Archive for January, 2015

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Director: Seth Gordon

Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx

What makes a “horrible boss” truly horrible? Is it their lack of compassion? Is it the way they seem to take joy from forcing employees to work extra hours/days? Do they find ways to harass us that somehow doesn’t step over the lines of what the company labels “decency”? Have they made us feel as though we have no exit strategy from our current soul-sucking job? If we’re really lucky, it’s all of the above and then some.

Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) are three friends who have come to despise their bosses. Nick’s boss is about as evil as it gets. David Harken (Kevin Spacey) is President of Comnidyne Industries. He’s the type of boss who’ll trick you into drinking Scotch at 8:00 in the morning and then accuse you of being an alcoholic. David’s also the kind of guy who sets up an opening for a VP position, only to take it for himself because it means he’ll make more money. Outside of work, he’s also a jealous man with a short fuse. Married to a gorgeous blonde (Julie Bowen), he’s constantly searching for clues that will prove that she’s secretly cheating on him.

Dale’s situation would seem like every man’s dream to the untrained eye at first glance. He’s a dental assistant to the lovely Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). Julia has been trying for some time now to get Dale to have sex with her. Kurt, being the horndog that he is, would have done so within five minutes of meeting her, but Dale is happily engaged to be married, and doesn’t care for Julia’s harassment at all. He could just quit, but no one else will hire him because of a nighttime urination incident on an empty playground which got him registered as a sex offender.

Kurt actually likes his boss, Jack Pelitt (Donald Sutherland), until the old man suddenly dies of a heart attack. In his place, Jack’s cokehead son, Bobby was left in charge. Bobby only wants to drain the company dry of every last penny, caring nothing for its employees. Kurt, being the accountant, does not want to let this stand. Bobby has to go, Kurt decides. Although at first reluctantly, the others confess to feeling the same way about their horrible bosses. Seeking a man with experience in “wetwork,” they avoid one misunderstanding before coming across Dean ‘Motherfucker’ Jones (Jamie Foxx). His suggestion, that they each kill each others’ bosses to lessen the possibility of suspicion, sounds like something right out of either Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” or the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito comedy “Throw Momma from the Train,” both of which are in fact referenced in that very same scene.

For a premise like this one to work perfectly, you’ve got to have leads who can carry it to its natural conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with Bateman, Sudeikis or Day as individuals, but somehow they don’t quite gel as a unit. The majority of the film’s laughs come from the bosses, in particular Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston. Without them, “Horrible Bosses” wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Hard to know what to say about Spacey that hasn’t been covered already. He seems capable of nailing any role that is put in front of him. He even makes “Superman Returns” worth saying I saw it. Here, as the manipulative David Harken, he shows why even in a silly comedy he’s an Oscar-winning actor. Jennifer Aniston may not have Oscar gold (the closest she’s come to even being nominated was this year, for “Cake”), but what she does possess is an uncanny ability to make the audience hang on her every word. Generally, we’ve gotten used to seeing her as the girl-next-door type. Julia Harris is a big departure from that. The lengths she goes to keep Dale firmly in her grasp are deplorable, and yet there’s still something oddly likable about her. Siren that she is, Julia makes you question which action you would take if you were a guy in Dale’s position.

In the end, “Horrible Bosses” is a mixed bag. It features a great cast with a story that doesn’t get as much out of them as it should. Of course, because the movie did incredible numbers at the box office, it was granted a sequel in 2014. I haven’t seen it, and I’m not sure I really need or want to. We were barely able to sustain the same premise for 90 minutes the first go-round. Watch this one for Spacey, Farrell and Aniston, otherwise you’ll just be checking your watch until time to clock out and go home.

