Sunday, April 20, 2014

Oculus, Transcendence, Jodorowsky's Dune

Hey guys -- sorry if these reviews sound rushed...that's because they were.  I'm finishing up my last undergrad year, so I have to sneak these movies in whenever I can! I plan on writing up my Summer 2014 box office predictions soon, so look forward to that (and maybe you could play along, if you're cool).  Anyway, thanks for reading, and Happy Easter!

Dir. Wally Pfister
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Wally Pfister, the go-to cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, marks his directorial debut with this sci-fi story written by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen.  The film had been on the Hollywood 'black list' for a number of years before finally being picked up; the movie is about an artificial intelligence researcher, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who is shot by a radical anti-technology group with a radioactive bullet.  To save his life, his partner (Paul Bettany) and his wife (Rebecca Hall), plug all the information in his brain into a computer.  However, once in there, Dr. Caster kind of turns into HAL from 2001 and you can imagine that things don't go too well.

While the philosophical ideas in the movie are interesting, the film ultimately has the same emotional heft as a computer program.  All the actors, while not "bad," are clearly phoning it in here, the plot borders on total implausibility, and most surprising, the visual aspects weren't even that great.  If anything, I would have expected this film to have a certain amount of visual flair, coming from a cinematographer, but it really looks dull and generic.  The film just jumps ahead in time when it's convenient, and at times the film was somewhat confusing. The whole idea that a human consciousness can be uploaded into a computer is really interesting, but the rest of the film just didn't do anything with it, pretty much devolving into a really crappy love story.

Rating: C-

Dir. Mike Flanagan
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Recently, the horror genre hasn't exactly been doing so great - especially in America.  Mostly we just see remakes, sequels, prequels, or just plain rip-offs, but every once in a while someone comes around and surprises with a little gem (like Mama from last year).  I think Oculus is one of those films; while it isn't the most original horror flick out there, I think it does handle the psychological/supernatural horror angle really well, and despite a very weak beginning and predictable ending, I found the middle of this movie to be really interesting stuff.  The movie is basically about this brother and sister, who as kids make a pact to destroy this mirror, which supposedly causes people to kill themselves/others (aka it's haunted).

The film pulls a "Godfather II" and flashes back between the siblings' past and present to explain what's happening, and the way the film toys with perceptions of reality is really well done.  The acting from the two leads leaves something to be desired (it looks as if the producers just wanted to hire some young hot models to sell tickets), but the kids, especially the girl played by Annalise Basso, were great and the parents in the flashbacks (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) gave me a Duvall/Nicholson Shining vibe.  All in all, I think Oculus is a solidly put together supernatural horror movie.  It does fall to some of the bad cliches of the genre (like the pointless 'jump scares'), but its positives outweigh the negatives in my opinion.  And one scene involving an apple is one of the cringiest things I've seen in a horror film in a while.

Rating: B

Jodorowsky's Dune
Dir. Frank Pavich
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Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cult filmmaker most widely known for having created the first "midnight movie," El Topo (1970), and went on to direct the equally influential and trippy The Holy Mountain (1973).  But after those projects, his next plan was to adapt the epic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune - a huge visionary undertaking that would require a huge budget and lots of talent.  This documentary from Frank Pavich recounts the history of Jodorowsky's unproduced film, which very well may be one of the "most important films never made."

Having influenced such films as Star Wars and Alien, it was really fascinating to see this film's undeniable impact without even having ever been produced.  Guiding us through the history is Jodorowsky himself, who at the age of 85 still has so much life left in him.  The movie also brings many of his original storyboards to life, giving a taste as to what the project may have looked like (if anything it would've likely been better than David Lynch's Dune, which was such a huge bomb critically and commercially that Lynch erased his name off of some of the prints).  Jodorowsky's Dune is about a man who would literally die for his movie, and the strength it takes to be ambitious and be able to fail on such a large level.  I really enjoyed this movie, and you don't have to be familiar with Jodorowsky's work or Dune to enjoy it (though it may enhance your viewing).

Rating: B+

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