Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oculus Review - Gaze into the Lasser Glass

Oculus is a film that separates itself from many of its contemporaries by refusing to play by the expected rules, and by tethering itself to its concept and mythology (undefined as that mythology may be - not a complaint) and avoiding the cheap and easy scares. I'm a horror fiend - I like cheap and easy scares just fine. But when a film comes along that chooses to forgo these easy moments in pursuit of something greater, that's something to take note of. And that is one of the many things that Oculus brings to the table.

Directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia), Oculus tells the story of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites). The film opens with Tim being released from a mental institution upon turning 21, having resided there for treatment after he killed their father eleven years ago. The story Tim told back then was that the evil mirror that hung in his father’s office had made his father (Rory Cochrane) go crazy, murder their mother (Katee Sackhoff), and attack the children. The official version of the story is that the parents were both suffering the stresses of a marriage falling apart, and that the father simply lost it.

Eleven years spent confined and in therapy have taught Tim the more logical, society-approved version of the events that occurred, allowing him to finally get a hold on his delusions and give him the tools to restart his life. Kaylie, on the other hand, remembers the truth. She has spent her time tracking down the mirror, and now that Tim is free, plans to kill the entity residing in it once and for all. But first, proof. She sets up a bit of an experiment in the house where they grew up. Cameras, monitoring equipment and timers will prove to the world that their story is wasn't a delusion or a fabrication and something truly evil resides within the Lasser Glass.

The film’s narrative structure is one of its strongest assets. The story of the events that transpired when these characters were children is told alongside the events of the present day. What happened before is not so much a flashback as it is a concurrent storyline all of its own. The two match pacing and even plot points, until they finally culminate together at the film’s climax.

The editing applied to pull this off is absolutely sublime. The way the past and the present are integrated into a fully cohesive story is nothing short of magic. The transitions are smooth, the shifts are logically-placed, never jarring and always relevant. In lesser hands, it would be easy for this to feel as though you were watching two separate movies simultaneously, but the fusion between the two is perfect.

This storytelling method also contributes nicely to the overall tone of the film, which is one based far more in dread than in outright horror. That’s not to say this is a tame film - it has its grisly moments, to be sure. But so many opportunities for the easy scares are bypassed in the name of setting the mood and in building and overarching sense of the unknown. The Lasser Glass is a mysterious artifact. Kaylie has been able to trace its history and knows a great deal about the fates that befell its previous owners, but little is known about the mirror itself. Let alone the powers that it possesses.

In fact, that is where Oculus really shines - in the way it always keeps you guessing. The
Lasser Glass has the power to enter your mind, so memory and perception are all faulty, even for the audience. There are no real rules at play here, and like Tim and Kaylie, we are at the mercy of the power of the mirror, and its effects are simple, disorienting, and completely unnerving.

The cast is all incredibly solid. If you need more of a reason to get excited about a genre cast that includes Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane, know that they all do a stellar job. If the film suffers at all, it is from a slight pacing problem as the experiment is getting under way. It’s minor, and it does little to derail the story or its impact. I’ve heard complaints that the film meanders a bit in the middle, but had it given itself a little more time to ease into the experiment, I think those issues could have been resolved. Still though – not a big deal.

Much like in Absentia, director Mike Flanagan tied the supernatural occurrences in Oculus with very human and personal issues. This ghostly story of a haunted mirror and the lives that it has affected is also a personal examination of memory, and of confronting the past. We see Tim and Kaylie explore and empty out the dark corners of their childhood to reveal the nature of the events that tore their family apart eleven years ago. It gives the film a very emotional component, as well as characters that the audience can connect with. You are absolutely rooting for these two (both in the past and in the present)

Oculus is a film that dares to let mood and atmosphere take center stage, pushing jump scares aside and allowing the characters and the premise to develop and take the reigns of the story. The unknown nature of the Lasser Glass allows a reality in which nothing can truly be real, and that our senses can't be trusted, leading to a really unsettling, dread-fueled film.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Sabotage is an Action Flick that Refuses to Play Nice

Sabotage is, without a doubt, one of the meanest, harshest action thrillers you are likely to find. But don’t think that doesn’t make it fun – it’s a blast to watch. But not in that giddy, testosterone-driven, moar ‘splosions kind of way. This, my friends, is a completely different beast.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the head of an elite (and rather questionable) DEA taskforce. This isn’t your typical tough, yet fun, heart of gold gang of miscreants, a la The Expendables. These guys are hard, dirty, and don’t play nice. Not to mention borderline sociopathic. If you found yourself in a locked room with even one of these characters, you would immediately begin searching for an exit. They trust each other, and are certainly a family – but a realistic, violent, dysfunctional one.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: I Know That Voice - A Fascinating Doc About the Art of Voice Acting

Voice actors are, hands down, some of the hardest working people in the business. From lead characters in animated series (often, multiple series), to voice-over work, to film work, to background voices, to video games, these actors make it happen. They bring an animated character to life onscreen and give it its very soul. These are the people who are able to create singular, very unique characters using voice – a very specific tool that that have mastered in a unique way. These aren’t simply celebrities lending their well-known, unmasked voices to the latest animated blockbuster. These are the people who make a career out of crafting voices so uniquely different from one another that you would never guess they can come out of the same person.

