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

Renee


Renee

Not your typical fairy godmother.

(2009) True Life Drama (Two Streets) Kat Dennings, Chad Michael Murray, Rupert Friend, Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy, Corbin Bleu, William Peltz, Brian Patrick Clark, Rus Blackwell, J. LaRose, Ylian Alfaro Snyder, Kristi Engelmann, Brad Benedict, Rachael Yamagata. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

Drug addiction, self-mutilation, sexual predators, clueless parents – all of these things are issues our teenage girls face in the war that growing up has become. Fortunately, they don’t have to necessarily go out into battle alone.

However, that’s exactly what Renee Yohe (Dennings) did. An independently-minded teen from a comfortably middle class family in suburban Orlando, she and her inseparable mates Dylan (Saul), a budding musician and her BFF Jessie (Harkavy) navigate the party scene with the courage and innocence that comes with being a teen.

Renee has always had a thing for fairy tales, seeing beautiful gardens when life got messy. No garden can save her however when she falls in among the wrong crowd. She is hooked on drugs and abandons her friends and family, living in a drug culture cared for only by downtown pedi-cab driver Mackey (Bleu) who can’t protect her from a sinister looking druggie who has designs on her body.

She escapes from the drug house that she was in and calls Dylan. He is working as an (unpaid) intern for an agent for musicians, David McKenna (Friend) who is a former addict himself and does motivational speeches at churches and schools throughout Central Florida. He agrees to help her get into a rehab program but the director tells him that since Renee still has drugs in her system, they can’t accept her since they don’t have the facilities to help her through detox. She’s going to have to wait five days for her system to cleanse itself of the drugs before she’ll be allowed in.

After a fruitless attempt to convince her parents to let her crash at home, McKenna reluctantly decides to take her in where Jessie and Dylan can keep an eye on her. This is news to his roommate Jamie Tworkowski (Murray) who is impressed by Renee’s straightforward nature and her courage to tackle sobriety. It’s no easy thing for Renee to get sober, particularly with all the temptations around her including a downtown music festival, ghosts from the past and David’s own fragile sobriety.

While Renee finally makes the recovery clinic, Jamie is inspired to write Renee’s story. This leads to him founding a non-profit organization to help kids like Renee. That organization is To Write Love on Her Arms, which would become a respected and acclaimed agency  that helps kids get the treatment they need to get through their drug addiction.

This is based on the true story of Renee and the agency that she helped inspire. Frankowski nicely accents the gritty realistic tone of the film with flights of fancy, many depicting the fairy tale quality of Renee’s imagination. That makes for a lovely juxtaposition which offers some relief from what would be a grim fairy tale indeed.

Dennings, known more for comic roles, shines here. Renee isn’t always the most reliable of people and she doesn’t do the right thing all the time. She can be far from sympathetic in her actions until you remember what she’s been through and as you watch the story unfold as a child from an essentially loving environment makes such horribly self-destructive choices. It’s heart-breaking at times and yet Renee isn’t one to apologize or feel sorry for herself. Those qualities shine through in Dennings’ portrayal of her and creates an unforgettable character who’ll stay with you long after the movie is over. I don’t know if the real Renee Yohe is anything like how Dennings portrays her but if she is, she’s someone I wouldn’t mind meeting someday.

Denning has some pretty good support here too. Friend brings out the torment in McKenna’s soul, making him a stand-up guy who is a lot less strong than he appears to be. It’s a spot-on perfect of a recovering addict that Dr. Drew would no doubt approve of.

In fact, there’s a lot about this movie that Dr. Drew might praise. For one, Renee’s release from rehab isn’t the end of her journey but more like the beginning. She realizes, even if those around her don’t, that she is far from recovered and is very much at risk. She also knows that this will be a lifelong fight for her. I don’t know if the real Renee has remained clean and sober – I’d like to think she has – but realistically speaking the odds are far greater that she’s relapsed at some time. This is true for any addict, not just her – kicking drugs isn’t the kind of thing that can be really covered in a 90 minute movie adequately. You don’t get the sense of how it is an insidious disease that rears its ugly head whenever it isn’t wanted or needed.

The power of this movie is very evident. The local Orlando filmmaking community can take a lot of pride that a movie of this quality has come out of it and hopefully it will pave the way for more movies this accomplished. As for Renee, you will leave as I did rooting for her to make it and find that elusive happiness that is hard enough to find when we’re sober. You would also do well to remember – as I’m sure she’d be the first to tell you – that she is just one of many such stories, and there are probably some being written a lot closer to you than you might think.

REASONS TO GO: Enormously emotional with some excellent performances from Dennings and Friend. Realistic and “non-Hollywood” view at addiction.

REASONS TO STAY: Choppy pacing at times. Rape scenes may be too intense for sensitive souls or survivors of the crime.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some graphic depictions of drug use, plenty of foul language, a little bit of violence and sexuality including rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the crew came from the primary film schools in Central Florida – the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University and Valencia College.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crutch

ORLANDO LOVERS: The movie was shot around downtown Orlando and features the parts of the city that people who just visit the theme parks never see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Eye of the Hurricane

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood