Ditching the supernatural threat for something even scarier, Unfriended 2 follows the original film’s found footage-as-computer screen storytelling model but takes a dark dive into the Dark Web of the Internet, a playground for all kinds of shady criminal activities. A group of ethnically diverse friends gathers online to play a cross-country game and run afoul of a very vengeful man who wants his laptop back. Apparently our protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), stole it at a lost and found to better work on his sign language reading app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend. It was touches like that where the movie felt far more developed than I was expecting. The movie builds a nice sense of momentum and dread as the friends get further and further into uncovering the Dark Web conspiracy of for-hire snuff films and sex trafficking, and at every point there are moments they could turn away and avoid their doomed fates. The suspense sequences are well thought-out, like where the group has to quickly adopt a façade playing a game while a wifi connection is in play, and as soon as it goes out they breathlessly communicate their next desperate plan of action. There is one great kill and a few nifty twists and turns, especially as things get even more dangerous for our characters. Writer/director Stephen Susco finds ways to keep his film visually engaging and still character-centric in the decision-making, avoiding the escalations from feeling contrived and artificial. I enjoyed myself right up until the end, though the film does become more preposterous as it goes. The Dark Web as a whole is vague enough to be whatever the horror audience needs. The movie doesn’t have much to offer in the way of online culture commentary beyond a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for” warning. The characters aren’t terribly dimensional but they held my interest and contributed in small but meaningful ways. With Unfirended 2, it’s a fitting and palpable story engine for a clever thriller. If you enjoyed the recent indie hit Searching, check out some of the Unfriended films too.
Nate’s Grade: B
Searching is a clever, crafty found footage mystery told from the point of view of a computer screen. Unlike many found footage entries, writer/director Aneesh Chaganty has put considerable thought into the mechanics of his storytelling gimmick. The opening sequence even reminded me of Up as far as how deft it was with the economy of storytelling while providing an affecting emotional blow. In the opening, we watch a little girl grow up as computer technology and websites also advance documenting her life, culminating in her mother getting cancer and passing away, communicated via a “Mom’s Coming Home” date removed from a calendar. It was so well done I actually felt like I just might summon some tears for the passing of this woman. Right away I realized I was in for something special. Flash forward and the teen daughter goes missing and her stressed-out father (John Cho) dives into the investigation firsthand by looking through her online history and realizing how little he may have known his not-so-little girl. The movie illustrates nicely how easy it is to hide your real self online and how easy it is for others to find you and your digital impressions. Every time Cho is visiting a website, whether it’s Venmo or Instagram or Facebook or a webcam, there’s a solid reason for it and the movie has a satisfying step-by-step progression. The mystery has plenty of unexpected twists and turns and it’s anchored by a harried and distraught Cho (Star Trek Beyond), who does not look like he’s in his mid 40s at all (Kal Penn has also aged well, which makes me only want a cross-generational Harold and Kumar sequel more). The only knock on Searching is that there really isn’t a pressing need to see it on the big screen. After all, you’re watching a computer screen and typing for much of the movie. It will play just as well, if not better, on your home television or whatever smaller screen is at your discretion.
Nate’s Grade: B+
For the past ten years, M. Night Shyamalan has been a figure of piñata-whacking derision, and yet the man has consistently been at work on films big and small. You would think a decade of duds would lead to Shyamalan being unable to direct more than a junior high theater production, and yet people like Will Smith were specifically seeking him out to direct inevitably terrible movies like After Earth (oh is that one bad). The association has been burned into our minds: Shyamalan and bad movies. Is it even possible for a man whose name has become a punchline to turn his career around? A low-budget lark like The Visit allows Shyamalan the freedom of risk. If he fails, he’s only made one more bad found footage horror movie in a near infinite sea of them, and the budget number isn’t one that will bankrupt his generous producers. Perhaps it’s through the benefit of low expectations cultivated over ten grievous years of filmmaking, but The Visit is a modest little thriller that has enough suspense and campy humor that it works, mostly. I walked out of the theater generally satisfied and entertained, which are two attributes that haven’t been associated with Shyamalan films since… Signs? Goodness, that was back when Mel Gibson was a box-office titan.
15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are visiting their grandparents for the first time. Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker and brings her camera along to make a movie about the five-day visit. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) live deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania (the local police force consists of one guy). Everything is warm and cozy until it’s nighttime and Pop Pop insists that, for their safety, the kids stay in their rooms after nine o’clock. The strict rules and forbidden areas of the home encourage the kids to go exploring. Their grandparents may just be more than weird and old.
The premise is deceptively simple and yet perfectly relatable and dripping with potential. I heartily enjoyed the fact that for a solid two acts, The Visit is a horror film where the horror elements are old people. Nana and Pop Pop both display fraying mental states, and Nana has an unusual trance-like state that kicks in once the sun goes down. I was expecting something supernatural or vaguely related to fairy tales to emerge to explain the overall weirdness and creepy affectations, but it never does. For most of the movie, the ravages of aging provide the scary business, and I think that’s great. Telling the story from the perspective of Becca and her camera also reinforces the cross-generational peculiarities, where the elderly and their older system of rules and way of life seem even more alien and alarming. Shyamalan, to his credit, does a fine job of coming up with suspense sequences built around his premise. Watching Becca and Tyler debate opening their bedroom door at night, especially after a series of unsettling scratching noises, is a well developed moment that revs up the audience imagination. Of course they shouldn’t open that door but boy do we want them to and discover what is going on. The performances from Dunagan and McRobbie hint at something menacing lurking below the surface but in a casual way. Nana asking Becca to literally crawl inside the oven to clean it is the kind of memorable what-the-hell moment that makes a horror thriller.
The offhand comments from the grandparents and their occasional erratic behavior are also played for laughs thanks to the camp factor of the actors. There is a clear absurdity to the scares and tension, and Shyamalan smartly embraces this. The Visit encourages you to laugh. Apparently, Shyamalan delivered three different edits of the movie: one pure comedy, one pure horror, and one a mixture of the two. The horror/comedy edit was the one released to theaters, and the film is better because of the inclusion of its offbeat humor. Without it, the movie would risk being too serious. To be fair, the movie isn’t making fun of dementia or ridiculing the elderly just because they’re out of touch. When the kids first see signs of Nana and Pop Pop getting confused, they behave very compassionately, like when Pop Pop dresses for a costume party he doesn’t know anything else about. Strangely enough, my theater was mostly populated with people over the age of 50, which made me wonder if they were duped into what kind of movie they were seeing or relished the chance to be seen as the scary boogeyman to teenagers.
