Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

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Tim’s Vermeer


Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore, Teller. Directed by Teller

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer are exercises in light and color, virtually photorealistic. They were painted at a time when photographs didn’t exist and artists painted their subjects by what they saw alone. In the intervening years, it has been a subject of considerable debate in the world of art as to how Vermeer did it.

Tim Jenison is not a painter. He’s a computer geek and a tinkerer, making his fortune as the CEO of a company that revolutionized both home and professional videography. His company, NewTek, has won Emmys for the Babylon 5 television show. He became intrigued by Vermeer after reading Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces which opined that Vermeer must have used a mechanical aid, specifically a Camera Obscura (essentially a box with a pinhole or lens through which an image is reflected against the back wall of the box upside down but with the color and perspective intact) in order to get his images. Artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters further fueled his fire on this.

Much of the controversy stems from x-rays of Vermeer’s paintings revealing that no tracing lines were drawn which is standard with most artists. As narrator Penn Jillette puts it, “it’s as if Vermeer were some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.”  In any case, Tim went from intrigued to obsessive. After coming up with a simple device utilizing a mirror (the inspiration for which came in the bathtub), he discovered that he could match precisely the colors of the images reflected in the camera obscura. He determines to paint a Vermeer of his own.

He uses for inspiration the painting The Music Lesson which hangs in Buckingham palace. In order to duplicate the painting, he built the room and furnishings from scratch in a San Antonio warehouse. He learned how to grind pigments into paint and even learned to read Dutch in order to facilitate the process. He wanted everything to be as exact as he could make it using technology available in Vermeer’s day. When the room was ready, he sat down to paint.

The results are remarkable. His friends Penn and Teller – who met him when they started using Video Toaster as consumers – document this remarkable undertaking. Jenison himself is affable and entertaining, self-deprecating but curious as a child. We catch Jenison’s sense of wonder when after being refused admittance to see the painting, he at last is granted a 30 minute window to view it with the proviso that no recording equipment come in with him. He is visibly moved by the experience and reports that the painting is much more detailed and awe-inspiring in person than any reproduction could make it.

Some critics have sniffed that the filmmakers are forcing a particular theory down the throats of the audience and present it as fact, but those critics were probably surfing the internet rather than watching the film. The movie is clearly presented as a possible explanation as to how Vermeer may have achieved his remarkable achievements in art. That the painter may have also been a tinkerer no less diminishes his achievements as an artist. It must be said that no optical devices were listed among Vermeer’s personal effects when the artist died, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible that he didn’t use any during his lifetime.

We will never know how Vermeer achieved his style of painting because he left no notes behind explaining his technique. No master of any art, from Vermeer’s day right up to the present, is going to reveal their secrets easily. What this movie is about isn’t really about how Vermeer did it. It’s about how Tim Jenison did it. It’s his story, not Vermeer’s. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you don’t want to think that an icon of painting may have used non-standard means to create his art. At the end of the day, what matters is not how Vermeer painted his paintings but the paintings themselves, which are quite literally snapshots of a world three centuries gone. There is nothing that Jenison does here that diminishes the accomplishments of Vermeer; instead, it brings even more of a sense of wonder about them at least in my case.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely mind blowing.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too detail oriented to the easily bored.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jenison was not a trained artist at the time he undertook the “Vermeer Project” which he chronicled via blog. He was best known for co-inventing the Video Toaster software bundle as well as the LightWave 3D computer animated graphics program.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl With the Pearl Earring

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Divergent