Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oculus (2014) Review


Supernatural horror films have experienced a prolific resurgence recently. Blumhouse Productions has frequently been at the forefront of this movement with such popular titles as “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Insidious.” As with any category of film there comes a set of clich├ęs that defines it, so it’s welcome when a horror film tries to branch out on its own and break the mold. Unfortunately, the new Blumhouse produced film, “Oculus,” makes passes at something fresh and comes up short in the process.

10 years after a traumatic event sent Tim Russell into the psychotherapy ward, he has recovered on his 21st birthday and is released into the care of his sister Kaylie. Tim has since repressed the belief that supernatural forces caused the terrible event, but Kaylie still refuses to believe otherwise and obtains the ominous mirror that she believes is the source of their trouble. As the siblings set up recording equipment to prove what no one else believes, the mirror awakens to twist reality to its will.

At the same time, “Oculus” shifts between these events of the present and those of the past where the Russell family was torn apart by the mirror’s omnipotent force. In spite of the present day scenes being the framework for the story, the stuff in the past is where “Oculus” finds its most compelling material. The actors cast in the film can be attributed to this, and while Karen Gillen (old Kaylie) “Doctor Who” fame is given top billing, her and Brenton Thwaites (old Tim) are overshadowed by their younger acting counterparts, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan, adapting his own short film of the same name, would have been better off sticking to the story of young Tim and Kaylie experiencing the deterioration of their family. Instead, he creates an awkward parallel structure that both withholds information simply for the sake of forcing a sense of mystery and yet explains too much. In the present, it’s hard to identify with the characters initially when we don’t fully understand their grief. On the other hand, when Kaylie drops a load of exposition explaining everything, it robs the past story of its unpredictability.

Another question of execution comes with the portrayal of the mirror’s supernatural grip. The film is at its strongest when it creates an atmosphere where anything can happen and what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily reality. When Flanagan toys with the audience and keeps things low-key, like in one hair-raising scene concerning a light bulb, the psychological ambiguity he builds up showcases the films potential. When he turns to run-of-the-mill ghost frights, it dilutes the ingenuity of the premise.

The more frightful material comes from the strange behavior of young Kaylie and Tim’s parents, played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane. Their descents into madness bring to mind comparisons to “The Shining,” and the storyline would have been strong enough on its own. The film almost seems to self-consciously recognize this as the plotline in the present becomes more and more like an obligatory footnote. Very little actually happens after the siblings set up shop with the mirror, and the ending only serves as a shock since the plot hasn’t been building up to much.

There’s a compellingly chilling story that can be found within “Oculus,” but it is buried in a shroud of cleverness that hinders rather than enhances the film. Making an attempt to shake things up is not enough, especially when that attempt simultaneously dulls the overall impact and resorts to some old tricks.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014) Review

The Raid 2

“The Raid” was one of those film surprises a couple of years ago that came out of nowhere and gave some revitalized juice to the action genre by showing up just about every one of its bigger budget brethren. Director Gareth Evans combined the claustrophobic setting of “Die Hard” with hard-hitting martial arts violence in such a way that was fresh and invigorating. Now Evans returns for its sequel, “The Raid 2,” to expand the story of the Indonesian original beyond one building and into the realm of an operatic gangster thriller.

Rookie Officer Rama may have escaped from the nightmare apartment block but quickly finds out that he merely stepped into a larger picture. He is swiftly sent undercover into a crime syndicate in order to uncover corruption that runs through the police force. After serving a stint in prison to create a new identity, Rama finds himself getting close to the crime boss’ son, whose brash attitude eventually sparks a flurry of gang violence between the local crime families.

Like many of the best sequels, “The Raid 2” sets itself apart by not repeating the formula of the first film. Rather than dilute the tightly wound storytelling, the widened story scope allows Evans greater freedom to lay out his plan and then unleash it in a torrent of impeccably choreographed action. If the original “Raid” succeeded because of its fat-free simplicity, it’s follow-up relishes in setting up the dominos with a fleshed out story and then toppling them down one by one.

Rama, a hero with only the barest of character qualities last time, benefits the most from this as he worries about the safety of his family and begins feeling the strain of diving headfirst into criminal activity. Evans also serves up a cache of memorable villains with their own distinguishable trait, from the arrogant Uco to silent assassins Hammer Girl and Bat Boy. Their titular weapons don’t go to waste once the action kicks in.