Which leads me to the point of the review where I discuss the parts of The Visit that don’t work quite as well. I don’t think Shyamalan knows how to write for teenagers because Becca is far too precocious for her age (using terms like “elixir” and “mise-en-scene” as everyday vocabulary) and Tyler is just downright annoying. There are three separate incidents of Tyler free-style rapping and it’s about as successful as you would expect, though it provides me amusement thinking about Shyamalan writing free-style raps for a thirteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs. My engagement with The Visit was more tethered to a general sense of morbid curiosity than a concern for the teen characters. I would have been perfectly fine if the teens didn’t make it out alive. I knew that was never going to happen because of the PG-13 rating, which does put some limitations on just how far out there Shyamalan can go. Though it doesn’t limit a scant shot of elderly nudity used for comic purposes. There is a great reveal that leads into the third act that ups the stakes, but it also shifts the movie into a more definitive slasher territory, and a PG-13 rating is going to further limit that territory. There are plot holes (a disabled laptop Webcam; the fact that they don’t have cell phone service but can Skype with their mom) and several mysteries are short-lived and anticlimactic (What’s in the shed? Oh, it’s just soiled adult diapers – incontinence!). Like many found footage movies, the movie fails to justify or incorporate this forced narrative device. Becca is a teen with two cameras and yet she stages them so counter-intuitively. For her first meeting with her grandparents, she sets down the camera and then runs into the distance to hug them. Would it not make more sense to get a closer shot of this first meeting? The found footage structure also provides a coda that frustratingly undercuts the climax of tension and replaces it with a sentimental monologue. It makes sense as a movie-within-a-movie but it’s a poor choice to end a horror/comedy that just hit its peak with an unnecessary and tonally-unwarranted resolution meant to warm the heart.
Shyamalan has a long road ahead to atone for his cinematic sins, and while I wouldn’t call The Visit an outright success, the movie succeeds more often than it fails. I think more could have been done to subvert and push the premise further, but the limitations of the rating and the found footage structure keep the movie from getting too crazy. There are some well-drawn suspense sequences and the use of campy humor is a strong asset that allows the shortcomings to be more forgivable. It’s the best Shyamalan movie in over a decade, which is really saying everything you need to know. Who knows? Maybe the comeback starts here with a tiny horror movie with rapping kids and dirty Depends. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I’m going to take a stand right now and declare that Hollywood should simply stop making found footage movies. I don’t hate the subgenre itself, and in fact a found footage approach can be rather interesting if given proper attention and care, but that is just not happening nearly enough. Too often Hollywood execs view found footage as a hook and slap it onto a story that does not need to be told in this limited style. There’s no reason that a perfectly fine buddy cop movie like End of Watch needed a found footage angle, except that’s probably how it was sold. If you’re going to do found footage you better have a god reason why your characters are recording every moment, and most do not. You better stick to the principle that the only viewpoint is from the camera, and most do not. And you better stick to the limitations of this viewpoint, meaning who is editing these things after the fact and adding popular music to make montages? Found footage is too often underdeveloped in approach, a lazy selling point because “the kids” today like documenting themselves doing everything. But really, can you name the last found footage hit? The Paranormal Activity franchise is on the downturn and the last critically lauded one was 2012’s Chronicle. Don’t just stop making found footage movies because they’re too often lackluster; stop making them because the public has grown indifferent. Now, with all that being said, the time travel flick Project Almanac proves once again to be a film that never needed to be found footage to work. As far as January releases go (usually a dumping ground for studio bombs) it’s better than most, but the poorly titled sci-fi drama wastes its premise on the myopic doldrums of youth.
David Raskin (Johnny Weston) wants to get into M.I.T. but his hard-working mother doesn’t have the money to make this happen. He discovers an old video of his seventh birthday party and is shocked to see an image in the background that resembles him as a teenager. He and his friends, Quinn and Adam, investigate the video. They enter the basement lab that used to belong to David’s father, until he died in a car accident shortly after that birthday recording. There they find plans for a time machine and the boys busily go to work assembling it, perfecting it, and charging it. Jessie (Sophia Black-D’Elia), a popular girl at school, stumbles into their first experiment and becomes part of the group. They have to keep this a secret and they must only travel back as a group. The freedom and possibilities are exhilarating, but soon enough David discovers a spiral of consequences that are difficult to correct without scrapping everything.
From a structural standpoint, this movie gets pretty lopsided and completely misuses the possibilities it established even as it arbitrarily throws its own rules out the window. Project Almanac takes far too long to get the time machine working. The teens discover the manual but it takes almost the complete first act before they successfully travel in time. Why do we have to wait a full 30 minutes and watch trial after trial? It’s not exactly like the audience demands a sense of scientific accuracy. Once the teens do travel through time, they set their sights very low: pass a test, get revenge on a bully, win the local lottery, and go to Lolapalooza. There is the limitation of only going back three weeks into the past, which eventually disappears, but could these kids not aim higher in their goals? When they do go to Lolapalooza, the movie drags and drags, and it’s here where I started to theorize what became of this film (more on that below). Once we come back from the festival, David decides to jump back alone to stop himself from blowing his opening with his crush, Jessie. However, there are disastrous consequences stemming from this and he has to debate whether to undo his good fortune with Jessie. Want to know what those consequences include? Seventy-seven people dying in a plane crash. Our main character seriously agonizes about keeping his new girl or the lives of seventy-seven people. And what would he lose? It’s not like he can’t be suave around Jessie ANY OTHER TIME. All he has to do is say something and kiss her. The hesitation and struggle over this is comically absurd, but the struggle illuminates where Almanac could have gone. These teens could have used time travel to save lives, but I guess that’s not as fun as seeing Imagine Dragons backstage and dancing.
Another problem is that, from a time travel standpoint, this stuff doesn’t really follow its own rules. The gang goes back at several points to repeat the same goal, but at no point do they run into different iterations of themselves. If they keep going back to fix things, and fail, and then go back again, that’s a continuation of one ongoing timeline, not a do-over. Time doesn’t reset. With every time travel story there’s the nagging nature of paradoxes but Project Almanac just ignores them, hence the lack of doppelgangers. At one point, Quinn even seeks out his past self to pull a prank, which sounds really stupidly dangerous from a space-time continuum standpoint to me. The movie ignores paradoxes… until it doesn’t. The entire third act is about the consequences of paradoxes, and now all of a sudden it matters. That doesn’t work. The main third act conflict is David not wanting to lose his girlfriend. He keeps jumping back to fix this and fix that but it’s all to save his girlfriend, which is pretty dumb, as I‘ve pointed out already that Jessie could still decide on her own at any point in the future to be his gal. Then there’s the conclusion, as we all know that we have to get back to that birthday party at some point. I consider myself a smart man but the end doesn’t make any sense because (spoilers to follow) it invalidates the timeline that we witnessed. David makes it so the events will not happen and the machine will not be constructed. But why is there evidence? Why is there still a tape detailing this whole process? It should be wiped.
