Oculus


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brandon Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval, Scott Graham, Michael J. Fourticq, Katie Parker, Justin Gordon, Bob Gebert, Brett Luciana Murray, Zak Jeffries, Courtney Bell, Elisa Victoria, Allison Boyd, Toni White. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It is not always easy to distinguish illusion from reality. Our reality is based on our perceptions, which in turn are based on electrical impulses to the brain that translate the senses – taste, touch, smell, sound and sight. If those electrical impulses are manipulated however, how does one tell the difference?

Tim Russell (Thwaites) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital, eleven years after he killed his father (Cochrane) who had in turn tortured and murdered his mother (Sackhoff). He is picked up by his sister Kaylee (Gillan) who has been busy over the past eleven years.

She blamed the killings on an antique mirror that their dad had purchased to decorate the office. In the days they had owned the mirror, young Kaylee (Basso) and young Tim (Ryan) had watched both mom and dad slowly turn psychotic. Plants died, their dog disappeared and both parents had turned from loving and supportive to paranoid and cruel. They had begun to see things – visions of a haunting woman whose eyes were like mirrors.

Kaylee is determined to prove her family’s innocence; she had spent eleven years painstakingly and obsessively researching the mirror and discovered that over the centuries since it was created, the Lasser Glass (as the mirror is known) had been around during literally dozens of murders and bizarre deaths. Kaylee believes the mirror is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit and means to destroy the mirror once and for all.

Tim on the other hand wants nothing to do with it; he has spent the last eleven years learning to convince himself that nothing supernatural had occurred, that it was all a product of his young mild trying to cope with horrific – but terrestrial – events. Now, in their old family home with the mirror and a failsafe “kill switch” that they must reset every 30 minutes or a weighted anchor will smash into the mirror and end its reign of terror, past and present begin to blur and the two survivors of the first attack might not be so lucky this time around.

Flanagan has crafted one of the great mind benders of all time here. Throughout the second half of the film, I was questioning everything, thinking that this could be an illusion, or the whole thing could be an illusion and the adult Russells were really the child Russells being placated while their possessed parents came to kill them. Any outcome is possible and you don’t know which one it’s going to be, adding to the fun.

Gillan, better known as Amy Pond in the Dr. Who series, is terrific here in a character distinctly unlike the grounded Amy. Kaylee is barely holding it together, haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative. Gillan has a great deal of screen presence that holds up on the big screen as well (or maybe even better than) on the small screen. While her name value is liable to attract die-hard Whovians to a film they might not otherwise have been interested in, she will benefit in being exposed to a whole new audience who is likely to embrace her as fanatically as her previous fan base has.

Thwaites, who will also be starring in the sci-fi film The Giver this fall, also has a bright cinematic future ahead of him. He has the kind of quiet charisma that reminds me of a young Gary Cooper, minus the mannerisms. His star quality is more subtle than Gillan’s who wears her s on her sleeve, but no less intense.

Flanagan does a masterful job of keeping the two time periods parallel until the very end when he bleeds one into the other, with the adult actors appearing in the past and the young actors in the present, sometimes both together. We are also left guessing whether what we’re seeing and hearing is real or the product of the mirror and the confusion and terror of the characters is well communicated to the audience who feels their emotions. That’s all you can ask out of any director.

This has franchise potential written all over it and while the ending of the film is pretty much a given (it is telegraphed early on, giving the audience the impression that the mirror is toying with its prey), it is still satisfying. There isn’t a lot of gore here but there is some and what there is most gore fans are going to be satisfied with. Mostly this movie is about a royal mind blowing and one can be forgiven if they walk away from this moving doubting their own senses.  I know I did.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome mindf**k. Gillan shows big screen potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly lengthy “dead” periods.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of horrific images and supernatural violence, some pretty serious mind bending and a bit of brief bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flanagan earlier made a short, also titled Oculus on which this feature is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirrors

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: For No Good Reason

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Tooth Fairy


Tooth Fairy

Even a hockey setting couldn't save this movie.

(2010) Family Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Steven Merchant, Ryan Sheckler, Seth McFarlane, Billy Crystal, Chase Ellison, Destiny Grace Whitlock, Ryan Sheckler, Brandon T. Jackson. Directed by Michael Lembeck

The belief of a child is precious and powerful at once. Attacking that belief – whether it is in the infallibility of its parents, or the existence of Santa Claus is a profound turning point in their lives.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is a goon on a minor league hockey team in Lansing, Michigan who has garnered the nickname of “Tooth Fairy” for all the dental work he’s sent opposing players for (although I have to point out that no self-respecting hockey player would have a nickname that contained the word “Fairy”).

Off the ice he’s an affable enough sort, although he’s a bit of a self-centered jerk. His girlfriend Carly (Judd) has two kids that he has trouble relating to. Randy (Ellison) is a sullen teenaged annoyance who gets what little pleasure he gets out of life from his music. Tess (Whitlock) is a bit of a dreamer and Derek, who has been jerked around by life, having never had the talent to go very far in the game he loves, tells her that there’s no tooth fairy and even steals the money from under her  pillow. Now that’s a douchebag. It also gets him the heave-ho from the only good thing in his life – his relationship with Carly.