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The Interview (2014)

Directors: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang

If the leadership of the People’s Republic of Korea feels so threatened by one silly American film, then perhaps they’re weaker than we thought. On the other hand, if idle threats from a source claiming to be working on their behalf can cause that one silly American film to be pulled from its intended theatrical release, then maybe the United States doesn’t possess the pair of brass balls we’re always boasting about. Only a month ago, “The Interview,” the latest in a line of cheerfully vulgar comedies featuring either Seth Rogen, James Franco or both, was the focal point of a massive hacking scandal directed at Sony, the film’s distributors. After several theater chains pulled the movie from their screens, Sony felt there was no other choice but to acquiesce to the demand of these cyber-terrorists, who were threatening everything from attacks on theaters to targeting the family members of Sony employees. While on the surface this would seem like a prudent course of action, potentially saving lives and whatnot, dig deeper and it looks more like an attempt to escape liability… a little less noble.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) is a popular American talk show host. He’d love to work for “60 Minutes,” but isn’t taken seriously enough. Despite his ability to draw well-kept secrets from his celebrity guests such as Rob Lowe and Eminem, among others, he’s regarded by colleagues as belonging just one step removed from the “Extra” or “TMZ” crowd. The big chance he’s been looking for falls into his lap when it comes out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is an avid viewer and would love to conduct an interview. Dave’s longtime producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) makes the necessary arrangements in a overly elaborate meeting with Sook Yung Park (Diana Bang) in middle-of-nowhere China. In what seems like no time at all, the planned interview has caught the attention of the CIA. Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) enlists Dave and Aaron in a mission to assassinate the North Korean leader. All they have to do is shake the man’s hand, and an adhesive strip containing ricin will take care of the rest. If it were really that simple, the movie would be over in half an hour.

Armed with the ricin strip, Dave and Aaron arrive at their destination in North Korea. Immediately, Dave’s strip is found in his bag, which he blows off as simply being a foul-tasting piece of chewing gum. Unfortunate for the bodyguard, who immediately puts it in his mouth to test it. The CIA is forced to covertly send two more strips (just in case the guys screw up again) in a scene which provoked what was for me one of the movie’s biggest laughs where Aaron, who has gone outside Kim Jong-un’s compound to retrieve the package, comes face to face with a tiger!

Getting to know the North Korean leader, Dave is beginning to have second thoughts about the mission, thinking that Kim Jong-un has been greatly misunderstood by the United States. Among the typical daddy issues, Kim Jong-un is revealed to also be a closet Katy Perry fan. Indeed, Perry’s hit song “Firework” plays a pivotal role in “The Interview.” Aaron, in the meantime, has his own hands full with Sook Yung Park, who is not only attracted to him, but is also one of those secretly looking for a way to bring about freedom to her country. Ultimately, the group rejects the CIA’s plan to murder Kim Jong-un and do them one step better by going against his pre-planned line of questioning, thereby exposing him as an everyday human being and breaking the built-up mystique created by both his father and grandfather before him to maintain their family’s decades-long stranglehold on North Korea. How very “Frost/Nixon” of them.

“The Interview” is sure to appeal to three kinds of people: those attracted by its reputation, fans of James Franco and Seth Rogen, and those who appreciate lowbrow comedy. If you meet all three, then there ought to be plenty to keep you entertained. Anyone familiar with the Rogen/Franco stoner comedy “Pineapple Express” will find this movie’s casual attitude towards violence and sexual innuendo quite familiar. The duo is definitely the driving force of “The Interview,” with special nod to Franco. Given a choice between them, I’d say “Pineapple Express” is the funnier of the two pictures. I do, however, admire “The Interview” for its take-no-prisoners approach. “Safe” comedy is boring comedy.

I’m of the opinion that any film, no matter how good or how terrible, deserves a chance to be released so that the individual can decide whether or not it might be worth their time. In the case of “The Interview,” despite my admiration for its two leads, I remained unswayed by its premise. Take away the uproar over its content, which captured the kind of national media attention which the film could never have otherwise hoped to generate on its own, and I would probably have elected to skip it all-together. But that’s ultimately the whole point, not whether the movie is “good” or “bad” (creativity helps), not whether it’s too offensive (no such thing!), but that we are not denied the right to choose.

Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (199)

Director: Peter Hewitt

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier, George Carlin

So much has been accomplished through history which once seemed just out of our reach. What would our ancestors have to say if the technological leaps and bounds we’ve made since their time, the ones which we now take for granted, were suddenly revealed to them? It would certainly challenge everything they had come to accept as fact if they saw that the impossible was indeed possible. Similarly, certain fantastic concepts such as time travel, while entertaining as fiction, are still looked upon simply as that. Consider the most improbable of beliefs, that of an afterlife. There would be one way to show that such a thing even exists, and that is to make a return trip to this plane of existence after having crossed over into the next… something no one outside of religious text has ever been proven to have accomplished. Our two dimwitted heroes from “Excellent Adventure” already breached the time barrier with the greatest of ease, so the next step was to have them go to Hell and back.