Requisite found footage griping: why do they record every damn thing in this movie? The gang even breaks into their high school to steal hydrogen canisters from a locked science lab. Why would you record your crime spree? Why would you record people just driving in cars or walking up to school? Why would you record any of this? How do you clearly pick up audio from two people at a distance, mind you, at a freaking outdoor concert with lots of noise to cancel out any discernible dialogue?
There are moments that I really liked, flashes that show how much fun or even clever Almanac could have been under other circumstances. One of these moments involves Quinn going back to save his grade. Originally he failed his chemistry presentation, so he thinks he’ll easily pass thanks to the foreknowledge that time travel offers. He goes back, lists the first ten elements on the periodic table, and then his teacher asks him another question he wasn’t prepared for. He goes back, prepared for the two, and then the teacher asks another he wasn’t prepared for. Over the course of going back, he is actually forced to study to prepare for this presentation, and so even though he thought he would use time travel to be lazy, it forced him into doing what he should have done in the first place. When they go back to win the lottery, they accidentally write down one wrong number, so their first jackpot prize isn’t the full amount. They bicker about going back, whose fault it was, and then the film cuts immediately to them holding the full amount in a novelty check. All the characters are devoid of excitement, because that excited moment of revelry already happened, and now this is just an exercise to get over. The photographer chides them to be more excited. That is a fun moment. The characters are rather likeable. There’s another moment where Jessie realizes that David went back to fix a slip-up so they would end up together. And she reacts exactly how she should, wounded and mistrusting. How can she trust what he says now? How can she not doubt every moment being carefully pre-programmed for a desired result? She was manipulated. This confrontation was missing from About Time where Rachel McAdams would have learned that her charming husband traveled back in time dozens of times to perfect his courtship, thus manipulating her own sense of choice. Poor Rachel McAdams never finds out, which seems like a completely blown dramatic development, and lives in cherished ignorance instead. At least Jessie gets to know the truth and behaves naturally. There are other little moments that are fun but they are distractions from what could have been.
Allow me to do some serious speculation about Project Almanac’s own past. This film was originally supposed to come out a year prior hence why every date is referenced as 2014. MTV Films expressed some interest in the movie and it was shelved and likely retooled. Except with time travel films, retooling can be pretty monstrous with its carefully placed plot beats. Here’s what I think happened. Originally, the third act was all about David going back to save his father from dying in that car crash. He likely does but there are dire consequences, and so he keeps going back to try and mitigate the negative repercussions while still keeping his father. Doesn’t that sound like a much more emotionally involving storyline? He’s got far more personal stakes in this scenario than simply losing his girlfriend who he can regain. He can’t regain dear old dead dad. It seems preposterous to me from a screenwriting standpoint that they would introduce a deceased parent and not use time travel to save said parent. It’s the ultimate setup. Instead, with MTV attached, we got to keep things lighter and more appealing to the carefree fun of youth, and so the gang goes to Lolapalooza instead where they can watch rock bands. I think MTV came in and jettisoned the third act and the direction of the script, imposing the festival, and reminding people how music is essential to being young and free and alive. I can’t say whether it’s MTV’s influence or producer Michael Bay, but there’s a slew of product placement from start to finish as well. I have no proof of any of this but I think there’s something to my conspiracy theory.
If you needed any other example of how close Project Almanac would uphold to its own sci-fi rule system, a character asks a good question about how they can understand something, and David says, “I’ll tell you later.” Hey, you want to know something important, just wait, where it won’t be answered. The found footage aspect brings nothing to the film, is poorly integrated throughout, and just plain unnecessary. The plot is too underdeveloped and lacking ambition, using the miracle of time travel to party in such limited ways. The concluding half feels too low in stakes and obvious in conclusion. Time travel is all about the untold possibilities, and Project Almanac will ultimately fall in that territory, a somewhat amusing but mostly unfulfilled sci-fi film that should have gone back to the writing stage a few more times.
Nate’s Grade: C+
There are no more reviled names in the world of comedy than the duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Together, these writer/directors have unleashed such loathsome films as Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and their most recent spoof, The Starving Games. Each film was further evidence that Friedberg and Seltzer had no grasp on the basic tenets of comedy. But, free of the shackles of a spoof formula, what could these two accomplish? That’s a question no one on the planet was seriously pondering but here comes Best Night Ever, a found footage comedy where four thirty-something female friends (Desiree Hall, Samantha Colburn, Eddie Ritchard, Crista Flanagan) travel to Las Vegas and get into oh so scandalous trouble. How original, right?
Being Friedberg and Setlzer’s first straight comedy, it’s fascinating how it fails in a completely different yet similar manner than their normal spoof monstrosities. The problem, among others, with their spoofs is that they are not structured for comedy but merely lame pop-culture references, with the reference standing in the place of what should be a joke. It’s a notable absence of comedy. With their first original work, Friedberg and Seltzer lose the references but forget to replace them with, you know, comedy. Take for instance a scenario where our four heroines hide in a dumpster. The police are outside and they don’t want to be caught. All right, this setup could afford some nice squeamish comedy. Instead, we hold onto the same painfully long night vision shot (4 minutes and 45 seconds – thanks Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club) with the ladies breathing heavily. It takes several minutes until this situation changes, when the girls start singing “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes as a patented means of soothing a panicked friend, which itself isn’t any funnier. Let’s unpack this scene. They’re in an uncomfortable place and forced to be quiet lest they alert the police. Why set this up and do nothing with it? And the supposed payoff for the scene is more a jump scare than a joke, and it’s not worth the wait. There’s also a lengthy dialogue-free montage where the girls do a scavenger hunt of activities around Vegas, most of which are fairly innocuous for a sex comedy (rub a bald man’s head?). There’s no wilder escalation. When the girls put a blacklight to their seedy motel room, it goes as expected. Oh no, semen stains are everywhere, but you keep waiting for a capper. It’s got to be more than this, something different, something a little more bizarre, like perhaps someone spelling out their name in semen. Nope. And that’s Best Night Ever in a nutshell (no pun intended): a tediously long wait without payoff or jokes.