Well, the powers that be hear about this and boy, are they miffed. Derek is sentenced to spend a week as a tooth fairy (apparently there are a whole bunch of ‘em) in penance for trying to attack the belief of a child. Those powers that be, they don’t mess around.

There Derek meets Lily (Andrews), the head fairy which is kind of an executive position as it turns out; Tracy (Merchant), an adenoidal fairy without wings who is Derek’s case worker, and finally Jerry (Crystal), a kind of Q Division fairy who gives Derek all sorts of gadgets such as a horn that scares off cats and a shrinking potion. These fairies, they’ve got a hell of an R&D department.

At first Derek is just there to serve out his time and doesn’t take much care in doing his job properly until he begins to learn what tooth fairies mean to kids…and what kids mean to them. The arrogant, selfish Derek begins to morph into a kinder, gentler Derek. But is it too little, too late?

After a promising start in action films, Johnson moved into family-friendly movies like this one. He’s become quite a staple in them and his easygoing personality make him a natural, plus his notoriety as a former WWE wrestler makes him even more kid-friendly. I like Johnson in roles that utilize his comic abilities, but his formidable skills as an action hero have been seriously missed.

He’s got a pretty decent cast behind him; Andrews and Crystal certainly perform as advertised, but their roles are brief and are in fact little more than cameos (Crystal goes uncredited in the film). Merchant has a more sizable role but his eager beaver caseworker comes off a little too forced, a little too bland.

Frankly, I’m surprised Disney didn’t snap this up; they’ve made these sorts of movies for decades and nobody does it better than they do. I think the movie could have used the Disney touch a little bit; still, Johnson is just so damned likable that you can’t help but like him in the movie, even though he’s a bit of an arrogant prick for much of it.

Kids will probably love the movie for the whimsy shown with the tooth fairies and some of that is actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, even the charismatic Johnson can’t save this movie from an overabundance of kid flick clichés.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock on ice. Need I say more? Also some nice cameos from Crystal and Andrews.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical family fare that Disney does so much better

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and a bit of rude humor on the family-friendly side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Billy Crystal’s first live action movie role in eight years.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sing-along feature with Johnson and Merchant called “Fairy-oke” and a kid’s workout video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.3M on a $48M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Barney’s Version

The Skeptic


The Skeptic

Tim Daly is being haunted by Tiger Woods.

(IFC) Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Robert Prosky, Andrea Roth, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco, Sarah Weaver. Directed by Tennyson Bardwell

We all believe in something; some believe in the spiritual, others in the rational. Some believe in nothing at all, but even that is believing in something.

Bryan Beckett (Daly) falls into that category. Then again, he’s a lawyer so I suppose that goes along with the territory. He believes only in what he can see, what he can touch and what he can hear, and even those things he doesn’t necessarily trust. His wife Robin (Roth) has begun to suspect that he doesn’t believe in marriage either, so she asks him to leave so he can maybe get a handle on whether he believes they should continue in their relationship or not.

He kind of wants to but then again, what is marriage anyway but a contrivance of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an intangible relationship into some kind of quantifiable box and quite frankly, Bryan is all about the tangible baby and those who think otherwise are nutcases and idiots.

His aunt certainly qualifies as a nutcase. As she has come to the end of her life, she has come to believe in the supernatural to a great extent. When she dies suddenly, she leaves Bryan her house. Bryan sees it as an investment opportunity, but when Robin kicks him out, he uses it as a cheap bed for the night.

As you can guess, he begins to experience things he can’t quite explain. He hears people whispering but there isn’t anyone there. He sees fleeting images of a mysterious woman but again, he is alone. His partner and best friend Sully (Arnold) thinks he’s cracking up and needs a vacation. Eventually Bryan contacts the founder (Altman) of a paranormal investigative group that his loony tunes aunt had been involved with and is surprised to find him as skeptical as he. However, he does introduce Bryan to a sexy psychic (Saldana) who believes there is something malevolent in that house. Bryan thinks its hogwash. Is he right and just imagining these things, or is she right in which case he’s in mortal danger?

This is a movie that tries very hard not to pander to the baser instincts of the horror genre and in general it succeeds. Director Bardwell is out to create a mood of tension and spine tingling creepiness and when he succeeds, the movie is at its best. However, he necessarily has to temper the chills with the cold water splash of reality and the juxtaposition of the two is a very difficult tightrope to walk and he doesn’t always succeed completely.

Daly who was such a promising lead in “Wings” has had a checkered film career. He does a reasonably good job of playing the rational lawyer who’s more than a little bit of a cold fish. Unfortunately, his character as written tends to make it difficult for the audience to identify with him and root for him; he’s so good at portraying the unemotional, detached part of the character that at the end of the day there’s no emotional bond for the audience to hang onto. The central premise of the movie makes it nearly impossible for you to really root for the main character.

The end is a bit of a letdown and one that you can see coming early on. After watching The Skeptic I found myself not really caring that I’d seen it; it has some things going for it, enough that I can recommend it for those who like supernatural horror movies as well as psychological thrillers. However, I don’t see general audiences caring enough about the main character to make this movie a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: A traditional haunted house movie that doesn’t involve teenagers is quite refreshing. Bardwell delivers a very creepy atmosphere in places

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This lacks in visual frights compared to more extravagant fair like The Haunting in Connecticut. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and frightening images, as well as some sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film role for veteran character actor Robert Prosky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Grown Ups