Oculus (R)

8 Stars

Self-reflection.

How much is too much?

Although the story remains unread on my bookshelf, I’d imagine Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey deals heavily with this notion.

Since publication, many other horror stories utilize the mirror motif. Candyman (1992) is one of the scariest movies of all time. Mirrors (2008) isn’t as good, but hey – further fright by looking glass!

Bearing in mind horror movies are graded on a curve, Oculus is great.

Not only is it scary, it’s thought provoking and nuanced.

Plus, Karen Gillan!

Throw her on a list of promising young up-and-comers. She plays the bionic woman in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Brenton Thwaites isn’t the cat’s pajamas, but he does just fine.

Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff turn in solid performances as the parents. The kids, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan were also very good.

First and foremost, Oculus establishes fair and realistic circumstances by which the viewer can suspend disbelief. Some of the best horror movies nowadays struggle with this.

Also, despite a tiny (five million dollar) budget, the movie looks great. You can feel the production value, the effort behind the moviemaking.

Unlike the Paranormal Activity franchise, which I’ve been screaming about since the first was released in 2009. It seems like folks have caught on since the trailer for the fourth movie, but I’m going to be upset if I have to sit through a preview for P.A. 5.

I’ll get back to Oculus in a moment but one last note on the P.A. franchise.

It lessened the credibility of the horror genre by supporting a notion introduced by The Blair Witch Project.

The idea that production value doesn’t necessarily increase believability, and success can be achieved through marketing trickery and cheap filmmaking.

Therefore what’s debatably the campiest genre became even less appealing to the out-group as a large source of revenue. What is commonly perceived as a ‘lesser art form’ is further denigrated by the cheapness required to satisfy the audience.

My soapbox has a stepladder I’m currently descending.

Anyway. Oculus puts the theme of reflection to good use.

Man, horror guys really love their overlapping dualities.

The ending (and Rotten Tomatoes) leads me to believe there will be a sequel, which I’m very intrigued to see.

Two separate timeframes unfold through the perspective of two protagonists, under similar conditions in the same setting. The viewer watches along as the memories overlap with the present.

See? Nuance!

What we have here, folks, is an unreliable narrator.

A subjective third-person omniscient narrator, to be precise.

A perspective that swivels willy-nilly between past and present, reality and delusion.

Oftentimes it’s difficult to discern what’s an objective historical account or concrete memory. The blurred lines between the individual perceptions of both past and present are a theme reflected throughout.

Thus resulting in some rather subtle social commentary regarding psychotherapy.

After all that time spent in self-reflection, how much good does it do him in moving forward?

Didn’t think I was going to bring it back around, did you?

As Above/So Below (R)

7 Stars

Horror movies are rarely called ‘great.’

When was the last critically acclaimed horror movie released? You’d be hard-pressed to find anything since The Ring in 2002.

I haven’t seen The Conjuring, Mama or Oculus but people say they’ve got potential. I thought Drag Me to Hell was pretty good from 2009.

But the last great one I caught in theaters was Devil from 2010.

Which is also directed by John Dowdle. He wrote Quarantine (2008), as well – another solid semi-recent horror.

As Above/So Below is the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

First of all, it’s shot on-location in Paris, which is a delight for any fan of that city. Favorite sights like Notre Dame and Sacre-Coeur are featured throughout.

The filmmakers use almost every shooting style. AA/SB is a mockumentary about Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks) a young archaeologist searching for the philosopher’s stone. Therefore much of the footage is shot in first-person via headlamp GoPro cams.

Although I’m sick of ‘found footage’ it works better here. For obvious reasons, the budget can’t be massive, so this filmmaking style is particularly suited to horror.

The story is also good, co-written by the director and his brother, Drew.

There’s more nuance than usual. The main characters use deductive reasoning and historical analysis in order to solve riddles and navigate the labyrinthine catacombs.

There’s a lot of rebirth imagery, but I wonder just how far the metaphor goes. Are the ribbed tunnels supposed to be reminiscent of a vaginal lining?

Dichotomies drawn between light and dark, and up and down, are intriguing and thought provoking.

The cast of unknowns delivers strong performances. It’s tough to get through a whole scary movie without poor acting or cheesy moments.

Apparently I’m in the minority because AA/SB is getting 13% amongst top critics and 57% amongst the users on Rotten Tomatoes.

But I would encourage an open mind, because it’s a cut above the rest.

If you’re looking for a decent flick this weekend, especially if you dig horror, you can do a lot worse than As Above/So Below.

Godzilla (PG-13)

8 Stars

Summer’s a-winding down.

You know what that means?

Less PG-13.

That’s right, folks. Content rated for ‘a mature audience.’

Considering the premise, one might presume this movie’s unsuited to a teenage audience.

