Monday, September 19, 2016

BLAIR WITCH is an Enjoyable But Unremarkable Retread


- Growing up in a small town in suburban Connecticut, the world of Hollywood movie-making seemed like something that happened a world away. Though I loved writing and being creative, it didn't quite occur to me as a kid that "making movies" was in any way a valid potential career path. But several movies that I saw in high school and college began to change my perception, and made me think "hmm, maybe I could take a crack at that." One of those movies for me - and, I've got to imagine, for a whole generation of would-be filmmakers - was The Blair Witch Project. The idea that someone could go out into the woods and shoot a movie on a standard-issue video camera, in a home-movie style, but still tell a scripted, narrative story that was compelling and downright scary - that to me was an irresistibly awesome concept. Soon after seeing The Blair Witch Project, some friends and I - fellow camp counselors at the summer camp I worked at - took a camera into the woods behind my house and began crafting our own Blair Witch parody. I mean - wow! - we could make a movie on our own that looked just like an actual movie playing in theaters. Pretty damn cool. Plus, The Blair Witch Project completely fed into my growing fascination with stories that blurred the line between reality and fiction. Horror by its very nature bleeds into real-life. Made-up stories cause real fear, real phobias, real anxieties. Stories presented as folklore and urban legend make us unsure what's true and what's embellishment. So the logical extension are horror stories that present themselves as real. The Blair Witch Project did everything it could to present itself as real, and back then, in the days before social media, it was hard to debunk the movie's mythology. If you wanted to believe, you could. So while The Blair Witch Project wasn't the greatest horror movie, per se, it was and is one of the most influential. And now, we have another.

Unlike the quick-turnaround Blair Witch 2 - which tried to quickly capitalize on the success of the original by going full traditional-horror movie - BLAIR WITCH is a return to the found footage horror genre that the first film pioneered. In fact, BLAIR WITCH is a legit sequel to the original, picking up years later and following the younger brother of Heather from the first movie - now searching for his sister in hopes that she may still somehow be alive.

BLAIR WITCH comes to us from two of the absolute best in the biz right now when it comes to innovative genre filmmaking - director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. I'm a huge fan of this team, having previously raved about their horror movie You're Next and its follow-up, the genre-mash thriller The Guest. I was really excited to see what these guys would do with the Blair Witch franchise. But unfortunately, whether it was due to their own decision or due to studio mandate, what they do is essentially stick to the formula. BLAIR WITCH is almost too reverent of the original film - giving us extremely similar story beats and moments, but without the kind of innovation that would have allowed it to really stand on its own. Sure, there are the obligatory technology upgrades - our protagonists now have GPS and drone-cameras - but those additions feel somewhat tacked-on. It's a good example of innovative storytelling vs. simply modernizing. I think about the third Paranormal Activity movie, which wowed with the simple addition of its characters placing a camera on a rotating fan. Simple, but ingenious. Here, there was never that one amazing moment where I thought "wow, really cool use of that drone" or "clever way to integrate GPS into the story." If nothing else, all the tacked-on tech seems to sort of undermine the bare-bones, lost-in-the-woods feel that made the original so memorable.

My other issue here is that the movie is jump-scare overload. Which is weird, because Wingard's You're Next was part of the whole modern indie horror movement - a movement which seems to consciously try to avoid an over-reliance on jump-scares in favor of clever plotting and psychological depth. But yeah, BLAIR WITCH is jump-scare city, and worse, it's got tons of "fake" jump-scares that ultimately don't amount to anything - one of my biggest pet-peeves of the horror genre. That sort of speaks to the movie's overall feeling of messiness. I get that part of the whole found-footage aesthetic is the idea of making the viewer feel disoriented. But there's too much in BLAIR WITCH that feels random and arbitrary as opposed to part of a larger whole. Too many times when a loud noise gets everyone scared, where some unseen force causes the ground to quake, where an invisible entity drags someone around without any seeming endgame. It gives the movie a real funhouse feel. And I'm guessing that's what Wingard was going for - but again, it seems to be trying to pay homage to the original, yet missing a lot what made the original so effective. This movie's constant barrage of sound and fury and nonstop pace made me better appreciate the more methodical, grounded approach of the original.

