on these ideas much longer than the plot necessitates, and the plot tends to override it's concepts and message in the third act.

  Yet, the cast is solid for the most part. Actors play their role, and well. Except for Frank Langella. He does nothing but brood and say "Go home, kid."

  ...It comes to mind, that I don't think I've ever seen Frank Langella in a legitimately all around good movie. Brainscan being a borderline exception. Lets see, Masters of the Universe, The Box, Superman Returns, Robot and Frank, and uh... I think those are the movies I've seen him in. Am I missing some epic movie or something? Granted, he voiced Archer in Small Soldiers, but there's a loophole there if you see what I'm talking about. My point is, I feel like this guy is a major league actor. He lends gravitas and an inherent sense of importance to any role he plays. So by god lets get him some good ones. He's entirely wasted in this movie as a brooding detective that has less screentime than Edward Furlong's painfully 90's interactive computer.

  Furlong is completely serviceable as this sort of character. You either want to see more of angst ridden John Connor, or you don't. Personally, I like it. It worked for the movie and he made the character fun pretty much. However, beyond all the 'serviceable' elements of the movie- you'll probably feel like you've seen a hundred movies just like this. There's nothing really about it to make it stand out. It's decent, but not exactly a hidden gem of the 90's. It's alright. I liked it. It was worth the 50 cents I paid, and I had a good time watching it. There's no reason to avoid it, and I even recommend it. If not as a horror movie (in which it works just fine) then as a piece of 90's nostalgia. People in this movie go apeshit for 'fully interactive CD-ROMs'. Rad.