As far as horror movie antagonists go, a homicidal wall-mounted mirror is pretty iffy. It’s hard to build tension when the villain could be killed by a baseball.
But OCULUS is up to the task. We follow Kaylie (Karen Gillan), a young woman obsessed with documenting an allegedly haunted mirror’s supernatural powers before destroying it. She’s rigged her parents’ old house with video cameras, alarms, and even a last-resort “kill switch” in the form of a swinging yacht anchor bolted to the ceiling. Excessive? Not really. For her, it’s personal – eleven years ago, her parents purchased the evil antique and went murderously insane. Her brother Tim was institutionalized after being forced to shoot his father, so this is present-day Kaylie’s chance to prove Tim’s innocence. These parallel stories melt into one as the mirror’s powers grow, blurring past into present and raising disturbing questions. Did Kaylie and Tim ever really grow up? Or are they losing their minds, too?
OCULUS toys with these ideas but doesn’t overdo it. Luckily, the script is too disciplined to lose its head up its own butt via INCEPTION-style plot convolutions. It’s a superb little ghost story that favors smart, psychological chills over loud noises and arterial splatters (although it has those, too). Because the mirror influences what its victims can and can’t see, even moments of apparent safety can hide horrific surprises. Imagine biting into an apple – and realizing it’s actually a light bulb when the shards crunch between your bloody teeth. This movie perfectly captures the icky discomfort of never quite knowing what’s real.
Karen Gillan makes a strong lead. Many horror films simply dump oblivious characters into harm’s way like it’s feeding time for whatever monster is named in the title, but Kaylie is scrappy, intelligent, and seemingly prepared for everything. It’s not until later, when there’s no turning back, that she realizes how badly she underestimated her enemy. As we learn that the mirror can hijack human thoughts (its other hobbies include killing houseplants and eating dogs), we begin to wonder if Kaylie’s myopic obsession is really of her own free will – or if it’s just another fishhook the mirror planted in her brain eleven years ago. Who’s targeting who?
Heck, a better title might’ve been: SERIOUSLY GUYS, JUST LEAVE THE MIRROR ALONE. This is a bleak story about puny humans tangling with an entity that exists beyond time, and Kaylie’s plan is, at best, a three-dimensional solution to a four-dimensional problem. Guess how well that goes.
For all its first-rate chills, OCULUS does need you to occasionally meet it halfway. Big chunks of the plot are open to interpretation and the mirror itself is never explained. There’s no origin story. It wasn’t bullied by the other mirrors in Fred Meyer’s home décor section or anything. It’s just evil.
But why dilute fear with logic? Accept this movie for what it is and you’ll find a nightmare worth having – a classy, devilishly entertaining creepshow that just wants to mess with your head.
And ruin apples forever.
NON-STOP is basically two hours of Liam Neeson playing “Clue” on an airplane.
Alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) needs to find out who’s murdering people on his flight. Fast. Every twenty minutes, another passenger will die unless $150 million is deposited in the mystery killer’s bank account. As the body count rises, everyone aboard the plane becomes a suspect – Bill included, when the authorities realize the bank account is (gasp) his. Against a ticking clock, our haggard hero must save the plane, stop the killings, and punch whoever’s responsible in the throat.
It’s a fun, twisty mystery for a while. The film presents a whole crowd of murder suspects, all exchanging shifty glances and red herrings. Every time the ingenious script seems to paint itself into a corner, it knocks down a wall. Major plot twists are hidden inside smaller ones, carefully arranged like narrative time bombs (and one literal one). The direction is marvelous, too – one particular shot halfway through the film gracefully swoops from end of the plane to another, eavesdropping on a half-dozen characters with evolving agendas. A lot of skill went into this film, and it’s easy to get swept up in the suspense.
But it’s hard to stick with it. How’s your suspension of disbelief? Because NON-STOP will put it through a triathlon. It’s not just the numerous plot holes (don’t even try to count them) – it’s the jarring tonal difference between where it starts and where it ends. The first half is a plausible, low-key murder mystery at 40,000 feet, and the second half descends to LEGO MOVIE absurdity. Poison darts? Check. Fighter jets? Check. Zero-gravity shootout? Double-check.
The last fifteen minutes drop to face-palm altitude. When the criminal mastermind is finally unmasked, he/she delivers a forced and bewildering “how I did it and why” speech, like an unusually violent episode of Scooby Doo. I guess the villain’s motivation doesn’t matter that much; it’s the end of the movie and Liam Neeson is in a neck-breaking mood.