In 2691, the duo of Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) and their music are the subject of great reverance and awe, and serve as the basis of the peaceful society the world of the future enjoys. Sadly, not everyone in the 27th century is as thrilled with how the world has been shaped. One of these dissidents is Chuck De Nomolos (Joss Ackland). Known for his prowess as an athlete in his younger years, De Nomolos now has more diabolical ambitions in mind. He means to kill Bill and Ted and take their place as the person everyone on Earth admires and respects. To accomplish this, he has constructed evil robot duplicates which he will send back to the year 1991, before Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns has the chance to promote global enlightenment.

At this point in their lives, Bill and Ted can barely afford the apartment they share, much less figure out how to become who they are destined to be. They’ve proposed marriage to their girlfriends Joanna and Elizabeth, the former princesses from Medieval England whom they met and fell and love with in the previous movie (now played by different actresses), but all they can give their brides-to-be are cheap plastic rings which may or may not come from Cracker Jack boxes. The boys hope their luck will change with an upcoming Battle of the Bands contest, to be hosted by Mrs. Wardroe (Pam Grier). What they weren’t counting on was another visit from themselves. Like before, Ted is skeptical about the sincerity/authenticity of their counterparts but relents once Bill talks him out of it. This time, Ted was right to second-guess “himself.” Echoing the “Star Trek” rerun playing on Bill and Ted’s TV when they arrive (the episode entitled “Arena,” FYI) the robots take Bill and Ted to Vasquez Rocks, where they push our protagonists to their deaths. It is at this point that the PG-rating rears its head, as Bill and Ted leave behind bloodless, clean-looking corpses.

Almost immediately, the boys encounter the Grim Reaper (William Sadler). After first presenting himself in a very serious manner, all of the threat is quickly removed when the boys find an amusing yet painful (for him) way of eluding Death. They’ll meet again soon. Still in spirit form, Bill and Ted try to reach out to family members, with nothing resembling positive results. Intruding upon a seance, they are mistaken for an evil presence and are cast into Hell. There, they find that the domain of Satan does not look anything like how it was depicted on various album covers they’d collected. Each encountering their own personal hell, Bill and Ted are forced to dodge Bill’s grandmother, the Easter Bunny, and Colonel Oats of the Alaskan Military Academy. I’m merely speculating at this point, but I figure that Col. Oats might have been so named for actor Warren Oates, whose drill sergeant character from “Stripes” is one of the highlights of that 1981 comedy.

It finally comes down to Bill and Ted having no choice but to challenge the Reaper to a contest, determining whether they remain in Hell or return to life, which the Reaper points out has never been done. What follows is easily the most amusing sequence of “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” In a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (in which Death is challenged to a game of chess) Bill and Ted choose Battleship. When they win, the Grim Reaper shows what a sore loser he is by insisting that the contest be extended to a best 2 out of 3 scenario. Losing at Clue, he ups the stakes to 3 out of 5. Electric Football is up next. Bill and Ted win for a third time and… well, you know what’s coming. Finally, after Bill and Ted are victorious in a game of Twister, Death bends to their will.

Making a brief stop in Heaven on their way back to their lives in San Dimas, California, Bill and Ted locate the Martian scientist known as Station, whose aid they enlist in the construction of (albeit crude) heroic robot versions of themselves. That’s director Peter Hewitt in a cameo as the cigarette smoker in the hardware store to whom the Grim Reaper says in passing, “See you real soon!” Arriving at the Battle of the Bands, Bill and Ted stop the evil robots, outwit De Nomolos, save their girlfriends and give the perfomance they were always meant to deliver.

In almost every respect, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” is superior to the first film. This is surprising, not only because “Excellent Adventure” itself is so good, but because it is so rare to find a sequel to a comedy classic that doesn’t leave you wondering why they even bothered. The best thing about “Bogus Journey” is William Sadler as the Grim Reaper. With Sadler usually being cast in intimidating or authoritative roles, the Reaper seems like a natural extension of this, and so it is as startling as it is funny when his buffoonish side is revealed.