Which brings me to the subject at hand: I Know that Voice is a new (and fascinating) documentary (produced by voice giant John DiMaggio of Futurama, Adventure Time) that explores the subject of voice acting by listening to the people who know the ins and outs better than anyone – the actors themselves. And it is AWESOME. Whether you are a fan of the medium or a complete novice, it is a highly interesting, educational, funny and revealing look at some of the hardest working actors that you never get to see. John DiMaggio, Tara Strong, Kevin Conroy, Billy West, Corey Burton, Mark Hamill, Nancy Cartwright, Kevin Michael Richardson...the list goes on and on.

And even though the runtime is only 90 minutes it is a wide-reaching and exhaustive look at this little corner of the craft. It interviews a large group of actors and gets various perspectives on what it takes to become a voice actor, how they got into the business, how they go about crafting a character, the demands of being in a booth and recording, challenges they have had to overcome, people in the industry who inspired them to pursue this art, and the sheer joy they feel by getting to do it every day.

Through it all, you get a very candid glimpse of how immensely talented this group of people is. It’s always fascinating (and kind of unnerving) to watch a human being sitting in front of you suddenly morph into a human being with the voice of Bender. Or of Spongebob Squarepants. Or of Bubbles. We know in our brains that those voices probably come out of humans (we see names in the credits, and logically those voices come from somewhere), but seeing it done and hearing the artists describe how they conceptualize these characters and bring them to life is an entirely different level of understanding. And appreciation. The work they do is really amazing.

Not to mention complex - It’s more than just being able to do funny voices on command. It’s being able to do them through multiple takes, with multiple variations. It’s understanding how the character would express the lines on the page, and getting that across. It’s having a firm grasp on rhythm and tone and intonation, and applying all of these different elements to create a memorable performance.

This film is for everyone and offers a very unique perspective into the medium – that of the actors themselves. The people behind the microphone that are rarely in the spotlight, yet they are responsible for creating some of the most noteworthy and memorable characters in pop culture. This film simultaneously gives them their due and gives us a chance to peek behind the curtain to see exactly what goes into making these characters come to life.

I can’t recommend this one enough. I Know That Voice is now available on VOD, and hits DVD on June 17th You should definitely check it out.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

I don’t even know how to start this, because frankly, we shouldn’t be here. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of those personalities that has made such a mark in film and acting that we never expected him to leave us so soon. His characters were always complex and memorable, and his performances always elevated any project that he was in. Every film he touched benefited from his presence, his grace and his talent.

Paul Thomas Anderson was one of the first directors that I really took note of when I really seriously got into film. After seeing Magnolia, I began hunting down his earlier films, which turned me on to Boogie Nights and Hard Eight. And through these films, I began to know and realize the amazing talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Magnolia and Boogie Nights in particular saw him playing these amazingly heart-touching characters that provided some of the most emotionally vulnerable moments in the films. He connected with the audience and conveyed some truly astounding moments and sentiments - often with little dialogue at all, frequently with just the right line.

From that point on, any time I saw his name on a poster or in a cast list, I got excited. He was someone I could always count on to deliver nothing but the best, and tended to selectively choose interesting characters and projects. Having only The Master, or Magnolia, or Synecdoche, New York on an actor’s resume would be crowning achievement enough, and he had all of them. And many others.

Even on films that I wasn’t over the moon for, his moments in them always managed to shine and give me something to remember. Charlie WIlson’s War was one such example. I didn’t love the film, but I found myself recommending it to friends based on Hoffman’s singular performance as Gust Avarkotos, and the moment he called his boss a “fucking child.”

His was a rare talent. Finely crafting these widely varied, yet amazingly complex characters. It’s hard to believe that the compassionate Phil Parma and George Willis Jr (that smug little shit) could have been played by the same actor. Add into that Lester Bangs, Brandt and Lancaster Dodd (among the scores of others) and you have one of the most amazing and varied careers of just about any actor out there. His work was amazing, and it’s tragic to think about all of the roles left empty. I celebrate Hoffman and am saddened by the fact that he left us far too early. It is truly tragic when an artist leaves us before their work is finished.

And so here’s to you, Mr. Hoffman. And to Scotty J. To Phil Parma, and to Lester Bangs, To Lancaster Dodd, Caden Contard, Truman Capote, Brandt, Freddie Miles, Joseph Turner White...to all of the characters that you brought to life, and to the many others that we will never get the opportunity to know.

