The Theory of Everything (2014) – A Journey in Time

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It might be okay to say that The Theory of Everything is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir even though director James Marsh films a much glamorized and dramatized version—tweaking facts here and there. The book is an extended summary of Jane’s life with the most famous Physicist alive today, Stephen Hawking.

Much before Stephen Hawking became the Hawking; he walked, talked, and moved like every other person. Behind this theorist in physics was a genius youngster budding to know more about the universe, the black hole, and time. Yet, The Theory of Everything isn’t about science and Hawking’s feat as a scientist. It treads on a path few know: his love life, his personal story, and his trials and tribulations as a youngster, later adult, who was supposed to perish years before A Brief History of Time, but he persevered, he moved on, and made a mark on the world.

Meet young Stephen W. Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), an Oxford undergrad student. During these days of exuberance, Hawking meets Arts students, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). They formulate something spectacular together, whilst enjoying the blossoming of love and admiration for one another. Stephen likes Jane, she likes Stephen—a marriage of arts and science, what more could anybody ask for? But the universe had other plans for Stephen and Jane.

In his early days as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, doctors diagnose Hawking of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neurone disease, which has since defined him. Because of this degenerative condition, Hawking would lose control over his basic motor functions, his muscles progressively lapsing. The doctors predict 2 years tops after which Hawking would escape the tangible whole, and be born into the intangible infinity. Such was, of course, not to be the case—for Stephen Hawking happened to be born the very day he realized, he was on borrowed time.

The Theory of Everything is a nostalgic fare even if you’ve never experienced the English college scene or the social life in the 60s. It has a Victorian feel to it and flanked by soulful background scores (Jóhann Jóhannsson) and absorbing images (Benoît Delhomme), the movie seems straight out of a Jane Austen novel than a rendering of an ex-wife’s version of the her time with her genius husband. As expected, the movie is closer to Jane Wilde’s biography than Hawking’s My Brief History, but Marsh makes it appear more romantic, more prosaic than Jane articulated in the book.

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Theory is more artistic than scientific, more about the heart than the mind, more about domestic life than wild work. This isn’t surprising though as Jane Hawking is a Professor of Romanticism and a laureate of Medieval Spanish Poetry. She tells this story from her lens, which isn’t always sweet, but feels genuine. Artistically enhanced by the screenwriter’s (Anthony McCarten) own fancy, Theory grows as a wistful unrest between two people with different ideologies—one a bratty atheist, other the brooding Christian.

What’s arguably the best track of this immaculate album is the characterization of both Mr. and Mrs. Hawking. These characters evolve as time passes by, even though major actions here were modified, Redmayne and Jones bring life to the roles of Stephen and Jane.

Later in their lives, Jane Wilde slips out of romance with Hawking and pursues another man, a musician, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). Stephen can only witness this with his eyes, process it with his brain, and accept it with his psyche. With time though, the universe sends another partner for Stephen in the form of his nurse and soon to be closest confidante, Elaine Mason (Maxine Paeke). He cultivates a fondness for her and she does too—worshipping the dust beneath his wheels. In real life though, controversy ever surrounded this couple, which later materialized in a divorce in 2006.

Although March and McCarten sugarcoat major events of the movie, we still get a picture closer to reality. The duo hasn’t shied from taking ample, yet effective cinematic liberty in their pursuit to forge a warm story. Both Stephen and Jane are humans, rooted to the core, and Marsh attempts to focus on their highlight reel, whilst shunting the behind-the-scenes bloopers under the bed, which is why Theory, as a standalone, settles as a cozy tale rather than a cent percent authentic reflection of the lives of both Stephen and Jane.

Felicity Jones assumes the avatar of Jane Wilde in a manner that would make the owner of the name proud. She’s splendid as the girl depressingly in love, as the wife of Hawking, as the mother of three, and as the secret lover of a fellow artist. Her growth from Ms. Wilde to Mrs. Hawking to soon-to-be Mrs. Jones is marvelously summed up by her stern performance. Even though her character comes across as self-centered at times, this oddity gives Jones a platform to execute her acting prowess, which she does with vindication. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is flawless—very similar to the man himself. The mannerisms, speech, style, and even the look, a great job by the make-up and design artists, Eddie has to be a front-runner for the nominations this year.

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The Theory of Everything is an elegiac experience that speculates about love and compassion more so than science and evolution. It’s a rekindled narrative of hope and passion and one gem of a movie—if only you absorb it as cinema and not a word-by-word adaptation of a biography. Playfully poetic in its prose, romantic amidst pragmatism, and a bittersweet tale, just be sure to ignore reality and immerse yourself into the universe of the movie.

Fright Night (1985) – A Parody of Dracula

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“Welcome to Fright Night, for real.”

Instead of Jonathan Harker procuring a new home for the blood sucking and lip smacking Count Dracula, his highness Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) acquires a new house himself for his retreats in Tom Holland’s horror comedy. When high school hipster and ardent gothic horror fan Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) discovers that his new neighbor is in fact a vampire, he has nowhere to run. Nobody believes him and this Lord Vampire is after him because he is the boy who knows too much.

