Thursday, November 17, 2011

Catching Up: Found Footage Edition

I’ll admit it, I’ve been lax in keeping up with the new releases lately. I’ve had a lot going on, and I’ve got some catching up to do. Luckily, I’ve got discount theaters in my area. I don’t know if you had the luck to grow up in a town that had these, but they’re great. After their theatrical run, they hit the Dollar Theaters theaters. We always called it the “Dollar Theater” because tickets were always a dollar. Duh. Back in the day, popcorn and drinks were a dollar too. When I moved to Savannah, I was shocked and dismayed there were none. It took a long time for that blow to soften. When I came back, the theaters were still there, but the price had doubled, but we all still refer to it as the Dollar Theater. How can you ague with 1.99 for a movie? If it’s one of those you just kinda want to see, or one you just couldn’t find time to catch, these theaters are invaluable. We have two, Town Center and Venture Cinema 12. Town Center is the one we went to as kids, but the sound sucks there. Venture is awesome. God bless you Venture Cinema 12! Anyway, I just caught up with two recent found footage flicks.

Apollo 18:

When the found footage idea was introduced in Cannibal Holocaust (it’s the earliest example I’m aware of, though it probably isn’t the first), a couple of films stole it. Then when Blair Witch Project became a mega-hit in 1999, Hollywood started to take notice. Then, in 2007, the emergence of cheap and readily available video technology via smartphones and digital camcorders combined with the success of Paranormal Activity, and the damn endless shaky cam scare extravaganza was off and running. Suddenly everyone and their mom is making one of these, and just about every twist that can be put on these usually formulaic cash-ins has been exhausted…except one.

It’s a longstanding joke that when a franchise is completely out of ideas, the last place left to go is space. The last Friday the 13th was in space. The last good Hellraiser was in space. Leperchaun made a trip there before landing in the hood. Critters 4…well, you get the picture. It looks like the same goes for ridiculously overused, gimmicky subgenres. Now that there is nothing new to do with found footage, Apollo 18 takes it into space. Surprisingly, that hackneyed cliché is the one thing this flick has going for it. Isolation is a classic hallmark of horror, and it doesn’t get much more isolated than the freakin’ moon. This movie uses it to it’s fullest potential. It really does feel isolated. The moon, with its stark landscape, deep shadows, silence, and general air of mystery makes for a great set. It looks creepy as hell. The concept of being stranded in outer space with a camera is intriguing and lends itself very well to the limitations of the found footage concept. I think it could have worked brilliantly if this had been, well, a better movie.

My first problem is that it just moves too damn slow. For the first half hour, this is actually an asset. I kept thinking that if they had taken the flick right up to just before the reveal of the monster, then gave us one shot vaguely showing it, this could have been a good short, or maybe a high concept Outer Limits episode. As it stands, once the threat is revealed, we know exactly where the movie is going, but it plods along so slowly to get there that I lost interest WAY before the end. That’s especially not good in a movie that’s only 86 minutes long. Maybe some of that padded time could have been given to character development. When you’re spending the entire movie with three characters, you need to have the audience identify with at least one of them. These guys are as cookie cutter and one note as they come. If they had taken twenty minutes out of the second half and devoted it to some on ship banter that conveyed who these guys are, it would have helped the movie immensely. Better written dialog would have helped too. Also, I know it’s supposed to look like it was shot under duress 40 years ago, and it does (kudos on that realism), but there is a limit to how bad and distorted the footage can be and still me fun to watch. It’s supposed to look like crap. Problem is that it does.

You all know I don’t like to give spoilers, but I’m very tempted too because the threat is something incredibly stupid. They should have left it ambiguous. I mean, what kind of a monster is…no, I won’t do it. Those of you who are really into found footage movies will want to see this one. It actually does attempt to do something novel with a played out motif, even if it does still utilize all of the “darkness with the camera as the only light” style clichés. It’s not really as bad as I made it sound; it’s just below average. The stupid monster doesn’t help. They really could have come up with something more menacing than…stop it Nathan. Seriously though, there’s only one solitary shot where the big threat is remotely scary. They just look like…Anyway, I’m going to be generous and give Apollo 18 one severed thumb up. Hopefully it represents one giant leap towards the end of the found footage wave. Hermit crabs on the moon! How dumb is that? Freakin’ hermit crabs! There, I said it. Nathan says check it out, but don’t expect much.

Paranormal Activity 3:

The third sequel to the film that really kicked off the current found footage glut (REC and Cloverfield helped too) had the advantage of following a sequel with almost no redeeming qualities. I loved the first PA flick, and while I wasn’t holding out any hope that a major studio sequel would have been nearly as good as the indy original, I was still angry when PA2 sucked like Heather Brooke. If you don’t get that one, don’t google it at work. Anyway, considering how bad 2 was, I went into 3 with the lowest of low expectations. It turns out that I was pleasantly surprised.