What might have made BLAIR WITCH more interesting is if it really went full-tilt in another direction from the first film, and just went as weird and trippy as possible. The movie shows hints of a strange side that never quite materializes. There are a couple of scenes of gross-out body horror that don't ever really reach a notable climax. There are some interesting concepts around time and time-loops (seriously) that momentarily perked me up, but that are never really developed. Basically, you kind of get the sense that Wingard and co had some out-there concepts that they wanted to explore in this movie, but ultimately we mostly just get teases that don't really pay-off.

So is the new BLAIR WITCH a total dud? I wouldn't go that far. It's entertaining for what it is - a shake-you-'til-you're-dizzy thrill ride. The characters all work well, and the dynamic between them is strong. James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez are solid leads. And what actually works best about the movie is its first half - when things are still mysterious and we're getting bits and pieces of the movie's mythology doled out to us via hushed campfire chats and friendly banter that takes a turn for the spooky. When BLAIR WITCH does allow time for quieter moments, it really seems to work well. I'm just not sure that it does as well with its more frenetic segments. Overly long and dizzyingly-staged, the movie's chase and escape scenes don't exactly play well to the strengths of found-footage.

I enjoyed BLAIR WITCH overall - and I'm guessing that those too young to have seen the original will get an extra kick out of seeing this concept play out for the first time. Certainly, there are moments in this one that bring to mind the magic of the first film. But there also isn't all that much that's truly unique or memorable. A fun ride and a serviceable nostalgia trip, but also a bit of a step backwards for the Wingard/Barrett duo (the most Wingard/Barrett thing about the movie was probably its stealth, viral marketing campaign - in which the movie formerly known as "The Woods" was revealed to in fact be a surprise Blair Witch sequel). When given free reign to innovate, these guys are among the best in the biz. But even they can't make this Blair Witch retread a must-see.

My Grade: B-

Thursday, September 15, 2016

THE SHALLOWS Has Unexpected Bite


- Believe it: THE SHALLOWS is one of the most purely fun movies of 2016 so far - a knowingly ridiculous thriller that is pure pulpy goodness. Director Jaume Collet-Serra is the real deal - a pop-art maestro who crafts a film both gorgeous to look at and unafraid to play up the absurdity inherent in its premise. On the surface, THE SHALLOWS may have looked, via its standard-issue marketing, like a standard-issue shark-attack movie. But dive deeper, and you'll find an expertly-crafted popcorn flick that proved to be one of the best see-it-with-an-audience movies of the summer. 

The premise of the film is extremely simple: Blake Lively plays Nancy - a thrill-seeking surfer who travels with her friend to a secluded beach, in search of its legendary waves (Point Break-style). But Nancy ends up surfing solo when her friend gets sick. Bad move: it turns out that these waters are shark infested - with one particularly sinister shark intent on preying on any human stupid enough to invade its turf. Nancy learns this lesson too late, and finds herself hopelessly stranded on a protruding rock far from shore. Now, she's got to figure out a way to get out of the ocean without becoming shark-food. 

Without spoiling too much, I will say that what makes THE SHALLOWS so fun is that it falls into maybe my favorite sub-genre of horror movie: one in which the would-be victim gets tough and decides to fight back against his or her tormentor. Blake Lively's character has major agency in this movie, and the result is that a film that could have been generic horror instead becomes a two-sided fight to the finish. One of the script's smartest moves is making Nancy a capable med student who has the ability to treat her own wounds as well as, in general, think on her feet. That's not to say that Nancy doesn't spend a lot of the movie in grave danger. But it is to say that this is ultimately a survival movie - and a lot of the fun comes from Nancy thinking through her situation, coming up with ways to elude and outsmart the predator that stalks her in the open water.