The characters of Fright Night are all based on Bram Stoker’s magnum opus, Dracula. The boy trapped in this muddle is the Jonathan Harker of Fright Night. His girlfriend, the innocent, Amy (Amanda Bearse) is none other than the pious Mina Harker enchanted by the eyes of Dracula. Their common friend, Evil Ed (Stephan Geoffreys), the subservient of Mr. Vampire, reflects the madness of the insane scientist, Renfield. And, the biggest marvel, vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) takes up the avatar of the legendary Dr. Abraham van Helsing – adding his own touch of cowardice over the chivalry of Dr. van Helsing, his phoniness over the ingenuity of the legendary philosopher.

Like Dracula, Fright Night squeezes the supernatural, with pinches of melodrama, romance, and adventure. It’s smart, witty, fun, fast-paced, and entertaining. You wouldn’t know when it started and when it ends. One wild marathon from start until the end, Fright Night is perhaps just be an episode in the life of fictional vampire hunter turned into real life vampire predator, Peter Vincent. And for all those factors, it works.

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Using traditional vampire elements created by Bram Stoker, we see plenty of garlics, crucifixes, wooden skates, holy water, mud, and coffins. Holland also enthralls viewers to special appearances by Vampire, the Bat and Vampire, the Wolf, with the inciting role of Lucy (in the novel) adorned by two hookers that Charley notices arriving at this Count’s hermitage. In the subsequent days, both go missing creating frenzy in the small town, but Charley knows why they’re missing and takes it as his responsibility to save the town from this undead monster. But how does he do it? With the help of his friends and a flop television personality of course, but there’s a problem – nobody believes him.

Fright Night plays on the myths and symbols of vampirism. It’s not merely a satire, it’s a parody of Dracula and it’s damn entertaining. Chris Sarandon takes the role of the vampire and he’s a natural. Suave, vicious, charming, and neat – Sarandon treats this role like his own and makes a perfect vampire. A Dracula fan would perhaps be mildly disappointed with the lack of chivalry of this beast, but in the flow of events, it turns out well. Vampires, after all, aren’t chivalrous creatures, are they?

In some ways, Fright Night resembles Coppola’s Dracula (1992), with the ethereal romance between Jerry and Amy. Only here, it’s rushed and underdeveloped, whereas in Coppola’s masterpiece, the love story takes the center stage. It would appear that Mr. Coppola was more inspired by the undeveloped romantic saga between two time-separated lovers here than from the actual book by Bram Stoker, where such suggestions only bode down to racy imagination.

Not since Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) has there been a horror comedy so enchanting and entertaining as Fright Night. Unlike other serious movies on vampires though, Fright Night relieves the viewers instead of alarming them; it amuses them instead of scaring them away.

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A memorable parody of Dracula, the novel, Fright Night is an easy watch and a perfect movie on a slow day. It’s unexpectedly good and wildly engaging. Craig Gillespie remade the movie in 2011 with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin (playing Jerry and Charley), but the original remains a must-see, especially for fans of vampires. It’s also a nice addition to the folklore of vampirism.

Watch this clever comedy for the thrills and the mayhem; it’ll relieve you of your duties, with a smile that is.

Suspiria (1977) – Welcome to Freiburg

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Suspiria is unique in many ways. The enchanting visuals embedded with the tenacity of Dario Argento marks the beginning of the Three Mother Series, a supernatural horror trilogy, through which he explores the age-old myth of witchcraft. This combination results in a stellar drama that surpasses standard norms of horrors, transcends the genre, and questions the scantiness underneath the skin. At its heart though, Suspiria is about people. How events manipulate people and if they have the belly to overcome the odds.

As a movie, Suspiria isn’t about a great story told. It revisits the legend of witches in a loose, consequential style where the story isn’t the king, nor the concept. Yet, the unusual merger of a peculiar story and Argento’s vision is the masterstroke that lobs Suspiria into the upper echelon of classics and places it as one of the best horrors ever made.

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at Freiburg for the first time, it’s pouring. When she leaves, it’s raging in fire. This symmetry completes the movie and tells you all of what she does, and goes through in this mysterious dance academy. Coming all the way from America to study ballet dancing at the Tam Ballet Academy—little does Suzy expect the bleakness awaiting her within the confines of the grand haunted mansion, with a rich heritage of its own; rich, yet, dampening and dreadful.

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Speaking about the plot too much would spoil the suspense since it’s so delicately poised. For the viewer of 2014, the story of Suspiria mayn’t seem as new as it would have for viewers back in 1977. But, that’s the catch. Despite having a simple plot, straightforward and hardly complex, Suspiria is intriguing for all the reasons people watch films. It grips the fancy of the viewer and the most compelling part of this horror movie is the passage from the beginning until the climax.

Unconventional for horrors, the climax of Suspiria is hardly out-of-this-world-type surprising, but it’s satisfying. You couldn’t call Suspiria an investigation of the occult. Everything drifts and the characters just go with the flow doing what they have to do. Just as the occult is the daughter of supernatural, our destiny is the same, perhaps the son of the supernatural. When the two collide, the supernatural takes care of everything. That seems like an appropriate way of framing Suspiria’s outlook.