While the first film was quite clearly a child of the 1980’s, “Bogus Journey” has more of a timeless quality to it (with the exception of the fact that one can now believably call the house they just left with the aid of a cell phone). Once again, music plays a big role, bigger now because of the Battle of the Bands contest. Instead of merely paying lip service to other musical acts as in the first film, “Bogus Journey” sports a cameo appearance by Jim Martin of Faith No More, and Primus is one of the featured bands competing against Wyld Stallyns in the final act. The soundtrack includes “The Perfect Crime” by Faith No More, “Go to Hell” by Megadeth, and “Battle Stations” by Winger, among others. The best is saved for last with a real showstopper in “God Gave Rock n’ Roll to You II” by KISS, a heavier cover of Argent’s 1973 original which represents KISS’s best work other than “War Machine.”

I could leave things right there, but that would mean having to dismiss the ongoing rumors of a third film. Allegedly to be directed by Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest,” “RED 2”), the movie would be about Bill and Ted, now in their 40’s, aging and dejected and still searching for that one song that’s supposed to change the world. Honestly, I don’t know how to feel about it. Part of me would like to see them try it, to see Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter team up once again (especially since Winter is mostly done with acting these days). But I also worry that anything a “Bill and Ted 3” presents might tarnish the ending we got with “Bogus Journey.” The late George Carlin’s presence as Rufus will also be missed. If the movie ever does make it out of developmental hell (ironic, no?), then I’ll almost certainly go see it, as surely as any “Star Wars” fan will go see the new J.J. Abrams movie later this year. Regardless of what happens with “Bill and Ted 3,” “Bogus Journey” will remain… the same as its predecessor… as a fond memory from my childhood which I will continue to revisit time and time again.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

Director: Stephen Herek

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin

If you had a time machine, and could therefore travel into the future to see what you make of yourself, what does that mean for the course of the timeline? Would your foreknowledge cause you to irrevocably alter its path, or were you always meant to know your own destiny? I would think that simply being surrounded by a future world which is completely foreign in its appearance would be more than enough to test a normal person’s sanity. To know… not just believe, but know… that you’re supposed to be the savior of an entire culture, you’d have to be walking on egg shells for the rest of your life, hoping that every move you make does nothing to screw up life as it is meant to be. Of course, if you’re the sort who goes through life believing that Julius Caesar is a “salad dressing dude,” then maybe it’ll all just seem like a fun ride.

Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two teenage friends living in San Dimas, California. Each is dumb as a post but well-meaning. Bill and Ted have musical aspirations, and have formed a band they call Wyld Stallyns, despite the fact that they don’t even know how to play their own guitars. What these two don’t know is that their band is destined one day to create music that will unite the planet. Right now, they can’t even pass their high school history course, a fact which threatens to break up the band before it even has a chance to begin. Ted’s father, a San Dimas Police Captain who has no faith in his son’s music dreams or in his choice of friends, means to ship Ted off to an Alaskan military school.

Traveling to our time from the year 2688, Rufus (George Carlin) is tasked with making sure the two Great Ones (as they are known in the 2600’s) remain on their path. Rufus intercepts the architects of Earth’s utopian future at a Circle K convenient store, where Bill and Ted are foolishly trying to wring historical information out of the employees. Arriving in his telephone-booth time machine, Rufus is in the middle of making his pitch when a second booth arrives, carrying with it a second Bill and Ted (and what looks to be a few other people). The second Bill and Ted convince their startled counterparts that they are who they appear to be, and to implicitly trust Rufus. Congratulations, boys, you’ve just participated in your first temporal paradox! After Bill and Ted #2 leave, Rufus takes Bill and Ted #1 on a trip to 1805 Austria, where they witness a French invasion led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Inadvertently pulling Napoleon through the time circuits back to 1988 San Dimas, the boys get the idea to collect more historical figures, the idea being that they can get them to speak at their history report. Eventually, this group will grow to include Billy the Kid, Socrates, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln.

Beyond the boys new famous friends, I think my favorite supporting character in the movie is the history teacher, Mr. Ryan, played by Bernie Casey. Mr. Ryan appears to be the kind of teacher who has been at his profession long enough to know how to relate to his students, but not long enough to have run out of patience. Bill and Ted have flunked every section of his class. Mr. Ryan knows these kids well enough to know that it’s not because they aren’t trying, but perhaps they lack the proper motivation. Taking the gentle but firm approach, he explains that he doesn’t want to have to flunk them, but won’t have any choice left if they get anything less than an A+ on their report.

