Review Roundup: ‘Oculus,’ ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ and ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Over the past month, I’ve gone to the movies more than I have in a long time––seeing three films over the course of as many weeks, and two in the same weekend. A lot of this has been in an effort to return to some sort of routine, doing things that make me feel good and that don’t serve as reminders of things I’d rather forget. The cinema has always been a happy place for me, and until this past weekend I’d forgotten what genuine pleasure I derive from attending a movie by myself, settling into the darkness of the auditorium. Anyway, I’m taking a sort of quick-fire approach to reviewing these three titles, borrowing the style of a film writer friend of mine. Here goes.

Oculus (Directed by Mike Flanagan. Starring Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites)

Riding the wave of extremely high quality supernatural horror films kicked off by Paranormal Activity and Insidious, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is another excellent entry into a genre in desperate need of a full-on renaissance. Much like its predecessors, Oculus eschews the dominant horror aesthetic of blood, guts, and boobs in favor of a thoughtful approach to analyzing the psyche of two traumatized young people. The film begins with Tim Russell being released from psychiatric care on his 21st birthday after apparently shooting his father (who had just murdered their mother in front of them). He is released into the care of his older sister, Kaylie, who is insistent upon exonerating her brother and father’s names by proving that they did what they did under the supernatural influence of a mirror known as the Lassar Glass.

What follows is much less of a horror story (the film’s not terribly frightening) than a wonderful exploration of human perception and inherited mental illness. Flanagan moves back and forth between Tim and Kaylie’s attempts to destroy the Lassar Glass and their childhood, revealing by degrees the events that led up to Tim’s being taken into custody, and the film is edited in such a way that the experience of both timelines becomes one and the same. While the film does employ some traditional horror imagery when depicting the changes the mirror brings to those under its power, the actual nature of both timelines is always up for debate. Early in the film Tim repeats psychological theory back to Kaylie, explaining the events of their childhood to her in concrete terms, and the truth of that assessment always remains. While the film appears to edge towards the mirror being the actual culprit, I’m not entirely convinced.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and Jude Law)

Holy framing devices within framing devices within framing devices, Batman! Setting itself up to be interpreted in any number of manners, Wes Anderson’s latest offering tells the story of the wildly revered concierge M. Gustave H. at the even more wildly revered Grand Budapest Hotel. Portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, M. Gustave is delightfully high-brow in his mannerisms, maintaining roles as both servant and ruler––he lives to please his guests and is quick to correct and discipline hotel staff for the slightest infraction. When it turns out that lobby boy Zero has not been properly hired, he immediately moves through an impromptu interview, starting a relationship that will define the rest of the film.

Stylistically, The Grand Budapest Hotel embodies everything that Wes Anderson’s films have come to be. While there are certainly detractors to his style of ludicrously well-composed frames, an eschewing of computer generated images in favor of stop-motion animation, and a regularly recurring set of actors in each of his films (several of whom, including the man/myth/legend Bill Murray, are present here), the level of pure joy present in each and every one of Anderson’s films is simply too enjoyable to hate. Here, perhaps the most important thing to note is Anderson’s choice to use an older, more traditional 4:3 aspect ratio as the framing devices take hold, reflecting the era of the film’s narrative.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Anton Yelchin)

It’s been several years since Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, and it’s good to have some new material from him. Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of two vampires, Adam and Eve, and their eternal love story. Set in both Detroit and Tangier, Morocco, the film explores how Adam and Eve deal with their respective eternities; with Eve preferring to embrace the fact that she has the opportunity to appreciate each and every little thing on Earth, and Adam wallowing in existential malaise, writing “funeral music.” Given both locations’ ties with musical history, combined with the remoteness of Tangier and desolation of Detroit, they’re really the only two cities on the planet where this film could take place.

Like most of Jarmusch’s cinema, nothing really happens here. Adam and Eve drive around Detroit and have conversations. They discuss Marlowe, Byron, and Shelley––Adam’s various literary heroes, despite his constant retort that he “has no heroes”––and they drink blood. The only catch here is that the ever-present reminders that these two are vampires never really take on traditional horror imagery. Instead, the gorgeous cinematography, spectacular score (featuring Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL) and top-notch performances from Hiddleston and Swinton take hold, leaving viewers with a captivating, sometimes funny, and thoughtful exploration of the meaning of “forever.”


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