OCULUS (2012)

(Hulu/freevee/Pluto/tubi/VOD) I find Mike Flanagan to be a frustrating creator. He’s very clearly a sensitive, empathic person and he has a familial perspective that surprisingly rare nowadays. While I haven’t read the King novel that GERALD’S GAME is based on, I found it to be an exquisite one-room thriller. On the other hand, I found THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE — a well-executed horror mini-series — to be a severe distortion of Shirley Jackson’s original work, one that serves Flanagan’s themes instead of Jackson’s.

OCULUS, despite being Flanagan’s theatrical debut, is exceedingly confident with its themes and how it explores them. The surface-level premise starts with a prototypical family in the 90s consisting of husband Alan (CSI: MIAMI’s Rory Cochrane), his redhead wife Marie (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Katee Sackhoff), pre-teen daughter Kaylie (redhead Annalise Basso), and adolescent son (Garrett Ryan). Alan buys an antique mirror that possesses both himself and Marie. He ultimately chains Marie up while ignoring the rest of the family until he ultimately kills Marie, has a moment of clarity, then forces his son to shoot him before he can do any more damage.

Newly orphaned, Ryan (now played by Brenton Thwaites) is institutionalized for years, while Kaylie (DOCTOR WHO’s Karen Gillan) floats around, spending her time trying to track down the mirror. She finally finds it and, when Ryan is finally given a clean bill of mental health and released, she pitches him an elaborate plan to destroy the mirror, to destroy the entity in it, forever.

In other words: it’s comprised of Flanagan’s major recurring themes: fractured families, brothers and sisters coping with loss and hurt and trauma, psychotic breaks, and obsession. You might be inclined to include addiction — Marie being chained up, Alan ignoring the world to the point where his children have nothing to eat — but I’m not completely confident in claiming that.

There’s another way to read the film, of course. This a work explicitly created around uncertainty of vision, of the reversible image of mirrors. I’ll keep my reading deliberately vague as to not lead potential viewers into how I perceive it, but it has depth if you want to seek it out.

The heart of the film is brother/sister bond, another strength of most of Flanagan’s works. There’s a care and interaction there that some folks simply cannot fictionalize, and it was delightful to see that represented on the screen.

While OCULUS is a stirring and expertly crafted film, my favorite part of watching it was my endless speculation as to the whats and whys and how it would be resolved. It’s a film that ignites your imagination, one that you’d walk out of a theater excitedly discussing the myriad possibilities of the film. The end result wasn’t as wild as where my mind went, but it was still extremely satisfying.


(hoopla/Pluto/Prime/tubi/VOD) The original HELLRAISER is a very specific film. You are either very into it or you are not. I remember watching it as a young teen and laughing at it. My friends and I would routinely trot out the line: “The box. It summons us.” as camp, but the film held an odd, unknown allure to me. Then I rewatched it early on in college — I still have my HELLRAISER 1 & 2 VHS box set — and as a burgeoning club-going goth realized how it is literally wall-to-wall kink.

I’ve seen it more than several times since — once at the Music Box with Clive Barker to discuss it, which was amazing and I still can’t believe happened — and my appreciation for it only grows. The costume and creature and production design is absolute perfection. Jane Wildgoose does not get enough credit for her contributions.

The film is relentlessly, unapologetically horny in an unsettlingly thrilling way. The great Amy Nicholson posited that, at the heart of it, it’s a neo-noir, that Julia is a femme fatale and I certainly agree: it is a film centered around morally dubious people who are oft-kilter, and what is more noir than that?


(freevee/Plex/Pluto/tubi/VOD) WOLF CREEK is the first film from Australian Greg McLean — I previously wrote about his second film, the creature feature ROGUE — but WOLF CREEK was what made me take note of him. While WOLF CREEK is ultimately a slasher film, it prioritizes the human experience, and revels in it as much as possible. It’s a slow burn of a character drama, of youths exploring their freedom for about the first half of the film, and it’s quaint and peaceful and safe. Then it takes a hard left-turn, as some lives do.


(Pluto/VOD) There are movies that have musical moments, there are musical movies, and then there are film musicals. I find that differences are somewhat slight: musical moments are films that have a handful of scenes where the characters burst into song, usually to a well-recognized pop culture song, to underpin whatever emotional state they’re feeling. (Think the jukebox moment in SOUTHLAND TALES when Justin Timberlake lip synced to THE KILLERS’ -I Got Soul- which I both love and hate that I love.) Musical movies are adaptations gussied up to conform to the needs of the film viewer. (I’m trying to keep to modern references, so: Tom Hooper’s LES MISERABLES or, uh, CATS* but also previously recommended, and non-modern, THE MUSIC MAN.)

