Tag: Found Footage

Unfriended (Movie) Review 1

Unfriended (Movie) Review

There are so many reasons why Unfriended shouldn’t work. It’s gimmicky, it all takes place on a computer screen, it trots out the old “haunted technology” chestnut yet again, and the trailer seemed to suggest it was aggressively targeting millennials for the sake of sweet dollaroos and little else. Yet, somehow the movie does work and works pretty damn well. It’s worth noting that this is not the work of Universal Studios continuing their streak of decidedly “meh” found footage flicks. Nope, this one was actually made independently by writer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze. It played the film festival circuit a bit last year as Cybernatural, before Jason Blum (the man who found Paranormal Activity and created Blumhouse) picked it up and convinced Universal Studios to slide it onto screens nationwide. It’s easy to see why. Quite apart from being an easily marketable property, it’s also damn good little horror movie and one that even has something to say amidst all the genre silliness.
Film Title: UnfriendedSo in case you weren’t yet aware, the unique selling point of Unfriended is that the entire movie takes place on a laptop screen. That computer belongs to Blaire (Shelley Henning), a teen who kicks off the movie by watching an internet video of her former best friend Laura Barns killing herself after a round of cyberbullying following an embarrassing, drunken YouTube video. Soon after, her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) Skypes her up for a little PG-13 sexy tomfoolery before a collection of their friends join the conversation at the absolute worst moment (ain’t it always the way?). They all giggle and gaggle a bit before noticing that there’s a faceless extra person in their chat named “billie227.” They can’t remove the culprit from the chat. Soon billie227 claims to be the ghost of Laura Barns and even starts contacting everyone through Laura’s old facebook account. That was all creepy enough, but then billie227 starts posting embarrassing photos all over their walls and tells them all that if anyone leaves the chat, they’ll die. Trouble is that even when the kids stay on Skype, they have a tendency to die as well.

One would think that a movie set entirely on a computer screen would be a bit too dull and limited, but it’s amazing all of the tricks that the filmmakers pull to ensure that it’s not.

One would think that a movie set entirely on a computer screen would be a bit too dull and limited, but it’s amazing all of the tricks that Greaves and Gabriadz pull to ensure that it’s not. Essentially, you’ll watch five frightened faces simultaneously in real time (with digital glitches cleverly used to mask cuts). The soundtrack comes from a Spotify playlist. A slow download status bar is used as a vehicle for suspense. Web windows pop up to explain any dangling mystery necessary so that the plot can keep racing forward. Characters have secret text conversations aside from the big one. It’s kind of amazing how many opportunities the structural device provides rather than limitations. The best scares are purely situational, mysterious messages and unexpected software bugs that the filmmakers never have to explain. We’re all so used to the programs being used that it’s creepy simply not to see a familiar comfort like a “reply” button. When the kills and ghostly shenanigans arrive, they are effectively and tastefully handled with some damn fine performances from the cast all around (even if they are playing John Hughes teen stereotypes). However, the ghost and gore are undeniably the least compelling part of the movie. We’ve all seen that stuff before, even if it’s done well. It’s everything around the ghost that makes Unfriended such an interesting little flick.
unfriendedinsert1Beyond how genuinely tense and intense this terse little horror yarn feels while racing through 82 minutes, Unfriended is also one of those rare genre flicks with something to say. There’s the surface level cyber bullying content, which is certainly a timely and relevant twist on teeny bopper murder movies. However, beyond that the movie exposes the troubling dependency that these characters, teens at large, and frankly the whole damn world has on digital technology. It’s not particularly jarring to watch the entire movie play out on a computer screen, because that’s where most of us spend the bulk of our lives now anyways. There’s a duplicity to so many of these communication devices that the film exploits for both supernatural and human horror that’s kind of fascinating. By transforming a computer, social media, and Skype into a scare factory, the filmmakers have tapped into something primal and contemporary not unlike when John Carpenter first showed the world how frightening the suburbs could be in Halloween.

Of course, it’s not all spooks outs and big ideas in Unfriended. The movie is above all else an entertainment factory, so Greaves and Gabriadz have as much fun with their concept as possible. There are hilarious sequences like a character desperately seeking help on a Chatroulette-style program only to find dick pics, the Universal logo appears to chug through blocky pixels like a bootleg file, or a throw away background window of bittorrent that’s surreal to see in a studio release (if there are sequels, don’t be surprise if that turns out to be the cause of the haunting, not the bullying). The movie is an absolute blast. Sure, there are some leaps in logic, thinly drawn characters, and predictable plot beats, but no more than any other mainstream horror flick. Greaves and Gabriadz delivered a genuinely innovative and impressive indie genre effort that genuinely earns the studio platform and release that it’s gotten. This thing deserves to be a hit and possibly even inspire sequels, even if it’s also paradoxically the first horror movie ever made that will likely play best on a laptop.