Fun is a great word to describe THE SHALLOWS in general. The movie fully embraces its pulpy sensibilities, with a dark sense of humor that I wasn't expecting. When I saw this in the theater, one guy sitting near me kept laughing in a semi-disgruntled fashion, thinking he was smarter than the movie. How wrong he was. THE SHALLOWS is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what it's doing, and intentionally goes big with moments meant to illicit shock and laughter. There's one darkly funny moment - in which a particularly obnoxious local gets his just desserts - that is one of the greatest "holy $%&#!" moments of any movie I've seen this year. Similarly, the climactic Nancy-vs.-shark battle is just so satisfyingly done. Over the top and pretty silly, sure, but in a way that is just spot-on in terms of knowingly-winky, B-movie awesomeness.

For her part, Blake Lively is quite good in this. I haven't always loved her performances in other films, but she is perfectly cast here - and I think her experience on a self-referential CW show like Gossip Girl comes in handy in THE SHALLOWS. Lively handles the film's B-movie tone well. And, let's face it, she is pretty much the embodiment of the quintessential surfer-girl - so she seems at home playing this character. You've also got to give her credit for handling the movie's rough-and-tumble physicality with ease and style.

Jaume Collet-Serra makes the movie - for all its B-movie pulpiness - look absolutely amazing. No way would THE SHALLOWS work as well as it does if not for Collet-Serra's ability to mix gorgeous tropical scenery with a palpable sense of dread and horror. And like I said, the guy has a sense of humor to boot. But man, this has to be one of the best-looking B-movies ever made.

I can't emphasize enough how pleasant of a surprise THE SHALLOWS was. Just an incredibly fun, tightly-spun woman-vs.-shark survival thriller. Watch it with a group if you can.

My Grade: A-

Monday, September 12, 2016

GHOSTBUSTERS Doesn't Quite Answer the Call


- No other movie this summer was the subject of more controversy than Ghostbusters. A remake of a beloved classic is always going to push the buttons of fans of the original - but the vitriol towards Paul Fieg's franchise reboot took on especially ugly tone - as a contingent of fans zeroed in on the new movie's all-female cast as the subject of their scorn. There's a lot to unpack here, for better or worse. So let's take a step back and look at the context in which this new Ghostbusters came to be. The thing is - personally, I don't like remakes and reboots, and wish Hollywood would produce less of them. Sure, you occasionally end up with a great movie - but even in those cases, you wonder if the material would have been better served creatively if it was allowed to be its own thing. Surely, there must be someone out there who has a wholly original take on supernatural crime-fighters that would not be beholden to what has come before. Then there's the issue of the Ghostbusters franchise itself. I'll be honest, I've never been 100% onboard. The fact is, the first movie is a really fun, funny example of genre-blending - mixing the snarky comedy of 70's/80's-era SNL with the high-concept, big-budget event-driven filmmaking that, at the time of the original film, was reaching its nadir. But as much as I enjoy Ghostbusters, it was never a movie that, for me, screamed "franchise." Maybe that's partly due to the disappointing second film. Maybe it's because, in general, comedies tend not to work as franchises. Maybe it's because it's now been decades since the original film, and Ghostbusters, in 2016, felt more like a piece of 80's nostalgia than a living, breathing fictional universe. Point being: whether the new movie was a sequel, remake, reboot, whatever - it would have taken something really cool, really creative, to get me that excited for more ghost bustin'.

But here's the flip-side: if you take the view that Hollywood will inevitably remake everything, then the extension of that is that, hey, they might as well do so in a way that's new and different and perhaps more inclusive of women and minorities than the original source material. So even if the idea of more Ghsotbusters never really excited me that much, period ... well, it's still cool that there are girls who will be getting four new jumpsuit-clad heroes of their own with this new movie.