Best Night Ever wants to pretend it’s intended for a female audience but the writing makes it seems like Friedberg and Setlzer don’t know women. It’s a girls’ night out, and from a male perspective, which means a lot of shouting, “woo,” dancing, drinking, and all sorts of tame activities. None of these people feel like human beings, let alone friends that we should care about. Being Friedberg and Seltzer’s first R-rated comedy, the guys should be embracing the tasteless possibilities, getting their ladies into crazy scenarios that spiral out of control. Instead, the whole sad affair has such a timid feel, as if Friedberg and Seltzer decided a largely female audience would be put off by too much crass content. There’s a sequence where the ladies take pills they found in am ambulance. All right, you’re thinking, this should lead somewhere. Oh how wrong you’d always be expecting something from these two filmmakers. We’re treated to an extended sequence of the girls just dancing for several minutes, in slow-mo no less, mouthing, “Best night ever.” That’s it. Why does the movie repeatedly pull its punches when it comes to the bridesmaids behaving badly? I think it’s the misplaced idea of not wanting to rankle its target audience, that women have a lower quotient for bad taste.
Let’s explore what happens in the lone sequences where Friedberg and Seltzer decide to indulge their R-rated crassness. The ladies kidnap the valet driver who they believe mugged them. Disguised in ski masks that can’t help but trigger associations with Spring Breakers, they break into his home, strap him to his bed, and then one of the ladies eventually urinates on his face. And if that wasn’t enough, she craps on him as well accidentally. Of all the directions this setup could have gone, a woman pooping on a man’s face just seems lame, having to settle for cheap shock value over jokes. The end gives us our first glimpse of nudity, as the ladies stumble into the wrong hotel room on an amorous interracial couple. Incensed, the naked couple couple chases after them. The chief threat is an overweight black woman and, apparently, her overweight nude body is meant to be the outlandish joke. Oh look, a fat woman chasing after our characters! And so, her nudity is allowed because it’s meant to be comical (visions of Borat dancing in my head). Like other sequences, this part is drawn out and exhausts whatever brittle comic potential it may have had. Then there’s the lingering thought that the only minority characters in the movie are presented in states of undress, their nudity meant to serve as discomfort.
I understand the sexy marketing hook of making a found footage movie, but does the entire film have to be stuck in this limited narrative constraint? Can a movie not just incorporate found footage elements but be free to break away on its own, like The Purge? Alas, Friedberg and Seltzer embark on found footage and can’t even adequately maintain that guise, often failing to produce reasons for why their characters are still filming. First off, why would anyone just film themselves introducing who they are on a bachelorette voyage when, presumably, the only people watching it will be close friends? Then there’s the pesky habit where people keep holding the camera out, framing all four ladies so carefully. Then there’s the fact that the footage is seen rewinding and fast-forwarding, presenting sequences out of sequence, some with intertitles added for dates because having a date stamp for a recording wouldn’t be good enough. So, the age old question, who did all this? Who added music to the sequences? Then there’s the fact that later on the camera cuts to reaction shots and different angles in single scenes, completely destroying the illusion of being found footage. Why blur nudity in an R-rated movie in general, but even more so, if this is found footage, what hypocritical hypothetical editor is blurring certain nudity and letting other nudity pass? Nothing of substance or humor is added to this film by forcing the prism of found footage. Instead it only makes the characters dumber and less realistic than the one-note placeholders they already are.
Let’s talk about those characters. Comedies have a long history of putting together archetypes; take for instance The Hangover, a surefire inspiration for Friedberg and Seltzer. We’ve got the smarmy asshole, the uptight straight guy, and the goofy nutball, all classic comic archetypes that can bounce off one another. With Best Night Ever we have… the… mother… the slutty one… the… actually it doesn’t matter because the characters are so poorly written that they are indistinguishable. Not one of them has a personality or anything memorable to them. They’re all one type: bland. The only way I was keeping track of who’s who was by hair color, and even that is something of a challenge at times (two redheads?). Friedberg and Seltzer hastily throw in some “character details” for some, like one one just had her husband leave her for a man and another is a mother and has a breast pump. Okay, 1): why pump milk on a Vegas trip? Is that going to keep on the multi-hour car ride home? And 2): you’d expect with a detail like that there would be a later payoff…. Nope. Like most things in the movie, the details are just hastily thrown into the mix and readily discounted.
I was morbidly curious what Friedberg and Seltzer would set their sights on when not cannibalizing pop-culture in their spoof movies, and now I know. Best Night Ever is just as inept a comedy as their previous spoof atrocities. It irritates me even more that Friedberg and Seltzer could have done any comedy they want, and this is what they delivered, a tacky and too often timid sex comedy that has far too many drawn out sequences in place of actual humor. I don’t think found footage works in the context of comedies. It provides a sense of realism, and the long takes naturally build tension, but these aspects benefit the horror genre, not so much comedy. With comedy you still need to develop setups, complicate them, provide payoffs, and make sure to provide detours from the expected. There is nothing truly unexpected from this girls’ night out, and the cheap jokes rarely build or alter, so the pained setup at the beginning of the scene remains the same by the end. The simple premise of a bachelorette party gone wrong is ripe with potential, a potential that will never see any flicker of life under the guise of Friedberg and Seltzer. I never thought I’d write this but these two can just go back to their spoofs. Of course my first request would be never to make another movie again.
Nate’s Grade: D-
The second entry in the found footage horror anthology (and less than a year after the first to boot) is not as clever as V/H/S but more polished, better paced, and full of enough ingenuity to recommend, especially for horror fans. In my review of the first film I championed a shorter format, giving an audience the thrills they crave faster rather than slogging through an hour of slow buildup. The results are still fairly hit or miss, though none of the four segments is a misfire per se. The weakest is probably the last, “”Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” where the poor camera quality makes it hard to tell what is actually going on. The best, by far, is The Raid director Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” about a team of journalists picking perhaps the worst day to tour a creepy cult’s compound, notably during the apocalypse the cult predicted. This one takes a bit to wind up but when all hell breaks loose it goes nuts with glory. The wraparound segment tying everything together is more palatable and points to a promising mythology around the collection of these haunted VHS tapes that people keep watching and then dying over. All together, this is a concept that just works for horror and I’ll welcome presumed sequels as they come off the assembly line. This is found footage done right, with faster payoffs, more variety, and greater focus and ingenuity. If you enjoyed the first film, or are a fan of horror anthologies in general, then pop in V/H/S/2.
Nate’s Grade: B
The found footage subgenre seems ripe for overexposure at this point. Just this year we’ve had a found footage party movie, a found footage superhero movie, a found footage cop movie, and this week will open Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the popular found footage horror series. I understand the draw for Hollywood. The movies are cheap and the found footage motif plays into our culture’s endless compulsion for self-documentation. There are definite benefits to the genre, notably an immediate sense of empathy, a sense of being in the fray, and an added degree of realism. There are plenty of limitations too, notably the restrictive POV and the incredulous nature of how the footage was captured. With that being said, I think the people behind V/H/S finally found a smart use of this format. V/H/S is an indie horror anthology that offers more variety, cleverness, and payoffs, than your typical found footage flick.