 

Project Almanac (Movie) Review 1

Project Almanac (Movie) Review

Oh time travel, you are a fickle beast aren’t you? Whether it’s Homer Simpson with a toaster, Marty McFly with a rad skateboard, the Loopers with their looping, or whatever the hell was supposed to be happening in Primer, things never quite go as planned now do they? You see there are paradoxes and temporal displacement and many other problems that just tend to be out of your average time traveler’s grasp. It always seems like a good idea at the time though doesn’t it? Especially if you’re a bunch of rowdy teens hoping for good time. Oh hey! Look, it’s Project Almanac. A movie about a bunch of teens who discover time travel while filming their adventures on camcorders. Yep, it’s the inevitable time travel found footage movie that we all should have guessed was coming. It’s ok too. Not great. Not horrible. Just ok.

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The film stars Jonny Weston as one of those teens who only exist in movies that seems to be a social reject from their entire high school community purely because they wear glasses. Weston plays a science wiz who creates impressive inventions in the hopes of landing a MIT scholarship. He gets one, but not it’s not enough for his out-of-work mother to afford. So he does what any teen genius would do in this scenario and hunts around in his former super-scientist father’s abandoned attic hoping to find a new invention. Instead he and his sister (Ginny Gardner, always filming everything for the sake of the found footage conceit) find an old video camera with a tape of one of Weston’s childhood birthdays. While combing through the tape, Weston finds footage of his teenage self in the background. He’s confused, but obsessed. Eventually he and his wise-cracking genius friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) stop obsessing over the prettiest girl in school girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia, whose character is limited to being pretty and appealing) long enough to dig around in Weston’s basement and find hidden plans and parts for a time machine that Weston’s father was designing before he died. So they do what anyone would do in that situation, finish the time machine with car batteries and Xbox parts and go on an adventure. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Project Almanac was clearly conceived around the one sentence pitch, “Chronicle, but with time travel.” That’s exactly what the movie is and exactly how it plays. Granted, Chronicle was a pretty great and creative flick, so it was inevitable that knock offs would follow. The trouble is that the found footage shtick has grown past a trend and into a genre now, so this movie feels very generic. We all know the routine. A bunch of teens have semi-realistic bonding through jump cut footage for a while. Then they discover a supernatural element belonging to a specific style of genre movie. Then they talk about filming it for a while and then whatever clichés of the chosen genre take over from the found footage clichés. It’s how low-budget Hollywood B-movies are apparently required to be made these days. Even if the concept of characters filming every single one of their actions is feeling more and more realistic all the time, the movies are getting tedious.

Admittedly, Project Almanac is far from all bad. First time director Dean Israelite shows considerable promise as a filmmaker. He’s got a knack with low-fi spectacle and working with actors. The three guys at the center all give naturalistic performances with impressive chemistry, just enough to make you buy into the world. The homespun inventions are amusingly conceived and just credible enough to get away with the silly pseudo-science. Then once all the rambling set up is finally in place, the film offers a hefty amount of fun for a while. Playing off of teenage wish fulfillment fantasies and Groundhog Day “repetition makes perfect” comedy, the second act of the movie is a bit of a riot. It’s a spin of teen comedy tropes with just enough gentle science fiction to work as genre as well. The effects are charmingly low-fi and the tonal gearshifts keep things unpredictable. For a while, you’ll start to think that Israelite and the gang might pull this thing off and then the wheels come off.

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Inevitably, Project Almanac turns into one of those butterfly effect tales of the perils of time travel. It’s clear that’s where things are heading from the moment that the protagonist pops up on his old birthday video. For a while it works, sliding the movie gently from goof off fun into suspenseful fun. Then it all falls apart while speeding towards the finish line. Plot holes and logic gaps pile on top of each other at a feverish pace and the last 10-15 minutes has to be the least believably filmed section in any found footage movie ever made. It’s really a shame because Israelite and co. build up quite a bit of good will and charm dragging their Chronicle time-travel along for two hours before they lose the thread. Ah well, all things considered, it’s not a bad movie. At least a studio gave young and inexperienced filmmakers a chance to make something creatively conventional. That’s something. Now the next step is for Paramount to keep their Paranormal Activity-inspired micro-budget blockbuster wing alive without forcing every project into a found footage conceit that it doesn’t need. Project Almanac automatically would have been a better movie without being saddled with that baggage and hopefully someone at the studio noticed.