Goddamn, I loved that Mattress Man.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Devil's Due

Devil’s Due is a surprisingly slowly-paced foray into the demonic pregnancy genre (because you can’t go wrong with the spawn of Satan), told through the found-footage approach. It tempers itself with a slow build and restrained atmosphere, relying largely on character work during the early moments of the film (a surprisingly refreshing attribute for found-footage). There are certainly jump moments and money shots to be had, but they are not the central focus of this one. Ultimately, it offers a story you’ve heard before, told and developed in careful, well-paced manner.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Evaluating The Hobbit films is turning out to be a tricky business. I loved (LOVED) what Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He managed to take a beloved classic and translate it from page to screen almost flawlessly. The films (like the books before them) are truly a hallmark of the fantasy genre, and something that will remain celebrated for years to come. 

I find myself wanting to love The Hobbit films as much as I loved the Lord of the Rings series, but I just don’t. They are entertaining enough, but they are plagued by more problems and just don’t live up to the shadow of their predecessor.

And The Desolation of Smaug is more of the same. We continue to follow the dwarves and Bilbo on their journey to the Lonely Mountain, and the story is intercut with more of Gandalf playing detective and looking into the mystery of the evil necromancer, as well as the growing tale of the Wood Elves that we meet in Murkwood - particularly Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as they seem to be playing more than a bit role in the proceedings.

And it’s fun. I love Middle Earth and I am always excited to be able to return and spend some time there. I’m happy that these movies exist and I am alway excited to revisit this rich world th that Tolkien created and that Peter Jackson has realized...but I just can’t love this new series. The Hobbit films are significantly more flawed than their predecessors, they don’t move as smoothly, the characters aren’t as developed, the look isn’t as polished and the different pieces don’t come together as perfectly as in the original trilogy.

A big part of the problem that I have with this film (as well as with An Unexpected Journey) is the tonal inconsistencies that constantly spring up. On the one hand, The Hobbit was always a much lighter story than The Lord of the Rings. More of a bedtime story than an opera, it was simpler in just about every possible way, and much more light-hearted. So it makes sense to include scenes of dwarves tossing plates and stupid trolls and barrel-riding schenanigans. It fits the tone of Tolkien’s original tale. But on the other hand, it is also a part of the Lord of the Rings story, and while the original films did have their comedic moments, they were, by and large, a much more serious, somber affair. So we have moments of gravity surrounding Thorin’s history and his quest and we have the (rather forcefully) inserted tie-backs to LOTR with the inclusion of Sauron’s presence in this story. All of that creates a much darker, more serious atmosphere. And these two tones spend two and a half hours butting heads. The light-hearted approach detracts from the serious note set forth by LOTR, and the serious elements make the lighter tone seem overly-silly. It’s a constant battle to find a happy medium between the two.

Additionally, it just feels bloated. I have no problem at all with long movies - especially when there is a lot of worthwhile ground to cover. But the problem here is that I don’t really care about anything other than the dwarf party. I’m not terribly interested in the elves and I don’t particularly care about what Gandalf is doing. So any time spent away from Bilbo, Thorin and the company feels slow and plodding. Those story lines just aren't grabbing me, for whatever reason.

This sounds like a total hatefest, but the thing is, I really did enjoy the film. Despite its issues and flaws, it’s still a fun adventure back to Middle Earth. It’s just disappointing when you know that the creators are capable of truly great things, but aren't living up to the bar that they set for themselves a decade ago. But there are some moments here that really do shine.

Martin Freeman continues to be absolutely perfect as Bilbo, showcasing his hesitance and his ever-growing courage and taste for adventure simultaneously. Smaug looked fantastic, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice lends an air of refinement and deadliness to the dragon, making him truly entrancing and terrifying at the same time. The action sequences were all a lot of fun and it was great to continue on this adventure. I’m hoping that a lot of the problems that I have with this trilogy will work themselves out when There and Back Again arrives in theaters next year. Most of the scenes that I am really looking forward to lie in that film, so everything else just sort of feels like pit stops along the path to getting there.

While it did have some entertaining moments and sequences (I particularly loved the scene in the dragon’s lair where Bilbo meets Smaug), this film definitely felt like a bridge piece, linking the events of the first and third films together. The Desolation of Smaug contained some pivotal moments in the story, to be sure (the spiders, escaping the wood elves in barrels, finally arriving at the Lonely Mountain to unlock the secret door), but so much of it was set up for events to come. Flawed though the series is, I am still looking forward to seeing Laketown take on Smaug in the next chapter, as well as the Battle of Five Armies. I hope that the next film is able to give me everything that I have been hoping to see.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: 12 Years a Slave is a Powerful, Challenging Film

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York with his family during the 1840’s. An accomplished violinist and respected member of the community, Northrup was lured to Washington, D.C., under the promise of work, where he was kidnapped and sold South. He spent the following twelve years as one of the thousands of victims of slavery.