Normally, found footage movies consist of 80 minutes of drawn out nothing for five minutes of something in the end. Usually, the payoff is not worth the ensuing drudgery of waiting for anything to happen. Watching the Paranormal Activity movies has become akin to viewing a “Where’s Waldo?” book, scrutinizing the screen in wait. V/H/S has improved upon the formula by the very nature of being an anthology movie. Rather than wait 80 minutes for minimal payoff, now we only have to wait 15 minutes at most. I call that progress. I haven’t seen too many found footage films that play around with the narrative structure inherit with a pre-recorded canvas. I recall Cloverfield smartly squeezing in backstory, earlier pre-recorded segments being taped over. With V/H/S, this technique is utilized once and it’s just to shoehorn in some gratuitous T & A. Plus, the anthology structure allows for a greater variety. If you don’t like some stories, and chances are you won’t, you know another one’s just around the corner.
For my tastes, the stories got better as the film continued. I was not a fan of the first few stories. The wraparound segment (“Tape 51”) involves a band of delinquents who are hired to retrieve one VHS tape in a creepy home. The guys are annoying jackasses, and our opening image involves them sexually assaulting a woman and recording it to sell later, so we’re pretty agreeable to them being killed off one by one inside the creepy home. I just don’t know why anyone would record themselves watching a movie. It’s not like it’s Two Girls One Cup we’re talking about here. I found the wraparound segment to be too chaotic and annoying, much like the band of idiots. It ends up becoming your standard boogeyman type of story and relies on characters making stupid decision after stupid decision. Why do these idiots stay in the house and watch movies? Why do these people not turn on the lights?
The first actual segment (“Amateur Night”) has a solid premise: a bunch of drunken frat boys plan to make their own porn with a pair of spy glasses. They bring the wrong girl back to their motel room and get more than they bargained for. Despite some interesting commentary on the male libido (interpreting a woman’s spooky actions as being sexually aroused), this segment suffers from a protracted setup. There’s a solid ten minutes of boys being boys, getting drunk, that sort of thing. And when the tables are turned, the spyglasses lead to shakier recording, which is odd considering they are pinned on the guy’s nose. The horror of the ending is also diminished because it’s hard to make sense of what is literally happening. The weakest segment is the second one (“Second Honeymoon”), which is surprising considering it’s written and directed by Ti West, a hot name in indie horror after The Innkeepers. West’s segment is your standard black widow tale, following a couple on their vacation to the Southwest and their home movies. However, a stalker is secretly videotaping them while they sleep. Borrowing from Cache, this is a genuinely creepy prospect, and the sense of helplessness and dread are palpable. It’s surprising then that West concludes his segment so abruptly, without further developing the stalker aspect, and tacks on a rather lame twist ending that doesn’t feel well thought out. “You deleted that, right?” says one guilty character on camera washing away blood. Whoops.
The second half of V/H/S is what really impressed me, finding clever ways to play upon the found footage motif and still be suspenseful. The third segment (“Tuesday the 17th”) begins like your regular kids-in-the-woods slasher film. The very specific types of characters (Jock, Nerd, Cheerleader) are set for some frolicking when they come across a deranged killer. However, the slasher monster is a Predator-style invisible creature that can only be seen via the video camera. When recorded, the monster creates a glitch on screen. I think this is a genius way to cover the biggest head-scratcher in found footage horror: why are you still recording? With this segment, the video camera is the savior, the protector, the only engine with which they can see the monster. The fourth segment (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”) is shot entirely through Skype conversations on laptops. Emily is convinced her apartment is haunted and seeks support from her boyfriend, away on business. This segment’s co-writer and director, Joe Swanberg, is more known for being the mumblecore king than a horror aficionado, but the man makes scary good use of the limitations of his setup. The story might be a bit hard to follow, especially its ending, but there are some great jolts and boo-moments. There’s even a fantastic gross-out surprise as Emily shares her own elective surgery/exploration.
But it’s the last segment that takes the cake, ending V/H/S on a fever pitch of action. The wraparound segment isn’t even that, since it ends before the final segment, “10/31/1998.” It’s a haunted house story about a group of guys who stumble into the wrong house on the wrong night. Initially they think the human sacrifice in the attic is part of the show, but then weird things start happening like arms coming through walls and door knobs vanishing. This segment is a great example of how effective atmosphere can be aided by smart and selective special effects. When the madness hits the home, it feels just like that, and the rush to exit the house is fueled with adrenaline. You don’t exactly know what will be around the next corner. The CGI effects are very effective and the lo-fi visual sensibilities give them even more punch. The frenzied chaos that ends “10/31/1998” would be apt for a feature-length found footage movie, let alone a 15-minute short. It’s a satisfying climax to a film that got better as it went.
With all found footage movies, there’s the central leap of logic concerning who assembled this footage, for what purposes, and how they got it. With movies like the abysmal Apollo 18, I stop and think, “Why do these people assembling the footage leave so much filler?” V/H/S doesn’t commit a sin worthy of ripping you out of the movie, but when it’s concluded you’ll stop and ponder parts of its reality that don’t add up. The very idea of people still recording onto VHS tapes in the age of digital and DVD seems curious, but I’ll go with it. Several segments obviously had to be recorded onto a hard drive; the Skype conversations would have to be recorded onto two perhaps. So somebody transferred digital records… onto a VHS tape? And it just so happens that this tape then got lost.
While inherently hit-or-miss, V/H/S succeeds as an anthology film and generates new life into the found footage concept. Not all of the segments are scary or clever, but even during its duller moments the film has a sense of fun. There’s always something new just around the corner to keep you entertained, and the various anthology segments give a range of horror scenarios. The lo-fi visual verisimilitude can be overdone at times, but the indie filmmakers tackle horror with DIY ingenuity. I don’t know if anything on screen will give people nightmares, but it’s plenty entertaining, in spots. V/H/S is an enjoyable, efficient, and entertaining little horror movie just in time for Halloween. If you’re going to do a found footage movie, this is the way to do it.
Nate’s Grade: B
David Ayer has written seven movies and directed three, and almost all of them have followed the Los Angeles police department. The man wrote a character that got Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and from there it’s been all cops all the time, some dirty, some noble, but all residing in the LAPD. I suppose Ayer knows what he does best and is sticking to his wheelhouse. End of Watch is Ayer’s newest tale featuring one of the protagonists recording his activities on the force to put together for a documentary. And with that flimsy excuse, we have ourselves the first found footage cop drama.
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young police officers patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles. Rather than dark and brooding, these guys are often quick with a joke and get along peachy. That doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously, and we watch them take down suspects, save children from burning buildings, and discover horrible mass slayings by Mexican cartels. During their off duty time, Taylor is dating a spunky woman (Anna Kendrick) whereas Mike has a wife (Natalie Martinez) and children of his own. The guys are honorable cops and run afoul of the local gang leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a man with connections to those dangerous cartels.
