Monthly Archives: October 2000

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Let’s openly admit it from the start … there’s no way the people behind this could win. The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenon in indie cinema that likely will never be seen again. The movie certainly didn’t need a sequel, and probably couldn’t be easily hatched with its cracker-jack ending anyway. We, as a nation, are not only expecting any Blair Witch sequels to fail; hell, we’re demanding it. This is the state my mind I waded in as I started to see Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

Burkitsville Maryland has become quite a hotspot for tourism because of the success of The Blair Witch Project. Local residents sell items such as rocks and stick figures to jabbering tourists, some of whom have come overseas. This is where our tour guide Jeff (Jeff Donovon) enters. He leads our band of characters into a tour of the Maryland woods. Each of his campers has their own reason for going. There’s the engaged couple with Guy (Stephen Baker turner) as the skeptic and realist, and Girl (Tristine Skyler) as the supernatural believer. Then there’s Wicca gal (Erica Leerhson) who’s out to disprove the bad reputation of the Blair Witch. Finally, there’s pseudo-psychic Goth girl (Kim Director) who really has no purpose except to wear pancake makeup and whine about how she’s unfairly treated by society for dressing in black.

This motley crew of slacker backpackers spends a night in the woods and turns it into something that you would see advertised during a commercial for Howard Stern. The alcohol mixes with the drugs and the next morning no one can remember a thing. Their surveillance equipment is destroyed and Guy’s lengthy paper is littering the ground like snow (it must have been over a 1000 pages for the amount that continuously falls). Accusations fly, and after a brief stay in a hospital occupied with ghostly images of dead children, the group decides to take refuge in Jeff’s secluded residence. It just so happens that it’s an empty warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Perfect setting for scary things to jumps out at people, and they do. The remainder of the movie is spooky shenanigans happening in this big bad haunted house until the mandatory muddled ending.

Book of Shadows (some studio exec must have tacked it on because it sounded “cool” since it has nothing to do with anything) takes off promisingly enough. The first ten minutes show the effect the first film had on the community and the fans with a mock-documentary fashion. Then it’s over quickly and we get a glossy film, a 20 million dollar budget and Marilyn Manson scraping his larynx or killing an owl on the soundtrack. Can you say “corporate fast buck”? I know I did. The sequel to the soggy backpack adventure of indie fame bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The only common line between the two is an assortment of unknown actors starring, which isn’t necessarily a good practice for every movie

None of the characters in Book of Shadows are truly interesting at all. Surprisingly enough though, they have an intelligent conversation about the blame of media and how it can affect others’ will. This, as should be guessed, is the high point of the film. It makes little difference that the most intelligent conversation in the film occurs when everyone is wasted and high by camp light.

The first movie was by no stretch a lesson in horror but it was innovative and relied on a practice of creating horror in your mind, which I can at least admire. Blair Witch 2 has no scares in it whatsoever. It has gore, blood, and things that are thought of as scary: bats, darkness, mean dogs, dead children, insane asylum kooks etc. Problem is none of these things work. They’re all textbook but they never work in execution.

Blair Witch 2 was directed by documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. He co-created the truly excellent and gripping Paradise Lost films over the hysteria and blame that convicted Gothic teens in Arkansas of murder. It’s easy to see some similar themes in Blair Witch 2, which include a Goth crying out against the way she’s seen and treated and a Wicca crying out against the way she’s seen and treated. They’re carryovers from his earlier works. But Berlinger’s first step up to fictional direction is really a step down. He’s so good at storytelling and underscoring tension and drama in his documentaries, so what went wrong? I think it was probably studio interference (look at the title), but Berlinger may just not be up to snuff for fictional film. Which is fine because he’s one of the best documentary filmmakers alive next to Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and Barbara Koppel. Berlinger will bounce back but he may not want to make a fictional film again.

The way the story is told is in different layers cut together from different times. It’s interesting enough and sets up some mild foreshadowing but by the end, when it makes it clear who will survive and who won’t, it becomes annoying. The ending crawls along and presents two possible scenarios (spoilers): one; it invalidates everything before and shows the nature of humans with hysteria and their own capabilities for evil (better ending), and two; some supernatural force interfered and did bad stuff (boo!). Reluctantly I think most people will go with ending number two. The understanding of the ending is too fundamental toward the enjoyment of this film. This further muddles the whole film and the reason for even watching it.

The flick initially took me by surprise but then left me muddled in confusion that has yet to cease. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a conundrum of a film. It’s really not very entertaining or innovative. In fact, it’s really not that great at all. It will be interesting to see how people receive this film with years of distance. I think it could be kindle an interesting film class discussion on the pressures of following up a phenomenon. Studio execs certainly had their say and certainly wanted Blair Witch bucks, but the public is older and wiser, and repackaging the same old tricks will not work the same. Owls, dead children, and shadows of friggin’ stick figures will not scare an audience without a story. Of course, after Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 bombed so succinctly, the ones left horrified were the studio executives. The public had the last laugh.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Meet the Parents (2000)

Ben Stiller is adept at playing everyman nice guys the audience yearns for to succeed. Something in his look, a twinkle in his eye – I don’t know. What I do know is put skilled comic Stiller, add a dash of stodgy Robert DeNiro as a foil counterpart, mix with ongoing catastrophe of errors, bake for twenty minutes at 450 and you have hilarity. Or at least, Meet the Parents. The premise is nothing new (in-laws from hell), but ‘Parents’ manages to find new laughs with an old concept. The chemistry between Stiller and the gruff DeNiro is fantastic and proves to produce numerous humorous situations. The laughs are genuine and keep stacking as the film continues on with more and more calamities happening for Stiller. Supporting characters all add something to the mix. Meet the Parents is likely the funniest film you’ll see all year without a man being stabbed in the head with a penis. What? I’m sentimental.

Nate’s Grade: B

Series 7: The Contenders (2000)

A scathing satire of our media and bloodthirsty society wanting something always pushing the boundaries. Writer-director Daniel Minahan has created a future where the most popular TV show is called “The Contenders” and selects five strangers at random in the same town as contestants. The problem is that these five people, including the winner of the previous season, are now on a manhunt in a kill-or-be-killed situation where the only prize of this game show is one’s own life. Series 7 is skillfully made to be indistinguishable from other reality TV shows except for the bursts of language and violence. If you were playing this and a friend walked into the room they would be convinced it was a TV show. The film gets a little soap operish toward the end with its characters dealing with haunted love but the film is a fast and entertaining warning piece that might provoke as many thoughts as cries for blood.

Nate’s Grade: B

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.

Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.

Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.

Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to evetually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.

The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.

One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.

Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in ‘The Exorcist’ and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.

Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.

The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.

Nate’s Grade: A+

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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