Earth To Echo Movie Review 1

Earth To Echo Movie Review

The 80s were a magical time for family entertainment. After the titanic success of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg founded the production company Amblin and started cranking out a series of suburban fantasy films about kids and teens from broken families going on genre movie adventures. The titles Spielberg produced in this run include Gremlins, The Goonies, Back To The Future, and Batteries Not Included. It was an incredible slate of films that burrowed their way into the imagination of every impressionable child and teen of the era. Given those films’ continued success, other studios started copying the Amblin model which led to some fantastic films like Explorers and a ton of crap like Mac & Me or Flight Of The Navigator. As always, Hollywood overexposure killed the trend, but not before Amblin essentially created a genre that remained fondly remembered through nostalgia. When the generation of kids who grew up in the Amblin era started making their own films, Amblin homages slowly started to slip out. JJ Abrams’ Super 8 was the biggest and boasted the Spielberg stamp of approval as producer, while smaller efforts like Monster House kept the Amblin heart pumping. None of the Amblin homages have been as good as the originals, but every time they pop up they prove just what a reliable formula Spielberg created at his populist peak. Now we have Earth To Echo, the perhaps inevitable found footage Amblin homage and thankfully the movie turned out to be much better than expected.

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Unsurprisingly, it’s about a group of outsider tweens living in the suburbs who go on an adventure. As usual, the tweens are cast to type. There’s the leader Tuck (Astro) who holds the group together and films everyone with his various cameras, there’s Alex (Teo Halm) the adopted kid with rage/abandonment issues, there’s the token techno geek Munch (Reese Hartwig), and eventually there’s a token girl/love interest tossed in named Emma (Ella Wahlestedt). As usual in this genre, their families are all functionally dysfunctional. They’ve got issues, but nothing so tragic as to deeply upset the target audience. Just enough to give potential viewers from broken homes something to identify with. The plot kicks off when the evil land developers destroying the kids’ suburban paradise start acting strange and everyone’s cell phones go silly. Munch figures out that the damaged phones are some sort of radar, so the three boys decide to spend their last night together in the neighborhood following around the phone radar and filming it on their prosumer cameras. Turns out the radar points them to an adorable little alien robot, who needs help rebuilding his ship so that he can return home. The boys decide to help and over the course of the night they bicker, deepen their friendships, fall in love with the robot, fall in love with Emma, and dodge evil government agents on their bicycles. Sound familiar?

[pullquote align=”right” class=”blue”]“It’s an endlessly charming little gem of a movie and a nice throwback for younger audiences who simply don’t get to see movies like this in theaters anymore.”[/pullquote]

Well, it should. First time director Dave Green and his screenwriter Henry Gayden are clearly massive fans of the Amblin era and they’ve created a feature length homage featuring the amicably damaged kids from Explorers, the emotional arc of E.T., and a cutie pie alien robot straight out of Batteries Not Included. Obviously, the movie doesn’t win points for originality, but as a loving callback to a beloved era of family entertainment the flick works like gangbusters. Green and Gayden know just how much characterization is needed to make their audience care, when to slip in the action scenes that feel unexpected, how to make their viewers fall in love with a little floating hunk of metal, and how to pace the movie so that it never wears out its welcome. The found footage conceit works well and it’s surprising to think this is the first film about tweens filming themselves given that happens constantly these days. And just like Chronicle (which make no mistake, is a far superior film), the handycam aesthetic makes the CGI effects feel more grounded, unexpected, and even a little magical. It’s an endlessly charming little gem and a nice throwback for younger audiences who simply don’t get to see movies like this in theaters anymore.

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Now, all that justified praise being said, there’s no sense in pretending that Earth To Echo is even remotely perfect. The closest point of comparison is the deeply imperfect Super 8 and Earth To Echo has just as many problems, they’re just different. Even though the first person found footage genre always carries an element of ambiguity about its fantasy elements given that it, by design, never follows the cops or scientist at the center of the conflict, Earth To Echo’s plot is frustratingly vague. We never really know what the alien represents, why the government agents is determined to catch it (beyond the fact that they are like totally evil), or what the significance of the whole narrative is supposed to be. Even more of a problem is the dialogue written for the kids, which is frequently wooden and unnatural. Again, that’s a staple of kids movies, but particularly frustrating here given that the handicam naturalism central to the movie’s style only draws more attention to it. Then there’s the general issue of familiarity. This isn’t an Amblin homage that toys with the formula in any way. If you figure out what style of movie you’re watching in the first five minutes, you can pretty much guess every plot twist and character arc from there. So, Earth To Echo has plenty of problems, but what it gets right is so charming, exciting, and nostalgic that it’s hard to be bothered by any of that until after the credits roll. It’s nice just to see a contemporary kids movie that isn’t an adaptation of a pre-existing novel, comic book, toy, or juice box and remember a time when the movie used to come before the spin off merchandising. Hopefully kids will get to experience more of those again someday.

