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Review: ‘Oculus’ Merges Paranormal Activity and Psychological Trauma

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in 'Oculus' (Relativity Media)
Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in ‘Oculus’ (Relativity Media)

A methodical psychological drama that reaches for more than the usual jump scares is a tough sell for modern audiences.

Oculus is not, by any means, a traditional thriller. It doesn’t build suspense so much as it occasionally releases tension. Set in a house that is apparently haunted by a dark force residing within an antique mirror, the film proceeds to dissect the two main characters and questions whether it is they who are haunted by past actions, rather than the mirror itself.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaits) survived traumatic events in the family home. Kaylie now works at an auction house with her understanding boyfriend Michael (James Lafferty). Tim has been confined to a mental hospital ever since the inciting series of events, but he is now declared “cured” and thus released on his 21st birthday.

Kaylie is happy to reunite with Tim, yet she barely allows him to breathe the fresh air of sanity before rushing him back to their former family home, where she has re-installed the accursed antique mirror. She is determined to do something to rid them both of their nightmares, yet Tim is resistant to her scarily-detailed plans.

The whys and the what-fors subsequently unfold in unexpected, quietly executed twists and turns. Events of the past and future waltz the narrative backward and forward in time, as more family secrets are unveiled and the “truth” is given a severe beating about the head and face.

The film, directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based on a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman), does not stint on explicit bloodshed and eyebrow-raising shocks, though they are rarely delivered at the front door. Instead, they come sneaking into frame, sidewinder-style, often catching the viewer off-guard.

Gillan and Thwaits make for an unlikely pair of siblings; she is assured even when she is expressing pitiful emotions, while he is unsteady and sounds more mechanical. At first, I thought that Thwaits was simply not up to Gillan’s level. But, given the long gap of years when the siblings were separated, it makes perfect sense that the ease of their relationship might have hardened. As their younger versions, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan create aptly different personalities. As their parents, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane bring unusual and disturbing shadings.

With its dry, sober approach and languid pace, Oculus rows against the tide of popular horror movies. Moments of levity are few and far between, and post-modern wisecracks are nowhere to be found. Relying on an unsettling atmosphere, a menacing tone, and clashing characters who do not obey the rules, Oculus goes bump in the night and leaves many bruises.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, April 11.

Review: The New ‘RoboCop’ Is The Same, Only Different

'RoboCop' (MGM / Sony)
‘RoboCop’ (MGM / Sony)

Zoom zoom zoom! The sleek new version of RoboCop sprints at high speed through a multitude of plot points and sociological concerns, leaving little room for emotional impact and absolutely no compelling artistic reason for its existence.

The surface is highly-finished and reflective. Writer Joshua Zetumer copies the story and characters of the 1987 RoboCop so closely that original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner also receive credit for the screenplay. Certainly there are differences, most significantly with the individual credited for the “creation” of RoboCop, Dr. Dennett Norton, played with fierce adherence to subtle emotional modulation by the reliable Gary Oldman.

Dr. Norton is portrayed as a man of science who earnestly wants to avoid any of his work being weaponized for military purposes. He’s fooling himself, of course — he is employed by OmniCorp., which is (apparently) entirely devoted to the manufacture of drones and other mechanized weapons for use by the U.S. military — and it’s only a matter of time before OmniCorp. head Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his nasty minions (ice-cold Jennifer Ehle, sleazy Jay Baruchel, and dead-eye Jackie Earle Haley) coerce Dr. Norton into making RoboCop into the mechanical man of their financial dreams.

As Dr. Norton wrestles his conscience into submission, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) struggles with the loss of his manhood, both literally and figuratively. The new film demonstrates a heightened awareness and increased sensitivity toward Murphy, who is treated (eventually) with the kindness and patience accorded a soldier disabled in military service. While no direct connection is made on that front, the film’s opening sequence takes place in Tehran, Iran, and explores the political impact of drone warfare on public consciousness, and it’s a short step from there to viewing Murphy as an unwilling pawn of the U.S. government.

Except the film doesn’t really “go” there; it conjures up a controversial law banning the use of completely mechanized weapons, and focuses like a laser-beam on the premise that U.S. citizens of the near future are most desirous of having humans manning robotic death machines, which neatly avoids the far more controversial issue of gun control. Within this film, it’s more like “gun control control.”

Always keeping meaningful issues at arm’s length means that the film pens itself into a prison of its own devising. Padilha’s action sequences unfold with brutal efficiency, though none of the actual bloodshed is shown; dozens of people are killed throughout the movie, but almost always without an ounce of blood flow, all the better to secure a PG-13 rating, rather than a more honest R rating.

