Oculus (2013) – Peeping into Antiquity

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Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell in a supernatural, psychological horror story that’s as much psychological as it’s supernatural. The movie covers two stages – when they’re 23 and 21, the present (2013), and when they’re 12 and 10, the past (2002).

As we’d realize later, a 10-year Tim is taken under custody for patricide. Just before that, however, he and Kaylie promise to destroy the artifact that they believe is the precursor to all these occurrences. When Tim returns home after 11 years, Kaylie and Tim give it one last try – to destroy the antic mirror that their father bought in an auction. The mirror, for them, is the cause behind countless homicides. Their family only plays a small part in the mayhem initiated by the possessed mirror. Their pact? To finish it off.

In Latin, oculus means eyes. In the movie, the people lured into demonic acts by the timeworn mirror find their eyes transformed into mirrors. It could symbolize that the mirror forces these people to divert their reflections and only realize the vision of the mirror itself, or quite simply – we could infer that our eyes mirror what we see, subjective reality, and we act based on those subjective instincts, for good or bad.

Mike Flanagan sits on the director’s chair again after Absentia (2011), yet, he’s mostly known for directing the well-received student movie, Ghosts of Hamilton Street (2003). In Oculus, Flanagan opts for a non-linear approach. Intercutting between two different time spans within the same house, we see a repeat of the tragedy that panned out 11 years ago in Kaylie and Tim’s quest to destroy the mirror and salvage the souls entrapped in it. As the movie progresses, the adults take precedence to the children forming a compelling revelation of ghostly destruction.

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Although the movie isn’t long, it does take a while to build the anticipation. The initial 45 minutes revolve around Kaylie reminding Tim of their childhood. These adults relive what happened 11 years ago and prepare themselves for what could happen today, 11 years later. Yet, tackling the mirror is tricky. The mirror has a shady, dangerous history and it works categorically by distorting their perception, destroying their rationality, and injecting an overriding sense of hopelessness in them.

Flanagan doesn’t go the traditional route with scares as much as he goes for atmospheric creepiness. With the mirror slowly possessing Marie and Alan, parents of Kaylie and Tim, (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), it coaxes them into becoming one with it – overruling them with a Them vs. the World mentality. Pointing to decay as its theme, the mirror first clasps its victims by decoying their inner desires, if it’s by seducing them, torturing them, or poisoning their minds, and after it gets hold of them – it unleashes the monster it has created to ensue destruction.

The story of Oculus isn’t as interesting as much as the presentation of a relatively overdone concept: possession. Fans of horrors may like it, or shun it, but it’s still interesting and didn’t turn me off. The movie is more discreet than outright scary. The scares are well timed and it tries to blend a movie like The Shining (1980), for example, and an outright slasher like Nightmare at Elm’s Street (1984) maintaining a dwindling mood throughout.

The pseudo-investigation that Kaylie and Tim carry out of the mystery is the best part of the movie. It keeps you guessing and doesn’t distract you. As Kaylie and Tim continue to dig deep, within themselves and of the peculiar manifestations, revisiting their escapades as children, the movie treads deeper into dread, which is quite interesting to watch.

For a standard medium-budget horror movie, Flanagan does a good job of trying to walk on a thin rope of tradition and not falling prey to its oddities. The elements are present, of course, with the script timed well into convention, and the plot points being similar to horrors of the past, yet the treatment makes the difference.

Oculus has decent performances by the cast. Karen Gillan is adept as Kaylie and her authority remains on show throughout the movie. She’s pretty to boot if off, and through her we actually get a character that is able to command and lure whenever she deems fit. The rest have done okay, even though they’re not as commanding as Karen is.

Oculus also looks good visually. It’s something you’d expect from traditional horror movies set inside modern Victorian-styled houses. The way makers play with hallucination, illusion, and reality is also worth noting, even though the ending is predictable and is subject to the conventional trap of horrors. It does leave the space open for sequels, but with that intention to boot, it’s quite difficult to appreciate the movie. Flanagan seems to have one eye on the future. That makes sense economically, but it gave the movie a defunct ending. Audiences would feel underwhelmed by the anti-climax and that drags the movie down. It did for me.

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Oculus had a high ceiling. It doesn’t quite get close to touching it, but it’s a decent watch. I doubt non-horror fans would appreciate it, or even majority of horror fanatics—a shame because the movie had so much potential.

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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.