“Bill and Ted” sure does take an interesting approach to the time travel angle. Originally, the mode of temporal transportation was to have been an automobile, but the highly successful “Back to the Future” had already been there and done that only four short years earlier, so a telephone booth was substituted instead. Who could’ve known that telephone booths would become obsolete within the next 15-20 years. You’d need a time machine to have guessed that. Hmm…

The rules of time travel in this movie do not appear entirely consistent throughout, changing as needed to serve the plot. One long sequence at the police station which requires that Bill and Ted have predetermined distractions set up by and for them is contrived at best, and outright confusing if you try to analyze it too much. Napoleon’s story arc, which eventually sees him stranded on his own in a foreign land/time is highly amusing, yet avoidable once you consider that the reason it happens at all is because Bill and Ted left him behind with Ted’s little brother, instead of dragging him along as they do with all of the other famous characters. Speaking of the others, it’s an incredible turn of luck that their removal from their time periods and subsequent return do nothing to change history. I’m also not sure exactly how much time they spend with Bill and Ted to “get to know them.” Everyone seems like buddies by the end, but I don’t know that they’re familiar enough with each other to even be able to understand what each other is saying. But I think the one thing that really bugs me is the notion that the clock in Bill and Ted’s present day is “always running.” If they have a time machine, what does that even matter? It shouldn’t, but the movie needs a certain amount of drama/suspense to it, otherwise we’re just “marking time” until the inevitable history report, which is presented appropriately like a rock concert. The best thing to do is just ignore all of this and just enjoy the ride.

As important to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” as its comedic and sci-fi elements is the music. For a movie which is all about time travel, the rock n’ roll soundtrack places it firmly within the 1980’s. Because a lot of the music of the time was about having fun, it’s impossible not to comply when you hear songs like Big Pig’s “I Can’t Break Away,” Vital Signs’ “The Boys and Girls Are Doing It,” Shark Island’s “Father Time,” Power Tool’s “Two Heads Are Better Than One,” and my personal favorite, “In Time” by Robbie Robb. It doesn’t hurt that I saw this movie in its original theatrical release, even if I wasn’t old enough to catch all the jokes back then. “In Time” does more to recall those feelings of seeing this “Excellent Adventure” for the first time than anything else.

Office Space (1999)

Director: Mike Judge

Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, Gary Cole

Those who’ve found their true calling in life are very lucky. Others meander from one job to the next, never feeling truly satisfied or even respected. The best of them shrug it off and except each paycheck with a fake smile. The worst become unhinged to the point of threatening to set the building on fire.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a computer software programmer working for the uncaring corporation Initech. Above all, Peter hates his boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole). Lately, every passing day to him has felt like the worst day of his life. He’s even begun to suspect that his girlfriend, Anne, is cheating on him. His friends get that feeling, too. Anne drags Peter to an ‘occupational hypnotherapist’ who promptly drops dead of a heart attack right after hypnotizing Peter. Newly relaxed, Peter seems to have an easier time shrugging off all of that which previously troubled him. He has no reaction to the message left on his answering machine by Anne, informing him that she has in fact been cheating on him, and completely ignores the dozen or so messages Lumbergh leaves, each pressing Peter for an answer as to why he hasn’t come in to work on the weekend as he was asked to do. Peter would much rather sleep in.

One thing that Peter is very much in doing is asking out Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at Chotchkie’s (think T.G.I. Friday’s). He invites her to lunch at a rival restaurant, and discovers that they share a loathing for their jobs as well as an interest in the TV series “Kung Fu.” Come Monday morning, Peter does finally return to work. At this time, Initech has brought in two men, both named Bob, to help with the company’s personnel evaluation (i.e. to help decide which employees should be fired). Peter’s friends Samir Nagheenanajar and Michael Bolton are among those on the chopping block, whereas Peter’s straight-shooting attitude gets him promoted instead of being fired. Life’s unfair that way. But Peter, being the corporation-hating, loyal friend that he is, devises a scheme to get back at their employers. A computer virus designed by Michael will steal fractions of pennies from Initech and place them into an account, building up to a nice sum of money over a long period of time. Only problem is that Michael screws it up, and the account has drawn a few hundred thousand in a few short days, and now the question comes to how to deal with it. Do you try to dig a deeper hole by trying to cover your tracks, or do you bite the bullet and confess?