At its core, Godzilla’s a horror story, no?

In terms of genre, it belongs under the ‘Giant Monster Movie’ heading.

Here’s my top six, from best to worst –

1. Pacific Rim (2013)
2. Godzilla (2014)
3. Cloverfield (2008)
4. King Kong (2005)
5. The Host (2006)
6. Gojira (1954)

To be fair, those are the only six.

Like most people, I missed 1998’s Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick for two reasons.

One: It’s a unanimous flop.

Two: My sole attempt at rental was thwarted.

A decade ago, after biking three miles to Blockbuster, I realized the disc had never been returned. Because why would they take down the cardboard insert, even years after the actual DVD disappeared?

I borrowed the subtitled original instead.

Never watch Gojira. Ever. It doesn’t hold up.

It’s noteworthy as a pop cultural touchstone, particularly in Japan, where it was clearly received as horror. But check Wikipedia if you’re interested – I don’t support ironic viewings.

Rent this year’s Godzilla if you’re looking for an inoffensive weekend flick.

I dragged my sister and brother-in-law to an IMAX 3D screening and all of us thoroughly enjoyed it. Both cited low expectations as a major contributor to their delight.

If you take advantage of the rental (available starting September 16), stream it on a big screen, crank up the volume and kill the lights. This isn’t ideal for an airplane.

What’s great is the sigh of relief: Zilla delivers on several levels.

The story isn’t cliché or flat. It’s well thought-out and nuanced. It’s not perfect, but it’s tough to hit the bulls-eye with mega-monsters that withstand rocket-powered artillery.

The visuals are solid, especially the CGI.

Now, this flick had the best trailer I’ve ever seen. Back when it first appeared in theaters, it was so creepy and built the anticipation. Unfortunately, the paratrooper sequence is underwhelming as a result.

Thus continues the search for any redeeming quality in the general practice of trailer viewing.

Sally Hawkins can be put to much better use. Although she delivers a more than proficient performance, it’s not a strong role. Which is similar to the part she plays in another great movie, The Double, released a week previous. But she’s outstanding in Blue Jasmine, even receiving the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Hopefully we see more of Sally in the future.

Other than Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, the acting’s only okay.

Elizabeth Olsen is pretty good.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad, but he completely lacks charisma.

All in all, Godzilla is great enough for what it is.

I’m sure the sequel’s going to give us, at the very least, a peak at King Kong.

Consider this a challenge to the filmmakers: Be original and release an ‘R’ rated sequel.

You may not make the same haul domestically (which is debatable), but it’d be a way better movie. Folks would applaud the creativity and ambition.

Plus, you could ratchet up the horror.

And who doesn’t love a good scare?

Under the Skin (R)

9 Stars

‘Alien’ is a misnomer.

More accurately Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an ‘extraterrestrial organism.’

A being who exists beyond our frame of reference. Seems puzzling, no?

Well it’s certainly elaborate, but not needlessly confusing.

Under the Skin is smart and mandates a brief personal yarn.

During movie viewings, my buddy and I rarely talk or utilize the pause feature.

We pressed the freeze button thrice while watching Under the Skin in order to clear up confusion.

Our choice to abandon the usual procedure proved beneficial, because UTS is a lot easier to follow when combining noggins.

Rotten Tomatoes’s summarization explains, “Its message may prove elusive for some, but with absorbing imagery and a mesmerizing performance from Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin is a haunting viewing experience.”

That little lady’s on quite a streak. She’s been in six huge movies since The Avengers in 2012. Her last eleven are Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!

A topless Scarlett may be the sole draw for certain viewers, but I suspect they’re the same folks who’ll find its message elusive.

Under the Skin is a great movie that hasn’t received the credit it deserves. It’s a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy and horror and if you dig this cinematic breed I highly recommend the rental.

It’s currently available for instant streaming via iTunes and Amazon as an HD rental ($4.99) or purchase ($9.99).

According to Box Office Mojo, it cost $13.3M to produce Under the Skin, and so far it’s just shy of a $5.4M gross worldwide. Which is a bummer because passion and effort should be rewarded.

Jonathan Glazer did an excellent job directing this movie. A massive chunk of thought went into each scene. The workload’s palpable.

The audio and visuals are simply stunning. Everything feels ‘intergalactic.’

The plot’s creepy and unnerving. Certain details seem like red herrings, but the film’s so polished their exclusion must be purposeful.

Under the Skin is wildly thought provoking and hits the spot.

If you seek uplifting content, search elsewhere, chum. Several moments are on the warmer side, but the majority’s unsettling and quizzical.

Follow my example and catch this flick with a loved one.

Let’s hope Laura runs across Lucy (from Lucy) and Samantha (from Her) and finds solace in their company somewhere in the metaphysical ether.