But all of that meta-baggage aside, there's still the basic question of: is the movie good? And as far as Paul Feig's GHOSTBUSTERS goes, the movie is ... sort of okay. Ultimately, this is a movie that is 100% carried by its funny, uber-capable cast - an all-star lineup of some of the funniest females on the planet. Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and most especially Kate McKinnon elevate the movie and bring it to life by sheer force of will. Because, unfortunately, the script here is pretty inert, and the jokes tend to fall flat more often than they hit. But McKinnon, in particular, kills despite that, crafting a memorable character by constantly giving us little, outside-the-script moments that make us laugh, smile, and pretty much love everything about her insane and insanely-awesome character of Holtzmann. Holtzmann wins us over with each successive wild-eyed glance, mischievous smile, and gun-licking quirk. She's the best thing in the movie, and a testament to McKinnon's ability as a comedic performer. She's been SNL's MVP for the last few years, and should easily and quickly make the post-SNL transition to bonafide movie star. She's the real-deal.

But especially now, as I write this with the benefit of hindsight, I think back and am sort of amazed at how little of GHOSTBUSTERS has stuck with me in the weeks since I originally saw it. Really, the main takeaway for me was, to re-state the obvious, that Kate McKinnon was/is awesome. But that aside, what else does the new GHOSTBUSTERS really have to offer?

Certainly, it does not give us a memorable villain. Neil Casey's squirmy Rowan is utterly forgettable, and his convoluted evil plans make little sense. There are very little emotional stakes in the Ghostbusters' fight with him, and he's just sort of ... lame. At least the movie occasionally dazzles from a visual perspective, giving us some cool-looking ghosts for our heroes to do battle with. But even there, the film provides some short bursts of inspired visuals (like Holtzman's climactic slo-mo ghost-battle late in the film), but at times, it also feels a bit flat and less atmospheric than it should. I'm not asking for Crimson Peak here (okay, I guess I sort of am), but the movie almost never feels genuinely *creepy* in the way I wanted it to.

It also, sadly, struggles with comedy. Like I said, the movie's funniest moments are the ones that feel improvised - that feel like off-script stuff thrown in by McKinnon, etc. But the overall joke writing here is somewhat flat. There's no "cross the streams" moment that will be quoted for the rest of time immemorial. Weirdly, the movie also seems to put some major restraints on its talent. While McKinnon gets to be the breakout weirdo, and Lesli Jones gets to be Lesli Jones (a good thing, no question), Melissa McCarthy and Kristin Wiig both seem underserved by the script. They play straight-women to an extent that is sort of surprising. Wiig's Erin Gilbert is a tightly-wound professor who's long repressed her obsession with ghosts due to the level of professional embarrassment it caused. So of course, it's only a matter of time until she cracks and comes out of her shell, right? Not really. Other than one sorta-funny dance scene, Wiig spends the whole movie playing a pretty boring character. Trust me, I am all for Wiig playing more nuanced, subtle characters. I was a giant fan of her work with Bill Hader in the movie Skeleton Twins, for example. But this is GHOSTBUSTERS. This is not the movie in which I want a restrained Kristin Wiig - or a Wiig, for that matter, who barely even gets off a great comedic line of dialogue for the movie's entire running time. Surprisingly, it's Chris Hemsworth - as the Ghostbusters' dimwitted secretary - who gets the movie's most over-the-top and consistently funny lines. Hemsworth is great here, no question. But mostly, his stuff feels tangential to the main movie. As funny as he is, the movie would have been better off devoting less time to Hemsworth's antics and more time to its leading ladies, to its plot, and to its villain.

I don't want to undermine that, on one level, this version of GHOSTBUSTERS is a success simply in that it presents a mostly pretty-fun comedic romp starring some very naturally funny and charismatic women. Perhaps there is a net positive here in that girls will watch this movie and find the same sort of kick-ass, lovably weird role models that a generation of guys found when the original movie was released. Maybe that's enough. But I'm also not sure that this movie is really good or funny enough to leave that same sort of cultural impact in its wake. Time will tell, I guess. But if this movie is not the touchstone that Feig and co. wanted it to be - well, that's okay. Girls don't need a dusting-off of a decades-old franchise to be their touchstone. Someone out there will create something new and different and better that will be that thing. It's only a matter of time.

My Grade: C+