Then there are film musicals, which aren’t adaptations, and often are labeled as ’rock opera’, despite often being neither. They follow the scripted structure of a musical, and then they just film it. It’s too grandiose to fit within the required guidelines of a Broadway music, but the creators -love- traditional musical narrative structure, and are dead-set on realizing their creation. They’re rarer because they’re often fan efforts. For every ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, we also get five REPO! THE GENETIC OPERAs**.

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE definitely falls in the latter camp, and emphasis on camp. It’s based on the short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL (but I’ll warn you that it’s definitely an early draft of a feature film) — and it toys with the format, including one musical number well-worth the price of admission where lead Anna (a very elastic DICKENSON’s Ella Hunt) and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) obliviously sing through zombie anarchy due to a transformative evening which, yes, cribs from SHAUN OF THE DEAD and Zack Synder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD but manages to do its own thing. I do wish the music was stronger though — the songs are fine but, apart from a few exceptions, they’re mostly forgettable — but it’s a fun time, especially if you’re into both comical horror and musicals.

Lastly, if you’re interested in musical narrative storytelling, Jack Viertel’s THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL is a revelation. He does an amazing job of deconstructing how musical narratives work in ways that will blow your mind.


* Sorry not sorry, but I find the film far more watchable than the stage production, even though Tom Hooper should never have been given this project.

** For what it’s worth, I do admire the hard-scrabble pluck of REPO!. I sat in on a Q&A where the writer and director went into detail as to how they finagled specific SAW sequel scenes just so they could film specific REPO! scenes for free, and good for them for realizing their vision through whatever means necessary!


(kanopy/Plex/Pluto/tubi/Vudu/VOD) SOUND OF NOISE is a Swedish feature film that’s based on the short film MUSIC FOR ONE APARTMENT AND SIX DRUMMERS about a collective of musicians who break into an apartment and make music solely with whatever exists in the apartment. There’s a lot of clanging on ceramics and glasses, rhythms created via vacuum suction, books thrown to the floor and the like.

“How can that possibly be turned into a feature film?” you might ask. The answer is: in a very cartoonish way. The troupe is sheer anarchy as they break into hospitals and banks to realize their musical works, progressing to one ultimate performance, all while being pursued by a tone-deaf cop. It’s funny and infectious, and the musical pieces stand on their own. (Well, they do if you’re a fan of say, avant-garde, percussive works.)

While there is an attempt to give an emotional, romantic core to the film, it falls a bit flat, but it’s not entirely unwelcome. Really, the set-pieces are the allure here.

One of my favorite pieces is a skillfully edited highway driving scene — it features co-director/co-writer Ola Simonsson and is a bit more liberal with its use of sound sources — as it vaguely reminds me of the experimental electronic band SHINJUKU FILTH:

-Music for One Highway-:


(Also, check out the companion track, -The Sale- if you can.)



REVIEW: Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes (S0103, 2014)

(Paramount+/Pluto/VOD) Personal note: This will be the last daily recommendation for the foreseeable future, for reasons detailed below. I hope I haven’t wasted too much of anyone’s time, and my many sincere thanks to those who have commented and those I’ve conversed with over the past ~275 recommendations. You’ve been a balm through this very difficult time.

REVIEW was a fictional Comedy Central show — adapted from a more irreverent Australian show of the same name — centered around soliciting life experience queries from people and then ‘life-reviewer’ Forrest MacNeil (legendary cult comedian/actor/writer Andy Daly) would then find a way to live the experience, review it, and rate it on a five-star system.

While the show could — and definitely leaned into — slapstick behavior, it more often than not tackled more emotional challenges. In -Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes-, the third episode of the opening season, Forrest is requested to:

1) Review eating 15 pancakes:

2) Review getting divorced (unfortunately not available via YouTube)

3) Review eating 30 pancakes:

Forrest commits to all of it and it’s so hilariously tragic, partially because he’s so blindly committed to his job, but also because he feels he has a personal contract with an audience that barely exists with which he has his own unwritten personal rules that he must abide by. (Especially in the -Divorce- segment, where most of the comedy is elicited by the fact that he feels he can’t tell his wife he’s doing this because of his show.)

I initially picked this episode as a quick-and-easy recommendation to write up but, while typing the above, I realized: Oh, fuck. I’ve become Forrest MacNeil.

I started these daily recommendations to give me a bit of structure and bonding with friends during lockdown. Also, I’d missed writing about media, as the last time I regularly did so was more than several years ago on my defunct videogame criticism/analysis website THE NEW GAMER. I thought: “I can find ~200-300 words a day about something I’ve watched that I love! Surely I can manage that for a year, or until I get to see a post-worthy film in a theater!”

