The Giver (2014)

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Director: Phillip Noyce

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift

Screenplay: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide

97 mins. Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence.

 

The hotly anticipated adaptation of the dystopian novel The Giver has arrived and initial response has not been great. What did I think? Well, wouldn’t you like to know?

The Giver is the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus, Maleficent), who lives in a normalized version of reality set some time in the future. His world is one of plainness, of emotionless life filled with routine followed by more routine. It exists without color and without free thought. Life is good. Jonas is about to go through a life-changing ceremony along with friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan, TV’s Shameless, Click) and Fiona (Odeya Rush, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, We Are What We Are). This ceremony grants each of them jobs in their society, and Jonas has just been granted the most important role of all as Receiver of Memory, a role of passing down information from a man known only as The Giver (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski, R.I.P.D.), who has some very valuable information for Jonas.

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The Giver isn’t a bad movie as much as it is a rough one. I get the sense that this movie wasn’t fully completed. I also feel as though the book, through fantastic, was not made to be adapted. There is just too much that feels like it would work until you actually see it.

Jeff Bridges is wonderful in the titular role, and he should be, as he has been trying to get the film out of development hell for almost two decades. He even previously filmed a version using family members in the roles to prove that the film was doable.

We also get some great, though very underutilized work from Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada, Into the Woods) as the Chief Elder, a woman who has her own secrets and doesn’t really trust that Jonas will stick to the guidelines of his role, just like ten years previously when a young girl named Rosemary (Taylor Swift, Valentine’s Day, The Lorax) failed as the Receiver of Memory.

Brenton Thwaites is passable, though very underwhelming at times. The saving grace is Odeya Rush as Fiona, a girl who helps inspire emotion with ease.

As for the parental units, Father (Alexander Skarsgard, TV’s True Blood, The East) is pretty good while Mother (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins, Jack and Jill) poses too many questions, the most important being, “How does Katie Holmes keep getting work?” Seriously, I haven’t seen a passable performance since…wait, give me a minute.

As for Taylor Swift, come on. Not good. Not horrible, but definitely not good.

This adaptation was trouble from the start. The entire civilization is without emotion so much so that watching it would be kind of boring. Then again, add any noticeable emotion and people will claim that it breaks its own rules.

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I personally enjoyed myself over all, but the film is not without its problems. That much I can promise you. I just keep thinking. It could have been so much more.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Oculus (2013)

Oculus

Director: Mike Flanagan.

Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff.

Screenplay: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard.

103 mins. Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.

 

I was pretty excited to see Oculus recently. I truly enjoyed director Mike Flanagan’s previous work in Absentia (I saw the premiere at the Fargo Film Festival back in 2011), and I wanted to see where he take us next when he had a bigger budget and more room to play. Unfortunately, I spent most of Oculus arguing with myself over whether I was enjoying myself or not. Not ever a really good sign. It felt to me like a film that was trying to confuse its audience so they wouldn’t see all the ridiculous plot points for what they really were.

Oculus tells the story of Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, TV’s Doctor Who), who is trying to prove to her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), that the reason their parents went insane several years ago was because of a haunted mirror. Initially, thoughts went through my head about the previous horror film Mirrors, a decent effort from director Alexandre Aja. Sadly, this film falls flat even after a pretty fantastic opening setup.

The film plays out in two timelines simultaneous, one with Kaylie and Tim as children, the other years later as adults. Playing them against each other proves pretty interesting, except at the end when the timelines devolve into a confusing, jumbled and ultimately, disappointingly predictable finale.

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Oculus does a great job setting the events of the film into motion. We are given a solid premise and even rules to govern the journey we are going on as Kaylie describes exactly how she plans on proving the mirror’s intentions of evil and how she planned on destroying it. Soon after, however, the film departs from these rules and chooses to never reference them again.

I also had a problem with the mirror’s motivations. Okay, I get it, that sounds silly, but in any horror film, you have to get what the killer or monster’s motivations are or what the hell does it matter? Michael Myers was trying to kill all his relatives. Jason Voorhees was the closest thing to birth control for Crystal Lake, hacking and slashing his way through teens as vengeance for his dead mother. Freddy Krueger was also all about revenge, and Chucky the killer doll just wanted out of his plastic body. Oculus’ mirror, however, plays tricks on people. Some of them are meant to maim or kill, but other times, it plays out like a violent joke. One such scene, where the mirror leads Kaylie to believe that she has bitten into a light bulb gets us to see that it was only an apple. Why would a mirror do that? Wouldn’t the opposite be much more terrifying and gruesome?

This’ll sound funny as well, but I didn’t feel like the mirror was a well-built character. It didn’t have enough presence in the film. For all we know, it could’ve been a haunted oven or house or pretty much anything. It didn’t really use its reflection to terrorize. There was nothing to tell us the mirror was really behind anything. Its backstory kind of disappointed as well. If this becomes a franchise, I would like to see it explored much more.

The performances were fine, especially from Gillan and Annalise Basso (Bedtime Stories) who play adult and young Kaylie, respectively. Katee Sackhoff (TV’s Battlestar Galactica, Riddick) and Rory Cochrane (Argo, Parkland) do respectable work as Russell parents Marie and Alan.

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I’ve heard a lot of reports that Oculus may be looking at becoming a franchise, and if so, it has some digging to do before it reaches a status worthy of yearly trips to the movie theater.  I see potential, and there were a few great moments about this film, but all in all, I drove home from the movie not angry, but disappointed, and in the end, isn’t that worse?

Have you seen Oculus? What did you think? Comment below.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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