Honoring a film because it is not as bad as I anticipated really doesn’t make any sense. To be fair, the cast invests the film with as much heft as possible, which threatens to topple the slender the narrative into pomposity. Oldman is terrific and Kinnaman makes the role his own; notable additional contributions are made by Abbie Cornish (as Murphy’s wife), Michael K. Williams (as Murphy’s partner), Marianne Jean-Bapiste (as Murphy’s commander), Samuel L. Jackson (as media commenter Pat Novak), and Aimee Garcia (as Dr. Norton’s lieutenant).

The abundance of talent on hand ensures that the film is competently made and acted. But the original film still exists and is still as fresh, timely, and poignant as ever. Why watch a copy when the original is so widely available?

RoboCop opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Wednesday, February 12.

Review: ‘We Are What We Are,’ A Family Comes to Grips with a Horrific Legacy

Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers in Jim Mickle's 'We Are What We Are' (Entertainment One)
Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers in Jim Mickle’s ‘We Are What We Are’ (Entertainment One)

Family is important in the mountain communities of rural West Virginia.

So when the matriarch of the Parker family dies in a freak accident, the surviving members draw even closer together. Like other families in the community, the Parkers have a long history in the area. Unlike other families, however, the Parkers have a horrific legacy that they have kept closely guarded, and that legacy now threatens to expose them to scrutiny that they will not be able to survive.

Frank (Bill Sage) is respected, if not beloved, as the owner of a small trailer park. He is left to raise his three children alone: two teenage daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), and pre-pubescent son Rory (Jack Gore). Soon after the death of his wife, Frank speaks to his children about the importance of tradition and the survival of the family. He’s referring to certain responsibilities carried out by the matriarch; Iris understands and acknowledges that those responsibilities have been passed on to her, and accepts her duties, without needing to spell things out.

The family legacy is not disclosed until quite a bit later in We Are What We Are than in the film that serves as the source material, Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), so I won’t reveal it here. As a substitute for full disclosure, We Are What We Are emphasizes a ticking clock timetable that runs three days. Over the course of those three days, the individual family members fast; at the conclusion of the prescribed period of time, Iris is supposed to do something that we suspect is not pleasant in order to provide for everyone.

Jim Mickle directed and also wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici. Previously, the two collaborated on the highly-regarded horror films Mulberry Street (2006) and Stake Land (2010), and their experience is brought to bear in We Are What We Are, which moves the setting of the original from urban Mexico to rural America and flips the family structure from a patriarchy to a matriarchy. There are other changes as well, but the key is that Mickle has not merely fashioned a beat-for-beat remake, but instead reimagined the core elements of the story and the characters.

We Are What We Are is deliberately paced, creating an atmosphere thick with dread and dark foreboding. The well-tuned lead performances by Sage, Childers, and Garner are fully in harmony with the minor-key environment. Key roles played by Kelly McGillis (as a kindly neighbor) and Michael Parks (as a kindly doctor) add tension simply because they effectively represent the concerned, politely observant, and definitely not stupid community that surrounds the Parker family; it’s a pleasant surprise that Mickle avoids any stereotypes about rural West Virginia and the people who live there.

That setting — thick forests, cloudy skies, a drenching rainy season — contributes to the ominous dramatics as the story plays out and the prospects of the Parker family become more dire and desperate. Their secrets are uncovered, and the family’s future direction is determined. And it leads to a haunting finale that comes fully to grips with a horrific legacy.

We Are What We Are opens exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, October 11.

Review: ‘Machete Kills’ Splatters Gooey Grindhouse Goodness on the Silver Screen

Danny Trejo and Demian Bichir in Robert Rodriguez's 'Machete Kills'
Danny Trejo and Demian Bichir in Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Machete Kills’
Self-aware, self-referential, and self-abusing, Machete Kills splatters a full load of gooey grindhouse goodness onto the screen even before the main titles roll.

Having turned the volume up to 11, however, that leaves more than 100 minutes to be filled with something, and so Robert Rodriguez and company have elected to do more of the same, stringing together bite-sized exploitation stand-bys — beheadings, gushing blood, machine-gun brassieres, beheadings, martial arts performed by clones, a ticking bomb sewn to a human heart, beheadings, angry prostitutes, an undercover beauty queen, beheadings, Mexican jokes, Charlie Sheen as the U.S. President, Mel Gibson as a brilliant tech villain who claims he can see the future, and more beheadings — and pretending that the plot matters one iota. (Note: It doesn’t.)