As I’m sure we all know by now, this is actually a prequel. It shows what happened when Katie and Kristi were young, as alluded to in the first movie. The problem is, how do you have a bunch of “found footage” from 1988? Have the girls’ mother’s boyfriend be a wedding videographer, that’s how! It seems that Kristi’s imaginary friend Toby isn’t so imaginary. Do I really need to summarize the plot here? We all know what’s coming. I think that’s the core of the reason I liked this one so much more than part 2. After the first one, we were wise to what was going to be thrown our way. Something a little different had to be done. Part 2 tried to pretend to be a suspenseful, subtle slow burn creepfest like the first with some major effects thrown in. It was handled in such a hamfisted way, however, that it just seemed like a really bad remake of part one minus anything that had worked the first time around. In part three, they say “to hell with subtlety and trying to be like the first flick.” We get much more of a straight forward, broadly played ghost story, and the experience is much better for it.

This movie does lot of things right. It has the most likeable cast of characters of any flick yet in the series. The cast does a good job, particularly the two young girls. I loved the “fan-cam” idea. It showed what I like to call “stoner ingenuity” in the way it managed to not have all of the “unmanned” shots be static. The second flick tried to have the glacial pace of the first, but failed to create any suspense, making it a chore to sit through. PA3 has no suspense outside of a couple of isolated sequences, but the goings on are lively enough that it doesn’t get boring. There are a couple of “fake” scares that, while cheap, are brilliant in the way that they play with the audience’s expectations. One of them even got me. Yes, it was the first time a jump scare has worked on me in a good long while. Well played. The ending may be a little out of place, and may ape The Last Exorcism a bit, but it introduces an interesting new wrinkle into the story. It’s also nice to see the undeniable creep factor of Teddy Ruxpin finally put to good cinematic use.

That’s not to say that the flick is without its problems, however. The main issues are the gaping holes in the logic. In the 80’s, the kind of equipment and the sheer amount of video tapes this guy has would cost a damn fortune. Yet it is discussed in the flick how he has no money. Also, there are a lot of shots of him watching the footage and noticing something. He says at one point that he has 18 hours (one tape in each of 3 cameras) of footage to review every day. Are we supposed to believe that he has a camera on him at all times while watching the footage? Isn’t that stretching the believability of the found footage conceit a little bit past the breaking point? My other issue is the obligatory “running frantically through the dark house lit only by the camera light” scene, which I hate. Then again, calling a Paranormal Activity flick out about that would be like chiding a Halloween or Friday the 13th flick for having a girl fall down while being chased, now wouldn’t it?

One thing I don’t get is the trailer. Misleading trailers piss me off. Remember that cool shot of Adrian Brody with all of the triangle laser sights on him from Predators that wasn’t in the movie? That pissed me off. The cool shot of Machete with the coat full of knives? Not in the movie. The “McLovin/sexy hamburger” line, the cow from Twister, the circular saw shot from that terrible Stepfather remake? All not actually in their respective movies. This might be the worst offender ever though. Watch this trailer.

The knocking game isn’t in the movie. The burning house isn’t in the movie. Kristi jumping off of the banister isn’t either. Mother watching the footage? Nope. Mother saying “We’re getting out of here” before being drug through the air and thrown on the bed? AWOL. The whole scene of the water being thrown on the ghost? No es aqui. The demonologist/psychic/whatever the hell he is saying that it has something to do with her side of the family and being smashed into the table? That CHARACTER isn’t even in the movie. I’m not sure, so don’t quote me, but I don’t remember the “Carol Anne” line being in there either. What the hell? I have a feeling the burning house thing might play into later sequels because of a date discrepancy, but what happened to the rest of that stuff? I hate it when studios do that.

A lot of things about the story don’t add up in light of the events of part 3, particularly some of the things said about the girls mother in part 1 and 2. The filmmakers also left multiple avenues open for sequels. That fact coupled with PA3’s record breaking box office returns make it pretty obvious that this is just the beginning for this series. It’s the new Saw, and is destined to become a Halloween tradition for the next few years. Lets just hope it doesn’t follow Saw in the fact that 3 is the last good one. I’m hovering somewhere between one and one and a half severed thumbs up for this one, but I refuse to start doing quarter thumbs. Nathan says check it out.


Pete said...

I'm doing a PhD on this horror trend and if you think the filmmakers struggle to fill their 80-90 minute films with fresh ideas, spare a thought for me writing 100,000 words on these films. Haven't seen Apollo 18 yet and not really sure if it adds anything (except the setting) but there are so many of these types of film, it's hard to keep up! Home Movie and Exhibit A are two I watched recently but unless you really dig the style, maybe give them a miss!

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