 

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Movie) Review 1

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Movie) Review

It’s hard to believe we’re now five movies into a franchise based on a locked off camera, a bedroom, and things that go bump in the night. When Oren Peli’s shot-in-my-bedroom indie got a major release from Paramount, it was a big ol’ shock. Here was a return not just to no-budget indie horror from a major studio, but also a film that pulled the genre from the torture porn era into the found footage era. Bringing in almost $200 million worldwide on a $15 thousand dollar budget, the movie was a big fat success story and thus began the inevitable Hollywood practice of repeating the trick to death. Sure, the Paranormal Activity 3 proved to be an enjoyable mix of 80s kitsch and high-fi/low-fi scares, but by part four the format had grown so nauseatingly sale that the profits dropped by half. However, money was still being made and so Paranormal Activity 5 was going to happen no matter what. Thankfully, the folks behind the series decided it was time to change things up and actually delivered a movie quite different from what came before. By borrowing (aka stealing) from a variety of different found footage horror franchises (mostly Chronicle), the Paranormal Activity franchise has somehow reinvented itself. Whether or not this new direction will lead to more sequels worth seeing remains to be seen, but the good news is that against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is one of the best entries in the series to date.

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The first change is geographical, with this PA romp shifting locals to sunny Me-he-co (Mexico). The first 20 minutes or so settle into the standard found footage routine of watching a group of teens play pranks and connect over a camera. You sit around waiting for them to notice a ghost in their apartment or set up a little hidden camera night recording, but it never happens. Instead, two buddies, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) start investigating a murder that occurred in their apartment block. The victim is a mildly creepy old lady, and the major suspect is weirdly the squeaky clean valedictorian from their school. Then as the digging continues, things keep getting weirder. They find all sorts of strange cultish, coven-ish artifacts hidden in the apartment and then one morning Jesse wakes up with mysterious marks on his arm. Shortly after that, he starts to develop floating and super-strength powers a la Chronicle. Then a memory game he owns starts acting like an Ouija board, he pulls gross hair like strands from his eyeballs, and other creepy stuff is afoot. Essentially the film turns into a possession/coven horror yarn, which eventually (and rather cleverly) folds back into the ever-expanding Paranormal Activity universe.

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If you want to be cynical about it, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones reinvents the franchise by mixing in other popular found footage horror tropes of recent years and shifting the focus from middle class WASPS to a working class Latino market that the Paramount marketing department determined was a strong fanbase for the series. That’s all undeniably true and yet regardless of the reasons for changes in the series, those changes still work surprisingly well. Writer/director Christopher Landon (who has been scripting the series since the first sequel before earning the directorial promotion) clearly knows the franchise well enough to understand what to change and what to keep the same. There’s some shotgun action this time, the camera is constantly mobile rather than locked off, and there are even a couple gross out gags amidst the jump scares. Yet despite all that and the heaping doses of Latino stereotypes (Tequila? Check. Fireworks? Check. Gangbangers? Check. It’s all an ill-placed sombrero away from being offensive), the film still feels like a successful entry in the most tasteful horror franchise in decades. Sure, the found footage horror clichés pile up fast and furiously, but Landon has at least wallowed in that world long enough to know how to pull them off effectively and delivers a film with a few decent jolts and without the tiresome repetition that dogged Paranormal 2 and 4.

pamarkoinsert4[pullquote align=”right” class=”blue”]Against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit[/pullquote]

Perhaps the Paranormal Activity series is settling into a pattern similar to the Star Trek movies except here all of the odd numbered entries in the franchise are decent and the even numbered entries are disposable. PA5 is as probably about as good as PA1 or PA3, which is to say that it’s a perfectly acceptable jump scare timewaster with more good will than innovation. The performances are fine, the effects are decent, the scares work (even if about 70% were given away in the trailer… sigh, when will marketing departments learn?), and it all wraps up quickly before boredom can set in. The movie is hardly a classic, but not even the original Paranormal Activity deserves that status. It’s just an acceptable genre romp and one that suggests that a little franchise reinvention might go a long way to keep these sequels coming. After Paranormal Activity 4, I felt like the series was already dead and should be shot in the head. After The Marked Ones, I’d actually be willing to give part six a chance. That’s really all the five-quel could have hoped to accomplish, so it has to be deemed a minor success at the very least. And let’s not forget the success of this franchise has allowed the production company Blumhouse to produce some actually decent original horror movies like Sinister and Lords Of Salem. So as long as these sequels are decent enough to keep bringing in cash, the folks collecting the money will funnel it back into more interesting genre films. In other words, against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit. Now there’s a box quote for ya.