That word limit lasted about three months. Then I added more unstated personal rules: I should post no later than midnight CST; if I haven’t watched it in over a year, I should re-watch it; if it’s an adaptation, I should read the book and comment on that; if there’s a TV adaptation, I should watch and touch on that. (To be fair, half of the time I had either already read the adaptation or watched some, if not all, of the TV adaptation. For example, my THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR recommendation with which I had previously done all three.)

Thanks to REVIEW, I’ve realized I’m currently writing these daily recommendations simply because of my own arbitrary rules and, while I love writing about media, it’s spun a bit out of control. It hasn’t been a bad experience by any means, but those dumb rules of mine ruined what was supposed to be a quick, dumb thing done for fun. That said, I’ll continue to write recommendations, but on far looser terms.

So, on that note, I’ll review this endeavor as Forrest MacNeil would: “Writing a daily media recommendation newsletter during a global pandemic: 4 stars.”

“This certainly is an upsetting number of pancakes.”


(hoopla/Pluto/VOD) A few things to know about this film:

  • It was Arthur Miller’s first credited screenplay. He claims he wrote it for Marilyn Monroe, his wife at the time, to star in. She hated her character in the film, and the two of them divorced before the film was finished.
  • It was Marilyn Monroe’s final completed feature before she died.
  • Clark Gable cursed Marilyn for often showing up late (if at all) and, due to time constraints, opted to do many of his own stunts.
  • It was Clark Gable’s final film. He died of a heart attack shortly after filming.

I could summarize it as a film where Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, and a post-car crash Montgomery Ward are all infatuated with a mercurial Marilyn Monroe, and they all head out to a wilderness spot to break a bunch of horses, or you could just watch the ‘paddle ball’ scene:

Or the ‘horse breaking’ scene:

(Or, of course, the trailer below.)

THE MISFITS an oil-and-water mixture of a film featuring actors and a filmmaker (the legendary John Huston) and a writer of wildly differing generations and dispositions grating against each other. While you can feel the tension, the frustration simmering between everyone involved, Miller’s screenplay inadvertently works with it, even fueling the over-stressed feeling of the film.

Miller is clearly working out a lot of personal issues out loud and, by doing so, it becomes a complex tale about men and adapting to change, but Monroe was right to be mad: her character is just a shape in a dress who can’t stand to see hurt in the world. He meant to pen a film for his wife, but only cared to flesh out the men that surrounded her. Good on her to dump the motherfucker.

THE MISFITS’ surprisingly avant-garde trailer:

Lastly, the title sequence is quite remarkable, and it was created by George Nelson and Co. Yes, the industrial designer. You can find more info here.

NAKED CITY (1958-1963)

(Pluto/Roku/tubi/VOD) NAKED CITY was a long-running TV show adapted from the 1948 film THE NAKED CITY, bringing a more grounded police procedural to the small screen, ten years after the film, and seven years after DRAGNET made the leap from radio to TV. While show creator Stirling Silliphant (THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT writer, creator of the previously mentioned ROUTE 66 which was spurred into existence by an episode of NAKED CITY) had nothing to do with the original film, he took to heart the intent of putting NYC and its citizens on display.

The first season features John McIntire and James Franciscus inhabiting the same THE NAKED CITY roles as Lt. Detective Dan Muldoon and Detective Jimmy Halloran although John McIntire quickly grew tired of New York City and the show, so he was written out in a -jawdropping- way, then NAKED CITY was recast and turned from a half-hour show to an hour long, and recast again — this with Paul Burke as the lead detective — and with him it finally found some legs.

The show’s fumbling worked though, as the delay allowed NAKED CITY to capture a completely different New York City than the one portrayed in THE NAKED CITY, a NYC with counterculture, where the youths had started to distrust the police, as opposed to the fantasyland of 60s DRAGNET. (I’ve watched far too much DRAGNET: https://tvannotations.tumblr.com/post/60116769951/dragnet)

Like its modern day companion LAW & ORDER, it made the most of the NYC theater scene and booked a number of extraordinarily talented guest actors who hadn’t been discovered yet, including Cicely Tyson, Peter Falk, Bruce Dern, Suzanne Pleshette, and many more. Even if you ignore the adept location shooting, brisk plotting and deft character work, the show’s worth a watch simply for the faces that pop up.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”


(Pluto/VOD) I saw this a few years after it was released and enjoyed it but, upon a recent rewatch, I finally fully appreciate it: a dark, whipsmart teen comedy, styled like a Barry Sonnefeld film and penned in the vein of HEATHERS, but still manages to be its own thing. On top of that, it features an astounding supporting cast — Pam Grier! Carol Kane! Judy Greer! — and an even better soundtrack. Hell, THE DONNAS even play at their prom!

1999 really was a banner year for smart teen comedies. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU! DICK! BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER! DROP DEAD GORGEOUS! IDLE HANDS! Too bad we didn’t quite appreciate what was right in the front of our faces.