I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.
I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!
It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.
I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.
There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.
3.5 stars out of 5
Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.
The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.
In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.
And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.
This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.
2.5 stars out of 5
August: Osage County (2013)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.
But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.
The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.
3 stars out of 5
Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.
That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.
One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.
McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!
Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.
3.75 stars out of 5