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.

Hereafter (2010) – Beauty of Calmness

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Ever wondered of a world beyond life—an “in-between” of sorts amidst the apparent and the oblivious, where you no longer live but remain hovering in afterlife, a phase hereafter?

Near-death experiences aren’t new to us. Many have returned from the tunnel they speak of—back to this dimension of consciousness, but only after capturing a glimpse of the other world afar the physical. People report qualities of absolute freedom, weightlessness, freedom from the limitations of body, and a place illuminating that pervades everything, where human souls are subject to benevolent transient of awareness beyond the limitations of time, space, and mind—a state of deathlessness.

What died isn’t real. And, what we experience after cessation of life is immortal. So believe people who’re charmed by near-death experiences or the other half who are obsessed by death. Infinitely, there exists a world beyond what we see, life beyond this version of consciousness, and that is what Hereafter tries to explore.

Summoning themes of the esoteric, three people besotted to death by their own distinct circumstances and forced to come in terms with conscious life—an ever-present yearning for something special in this tiny point between vast emptiness—Hereafter finds itself a fertile premise in search for intrinsic meaning and along the way, an enriched life.

Peter Morgan wrote the script of Hereafter enjoying the ambience of Austrian mountains. Sharing a striking silence akin to those lustrous mountains, the world in the movie, the script of Hereafter reached Steven Spielberg who decided to ensure that it is actualized and before Peter knew about it, the King of Spontaneity Clint Eastwood started filming based on the first draft itself.

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Hereafter tells a tale of three individuals projecting their state in a sequence of 1, 2, 3, with each scene following the same order—starting off with the story of a French journalist Marie Lelay, a Tsunami survivor from 2004 in a stunning show by Cécile De France. The second protagonist, a young Londoner, Marcus (Frank McLaren)—in a timid, yet brooding performance, is trying to shake off his twin sibling’s (George McLaren) sudden death—unable to do so. The third central character, George Lonegan, living in San Francisco, assumed by Matt Damon in a powerful, yet restrained performance. This reserved and lonely George has a special gift of feeling the dead; a gift Lonegan considers a curse restricting any chance he has at a normal life.

The psychology of these three characters, each living in the perky cities of Paris, London, and San Francisco, and their coming to the state they are—slowly form the spine of the movie. They must resolve their protuberant conditions and move ahead – leaving behind their anxiety and remorse – accepting the happenings and embracing life as it is. Hence, Hereafter forms a cross-pointed account of three ordinary people connected by an extraordinary fascination to death and the enquiry into life after here.

The mood of three gobbling cities (Paris, London, San Francisco) serve as the background for these ruminating characters in a fight against themselves amidst their fascination with death. Clint Eastwood creates a meditative milieu, with a thoughtful, detached, and reflective treatment of a fantasized theme. Refraining from trotting a path that could easily have made Hereafter a concentrated fantasy movie, instead, Eastwood detaches himself from the content and simply shows viewers the conditions of these people fighting the enigma of death, exclusive to their own predicament.

Rather than running a commentary on this mythical issue, Eastwood shows it as it is, with his thorough minimalist presentation of occurrences. In doing so, he draws wonderfully normal characters driving them to a point of unison and readying them, all along, for a new start. Hereafter structures itself closer to real life than fiction, which might sound superfluous since the world is largely set on the fantasized reality of death. Eastwood’s treatment of the subject ensures that Hereafter stands tall as a revelation on how death affects people in its own quirky ways.

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A high ranked journalist such as Marie, subject to a near death experience in Thailand, begins contemplating a life beyond the obvious after the incident and devotes her time in reflecting her mystical romance with death. A London schoolchild, Marcus, who loses his dearer-than-God twin brother, begins questioning life and develops a keenness for psychic inquiries in order to be closer with his brother. Whilst Marcus ventures in the world of psychic readings, the makers slam the overtly self-proclaimed psychics who work to con people than help them as demonstrated through Marcus’ own experience. The proletarian worker in George Lonegan has spent most of his life in close proximity with death and dead people. Making him gifted and unique, George yearns for a normal life where he is more concerned with life than death. These three special beings struggle to get past their phases and arrive to a stage they yearn for – different for all three, yet intermediately connected.

As a movie, Hereafter is a staple in American cinema, even though it hardly excited critics and viewers when it came out. Strikingly close to art house creations of Europe, Hereafter is as close to the cool, detached cinematic style of Europe as one could get from the lens of America. Although Hereafter is a high budget minimalist film with stunning production design, it feels quiet, very ambient. The dialogs sound jarringly real, less dramatized—similar to everyday conversation, as one would find in art-house films. Not shocking though that the movie received mixed reactions upon its release, partly due to the lack of theatrics one would assume.

Hereafter is methodical, slow-paced, which in many ways acts as a case of catharsis than a movie that aims to entertain. Eastwood delivers a simple, yet shockingly subdued movie, burning in tension underneath, with an ambience of coldness and piercing silence—almost close to how life functions for the normal, smaller than life person.

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The progression of the story and the plot arrangement seem unpolished at first instance. It was filmed after the first draft of the screenplay itself, but deep inside, it is not really unpolished. The story is tense, the treatment is subtle, and the tone is therapeutic with some striking scenes backed by the fantastic cinematography (Tom Stern) and beautiful artistic design (James J. Murakami, Patrick Sullivan, and co.). Clint Eastwood gives the movie an expressionistic stamp. It’s of course a drastic switch from his popular Western flicks. Hereafter is more natural and imaginative that rounds up beautifully to become perceptive than interpretative.

Is Hereafter flawless? Why, that would be impossible! The immediate bonding of Melanie, portrayed pleasantly by Bryce Dallas Howard, and George seems far stretched, especially the dialog exchanges between the two in their cooking class sounding premature. The final coincidental meeting of the three central characters at a Book Fair in London, while that may not be impossible, pushes the issue towards sluggish writing, hence, the first draft bite.

Even with such flaws, Hereafter is an ironic story and flawed as human lives are. At the end, when dealing with a human who spends more time contemplating and contacting the dead than the alive, and characters immersed into the art of dying, the flaws in the movie punctuate the artistic allurements and the loopy plotlines—making this movie a playful involvement into poetry, over a serious approach on prose. After all, life is poetry. You never really realize how and when it starts and how and when it ends. Wasn’t it just yesterday?

Hereafter mayn’t be an archetypical Clint Eastwood classic. Yet, Hereafter might stand in the pinnacle of his arsenal. While there may be movies that are better remembered and perceived than this hushed classic; as far as storytelling and a perfect treatment of a story is concerned, Hereafter is one of Eastwood’s prime feathers in his hat filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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Hereafter masters the art of witnessing. It dares to be honest without the preaching. It’s as good a soother you could find, closely mirroring the beats of music than actual drama. If there’s tenderness in movies, it’s right here. One of Eastwood’s finest attempts, it’s arguably his most underrated gem – a movie worth applauding for its honesty, beauty, and serenity.