“Office Space” is full of interesting and hilarious characters. Chief among them is Bill Lumbergh. He’s the quintessential annoying boss. His slow, monotone delivery makes each line of dialogue instantly quotable. Peter’s neighbor Lawrence, who shouts through the wall to get Peter’s attention whenever there’s a naked woman on television, is also a hoot. The mumbling Milton (Stephen Root) whose desk keeps getting moved despite his objections, although a secondary character here, was originally the focus of a series of four animated shorts by Mike Judge, upon which “Office Space” was based. Despite his meek, wimpy appearance (which includes coke bottle glasses), Milton may be the angriest person working at Initech. It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Mike Judge himself plays Joanna’s condescending boss. He seems to be of the belief, as it concerns the restaurant business, that ambiance takes precedent over the quality of the food. He wants Joanna to show that she knows how to express herself, and it’s only through her relationship with Peter that Joanna develops the courage to do so.

An interesting choice was made in the movie’s soundtrack, which is composed of mostly gangsta rap. Two songs by Geto Boys represent the most memorable tracks. “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” plays while Peter is returning to work after fudging on his weekend responsibilities, and “Still” plays while Peter, Samir and Michael steal and then take out their frustrations on a faulty office printer that had been plaguing them throughout their time at Initech. The “printer scene” has since been parodied/re-enacted on TV’s “Family Guy.”

Mike Judge has been entertaining audiences for years on the small screen with such animated series as “Beavis & Butt-head” and “King of the Hill,” the former having made a brief return in the 2010’s after an almost 15-year absence. With “Office Space,” Judge created an instant cult classic. With a running time of less than 90 minutes, it features a fast-paced plot, one which is pure fantasy. There’s no way you can behave as these characters do and not expect to face dire consequences. Because of this, one can hardly be expected to find a moral lesson anywhere. If you had to pick one based on what you see here, it might be this: The way to get through the daily grind is by sifting through the rubble of your meaningless existence and finding the one thing that means the most to you.

Oculus (2014)

Director: Mike Flanagan

Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff

Here’s an experiment: Try staring into a mirror for a couple of hours and see if you find anything beyond your own reversed image. You won’t, but don’t let that stop you. There is no deeper meaning to be found, no revelation to be had here. A mirror is a reflective pane of glass and nothing more. Likewise, the “haunted house” movie is more often than not a one-dimensional bag of tricks which you can choreograph from its beginning to its end. I’m supposed to buy into all the cheap scares, ignore the paper thin plot, and not turn my nose up at the inevitable conclusion. “Oculus” cannot be faulted for trying to be more than the sum of its parts, but it can’t very well do that when it uses all the same plot devices.

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a psychiatric hospital after it is determined he is not a danger to himself or anyone else. In the time he has spent there, he has come to terms with what his doctors explain to him were delusions about there being supernatural forces behind the deaths of his parents. His father killed his mother, and he in turn had killed his father. It was supposed to have been as simple as that. Tim’s doctor suggests that he should reconnect with his older sister, but really that’s the last thing he should be doing. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent the last eleven years both shrugging off those who would ridicule her for what became of her family, as well as researching the history of the mirror she is determined to prove was the cause of it all. Naturally, she expects Tim to be on board with her in this endeavor.

Not only has Kaylie gained temporary access to the Lasser Glass, but she has moved it to the house where she and Tim once lived with their mother and father. She has also set up cameras and other recording devices around it to document the occasion, and a “kill switch” in the form of an anchor weighted to the ceiling which can either be released manually or automatically by way of a programmed timer. Kaylie fully intends to use this device to “kill” the mirror, but not until she’s certain that she’s gathered enough information to prove the mirror’s true nature and clear her family name. Tim doesn’t understand why they don’t just smash it now, and she tries to explain that it won’t let them, which Tim won’t believe even after he attempts to do the deed but for some reason stands down his attack. He even interrupts an experiment Kaylie was running which involved a caged dog. It isn’t until they leave the room to argue that he finally believes. When they come back in, they find the cameras have all been moved. Playback shows that they never left the room, and were in fact responsible for moving the cameras themselves. Things continue deteriorating from there, reality becomes harder to distinguish from false images, and Kaylie’s flaw in her plan becomes clear. It is smart that she’s not attempting this alone, because anyone before her who had died rather quickly. But she’s also overconfident, thinking she has covered all of her bases, and the mirror knows that.