Filmed with neon lights of red, blue, and green throughout, Suspiria feels surreal at times. The use of shadows and lights is enchanting and is a nice compliment to the artistry of the ballets. At times though, the alluring visual overrides the plot, but it still works because it adds to the aesthetic charms of the movie. Also capturing the splendor of Germany, the cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) makes this horror much more alienating, thereby, adding a tinge of coldness and making it an exhilarating watch. Not only is it beautiful, but the team ensures that the locales feel detached and even intimidating. When the ambience is so corrupt, the actions in the middle could only borrow from the same corruptness, which is what Dario Argento achieves through Suspiria.

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Adding to this depravity with panache is the music (Italian-band Goblin). The chilling background score blends hard drumming with ailing whines provoking you to a state of alarm. Many times the rhythmic music associated with death—la la la la la la la whum!—alone creeps into you and alerts you of the looming disaster. Other times, the banging of drums and the drastic switch of the tone, from stillness to hyperactive mayhem, configures Suspiria as a menacing little movie that articulates the chilling vagueness of the unknown. It wouldn’t be so chilling without the haunting tone, the manipulative lights, and the gothic captures.

Suspiria ranges from sordid and downright uncomfortable to gripping, terrifying, and ultimately enjoyable, which bodes well to the masterful direction of Dario Argento and seamless performances by the cast. Suspiria is also uncannily arty for a horror movie. Based on essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, especially, the essay—Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow—the movie balances all the elements crisply to give us a deadly movie that not only goads us into buying the shrilling occurrences, but also ultimately manages to accomplish that by entertaining and keeping us at the edge of our seats.

Many similar movies have come out over the years, but Suspiria remains superior and is a landmark in the genre. You may be spiked out due to the blood, which can be uncomfortable to watch and looks unnatural at times, but you’ll love the ambience. That’s probably what separates this movie from the rest: the atmosphere.

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An all-time classic, this one certainly isn’t for the numb. If the death scenes aren’t gory enough to make you shudder, the dramatic sequences are haunting on its own for the sheer uncertainty surrounding this palace that has much more to express than it reveals. The aesthetics of Argento is at full show for viewers to enjoy and appreciate. Callousness comes together with sensibility, a rare marriage, but one for the ages.

Gone Girl (2014) – Gone baby, Gone!

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David Fincher adapts the bestselling book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, in his latest outing and as you’d expect from the master storyteller, he crafts it with full-on Fincher traits. It’s dark, it’s brooding, with an animosity that could spike you into mayhem, and it’s so vengeful; David Fincher might have just given a new dimension to another bestseller after Fight Club and Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. The movie is a fascinating watch; uncloaking of a marriage in peril, or a marriage in bliss, or perhaps a marriage gone awry—maybe just maybe, the perfect marriage!

Retaining much of the first-person narrative of the book, David Fincher constructs an atmosphere ardently using varied color tones to set the tone of visuals right from the moment Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne questions those latent tendencies of a marriage. The opening scene, with Nick Dunne stroking his wife’s blonde hair simultaneously worded in a monologue rearing to know the inside of his wife’s mind kick-starts this saga with a sinister hook. His wife, Amy Elliot-Dunne, played by the pretty Rosamund Pike, is the focal point behind the mystery in this spine-chiller—a saga of a couple in the wake of realization.

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When they first meet though, Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot seem like a match made in heaven. Both writers, they dash off against each other one night and from there on, there’s no looking back. Blissful in marriage, Nick and Amy are super intimate and seem to love caressing the union. As with every marriage, their marriage too hits the mountain—where one ought to work hard, or else wrought to chaos. Nick and Amy aren’t really like those couples. They’re distinct; they’re cool until catastrophe strikes when both find themselves redundant in the professional scene. During the same time, the creators of the terrific comic franchise, Amazing Amy, the parents of Amy find themselves in a financial rot and want her trust fund back, deep in debt. As if it couldn’t get worse, Nick’s mother is diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and he has to shift back to his hometown, Missouri, to be with her. But remember, Missouri has the death penalty.

Intertwined in a proverbial twaddle, Nick and Amy’s affection decrease, and coldness and isolation increase. It reaches to a point where Nick isn’t even aware of Amy’s personal life and Amy is aware of everything—like every damn thing. On the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears (kidnapped/murdered/held hostage—you could suppose) leaving behind a glorious disarrangement in their house. Nick Dunne, confused and unaware of his emotions, informs the cops, with detectives coming home to investigate the disappearance, but the problem…? You guessed it! Nick Dunne finds himself prime suspect for the murder of his lovely wife, the Amazing Amy, and if he is to plead his innocence, he needs to prove that he is innocent. Tough luck, Nick.

Gone Girl is very well written story, with Flynn having a cult following for this immaculate thriller. David Fincher snatches this thriller off Flynn and sticks it on the screen to create a typical Fincher movie—tight and gripping, with mysterious characters and a pinch of suspense so deep that it would leave you in a state of slipups because they just so happen to be slick.

