In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, we find the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow in a drunken stupor. Washed up and officially deadbeat, even the price on Jack’s head has sunk to a paltry pound. It’s a strange parallel to Johnny Depp’s public persona of late, having slipped from the good grace of the hoi polloi after reports of his abusing wife Amber Heard made waves, followed by news of widespread financial woes and a slew of middling to poor films floundering at the box office. With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, both Sparrow and Depp pray for a comeback. Read More
18 years ago, Jeff Bridges directed a BetaMax version of The Giver. It was a lo-fi test run starring his father, Lloyd Bridges, photographed by brother Casey Bridges and narrated by Bud Court (Harold and Maude). It never made it to market – or outside the Bridge’s living room for that matter – but as it yellowed in a storage box somewhere, Bridges has since been trying to get The Giver made on his own terms.
Says Bridges, “Wanting to direct it myself, I had a certain vision of how it would go and I was in love with the book so I wanted to put that onscreen exactly how it was.” With Bridges stepping into the role that he always saw his own father in, he has helped contribute to a movie version of Lois Lowry‘s Newbury Award-winning story that preserves the spirit of the book; a baleful, cautionary tale of what we lose when equality reigns supreme.
Phillip Noyce‘s (Patriot Games) adaptation of The Giver begins in picturesque black-and-white. Like a cold-pressed “Harrison Bergeron”, society has been sanitized of all that makes us different. Everyone’s house is the same size and layout, every Year Nine gets a futurist, Walmart knock-off looking bike. Jobs are assigned just as partners are. The time for hyperbole has ended; precision of language is a must. The world of The Giver has been scrubbed of color because that might tend towards favoritism. The Communities are lands without high and lows, without love and hate. It’s a kingdom of meh.
Enter Jonas, a mild-mannered Year Twelve. He’s supposedly a potpourri of attributes, but he comes off just as bland as everyone else in this axenic town. The only thing that separates him from the quieted rabble is his persisting sense of wonder. He’s a daydreamer even in a world sanitized of dreams. In a land where being different is to be outcast, he’s a square-circle peg in a circle-square hole. His one degree of difference is just enough to tip off the higher ups that he’s not quite fit for this rigid society of yay-sayers and apologists.
Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) is an older Jonas than you might remember but he handles the material aptly. He’s a little stare-heavy and a touch too wholesome but Thwaites mostly does the role justice, offering a sacrificial character who’s capable of both great mental strength and weakness. At his graduation – er Ceremony of the Twelves – Jonas sees his peers assigned roles one at a time. His good friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) is assigned to be a Nurturer. His other mate Asher (Cameron Monaghan) is a drone pilot. Note, neither are good actors in the slightest.
As the roll drifts to Jonas, it skips past him, continuing onto the next classmate down the line. He finds himself briefly without an assignment before the Chief Elder (Streep) turns to him. Between a chop of Razorclam bangs that makes Elisabeth Moss’ motley doo on the first season of Mad Men look like a piece of high art, Meryl Steep is a rhadamanthine czar of the harshest order. She’s a dubious politician, a low-spoken dictator; a less shouty Shitler. With a mop that would date Kim Jong-un’s, she’s quietly terrifying. It’s her way or the “highway.” Remember though, there are no highways in the Communities, just wittle, itty, bitty injections that “release” you from society.
After a thudding zinger that would be at home in a Phil Dunphy Real Estate Conference (“You’re my favorite group of realtors, but I must admit, I say that to every one of them”), Elder Streep assigns Jonas the mysterious and exalted position of Receiver of Memories. In a civilization where every house looks the same, there is one that juts out like a sore thumb, lying on the edge of the map, and that’s where Jonas’ assignment has him headed.
Here, he meets the elder Receiver of Memories (Bridges), a man who single-handedly is responsible for the collective memories of the past in the hopes that he’ll be able to advice Streep and her Elder cohorts in matters we know not of. He’s a somber hermit, a man burdened with all the anguish of history and gifted with all its joys. As he passes along these memories to Jonas, the good and the bad, he loses his old moniker and becomes The Giver.
Though Noyce abandons some of the more morally tricky areas of Lowry’s novel – the interesting discussion of what has become of sex and reproduction has been all but left out – he never defames the material on which his film is based. In fact, much of Noyce’s interpretation of Lowry’s corrosive prose puts images to verbal abstractions in powerful and poignant strokes. As The Giver waxes on love, war, happiness, loss, those ideas waft from the screen in healthy torrents. He pummels us with effigies of joy, strangles us with imagery of tragedy. It’s at once chessy and breathless and, by and large, works really well. Noyce’s visual montages – though obnoxiously shuddery – seek to remind us of the power of life, the yin and the yang that is having and losing, and might even conjure up a spare tear.
As Bridges gives a quietly devastating performance as the eponymous character, The Giver tip-toes to the finish as an occasionally whopping crowd-pleaser. Noyce’s is a direly decorated dystopia sans the violence and romance of similarly themed Young Adult fare (and it’s only a brusk 93 minutes.) Noyce offers drab aestetics and moral battles in lieu of the high stakes “Do or die” of Divergent and The Hunger Games. His Giver relies on ideas prevailing over pretty pictures, meaningless battles and fluffy romances. Where other films shout, The Giver whispers. It’s not a perfect adaptation of Lowry’s provocative novel but it is boldly faithful; a mostly thoughtful vision of utopia gone awry.