Intercut with the scenes from 2013 are flashbacks to 2002, when Kaylie and Tim lived in the house with their parents: Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff). In true “Amityville Horror” fashion, the parents slowly become unhinged. Marie falls victim first, with the mirror making her believe that her husband is having an affair. Alan is made to chain her up in her room and sit around the house doing nothing, not even grocery shopping. It’s on his list of things to do, he says. It’s when Kaylie unlocks the bedroom door to investigate that things go haywire. Both of her parents take turns trying to kill her. Alan ends up shooting Marie dead just as the latter seems to be snapping out of it, after which he turns his attention to Kaylie. Coming to his sister’s defense, Tim wrestles his father’s gun away and, with Alan’s help, shoots his father dead, the body impacting with the Lasser Glass. This last act is what gave the mirror its one and only crack. Unfortunately, Tim is unable to convince anyone of what really happened, and that’s how he got sent away to the mental hospital.

The WWE Studios logo is to film what the LJN logo is to video games. It is generally a sign of an inferior product. Most of the movies under the WWE Studios banner are hack jobs featuring pro wrestlers/”sports entertainers” who were misled into thinking they can act. “Oculus” is one of the few without any wrestlers in the cast, but its actors still struggle with a plot which is always one wrong step away from collapsing in on itself. Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is a rising star, but even she can only do so much with a movie that forecasts everything that’s going to happen about halfway through. It’s been said before that if you introduce a gun in the first act, there’s a strong chance it’s going to be fired in the final one. Gillan certainly makes the most of her starring role. I don’t know of any other actress who has the ability to talk as rapidly as she can and still sound completely coherent.

My main problem with “Oculus,” which is also my biggest gripe with haunted house stories in general, is the trap the movie sets for itself once its revealed that the mirror can trick people into seeing whatever it wants them to see. How am I supposed to trust anything the movie is showing me from then on? Additionally, I question Kaylie’s judgment. Certainly, she’s done her homework on the history of the mirror and come up with clever precautions… but how smart is it to stand in the same room as the mirror while she’s telling her brother everything she intends to do to bring about its demise? If the mirror truly is both sentient and evil, why give it all the information it needs to foil your plan before you’ve even started? The flashbacks are largely unnecessary, and seem to exist only to set up a parallel with what’s going on now, one which figures in the movie’s climax. They also pad the running time, so there’s that too. It’s too bad, because despite the WWE Studios label and the involvement of the producer of “Insidious”… and the fact that I hated “Absentia,” another horror film written & directed by Mike Flanagan… I nevertheless came in hoping to love this movie. It’s definitely better than most of its kind, but it’s still just a BOO! haunted house story. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom

That first time you travel to another country/state/province, it can be scary. Sights and sounds are unfamiliar. You could easily find yourself lost if you stray from your company.  But there’s also a lot that is exciting about distancing yourself away from the comforts of home, so much so that it makes your little corner of the world seem that much smaller upon your return. Granted, most of us who take this kind of trip are doing it for the entertainment value, though there are some for whom the voyage is far more perilous. In Middle-Earth, there was a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who never had any adventures taking him away from his home in the Shire until a wizard and a company of Dwarves came bursting through his front door. Bilbo had quite an adventure with this group of thirteen, the ulitmate goal of which was to retake the Dwarves’ home from a fire-breathing dragon. Even if you survive an odyssey like that, how do you possibly top it? (Answer: You can’t, but your cousin will!)

When we saw Bilbo last, he and the band of Dwarves had reached the mountain of Erebor, but had inadvertently awoken and angered the dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who flew out to Laketown to lay waste to the city and its inhabitants. Luckily for the citizens of Laketown they have among them the bowman Bard (Luke Evans), who with a keen eye spots the one chink in Smaug’s armor of scales. The city in flames all around him, Bard strikes true, felling the foul beast with the last (and best) arrow left available to him. Witnessing Smaug’s defeat from afar, the company of Dwarves celebrates. Seemingly, all that they set out to accomplish has now been achieved. Victory is theirs.