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The characters have to be the best aspect of the movie. The unassuming, everyday-Joe husband played by Ben Affleck is perhaps the weakest character, but he’s not weak for lack of fleshing, but simply because the character of Nick Dunne lacks spine. He’s such a clay figure that anybody could sway him, and he’d remain this bemused guy who really isn’t certain about anything. On the other hand, Amy Elliot-Dunne is somewhat of an enigma. She could be the dream wife for any suitor, but when you get to bottom of her character, she’s as good as they come—and to not risk spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book, in short, she’s the cerebral pillar in this gutsy thriller.

In Gone Girl, Fincher and Flynn don’t merely explore the external mystery, but get right into the psychological dispensation of both characters. As the movie rolls, viewers get closer and closer to the psychic manifestations of both Nick and Amy, and what you discover through them is mind numbing. Both the writer and director are meticulous in how they plot the thriller; Flynn adapts her own book into a screenplay with finesse and Fincher has the same ‘ol duteous bravura in revealing his stories and character psychologies.

Essentially, Gone Girl is a story within a story. The first layer of story is the perceived life of this couple. The second layer zeroes into the inner conscience of Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. The third layer is the climax—that’s an external story within the internal stories of the couple manifesting into one defiant climax, unpredictable for those who haven’t read the book. Hence, the last 30 minutes of Gone Girl is like the aftermath of a rainstorm.

The rain stops, the storm subsides, but the sheer carnage of the rainstorm allows the atmosphere to carry the smell and taste of the storm, which is what Fincher achieves—with excellence—in the last 30 minutes. The actions before allow those last 20–30 minutes to merely float by and the entire sequence forms a penultimate dénouement right from the moment viewers receive the final twist. It’s very impressive, but also a testament to the prowess of Fincher as a storyteller.

For what it was, the climax of Gone Girl is poetic, and with poetry—it not only has a rhythm to it, but also is alarmingly a sneak peek into the future for the bewildered Nick Dunne and the colossal Amy Elliot-Dunne. “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” Sounds about right.

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Gone Girl is slick—backed by great performances, a rich story, and a taut staging of a marriage gone wrong. All of this is embroidered by Fincher’s trademark styles. For those who’ve read the book, it allows a different perspective and for those who haven’t, the movie is one of the most vicious thrillers of recent years and the viciousness of the story matches the viciousness off the story. Together, these two come off as one heck of a combination that’s sure to startle you and keep you gone into the world of this girl, Amazing Amy, and her boy, Not-So-Amazing Nick.

The Lake House (2006) – When Love Calls

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A dreamy story about two time-separated romantic loons, The Lake House pitches Sandra Bullock (Kate Forster) opposite Keanu Reeves (Alex Wyler) in a love story spanning several years for one (Wyler), mere months for the other (Forster). When Kate leaves her beautiful lake house for better pastures, she slips a letter for the new tenant of the house requesting the would-be tenant to forward her letters, if they fall into the box, to her new address. The recipient of the mild gesture, Wyler is somewhat startled by her letter since nobody has lived in the isolated lake house for years. The two exchange their precarious understanding of what all of this could mean before realizing that they are separated by two years. Wyler, in 2004, is renovating the remote haven, while Kate, in 2006, has left the bliss of the lake house and moved to work as a medical practitioner in nearby Chicago.

You could say paradox is the key in understanding this unrealistic, but engaging movie. The Lake House isn’t about reasoning as you’ve already sensed. You have to feel it. Some may feel it. Some may find it forged and pretentious. Wherever you stand, you’re probably correct. The Lake House falls in those categories of movies that are sure to upsurge polarizing appraisals; some seem to hate it, some just love it. Seems apt for a movie that crushes logic apart and locks viewers in a state of emotional awe thanks to the vivid sentiments oozing out of the screen—perplexing and soothing as a whole, but not entirely flawless.

Alejandro Agresti clasps the themes of relating and retrospection by drawing symmetry between the characters. Their underlying states resemble each other. On one side, Wyler has a bleak relationship with his single-father (Christopher Plummer) and on the other side, Forster is in friendly terms with her single mother (played by Willeke van Ammelrooy). At the same time, both, Wyler and Forster have special confidents—for Wyler it’s his brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and for Forster, it’s probably Anna (Shohreh Aghdashloo). These extraneous characters slice up the psychology of the two lovers, which enables viewers to understand the lovingly absurd predicament of Alex and Kate. Yet most importantly, it gives us a peek into their state of mind—and somewhere deep within them, their yearning for something to happen.

These interactions also aid in understanding their backstories. Wyler carrying an unassuming persona of a man unable to forgive his father—his father’s insatiable ambitions derailed their family and ultimately led to the demise of his mother. Forster’s one-dimensional and pragmatic approach to life, although painful at times to watch despite the fanatical, subdued romance not bound to time and space, reflects her glooms and a sturdy predicament of a lonely woman stranded amidst the hustle and bustle of Chi Town.