The best reason to watch End of Watch is the ebullient yet natural chemistry between Pena (World Trade Center) and Gyllenhaal (Source Code). These guys really come across like partners that have been through thick and thin. Their interaction is arguably the best part of the movie, watching two guys who defy cop movie stereotypes. First off, neither is naïve or world-weary; they’re idealistic but grounded. Both men get to be complex individuals, each funny, each warm, each flinty when called upon, each dealing with the heavy toll of protecting and serving, each an honorable police officer trying his best. These guys feel like real-life partners and not just Movie Partners, and that is a great testament to Ayer’s script and the performances by Pena and Gyllenhaal. I also appreciated that the guys are presented as co-leads; I would have assumed Gyllenhaal was going to anchor the movie. These guys really love one another and you understand their camaraderie. The actors went on ride alongs for a solid five months before shooting, and that must have been an invaluable tool for an actor because these guys are so natural with one another. They can bicker but it’s mostly playful, and the dialogue feels authentic and crisp. The performances are measured and meaty and we emotionally invest in these characters and fear for their welfare. These guys are great together and so you worry that we may not see them both live by the end credits.
These guys are such pals, you’ll start to ask yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t there be like some conflict some time?” For almost tow full acts, we are immersed in police procedure details, routines, mundane realities, with the occasional burst of action. Except it takes until the very end of Act Two before there’s a real conflict, one that lasts beyond an individual sequence. These guys are so chummy, so lovingly buddy-buddy, so there’s no tangible conflict between the two of them. The LAPD seems mostly supportive despite some paranoid warnings that do not bear fruit. Even the local thug, Big Evil, doesn’t prove to be an active threat until the Mexican cartel pays him to kill our lead cops (the cartel also wants an expense report of the hit). But this threat doesn’t emerge until well into the film, so much so that the plot feels rather aimless, like we’re on one eternal ride along with our boys in blue. It’s a good thing I enjoy their company.
Here’s why I speculate why Ayer chose to tell his story through the guise of found footage. I don’t out rightly see it as a cash grab, Ayer’s attempt to repackage something old with something new (that is quickly becoming something old). Ayer is not particularly dogmatic about the found footage approach; often we’ll get first-person angles, gun POV angles, or just general angles that could not have been captured through the found footage mechanics. I think Ayer chose this route because he felt it afforded him greater latitude to craft a realistic depiction of the daily grind of the embattled LAPD officer. This approach allows Ayer more freedom to flout cop movie clichés we’ve become well accustomed to. There are no wildly mismatched partners, no long gun heroics, and no long-suffering personal relationships. Though I find it extremely unbelievable that the LAPD would be so casual and blasé about an officer recording his activities and internal workings. That seems like an open invitation for a lawsuit or a subpoena especially if a criminal attorney gets wind. To a degree, the found footage edict works and the authenticity of End of Watch is never in question, but it also seems like Ayer’s convenient go-to excuse when you’re looking for that missing conflict. It is a fictional movie after all.
The visceral nature of the camerawork, and the extra emotional attachment we feel for the leads, makes for some pretty nail-biting suspense, though only after the cartel issues their hit. The movie teases you with a gutsy ending, one that exemplifies the men’s sense of brotherhood in arms and the fatalistic prospect of protecting the City of Angels. It felt fitting and poignant. I was surprised that Ayer was taking an audience in this direction… and then he didn’t. The film chickens out and gives us a miraculous plot turn that also reinforces the Hollywood pecking order of racial significance. It’s a misstep and one that costs End of Watch from being more emotionally resonant.
As a side note, I’m not a prude when it comes to the use of salty language. Films that reflect certain realities should not curtail the way people genuinely speak. Some people just have filthy mouths. However, the profanity level in End of Watch is off the chart, notably concerning the character of Big Evil. I am dead certain that every second or third word out of this guy’s mouth is some variation of the f-word. If you catalogued all of his dialogue, I bet over 75% of total words would be profanity. It starts to get ridiculous and even funny when you hear nothing but the same three words during an angry outburst. And this is no David Mamet or Kevin Smith poetic composition of vulgarity and the profane; this is just lazy dialogue, like Ayer told his actor that, when in doubt, let loose a litany of f-bombs. Perhaps Big Evil would be less evil if people just helped him with his limited vocabulary.
End of Watch is an involving police procedural with some gripping moments of tension thanks to the stellar performances from its pair of police officers, Pena and Gyllenhaal. Ayer’s found footage motif gets some visceral excitement out of an old story, but what really sucks us in are the emotional bonds we’ve forged with these two men over the course of an hour. That makes the danger feel very dire. The movie feels like a bromance at times. I wish Ayer hadn’t pulled back from his more dour ending but it’s not enough to spoil what is an above average genre film with a spiffy new visual polish. I don’t know how many films Ayer can keep cranking out about the LAPD but as long as he pays due attention to character, and gives us the occasional break from the ubiquitous antihero with a badge, then at least he’ll keep making compelling genre cinema.
Nate’s Grade: B
We’ve all had the fantasy of throwing an awesome party, a revelry of youthful exuberance, and cutting loose. The house party is a teenaged rite of passage. Project X is produced by Todd Phillips, the director behind The Hangover as the advertising would like to burn into your associative memory. You’d expect some wacky comedy and boorish behavior from boys living out their wildest fantasies. I felt a deep sadness watching the events of Project X. I won’t bemoan it as evidence of the decline of Western civilization but it’s certainly not helping matters.
Thomas (Thomas Mann) is a gawky, awkward, nice kid who’s celebrating his 17th birthday. His upper middle-class parents are going away for the weekend and trusting their only child with care of the home. Naturally, Thomas’ best friends, Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), take this opportunity to stage a party. They invite all the popular girls at school, spread word via radio and Craigslist, and hundreds descend on Thomas’s family grounds with the intent of partying harder than Andrew W.K. Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), long a friend of Thomas, is crushing on the guy and he doesn’t realize it. His attentions are on Alexis (Alexis Knapp), the school’s unattainable Hot Girl. As Costa clarifies, this party is meant to be a game-changer for their social lives. They’re supposed to reach for the stars tonight, which means groping strangers and puking in the bushes. Aim high, boys.
