Relativity Media via Everett Collection
It seems only fair to mention that growing up, I was terrified of mirrors. Couldn't look at them, couldn't sleep with them in the room, could barely even think about them for fear of conjuring up the darkest conceivable images of what might be living on the other side of their nefarious glass faces. So, yes, I might have been an easy mark when it came to Oculus. But even without lingering childhood phobias, you won't walk away from the film free of tremors. Even more impressively, those looking for something meatier than a few jump scares won't be disappointed either.
Oculus paints itself with a long, coarse, hyperactive mythology, granting us a "history" of the demonic mirror in question that dates back to centuries and abounds many questions. But really, the conceit is simple: it's a mirror that f**ks with people. It makes you see things, makes you think things, and makes you do things you wouldn't ordinarily. It ruined the lives of two children when it corrupted and killed their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), and threatens to finish the deed when the estranged siblings reunite in adulthood to enact revenge. Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has spent the past decade in a mental hospital, chalking up the supernatural nightmares of his childhood to psychiatric delusions. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), the "together one" with a job and a fiancé, has spent her time tracking down the haunted antique to do away with it once and for all. Back in their old house with the mirror in her possession, Kaylie sets her meticulously constructed plan into action, with a reluctant Tim in tow.
And yes, obviously, everything goes awry.
Relativity Media via Everett Collection
The mirror's grasp on the minds of its victims exhibits an impressive imagination in writer/director Mike Flanagan. Oculus doesn't hit us with a long supply of ghoulish figures, opting instead for haunting mind games that really land in the construction of an unsettling aura: because of the nature of the mirror's powers, we never know if and when what we're seeing is real. It's not a particularly new conceit for horror or thriller, but it's one that works well. Especially when you're engaged with the people suffering through this tormenting reality.
And we are. The horror of the movie isn't relegated to the mirror's demonic trickery. The far more interesting material exists between the emotionally distant siblings. While Kaylie clings to the only companion she has in the trauma that tore her family apart, Tim wants to leave his nightmares behind him, and perhaps his sister as well. Jumping between flashbacks and the current timeline, Oculus plays with relationships in a terrific way: those between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, and — most importantly — past and present selves.
Oculus is far from a "fun" movie, but it does seem to be playing a few games with its ideas — the ideas inherent in the malleability of perception, or the delicateness of relationships. Although it doesn't quite deliver in its conclusion, Oculus works through its premise with aplomb. While it might well have gotten away with the concept of a "spooky mirror" just fine, it opts instead to tackle many of the concepts that horror was invented to explore. And the result isn't just interesting, it's genuinely scary.
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The stereotype of the smothering Jewish mother and her passive (and passive-aggressive) grown son is nothing new in pop culture. The Guilt Trip could have easily dipped into a mewling mommy-hating therapy session but star Barbra Streisand manages to transform a New Jersey widow who loves collecting frogs coffee klatches and coupons with her fellow yentes into something more than her neuroses. Seth Rogen is an amiable foil as her son Andy a frustrated organic chemist whose invention — a cleaner so natural you could drink it! — is going nowhere. Frankly Andy and his product are both pretty boring until Joyce comes along.
Andy makes a rare pit stop at his childhood home before launching on a cross-country tour trying to convince execs to stock his product. After Joyce reveals a rather humanizing tidbit about her past he decides to invite her along. She's thrilled to spend time with her son who seems alternately amused and bemused by his colorful mom. They fall into a familiar squabbly rhythm that hits pretty close to home especially during the holiday season.
Streisand and Rogen's chemistry keeps The Guilt Trip going. You get the feeling that Rogen who has been stretching himself in more serious roles like the cuckolded husband in Take This Waltz almost just shows up to have Streisand bounce off of him. It's hard to believe he's simmering with rage at his overbearing mom and it's easy to see that she is lonely and harmless; without these two factors the movie could have fallen flat or taken a much darker turn. (The latter would have been an interesting drama although a different movie entirely.) His little digs at her are mumbled asides that seem harmless but add up although Joyce can be kind of annoying in a particular way that only a child can sense about his/her parent. Another actor with a less gentle demeanor could have made Andy a real jerk but even in his jerkiest moments he's just sort of sad. There doesn't feel like there's much at stake here. The smaller moments are what sing even if they're a little sappy.
What's so often overlooked by family comedies especially ones that have the opportunity to vilify the mother is that your parents are human. They had lives before you ever arrived and they will continue to do so after you've left. More importantly they have love lives and sexual histories whether you like it or not. Joyce is no naïf; she's less flummoxed by stopping at a strip club (bartended by the wonderful Dale Dickey) than Andy is. She likes to have a good time and men like her. People like her. They don't particularly like or are impressed by Andy. Although Joyce questions whether or not she's been a good mother especially since Andy is still single (The horror!) she never verges on truly castrating or cruel. When she finally lets loose in a total Streisand moment with a monologue that begins "You little sh*t…" you're on her side. Andy is being a little sh*t. Like many of us especially around the holidays he forgets his mom is human.
The Guilt Trip is an interesting companion to the Apatow canon if we can call it that. It's hard not to associate Rogen's Andy Brewster with his earlier comedic roles. There's not a lot to him although Dan Fogelman's script does try and add a few layers that should surprise us. If we try to fill in the blanks it's easy to wonder if Andy is a slightly more grown-up version of Ben Stone who in Knocked Up has a dysfunctional relationship with his father and only got it together when he was trying to impress a woman. It would have been good to get to know Andy a little bit more but it's hard to compete with Babs and he's smart to let her take over.
In the end The Guilt Tripis more about Joyce than Andy which makes it much more in line with adult fare like Hope Springs than Rogen's typical beat. While Joyce is still defined by her lack in many ways — she's single because she reasons she wants to be able to eat M&M's in bed without anyone judging her and we don't see how she supports herself or what she does other than cluck over old home movies — she's still a helluva lot more woman than we normally see on screen.