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A very good analogy of the circumstances of Wyler and Forster would be the lake house itself. Located away from the crowd of Chicago, isolated and abandoned, the two lovers share the same tranquility and the innate detachment with their surroundings akin to the lake house. Inside them, one would perhaps find a whirlpool of retrospection alienating them from the present, from reality, hence, forcing their hand into trying something supernatural, something fantastic, which would suggest their out worldly romance. Both people bound by time and space, yet fighting against the same dynamics; how fitting that they discover solace in a true romantic saga straight out from the lands of fairytales. As a tangible story though, it comes from South Korea (a remake of the beautiful Il Mare). As such, the story doesn’t have to make sense logically. In the realm of the movie, the romance beyond time is a fitting complement to the time-ruptured states of two people who build and protect—whether it’s lifeless physical buildings or full-of-life souls within the physical.

Talking of this romantic melancholy, the soulful, almost timeless, background score adds a rich ripple to the movie (music by Rachael Portman), if one could borrow the liberty of relating the movie to the lake itself. Through each swing of musical notes, the viewer moves deeper into the psyche of the story and this makes for a resounding experience of emotional scrutiny—almost awe-inspiring, the visuals on the screen and the musical harmony off the screen collaborating to paint a wonderful drama about relating, waiting, and understanding.

Behind each of these painted frames is one world so abundant and artistic that in itself gives a warm feeling and a stylish look—romantic in its own way. The world of the movie and the cuddling warmth, the wonderful use of vibrant colors, and the cinematography (Alar Kivilo) mainly emphasizing long and mid shots of Chicago’s architecture, whilst creating an atmospheric setting is a major plus and strengthens the already strong spiritual tie with the drama on-screen.

For what it is, the story is loopy and it demands unwavering attention from you to understand what’s happening. Even though the concept is simple, it gets confusing at parts. Some of the major plot points seem unconvincing, which may bug the viewers—but one has to ask, when has romance ever made sense, or when has there been a consistent pattern to romance? I watched Lake House with an open heart and I loved it—probably a bit more than I should have, but it was touching, ironically relatable, and even melting.

It’s not for everybody, but the few takers of this movie would appreciate the mood it creates. Not a classic, but it’s not as bad as the reputation it has garnered. The movie gives a lucid picture of the timelessness of reality, but underlying all of this is the truth of the inevitability of time, and the span of action that only time decides and nothing else.

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With a captivating story that is beyond realism and a true saga of hope and redemption, it might just be a perfect date movie, or better, a movie that sums up everything inconsistent about love and relationships. Utterly sweet, mindlessly sensible, dreamy, heartfelt, and oh-so artistic, The Lake House is a guilty pleasure. If you’re dreamy, try this. It’s beautiful.

Annabelle (2014) – Rise of Evil

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When you look back at Annabelle (Dir: John R. Leonette) in a few years from now, you won’t remember it for the great storyline, characters, or the semantic relationship between the components of storytelling. What you will savor as an experience is some scary, spooky buildup, a decent performance by Annabelle Wallis as Mia, and a movie true to the formula used and abused in horrors. Make no mistake though; Annabelle is far from boring. It might not compare to classics from the genre, but it’s still an entertaining watch. If you happen to dislike horrors in general, it’s not for you. If you happen to be a horror fanatic, this just might be another one of those great experiences to muster and pile up in the unlimited storage of horror fiction over the years.

Starting with the opening scene from The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle kicks off with a young family of Mia and John (Ward Horton) in a new neighborhood, sometime in the mid-60s, soon expecting the incumbent child. John gifts Mia, an ardent doll collector, a Raggedy Ann doll. The same night, Mia hears somebody murder her friendly neighbors, which later transforms into a full-blown attack on Mia as well. The partners in crime—a woman named Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend. Both vowed under the oaths of some satanic cult seeking souls as offerings for the demonic master. Luckily, the Cops, whom Mia had called just before the attack ensued, save the day for the unborn child and the couple. They kill the boyfriend, while Annabelle commits suicide leaving her flesh, but as destiny would have, she would continue to roam around this family and the world as spirit seeking an innocent soul.

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A decent setup and eerie 20 minutes in, Annabelle trudges on fine as a horror movie. The buildup conjures large portions of the first half, expectedly, and it’s quite interesting to watch the spirit of Annabelle encased within the doll arrest Mia in a position of paranoia and despair. Nothing extraordinary, but interesting nonetheless. Once Mia and John move out of the house into the Apartment, the horror elements kick in and we leap from ghosts to demons, especially one creature almost an ode to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – the classic later adapted by William Friedkin in 1973.

With that said, Annabelle lacks the conviction of The Conjuring or Wan’s masterpiece Insidious Chapter 1. The doll literally possessed by the spirit of Annabelle Higgins does nothing out of the ordinary and the most monstrous moments come from the demonic creature identical to the monster from Insidious Chapter 1, or stretching back, similar to, Pazazu from The Exorcist. In terms of originality, Annabelle borrows most of its dramatic elements and archetypes from its predecessors of the genre, but what really shackled the movie was the patchy fleshing of the characters. Mia is fine as the strong-willed, archetypical mother. Her husband, John, doesn’t have the scope or the hard-hitting bearing on the turn of events. It’s rather an inconsequential role. And, you could tell the projection of Evelyn (Alfre Woodward) as the protective fairy mother from a mile apart, which took away the surprise element from the climax.