This did not have to be a found footage movie, and Project X would have been better if stripped of this tedious gimmick. By making this a found footage movie, it roots the quickly escalating madness in a reality that cannot sustain it. The film’s credibility goes out the window without a thought. A wild party that rages out of control is a believable setup, but when you toss in so many out-of-nowhere outlandish elements, including an angry midget, a crazed drug dealer armed with a flame thrower, a high-story zipline (who put that there?), and the groundswell of a consequences-free riot, you strain all sense of believability. I also found it unrealistic how blasé people reacted to the presence of a camera in certain situations. I think people at a school might not want to be recorded for who knows what purpose. But easily the scene that stands out is a locker room with a bunch of guys in various states of undress. Seriously, not one character, not even a minor character, raises any issue with someone casually recording a place where men are undressing. I’ll grant the exhibitionist antics of the party (the courts of our land have ruled that flashing is not considered an “invasion of privacy”). Then there are also the lighting changes at Thomas’ house. All of a sudden certain rooms have very distinct, stylish blues and greens for lighting. Where did that come from? Did someone find a colorful bulb? These are the dumb questions that arise under the belabored pretenses of a found footage movie. There’s no reason this movie shouldn’t have ditched the found footage gimmick and simply played it straight.
Congratulations Project X, for it was you who cemented the death knell of my youth. I don’t have anything against party movies (Superbad is great, Can’t Hardly Wait ain’t bad either) and I don’t shrink from the presence of ribald, juvenile, inappropriate and/or illegal underage activity. Dazed and Confused is one of my favorite films of all time and that movie is nothing but kids getting drunk and stoned. But lo, Project X was the first party movie I’ve watched where my sympathies lay not with the party animals but with the annoyed neighbors and parents. Maybe it’s a sign of getting older; maybe it’s just the culmination of my upstairs neighbors playing heavy-bass electronica music at all hours of the night when I have to work in the morning. Or maybe it’s just a clear indication that this movie fails on any level to make me care about these moronic, annoying, unbearable characters. So when these twits are off celebrating the wanton hedonism unleashed in their backyard, I thought of the neighbor with a baby who just wants his kid to sleep. Is that an unreasonable request? The man isn’t presented as some incensed, dangerous madman, and what does he get for daring to question the noise level of this party? The man gets tazed. That’s what you get for expecting anyone to possibly be moderately considerate about their actions affecting others (I sense a God Bless America-style rant approaching). I just found this whole thoughtless, empty exercise to be exploitative, mean-spirited, and exhausting. Am I that old or is this movie simply that bad?
You want to know how flimsy the plot is for this monstrosity? You could have written the entire thing on a napkin. Why bother with characters or story? This movie is seriously like someone took the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video for “1979” (possibly the best cruising song) and expanded it to feature length. Even at barely 80 minutes, this is one creaky movie that struggles to pad out its running time. The party mostly consists of two-second shots of people jumping around, girls shaking their asses, people smashing things, people vomiting, and the occasional boob flash to remind you how similar in tone the film is to the sleazy Girls Gone Wild series. That’s at least half the movie, if I’m being generous. What did I just describe? A music video! A music video is composed of, often, nonsensical images that serve little purpose other than to stimulate. There are plenty of segments that are nothing but pounding music and people dancing. If you buy the soundtrack (and why wouldn’t you since it’ll be ringing in your ears for days) and do some pseudo-inebriated dance movies, you’ve basically recreated the plot in your own living room. Project X is a music video writ large, not just in its style but in its single-minded execution to do nothing but string a series of rapid imagery. Good Lord, if this stuff made the final film what was left on the cutting room floor?
Project X also has the ignoble distinction of making me loathe a character not just in his very introduction but also in the very opening SECOND of the film. The first second I got of Costa told me everything I needed to know. His smarmy, irritating, faux “gangsta” machismo persona was enough. I knew this guy was going to be a douchebag. One second in, Project X, and you’ve already dug yourself a pretty significant hole. The Costa character is unfunny from beginning to end. There is not a single joke, a single one-liner, a single reaction of his that made me laugh. He is an insufferable character and a transparent combination of Superbad’s McLovin’ and Jonah Hill’s character. I hated every wretched second his face was onscreen. The other two friends didn’t make me want to punch my TV, which was the only positive thing I could say about either of them. Thomas is your typical mild-mannered, awkward teen (read: the Michael Cera role) who gets to cut loose and grow a spine of sorts. He has no personality and I couldn’t work up the effort to root for him. I can’t really say anything about JB because he adds absolutely nothing to the movie. He has no personality as well, other than his girth and desire to bed some ladies. It’s like the movie forgets he even exists. I know I did.
I know that making a feminist diatribe against this movie is a waste of time but indulge me for a moment, dear reader. I understand that this entire enterprise is untamed male fantasy and wish fulfillment. I don’t have a problem with this notion, on the surface. But why do all the women of this fantasy have to be reduced to, in Costa’s words, “drunk bitches” and “hos”? The women of this universe, which is supposed to be our own remember, are merely walking toys ready to be exploited for male entertainment. We don’t get characters; we get attractive women in great states of inebriation and exhibitionism. It’s ridiculous the amount of older, attractive women who would be enticed by… a high school party? Don’t these people have college parties they’d rather be attending? At one point JB identifies one of the girls at the party as a woman who posed for Playboy, because that’s all women are good for in this movie. Why would Alexis agree to bed Thomas just because it’s his birthday? We see no connection, and he’s certainly not a wealth of charisma. It doesn’t matter. Women are to be ogled. They are decorative furnishings.
Then there’s the aggravating romance between Thomas and his best girl friend, Kirby. First off, if this is the quality you get with girl-next-door types then I am moving to that neighborhood. This woman is a bonafide hottie, so when the guys make dismissive comments that Kiby is just one of the guys, I question what criteria these men have for female beauty. Any of these guys would be lucky to ever interest a woman of this stature. And then there’s the fact that she so easily forgives Thomas after he makes an ass of himself and tries to hook up with another girl hours after sleeping with Kirby. It’s like the movie advertising that you, American teenage males, can have it all and with a minimum of humility and empathy.
I guess the real question is whether any of this gratuitous debauchery is fun. The whole movie runs on the caffeinated, fist-pumping highs of unchecked male ego and fantasy, but it’s trying so hard to be the most epic party ever, and that’s the only ambition the film has. This is one sleazy and off-putting movie. Even some of its egregious faults could be partially forgiven if the movie was any funny. It just isn’t. It’s loud and profane and anarchic but without interesting, relatable, or even defined characters, and the plot is so feeble I could sum it up thusly: Nerds throw party. Shit happens. They get to be cool. In between those momentous plot points is a lot of incoherent imagery of people dancing, women being objectified (by the camera, the filmmakers, the audience), and pounding music. The plot is so simplistic, so plainly an afterthought, that the entire hedonistic festivity reeks of lazy exploitation. Congratulations, Project X, you’ve turned me into my parents. Now get the hell off my lawn and get a job and make better movies!