My girlfriend is afraid of mirrors once it’s dark. She’ll slink uneasily past them at night or throw a switch to blanket them in florescent light. When she’s staying in new places, she’ll turn foreign mirrors towards the wall before sleeping so they don’t dare reflect back under cover of dark. Early years spent reciting “Bloody Mary” have taken their toll.
Like a malevolent Cinderella story, once the clock strikes sundown, mirrors do take on an evil – or at least eerie – quality. In the absence of light, reflections don’t read true. Cast in shadow and peppered with hazy contortions, fear lives in not being able to see things clearly. It’s the absence of yourself – the shadowed dimples and half-worn portrait – in the mirror’s reflection that’s unsettling; the distortion of what ought be.
Years of horror shlock that made us shout, “Don’t close that mirror, there’s someone behind you!” – one of the oldest tricks in the book – have spoiled the mirror reveal. There’s always something that wasn’t there. Then it’s gone. We’ve been equally worn down on mirrored reflections changing their pantomime, refusing to mimic its subject and subsequently frightening them into a Hollywood favorite; the mouth-covering gasp. It’s old. Mirrors, in their slim margin of possibility, have been tilled into a desert of scares, all but relegated to the corner of slipshod horror no-no’s. Oculus sets to right the course.
Mousey children reciting folklore hymns have made the mirror the perfect vestige to express a cultural fear of the unknown and it’s this unknown that Oculus takes advantage of. While Obsidian mirrors date back to 6000 BC (Dragonstone mirrors? How could that not be creepy?), the mirror in question here looks oaken – strong, sturdy, old wood. It’s stained dark and carved with decadent inlay, curving and twisting like the horns of a demon. At first glance, it perfectly fits the part of haunted mirror, however absurd such a MacGuffin might be.
Though Oculus presents the fantasy of haunted mirrors as fact, it gives the audience credit in doubting said facts. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is the vessel for such doubt. After a traumatic event early in his and sister’s Kaylie’s (Karen Gillan) childhood, Tim is sent to a mental hospital to unlearn the “facts” that he had convinced himself of – that a haunted mirror possessed his father into killing his mother.
The stooges at the mental lockup have indoctrinated him otherwise (is there anything less trustworthy than a horror movie psychologist?) and his newfound predilection towards disbelief becomes the film’s first albatross. Kaylie sets out to show Tim that he was never crazy, having recently come into possession of the mirror and dead set on them destroying it once and for all.
But like anything haunted, it’s never as easy as just taking an axe to the thing and turning it to splinters. Instead, the mirror has a will of its own. And like the one ring to rule them all, it sets out to get what it wants by a form of unspoken mind control. Rory Cochrane as the father of the young siblings is the mirror’s first mark and his descend into madness harkens to the shuddersome ambiance of the Overlook. Emulating the best of Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance and the worst of sanity-slinking Jack Torrence, Cochrane’s performance is easy to have fun with. He is unsettling wallpaper as a vessel of psychological horror and domestic abuse both with his uneasy relationship with wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff) working to up the stakes scene to scene.
A tactful script from Mike Flanaghan (pulling double duties as director) saturates the reined-in proceedings with disqueting and sordid exposition. While Gillan’s airless portrait of Kaylie leaves little room for character growth, it paints a nimble picture of a sacrosanct devotee to her unpopular convictions. “What’s happening is real.” At least someone knows what’s going on. Like the great heroines of late, she’s a woman on a mission and listening to her report her findings is one of the many joys of Flanaghan’s insoluble narrative web.
Though Tim’s journey is more arc-y than Kaylie’s, his is underwhelmingly performed. So it’s a bit of a disappointment that the franchise’s future lay at his feet. It’s hard not to look at his situation and quiver though. It’s like a life lived practicing forced atheism only to stare God in the face. Shitty.
The best scenes in the movie are born of this somewhat novel idea of auto-voyueirsm – where the characters are watching themselves, unsure of whether they are where they think they are or if they’re trapped in the bodies that they’re looking at. It sounds confusing but Flanaghan makes it work well on screen. This crafty visual twist presents a Shrodinger’s Cat issue. Once the mirror takes hold, there’s no way to tell what’s make believe and what’s reality and that opens a lot of doors for the audience.
Flanaghan’s other great achievement is in the pacing department as he’s born a film that slides along like its riding KY Jelly roller-skates. It’s also unlikely to gross you out which can be a bit of a double-edged sword in the horror community, in that it will only slightly satisfy horror buff’s effusive need for bloodletting. Smartly, it’s always ranking the huh? over the gore.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s so terrifying that it slips into your dreams, taints your nightmares and has you looking cockeyed at creeks in the night. Oculus is not that film. Happy to be a well manicured vestige of frights, where dread prevails over scares, it’s pecking order rightly starts at the noggin. It’s more Psycho in nature than Scream, heralding suspense and mood building as models of import over attempts to sporadically lift you from you seat with a bump and a shout.
Oculus does for mirrors what Hitchcock did for showers. We’re not afraid of them, they’re just a little creepier now.