The spirit of Annabelle in the doll does radiate an eerie vibe, but not enough to scare you or convince you of an incoming doom. What’s disappointing is that the doom never really feels treacherous, but rather glitters as a staged conflict with predictability being the main theme. The monstrous creature adds the thrills, even though far away and in between, and is a palatable throwback to earlier in the movie when Annabelle and her boyfriend pounced on Mia and her neighbors. In essence, it tries to skirt the devil (boyfriend) and its other half (Annabelle) in its human form to later in a supernatural form, during the penultimate attack, this time as demon and spirit. This ploy arcs as a convincing trinity that the writers may or may not have intended, but it adds a conflicting triangle to the Holy Trinity. In this case, it’s the Demon, the Object, and the Spirit—not quite the Unholy Trinity—perhaps the Demonic Trinity.

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For what it is, Annabelle has its moments and is a good entertainer, especially for horror buffs. I don’t particularly believe that a neutral would appreciate Annabelle as much as a horror fan would, but hey–it’s not nearly as poor as the word that’s been spread. The comparisons to yesteryear horrors would pin it as a pale imitation. What it lacks for originality, it makes up by entertaining the viewer. Watch it for the experience, if not for the decent story.

Los Ojos de Julia (2010) – Light and Shadow

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Twin sisters Julia and Sara (both played by the magnificent Belén Rueda) suffer from the same degenerative eye condition that leads them to blindness. When Julia finds Sara hanging in the basement, she suspects that her sister couldn’t have actually committed suicide. One thing leads to the other and Julia is all of a sudden in deep water. She’s stuck between her deteriorating vision and the apparent murderer walking loose like a shadow, a true psycho.

Directed by Guillem Morales, Julia’s Eyes is intense, sublime, and aesthetically very pleasing, but it could have been so much more. It could almost be the perfect homage to the graphic Giallo genre. The climax of course mirrors the classic neck slash scenes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento movies, but the mystery in the film is an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The air has same tension as Psycho, and no, there’s no multiple personality disorder here.

Midway through the movie, Julia’s Eyes feels like a riveting mystery—brilliant screenplay, pacing, and terrific performances all heading to a transcendental climax. The scene where Julia goes blind is part of one memorable sequence bringing together the music, shot, atmosphere, and Julia’s own expressions in summing up this incredible piece of storytelling. But from thereon, the story dips and treads on the usual path of psychotic thrillers. It loses its mystical element and becomes rather predictable, a bit too theatrical at times.

Initially set as a firm, intelligent mystery, the story turns into a watered down survival journey of a woman who was full of conviction at first, but is later devoid of rationality. Although one could suspect that the tragedies in her life play an equal part in breaking her; still, many of the decisions she makes doesn’t quite fit with the woman who’s shown to be Julia at first. That notwithstanding, Julia’s Eyes is almost a classic if you shut it right at the point Julia loses her eyesight. Howsoever the movie may have turned out, and it’s still fine, Rueda deserves all the praises for her emotive, dejected, and tragic showing as both Julia and Sara.

Julia’s Eyes has a great start, a not so great ending. The eventual twist is hardly exciting and leaves you expecting more, yet the initial hour is some of the finest exhibition in  horror/mystery filmmaking. In its visual form though, Los Ojos de Julia is sheer beauty. The second half lets it down.

The Wicker Man (1973) – That Damned Island

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A loose adaptation of Ritual (a David Pinner novel), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is a bizarre drama about pagan rituals. With a bittersweet melody and brooding suspense, Hardy tells an elusive story luring audiences into an illusionary world, hence, creating the ultimate illusion through this wonderful looking and starkly contrasting mystery.

When Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), little does he expect the absurdities he comes to see in this thwarting island. Ushered by Christian codes of conduct, Howie is a devotee of the Lord in all its forms and virtues. In contrast, the island of Summerisle has people stuck in pre-history appeasing Gods through ritualistic sacrifices in hope of proper harvest and harmony in their lives.

Sexual liberation at its peak, Summerisle folks treat the phallus as a regenerative force, fire as the proprietor of fertility, and sex as the symbol of sacredness. For a devoted Christian, this free lovism culture leaves Sgt. Howie in a state of incomprehensible shock. But he’s here to find the missing girl. When he goes about business, he’s much shaken to realize how none of the residents seem to acknowledge her existence let alone her disappearance. Resolute in his mission, Sgt. Howie pledges to unravel the mystery of this perplexing island and in doing so, he comes to terms with the bare realities and deceitful allegiances of this sinister island.

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The Wicker Man is deceptively charming. It’s like those castles of illusions that appear blissful from the outside, but are terribly devastating from the inside. What helps the movie achieve this peripheral balminess, despite being mazy throughout, is the beautiful music. The celebratory tunes, most of the time bawdy, and the timely score keeps you expecting something warm, something feel good, but that never comes. By the end, the movie treads into tragedy. The finality of this bizarre film is all too cruel, nasty, yet ultimately true and an event that reflects the grim reality of what was once a common happening.