Alas, the victory is short-lived, as forces from outside as well as within threaten to undo everything. Factions of men and Elves both lay claim to pieces of the vast treasure of gold that lay inside, treasure that until recently was being guarded/coveted by Smaug. Thorin (Richard Armitage) himself is becoming drunk with greed,  much as Smaug had been before him. “Dragon sickness,” it is called. Thorin has no intention of sharing one single piece, not even to be charitable to the people of Laketown. Inside the mountain also are white jewels in the form of a necklace which the elf Thranduil (Lee Pace) wishes to claim. As Thorin said, he’s not giving up any of the treasure, no matter how big/small/valuable. Not much of a negotiator, this one. With the three armies ready for war, they haven’t even noticed the legion of Orcs and Goblins marching in their direction. That’s four armies and, in case you’re wondering, the fifth is composed of Eagles who swoop in as our heroes need them. Oh, yes, there will be blood.

In many respects, “The Battle of the Five Armies” is Thorin’s story. So concentrated on winning back the Lonely Mountain AND keeping it was he that he hasn’t stopped to consider what affect his obsession could and will have on the rest of Middle-Earth. One of the film’s best scenes shows him looking down at his reflection in the floor and, in his delirium, imagines the ground beneath his feet opening up and swallowing him whole… a metaphor for his greed consuming him. When Ian McKellen isn’t on the screen, Richard Armitage is the best actor on the screen in this movie. Not to take anything away from Martin Freeman, who still does his job well as Bilbo. This Hobbit, a long way from home, is now confronted with a friend going mad and a war seemingly inevitable. Bilbo’s the one person who tries the hardest to keep this battle from happening, but even he’s just one halfling.

Another standout scene to watch for involves several familiar faces from “Lord of the Rings.” Weak from his experience with the Necromancer, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). Knowing what Saruman will become in “Lord of the Rings,” it appears as though this scene is used to show the moment where he first turned to the dark side, but I argue that he could have already done so and that the aid he provides is simply just for show. The real treat though comes from Galadriel, who gave us a taste of her real power in “Fellowship of the Ring,” but really gets a chance to get her She-Hulk on here. You don’t mess with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

Since I seriously doubt anyone would be mad enough to try and make a series of movies out of “The Silmarillion,” I think it safe to say that we are truly and ultimately done with Middle-Earth. While that is not a happy notion, I can’t say that the same sadness which accompanied the end of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is recreated here. Part of that comes from the fact that after three movies I’m still unable to distinguish who most of the Dwarves are. I know which ones are Thorin, Balin, Fili (whose love story with Tauriel the Elf I acutally don’t mind) and Kili, but that still leaves eight others whose identities I have to Google just to keep straight in my head. They don’t stand out the way each member of the Fellowship did. The smaller scale of the adventure, a consequence of “The Hobbit” being filmed as a prequel, also has me underwhelmed. The conflict which represents the title of the film yearns to be an epic clash, but can only pale in comparison to the battle at Helm’s Deep from “The Two Towers,” or either of the two gigantic battles in “Return of the King.”

Overall, “The Battle of the Five Armies” is a decent conclusion, though I still find “The Desolation of Smaug” to be my favorite in the “Hobbit” trilogy. Speaking of which, this film serves as another reminder of why “The Hobbit” should never have been turned into a trilogy. There’s simply not a dense enough story here to warrant it. Two films, the original plan, would have been more than enough. While there’s never a chance for the plot to have any slow spots as with “An Unexpected Journey,” there is still a certain degree of filler, filler, rhythm killer. In particular, I could do without the cowardly human Alfrid (who was also in “The Desolation of Smaug”) entirely. He’s here exclusively for comic relief and he just doesn’t fit with the flow of the rest of the film. Luckily, “The Battle of the Five Armies” avoids becoming the wooden CGI explosion that another certain prequel trilogy was. What I was always hoping from this set was that it would recall the magic of our previous visit to Middle-Earth, a height it never quite reaches. My world doesn’t seem any smaller after it’s over.