The movie sidesteps the frequent action film problem of repetitive action by creating set pieces with their own memorable qualities. Escalation in the action is another factor as the action continuously tops itself with each consecutive sequence. What sets this film apart from others in the genre is Evan’s camerawork that captures and tracks every punch and kick with smooth gliding motions.

The climatic kitchen duel is an exquisite example of how to build tension and dramatic investment through action rather than simply create noise. This isn’t a film that holds back on the violence either. Characters, for the most part, aren’t clean-cut invulnerable supermen as they take and dish out brutal punishment, and the squeamish are advised to stay away from this one.

But there’s a certain beauty to the action that offsets its rough edge. The immaculately clean environments of the rich gangsters serve as a contrast to the grungy settings that their clashes play out in, and the harsh blows are filmed with such fluid grace that it’s hard to look away. “The Raid 2” may leave you battered and bruised once it’s finished, but you’ll also exit in a rush of delirious adrenaline that won’t soon go away.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At multiple points in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the newest installment in Marvel Studios’ expanding superhero universe, characters justify their actions with explanations akin to, “Out with the old, in with the new.” It’s something that Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, deals with as he acclimates to the current state of modern warfare. He’s a bright colored model plopped into a grey world that challenges his steadfast resolve as the stakes, both personal and broad, are raised higher than ever for him.

The eponymous hero, still figuratively frozen in his 1940s ideals, struggles to comprehend agency S.H.I.E.L.D.’s overzealous measures taken to ensure national security in the wake of New York City’s alien invasion from “The Avengers.” With leader Nick Fury and partner Natasha Romanoff engaging in secrecy behind his back, Rogers feels that his trust has been betrayed. But when a mysterious assassin, known only as The Winter Soldier, and hostile forces from the past threaten to upend the entire establishment, Rogers must figure out where his true loyalties lie when nothing is as it seems.

Much like with “Iron Man 3,” “The Winter Soldier” shows a side of Marvel willing to inject real world themes into its stories of super-powered beings. The actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. act as a mirror image of the current United States political landscape where paranoia runs rampant and drone armies are being built up. This doesn’t sit well with Steve Rogers, who comes from a time when America put faith in its people without having to monitor every action being they take.

The Winter Soldier himself, with strength and agility that matches the Captain, represents that corrupted side of America, even as he’s underserved within the plot. He’s a man that has lost sight of who he once was, and the relentlessness of his pursuit leaves little in its wake when the paths of him and Captain America cross. The fight sequences in “The Winter Soldier” carry a level of intensity unmatched by any other Marvel entry that sells the danger our heroes experience by grounding the action in the (relative) real world. Only in the climax do the special effects take over, but that hardly matters when the film has so successfully attached us to these characters.

Anthony and Joe Russo’s past in television (“Arrested Development” and “Community”) no doubt informs their work as directors here as they give equal due to the character relationships amidst the conflict. Everything is deftly balanced with new characters such as Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce making strong impressions even as old standbys like Natasha and Fury are able to become the fully fleshed out characters they never quite were before.

And at the center of everything is Chris Evans` Steve Rogers, whose understated performance carries the weariness of a man still trying to find his place in this world he still doesn’t quite understand. Evans finds the heart and light touch in a hero who doesn’t have the bluster of Thor or jest of Tony Stark, making him arguably the most endearing of Marvel’s super lineup. He’s also got the most emotional baggage too, especially once he learns the truth about the Winter Soldier and everything he thought he was fighting for.

Even with the grave circumstances at hand, the Russo’s remember that this is a comic book movie first and foremost and embrace that sensibility when appropriate. Evans, Mackie, and Scarlett Johansson have an easygoing chemistry between them with lighthearted quips to break the tension when appropriate. The directing duo and returning “Captain America: The First Avenger” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely carefully weave in references to other Marvel characters in ways that feel organic to the established world, some of which alter perceptions of events in previous films.

With shattering changes for these characters and implications for where their story leads them next, there’s the sense of a new dawn for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward. The testing of limits has made their bonds even stronger as they venture off into the new world. Yet in it’s final scenes (both in the main film and the second of two post-credits scenes), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” also presents a yearning to rediscover the past and reclaim a heroic ideal that has faded over time. Thankfully Captain America, the quintessential Man Out of Time, is here to keep that ideal beating strong and insuppressible.