The king of this mystery of course is the climax. Chilling, almost nerve-wracking, it’s shocking and goads you to do something, to hope against hope for something supernatural to occur—and that is the highlight of the movie. For large portions, one is amazed at the scenes Sgt. Howie sees. The feeling is mutual as what seems normal for the isle is completely abnormal for others. Viewers would find the startling sexuality, the loose mannerisms of the natives, and the mysterious hue surrounding this island equally puzzling. But the tone makes you believe otherwise; believe that there’s a chink somewhere.

The performances of the actors here is another major plus. Edward Woodward as the staunch Christian is a fine performance, whilst the legendary Christopher Lee as Lord Isle steals the show. Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento as Willow and Miss Rose bring a sensual variation to this colorful tale and help garnish it with a dash of mystery and absurdity to make it seem sexually ripe, especially the part of Willow. As a running motif, sexuality here appears omnipresent and forms the base of this transcendental drama spiritualizing sex and presenting it in a holy, regenerative essence.

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The Wicker Man mayn’t be as popular as other horror/mystery movies from the 60s and 70s like Suspiria (1977), The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) et al, but that has more to do with fate than quality sadly. Although, it’s not an outright horror, this movie has its own prescriptions of mystery, thrills, and suspense. It is a quality film with a seamless screenplay (Anthony Shaffer) and together with the music and the perfect direction of Robin Hardy, it’ll keeps you engaged and perplexed, but above all, the climax stands as something iconic, lasting, and utterly dismaying.

The Fly (1958) – Help Me

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David Hedison as Andre Delambre
Patricia Owens as Helena Delambre
Vincent Price as François Delambre
Herbert Marshall as Inspector Charaz
Charles Herbert as Philippe Delambre

Although people remember the 1986 version of The Fly (David Cronenberg) mainly due to its stark take on the mangled blending of a human and a fly, the original classic from Kurt Neumann, who had specialized in making low-budget Sci-Fi movies, looks into this dreadful condition with a delicacy lacking in the remake. In doing so, the story treads a simple path that focuses more on the drama for the people related to the genius than on the consequences of the horror accident on the genius himself. Similar to the movies from related genres in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, The Fly is dramatic, not gory; it’s subtle, not crude; it emphasizes on human emotions, not events—and shows the trauma of such an unwanted supernatural occurrence on the family of the victim rather than the victim.

The start of the movie we see a woman crushing a man on a hydraulic press and fleeing the scene. Her name—Helena, she subsequently calls her brother-in-law, François, and admits to the murder of her husband, Andre. Inspector Charaz arrives at her house for investigation and later, during which, Helena narrates the story of her genius, yet tragic husband and his mercurial invention – a teleportation device.

Andre is a genius electrical engineer. He discovers an apparatus that could make teleportation a reality envisioning that it could end famine, poverty, whilst collapsing distance and shrinking time. Showing his newfound invention to his wife Helena, Andre works on resolving the minor errors that come along such transformational inventions. Obsessed with his work, Andre decides to up the ante and become the Guinea pig in this experiment. [plot point ahead] He succeeds the first time around, but in the second incident, a fly—by accident—flies into the teleportation device and the results are disastrous: the atoms of the fly and Andre mutate during the process. Andre comes out with a fly’s head and arm. The fly, on the other hand, carries off Andre’s head.

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Of course, Helena is narrating the entire story to the Inspector and her brother-in-law, so we don’t get to see the actual occurrence per se… Precisely why, it’s safe to call the movie an attempt to elaborate on the exterior effects of such an occurrence to those around the man and not an attempt to show the internal effects of the disaster on the man himself.

The Fly has a nice, smooth flow. It keeps the story interesting, even though you don’t get into the meat of the action until about half an hour into the movie. This could be interpreted either way, but ideally, Neumann directs the scenes brilliantly keeping us engaged—anticipating with curiosity the antecedent behind the starling behavior of Helena. The suspense slowly uncloaks, and when we see the reality—a bad, guilty feeling of regret takes over forcing us to hope-against-hope that Helena is successful in her mission, and Andre could revert the mutation and become the normal genius than the hideous half-fly, half-man. The scene when Helena uncovers the head of Andre is almost disgusting and grotesque—seeing this great human have a gigantic head of a fly. Almost puke-worthy and considering the time period of the movie, this has to be amongst the most daunting images up until the movie.

What tops the daunting image of Andre with a head of a fly would probably be the fly with Andre’s head! The final utterings “Help me! Help meeee!” in the shrieky voice of the fly-with-Andre’s-head just before becoming a spider’s meal may have heaved this movie as a yesteryear classic, and a science fiction that opened the door for many such movies in the future. Some found the climax whimsical, whilst some find it creepy until today. For today’s viewer, it wouldn’t probably be as disturbing as it ought to have been for the viewers of the 50s and 60s. Yet for some, it’s still haunting and is one of those lasting imageries that remain with you even after the credits roll.

Behind all of this, the story takes a philosophical stance into the enigma of Nature. Sometimes you just cross the limit and you don’t know until it’s too late. Play with Nature, but do so at your own peril as it’s not always wise venturing into unchartered territory… That’s the main message of The Fly—sound and profound, as a drama and as a concept.

