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Capsule Reviews: Oculus, Transcendence & A Million Ways to Die in the West

by Daniel Kelly

Some midsummer, bite-size reviews!

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, Relativity Media, 2014)

Based on his short film from 2006, Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” is an eerie time at the movies. There’s the potential for camp in the premise - which sees a brother and sister do battle with a potentially haunted mirror from their past – but proceedings are played with the straightness of an arrow. Flanagan cuts between timelines and conjures the aura of a particularly macabre fairy-tale, using tricky visuals and an unsettlingly repetitive soundscape to ignite an appropriately ethereal demeanour.

At a lean 104 minutes and oscillating between sparse interiors, “Oculus” boasts a savage b-movie sensibility, Flanagan focusing his energy on simple but solid character beats to drive the horror, punishing his leads on both physical and psychological terms. There’s an unspoken but crucially believable bond anchoring the drama, and “Oculus” has a keen weapon in the form of Karen Gillan’s trenchant contribution. The delicate Scotswoman is all fire and stoicism, her vigorous obsession with the mirror bouncing nicely off Brenton Thwaites beta ambivalence. Flanagan dips his toes into the murky pastures of mental illness and unreliable narration, but ultimately commits to the gothic trappings of spectral maleficence, handling the business of scaring his audience confidently. Even more admirable is that he should be so miserly with cheap jump scares in doing so. Atmosphere and nightmarish iconography trump loud noises in “Oculus”.

“Oculus” is something of a precise mess, using its disjointed narrative arrangement to disconcerting effect. It becomes impossible to detach reality from lethal illusion, culminating in a cleverly edited finale that often combines past and present in the same frame. The digital photography and production design are thin, robbing “Oculus” of true grand guignol aesthetic, but the director showcases a dab hand for visceral imagery and foreboding. Some of the later stalk and slash elements taste stale, but everything leading up to the finish registers menacing intelligence, and the final twist provides a black, punchy farewell.

Grade - B+

Transcendence (Wally Pfister, Warner Bros, 2014)

As films go, few 2014 releases have left me more despondent than “Transcendence”.

The directorial debut of cinematographer supreme Wally Pfister, the picture has a premise that simmers with gentle potential, but a melee of screenwriting missteps rob the final product of potency or grounded characterisation. As the terminally wounded genius morphed into an AI, Johnny Depp gives perhaps his best performance since 2009’s “Public Enemies”, although I genuinely feel the competition on that front couldn't get any softer (His turn in the otherwise unfairly scorned "The Lone Ranger" a nadir). He’s at least emoting with some degree of subtly here, slipping organically into an increasingly remote and chilling cyber entity. Props to Pfister for banning the actor from garish make-up choices and Rebecca Hall for giving him a mature screen companion to work alongside. As Depp’s increasingly beleaguered and conflicted wife, Hall is one of the movie’s few functional dramatic weapons. She’s very sad and very real, a beating heart for this otherwise mismanaged flop.

Visually it's dull (confusing, right?), with Pfister translating few of his own celebrated skills over to incoming DP Jess Hall. There's no dynamism in Hall's compositions or aesthetic choices, "Transcendence" a blend of familiar dystopian hues and washed out tones. It's not amateurish or incompetent, but it is staggeringly unmemorable. The feature cribs imagery from a vast quantity of other science-fiction enterprises, and the way it registers a human/computer hybrid is far less nuanced or sophisticated than the recent Oscar-troubling "Her". You can't put a price on innovation it seems.

The screenplay takes some suspect detours, many of which feel at odds with the development of a satisfactory narrative. “Transcendence” opts to skip perhaps the most interesting period in its characters’ lives, the interim where Depp transforms completely from man to program, thusly denying us first-hand exposure to the trauma etched over Hall’s love-sick face. Much of the film is founded on the tragedy of their relationship, so by excising the juiciest portion of said facet you reduce the movie’s dramatic value considerably. Supporting characters weave in and out of the film inconsistently, including a band of anti-AI terrorists (headed by a faceless Kate Mara) and the gormless double-act of Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman. Both men are usually great, but they don’t have much energy together and their characters are depressingly formless.

Disappointingly Pfister opts to rush toward a flat action climax, replete with military firepower and zero pathos. “Transcendence” crams as many superficial ideas as it can into this barrage of empty-headed destruction, including nods to “Frankenstein” and environmentalism. It’s all pay-off and no foreplay, a rare complaint, but one which explains the finale’s hollow self-righteousness and unimaginative carnage. The film-makers likely believe it communicates essential global awareness, but I suspect “Transcendence” will be heralded only as a reminder that cinematographers should stick to their day-jobs. “Speed 2” anyone?

Grade - D

A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane, Universal, 2014)

Do you find any of the following funny?

- A man soiling a hat
- Hallucinogenic cutaway scenes
- Appropriately placed pop cultural references
- A man with a flower in his bottom
- Bodily fluid yuks stripped from a Farrelly farce
- Family Guy

If you answered yes to more than one of these, you might get something out of Seth MacFarlane’s sophomore feature “A Million Ways to Die in the West”.

Cut in the mould of “Blazing Saddles” but never finding the same level of finesse or invention, MacFarlane’s lampoon is fitfully amusing despite its vast length and scattershot screenplay. Taking aim at the utter hellishness of the Old West, MacFarlane assumes advantage of the gorgeous scenery and outrageous violence of the period, but his character work and editorial instincts often fail him. There are laughs, many of which stem from the sort of lowbrow depravity associated with the MacFarlane ethos, but there’s also too much flat-footed filler, and none of the narrative facets amount to much. MacFarlane is reasonably likable, but his relationship with Charlize Theron’s mystery outlaw largely incurs yawns, the film unable to develop their dynamic beyond a softly realised fratboy fantasy. The supporting cast range from inspired (Sarah Silverman) to ineffectual (Liam Neeson makes an uncharacteristically forgettable antagonist), and whilst there are a selection of superb sight-gags (juicy cameos and coital preoccupation with a moustache take top billing), poorly formed caricatures and a pervading aura of self-indulgence prevent it from ever striking greatness. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a serviceable and often giddy diversion, but one unlikely to capture the public’s imagination a la “Ted”. Uneven seems like an appropriate descriptor.

Also, I think it’s time we retired the “dweeb tripping” motif from contemporary comedy. Forgive the pun, but it’s burnt out.

Grade - C+

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originally posted: 06/19/14 07:32:32
last updated: 06/19/14 07:33:49
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