NON-STOP isn’t a bad thriller – it’s just hard to love. It’s too smart to be mindless fun and too stupid to be anything more. Heck, 2008’s TAKEN delivered twice the butt-kicking with half the fuss.
I guess I like Liam Neeson better when he’s creating the body count – not cleaning up after it.
I have never rooted so hard for a volcano before.
W.S. Anderson’s POMPEII spends most of its runtime copying other movies – and not even the right ones. Surprisingly, the disaster itself is largely sidelined so we can get a poor man’s GLADIATOR crossed with a stupid man’s TITANIC. Our star-crossed lovers are Milo (Kitt Harrington), a Celtic gladiator with a murdered family to avenge, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii’s ruler. She’s being blackmailed into marrying the third corner of this love triangle: Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a snarling Roman senator. Who will survive the coming disaster? More importantly, who cares?
That’s POMPEII’s biggest problem. None of the characters are written or acted well enough to earn our sympathy. They just sort of stand there, posed in various scenes cribbed from better films, and recite stilted dialogue like kids in a school play. It’s a bizarrely lifeless movie. Worse, it wastes a full hour on tedious stage-setting while the volcano impatiently grumbles in the background. Milo and Cassia’s chemistry-free romance feels like a studio-mandated attempt to please a demographic that wouldn’t be caught dead in a W.S. Anderson movie anyway.
Eventually Mount Vesuvius erupts, possibly because it’s as sick of the characters as we are, and delivers the flaming rocks, pyroclastic flows, and tsunamis promised by the trailer. It suffers a bit in comparison to 1997’s DANTE’S PEAK, but at least Anderson is finally copying the right movie. The city’s fiery demise is undeniably cool, but in a glossy, digital way. It feels more like a PS4 game than a real-life disaster. We don’t see any of the blood, grit, or burns, so our heroes might as well be fleeing a giant wall of cotton candy.
The movie does have its guilty pleasures, though. Anderson shoots a handful of kinetic fight scenes with some memorable (PG-13-rated) spills, and Kiefer Sutherland seems to be the only actor here with a pulse. He sinks his teeth into the cardboard role of Corvus, delivering every line with mustache-twirling evil and a baffling accent. Of course, it’s bad acting, but it’s so bad, it transcends badness and becomes kind of awesome. POMPEII needed more of Sutherland’s energy.
At least the volcano wins.
Review By: Taylor Adams
I was going to start this review with “I can’t believe I liked a movie based on a toy,” but then I remembered that I enjoyed TRANSFORMERS.
So… I can’t believe I liked another movie based on a toy.
Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an anonymous construction worker in a perfect (vaguely fascist) Lego metropolis where the coffee is $37 and the number one sitcom is “Where’s My Pants?” Every day is choreographed to an excruciatingly catchy Tegan and Sara song and overseen by the Orwellian President Business (Will Ferrell), sold separately. When Emmet stumbles onto a mysterious artifact, he sets in motion an ancient prophecy that could save – or destroy – not just his Lego universe, but all of them. He soon allies with an ensemble cast including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and Batman (Will Arnett). And Abraham Lincoln. And pirates. And a unicorn-cat thing.
I promise, it’s funny. Funnier than anything I’ve seen in a long time. THE LEGO MOVIE boasts a razor-sharp script and a canny sense of the absurd, hurling joke after joke and challenging you to keep up. Chris Pratt’s empty-headed but sincere hero is a standout comedic performance in a cast full of them. Who’d have known a movie about a toy brand would have more laughs than both HANGOVER sequels?
Visually it’s stunning, although not always for the right reasons. Every inch of the Lego world is lovingly animated, right down to the authentic smudges and imperfections on the pieces. Even the dust and smoke is made of tiny bricks. It’s imaginative and vibrant, but also a little overwhelming. Every frame is crowded with so many small touches of genius, and it’s all edited so blisteringly fast, that THE LEGO MOVIE sometimes looks like a colorful headache. But it’s a headache worth having.
This excess of creative passion is why I like this movie so much. It overachieves. It works hard. The plot is lightyears ahead of competing fare, eventually launching its third act into a sort of CABIN IN THE WOODS-ish meta-narrative. Few movies are brave enough to even try this, and even fewer stick the landing. To be fair, THE LEGO MOVIE does stumble a little bit toward the end, when the cleverness reaches a sort of critical mass, the fourth wall falls, and the story grinds to a halt so we can be force-fed a moral about the importance of individuality. Cue the hugs.
The real moral is “buy Legos.” It’s the funniest, best Lego commercial ever.
By: Taylor Adams