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The Fly is well shot and moving. It’s unusual and raises funny questions from within existentialism to science, but at the end, it’s a masterfully rendered Sci-Fi that is both provoking and fascinating, terrible, yet magnificent.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Chaos, My Lord

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If a gigantic expansion of the world into galaxies with visceral characters, ranging from sublime to frantic, isn’t enough to tune you in—imagine these creatures of the universe as one giant, embracing family fighting for themselves and along the way ravaging baddies for fun. Good enough? The guardians, a total whizz of chaotic mortals, have their own history, sad and profound, but together these maddened beings find friendship and acceptance among each other to form a wacky team that you couldn’t help but adore even if you had venom in all your spikes. Director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy follows these wild space creatures in their journey from mercenaries to heroes, from genetic freaks to palpable souls.

The movie starts with young Peter Quinn summoning the last words of his cancer-stricken mother. She leaves him forever, even though in spirit never, and hands over her coveted archives to him, and some physical antiques of music collection, which becomes the pivot of Peter Quinn’s character, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he evolves to become. Call it Karma or right timing; a UFO adopts this 8-year-old recluse. Once he’s in that thing, he’s no longer citizen of this terrain, but Star-Lord now. A ladies man 101, he has a quick tongue and is a negotiator, as he calls himself, although he’s really just a space scavenger who’s retrieved a silvery orb, the most searched about piece of jewel in the galaxy, but for him—none important than his own 80’s style Walkman. Bad luck for him though, everybody wants the orb, some his Walkman. He can’t let it slip into the hands of the dark men of the galaxy or else, you guessed it, doomsday would behold the universe.

On his mission to sell this orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the sexy mutant assassin, tries to steal it from him. She works for Ronan, the Accuser (Lee Pace) – the baddie of this episode out to retrieve the orb for it contains the power of all powers and would make him the King of the Universe. Joining the mayhem, the smart and condescending Rocket, the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable walking tree with heart and soul—Groot (Vin Diesel), they create quite a scene in the utopian land of Xandar, the Nova capital. The well-quipped and savvy Nova Corps arrest Star-Lord and the mischief mongers. They’re jailed and are forced to live under one roof. It’s in this state of art facility, a technological haven, these losers come together and are forced to bond. Attended by the matter-of-fact Drax, the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), these mischief mongers now have a chance to evolve into bedlam warriors, if they bond… Do they though? Oh well, they do sort of, but well, not really…

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With such chaotic characters and a wild premise, Guardians of the Galaxy has too much to deal with. It’s a madcap of eccentric characters, sadistic villains, quirky monsters, and plain, dumb folks, but that’s the charm of this cinematic journey. It takes all the possible recipe of superhero flicks and blends it in one delicious dish that ticks all the right boxes. A loud and hilarious Raccoon, a footloose leader, an insipid destroyer, a compassionate tree mouthing three innocuous words and an alienated assassin—they form an unlikely tribune and find a purpose to their otherwise uninspiring lives.

The story is gripping right from the go and the dazzling special effects style it as an epic showdown. But there are other far deeper cursors setting apart this galaxy from similar superhero ventures. The witty one-liners and hilarious dialogs apart, the story is beautifully weaved, under an apparent structure, and with perfect layering of the main plot and the sub plots; the actions only serve as tangible products of an otherwise emotional journey of these people dazed and confused.

What works for Guardians, amongst the dwarfing world of the galaxy, is the simplicity of each character and the creaseless rendering of their emotions. The movie simply transports an ordinary story about a bunch of people who we’ve seen many times into a larger than life setting. Swift and emotional, the film succeeds in inducing warmth and affection for the citizens of the galaxy, specially the eccentric characters that are all cute for their own reasons. You relate to them in peculiar ways and actually care for what they do—rooting for them, giggling with them, laughing at them, and feeling sorry for them.

Together, these bunch of jerks, travel across the galaxy and come close to each other. Drax finds his lost family in his new friends. Gamora learns emotions though Quill and the crazy people around her. Rocket finds a purpose. Groot serves as the all-embracing Nature phenomena, caring for all, loving all—a nice little metaphor in one story rich in metaphors and beautiful in harmony. And, the street smart Quill gets the affection he never got from these unlikely combatants.  Emotional, warm, and rich—Guardians has amazing visuals, terrific villains, a promising setup, and brilliant execution, but what holds it as one silvery orb of value are the idiosyncrasies of these characters and their convergence into a dynamic troupe. Similar to the magnetizing star of Star-Lord, these lost souls gravitate towards each other like iron to magnet.

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In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy makes you appreciate clutter giving you 2 hours of terrific entertainment and taking you from humor to admiration to a state of feel-goody bliss in awe of these pathetic beings who just happen to be earnest and beautiful. Coming from Marvel Studios, it’s commendable how they’ve taken the less popular Superheroes to brilliance, whether it’s Captain America, Iron Man, or now the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians is splendid—a madcap of a superhero blockbuster flick—where the amazing visuals is only the starting point of an adventure so engrossing, deeply engaging.