Admittedly, Sheen and Gibson appear courtesy of another strategy, one considered alien to the grindhouse films that serve as inspiration / excuse for Rodriguez to wallow in the same pigpen he has already exploited to the full. That strategy is often employed by modern sequels, namely, the all-star cast of day players who appear in movies like this to show that they’re good sports and/or really like the director. In that category we find Jessica Biel, Walton Goggins (here billed as “Walt” Goggins), Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas, among others. The “badass chica” quota overflows, with Michelle Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Sofia Vergara, and Alexa Vega on hand to fire guns, throw knives, bare various body parts, and dispense the f-word with great gusto.

To read the rest of the review, please visit Twitch. The film opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, October 11.

Review: ‘Side Effects’ Sends Chills Down the Spine

Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' (Open Road Films)
Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ (Open Road Films)

Absolutely absorbing and diabolically clever, Side Effects serves as a fitting theatrical swan song for Steven Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement from directing feature films.

Soderbergh has developed a wonderful mastery of visual storytelling, consistently experimenting with the boundaries of commercial cinema so as to deliver distinctive films that tease any limited definitions of “mainstream” vs. “arthouse” works. Within his films, there is often a battle between the warmth of the colors and the coolness of the characters; sometimes that’s flipped, so that the colors cool off and the characters heat up.

His distinctive approach is entirely appropriate for Side Effects. Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) empathetically emobodies the troubled Emily, a 28-year-old woman who is suffering from depression. After a brief, ominous prologue, the story begins with the release from prison of Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who served four years behind bars for insider trading.

Martin is properly remorseful, yet determined to quickly regain the comfortable, prosperous lifestyle that he and Emily previously enjoyed. During his prison term, Emily moved to Manhattan and got a low-level job in an advertising agency, where her boss is sympathetic to her troubles. Still, Martin’s return does not cure Emily of her sadness, and an apparent suicide attempt brings her in contact with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a kind, sympathetic doctor.

Dr. Banks consults with Emily’s previous doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who treated Emily when she lived in Connecticut. Then Dr. Banks prescribes a series of drugs for Emily, none of which are effective. Finally, he presents her with the opportunity to try Ablixa, a drug available only on a trial basis to qualified patients.

Now, the complicating factor there is that Dr. Banks has accepted a healthy consultant’s fee from the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug. There’s nothing illegal about what he does; he discloses his financial interest to Emily aforehand, and the choice is hers. But, but, but … the drug is available without cost to Emily and is recommended by her trusted physician. What choice does she really have?

Up to this point, Side Effects has developed an uncomfortable degree of tension. It’s as though everyone is holding their breath, waiting for something bad to happen. That’s accomplished by the complex structure of the original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Soderbergh’s direction and photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), the pinpoint-strong editing, and Thomas Newman’s discordant music score.

Add to that the layered performances by Mara, Law, and Tatum, and the story feels like the tragic tale of good characters who are caught up in a very bad situation. There are no villains; instead, the movie feels like a good-faith effort to depict a mental affliction that affects a great many people across all social classes and ages.

And then, something happens, and then something else happens, and we have a very different movie altogether.

Mind, it’s still a vastly entertaining movie, one that seeks to tear up the carpet and expose the underpinnings of similar dramatic thrillers, as if to boldly proclaim, ‘No, this is how to tell this kind of story.’ And, of course, it highlights Soderbergh’s delight in tearing apart something built with solid genre construction and remaking it in his own, cool, intelligent, post-modern image.

In the end, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but by the point that “something else happens,” I was so caught up in the film’s narrative rhythms that I was happy to follow wherever Soderbergh and his collaborators wanted to take me. Side Effects deserves to be treasured, analyzed, and appreciated as a rare, fresh take on “mainstream” cinema.

Side Effects opens wide across the Metroplex today.

Coming Soon: ‘The Impossible,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Naomi Watts in 'The Impossible'
Naomi Watts in ‘The Impossible’


01/04: ‘The Impossible’ (AD)
01/11: ‘Quartet’ (AD)
01/11: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (AD)
01/18: ‘Amour’ (LM)
01/18: ‘On the Road’ (LI)
01/25: ‘West of Memphis’ (AD)

01/04: ‘Texas Chainsaw 3D’
01/11: ‘Gangster Squad’
01/11: ‘A Haunted House’
01/18: ‘Broken City’
01/18: ‘The Last Stand’
01/18: ‘Mama’
01/25: ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’
01/25: ‘Movie 43’
01/25: ‘Parker’

AD: Angelika Dallas
AP: Angelika Plano
C17: Cinemark 17
CWP: Cinemark West Plano
G30: AMC Grapevine Mills 30
LI: Landmark Inwood
LM: Landmark Magnolia
NP: AMC NorthPark 15
TT: Texas Theatre

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