Nate’s Grade: D
I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to genre movies – do not trust the marketing department of 20th Century Fox. Every promotional clip, trailer, TV spot, even the notion that people were flying around in cities as an attempt at viral marketing, it all coalesced into making me turn up my nose at Chronicle. It just looked like a bad movie. Then the critical reception was rather glowing and I took a chance, pleasantly surprised by the skill and execution of the flick. What made this thought-process notable was that it was almost an exact repeat of what I went through with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every piece of promotion stoked my disinterest into outright loathing, and then after the positive press I saw the movie, begrudgingly, and was floored. I guess when it comes to future 20th Century Fox genre releases, I’ll try and figure out my reaction and then turn that upside down. If a movie looks like utter crap, then under this new value system it must be good. I’m sure my new cinematic equation will prove me wrong as soon as the latest Eddie Murphy family vehicle terrorizes theaters (“This fall, Eddie Murphy is… The Governor. And his political opponent? His wife! Also played by Eddie Murphy”). In short, the marketing department at 20th Century Fox sucks but Chronicle does not.
Chronicle is the chronicle (heh) of three high-school friends who contract telekinetic powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a social outcast, determined to videotape his life as a means of escape from his ailing mother, his violent, alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), and the torment of school bullies. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is trying to read up on philosophy to impress Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a blogger/amateur documentary filmmaker. He’s more than some dumb jock. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the popular athlete planning to run for political office one day. The three guys discover what looks to be an alien craft underground. After coming into physical contact, the guys discover they suddenly have the ability to control objects with their minds. They test out their new powers in small ways at first, stopping speeding balls, assembling Legos. Matt insists they establish some system of rules to ensure they use their new powers for good. Andrew chafes at the idea of holding back, especially since he is by far the most powerful member of the group and eager to settle a few scores.
Just as the found footage motif is starting to get old along comes a movie that makes creative and clever use of the narrative structure. Documenting one’s life, including the endless trivialities, has become normal habit for a younger generation accustomed to Twitter-style instantaneous information dissemination. Given that Andrew is abused and harassed, it makes sense for his character to use his camera as a means of security physical and emotional: the promise of being recorded should at least keep some of the bullying and physical abuse at bay, and it also provides a barrier for him and the real world, letting him stand outside himself. As John Malkovich said in Shadow of the Vampire, “If it isn’t in the frame, then it doesn’t exist.” This is one of the few found footage films where I didn’t feel constrained by the limitations of its concept. I suppose it helps when your main characters have super powers and can fly into the sky for a game of pigskin. The climactic battle is plenty thrilling but also subtly ingenuitous, as we cut back from various camera footage to piece together our super smackdown; we jump from security cameras, police dashboard cams, helicopter cameras, to even personal video cameras of people doing what people do… document the strange and unusual (I’m just curious who assembled the footage, though I have my theories).
The key to Chronicle’s success is that it’s a well-written, character-based piece that just so happens to morph into a superhero cautionary tale. Andrew has a pretty hard life and it’s easy to see why this insecure, neurotic, and angry young man takes his new-found gifts as a cosmic opportunity for retribution. In a way, Chronicle is like an all-male version of Carrie for the digital age; incidentally, Andrew was set to perform in a school talent show and I was cringing, saying to myself, “Oh no, here comes the Carrie moment.” He’s a tragic figure and you feel for the kid, which gives him a little more leeway when he starts to veer to the dark side. Until the very end, you can follow Andrew’s motivation for every action, so when he dresses up in his father’s firefighter outfit to shake down the neighborhood bullies, you can justify it to yourself, saying, “Well, he’s desperate and needs to pay for him mother’s super expensive medication. Oh, and those guys had it coming. Jerk.” The power of empathy is a mighty one, and writer Max Landis (son of director John Landis) takes a measured amount of time to connect everything back to the character. The best compliment I can give Landis is that nothing feels out of place. The characters behave in a relatively believable manner, the action intensifies at a natural incline, and the characters manage to have some brainy, existential debates about power and responsibility in between typical teenage pranks/antics (it’s only natural that teen boys would somehow use telekinesis to improve their sex life). Sure these characters aren’t terribly deep and the multitude of Andrew’s misery heaped upon misery almost seems ridiculous. In another universe, perhaps Andrew uses his powers to lash out at his tormentors at school, though that approach would questionably glamorize school shootings. However, by the time the big action hits, we’re emotionally invested in the characters and have watched Andrew’s long fuse finally blow.
The special effects are even more impressive given the low budget and the found footage gimmick. The camera makes some nifty telekinetic moves, floating around and giving the film a bigger space to play within. The flying effects are pretty convincing, especially when one of our guys ends up tumbling back to Earth in one tense sequence. Whether it’s floating Pringles or cars crushed inside out, the effects are smooth and well integrated, and any noticeable lack of polish just fits in with the fuzzy nature of our video recording as lone record of the events. There’s a notable solution for sub-par special effects in movies: blame the nature of the movie (Uwe Boll, that suggestion is free of charge).
But the best special effect is young actor DeHaan (HBO’s first-rate show, In Treatment). Looking eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the guy manages to channel pent-up rage, frustration, and helplessness in a way that doesn’t feel histrionic or twerpy. His character is the point of view for our tale given that it is Andrew’s camera after all; we’re mostly locked into his perspective. Good thing that the character is interesting enough and so well played by DeHaan that I didn’t feel stuck with a loser. He reacts like most teenagers would react when bullied and harassed, trying to be aloof and ambivalent but only able to hide the pain and resentment for so long. When Andrew does start to give in to the allure of his powers, DeHaan seems practically seduced by his sense of superiority. There’s a dangerous look in his eyes that turns on that cues the audience for trouble to come. Russell is an amiable actor even if his character is bland and somewhat inconsistent as a foil to Andrew. Jordan (TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a charming guy who finds the right balance of exuberance and sarcasm with his character. Together, the threesome of guys has a winning chemistry and character dynamic. When they’re getting along and the good times are rolling, you feel part of the gang.
Being a super hero has become a dominant male fantasy as of late in the movies, so it’s invigorating to see a movie that puts a fresh spin on what seems ad infinitum. Chronicle is something of a small wonder, bringing new life to the found footage concept, making smart use of its narrative confines rather than chained by its limitations. The story is just as involving from a character standpoint as much as its sci-fi genre elements and superhero wish fulfillment. Landis and debut director Josh Trank are talents that I have no doubt Hollywood will snatch up. They’ve given the super hero genre a necessary human element, too often lost in the splashes of action and merchandising. Along with its engaging character-work, Chronicle also happens to be a clever action movie with some soaring thrills. Ignore the shoddy marketing and take a chance on Chronicle.
Nate’s Grade: B+