Tag Archives: found footage

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2015)

The-Taking-of-Deborah-Logan

I’ve got way too many movies to review, so I thought I’d start with the remaining 2015 films first so I can at least fulfill my promise of punching out my Best Of and Worst Of lists.

Kicking off the home stretch is The Taking of Deborah Logan, a recommendation from my sister. It’s a found-footage horror movie that has received surprisingly positive reviews from critics (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, though only from a sample size of 6) but also one few people have even heard of.

The premise is interesting at least — a PhD student (played by the familiar face of Michelle Ang — I had to look her up to realise that she was Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movies!) decides to record the everyday life of an Alzheimer’s patient (Jill Larson). Things start off innocently enough until strange shit starts to go down, and it seems Alzheimer’s might not be the correct diagnosis after all.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is not bad as far as found-footage horror flicks go. There are moments of genuine horror, and the special effects are done well enough (despite the low budget that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb). There’s one image near the end that The performances, especially from Larson, are also unexpectedly decent.

That said, it’s still a found-footage horror movie, and at the end of the day, it’s just a variation of the same old crap. There’s the slow build up, the filler moments, the little scares here and there in the beginning that rely on well-trodden horror tropes, etc etc. And of course, there’s some unnecessary and convoluted explanation for everything and you have an “all hell breaks loose” climax at the end.

While the film is definitely not as infuriating as other found-footage horrors in recent years, The Taking of Deborah Logan still doesn’t do enough to fully separate itself from the pack. A nice premise, a couple of decent shocks and scary images don’t make up for the shittiness of the gimmick.

2.5 stars out of 5

Jeruzalem (2015)

Jeruzalem

Found-footage movies still ain’t my thing, and probably never will, but if I must watch them, then Jeruzalem is closer to how I think they should be.

The premise is typical: a couple of young American girls head to Israel for a holiday of fun and healing. They meet a cute guy who they follow to majestic Jerusalem, and have a great time until some crazy scary shit goes down. The Z in the title offers a pretty obvious suggestion as to what kind of movie this is, though it turned out to be more creative and unconventional than I expected it to be. Can’t say more than that.

The smartest thing about Jeruzalem is that the entire film is recorded on a pair of smart glasses (basically a generic Google Glass), avoiding annoying hand-held cameras and associated problems such as continuing to record while running for their lives and keeping the camera operating at all times. And to change perspective, the film simply has one character hand the glasses to another, so you don’t just get stuck with one person the entire time. So kudos for that coming up with that idea, something I’ve actually alluded to in the past.

Unfortunately, smart glasses can’t avoid the issue of queasi-cam and confusing-cam — in fact, it’s sometimes even more nauseating and confusing to watch when the character is running or even just going up and down a staircase. It sucks, but I still consider it an improvement.

The other issue I have with found-footage horrors us that they mainly rely on boring and pointless time fillers for at least the first half of the movie. Jeruzalem is better in this regard because it is supported by a couple of advantages — the intrigue of smart glasses applications and the beauty of Jerusalem itself. Smart glasses will probably never take off, meaning most of us will likely never get to use one, so I found it kind of cool to see what they can do, from Facebook facial recognition to watching videos, conducting research and utilising Google Maps. The good thing is that these features are integrated into the story and actually serve a purpose, so they don’t come across as mere gimmicks.

And I’d love to visit Jerusalem in my lifetime, but if I don’t get the opportunity, I’m glad I at least got to see it a bit in this movie. It’s very different to what I expected, from how it looks to the culture of the place. These things helped the film sustain my interest for the first half, though I still felt it was too long for an 89-minute running time. I felt it would have been prudent to shift the ratio around so that the shit hits the fan earlier and the typical “character development” stuff gets shortened.

As for whether the movie is scary — well, it’s okay. There’s a solid mix of jump scares, creepiness and disgusting gore, though I personally did not find it particularly frightening. That said, I’ve seen these tactics so many times that I’ve become practically immune, so others may have a different experience.

Again, I liked the ideas, but there is no shortage of contrivances inserted to drive the narrative, which I found irritating and lacking in realism. A couple of sequences — one involving a mysterious cloaked figure and another involving a mental institution — came across as especially ridiculous.

The performances from the largely unknown cast are a mixed bag. Tael Grobglas is the standout as the blonde friend, while Yon Tumarkin is adequate as the young man who leads the girls into the walled city. Danielle Jadelyn, however, is underwhelming as the lead, Sarah, though fortunately she’s behind the camera most of the time so we don’t get to see her a whole lot.

On the whole, I thought Jeruzalem had plenty of positives considering it’s yet another entry in the stale found-footage genre. It’s a nice idea to have smart glasses replace traditional cameras, and it also chose a great location and had some interesting creature designs, but still the film unfortunately failed to live up to its potential in other aspects. Nonetheless, it’s definitely one of the less regrettable found-footage experiences I’ve had in years.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Visit (2015)

the visit

M Night is back, baby! And I wish I could say I’m loving every minute of it!

Sure, his career may have gone down the shitter in recent years, but I’ll always be a Shyamalan apologist. I mean, come on, he made The Sixth Sense, one of the most memorable ghost movies ever — with one of the most iconic lines ever (“I see dead people”) — before turning 30! He made one of my all-time sneaky favourite films with Unbreakable, and while I didn’t enjoy Signs as much as some people, I really loved The Village, warts and all. Even his subsequent panned films, like The Happening and the infamous The Last Airbender, were in my opinion not as bad as their reputations suggest. Sadly, though, even I can’t vouch for After Earth and of course, Lady in the Water. Those two were pure garbage.

And so I was naturally looking forward to his new movie, The Visit, a return to the horror genre and a supposed “return to form” for Shyamalan, according to the early critic and audience buzz.

Adding to the fascination is the fact that I’m currently reading the book The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger, a surprisingly in-depth look into the well-publicised drama surrounding Shyamalan’s production of Lady in the Water. To be honest, I was looking forward to reading what an egotistical douche he is, but I’m actually finding it quite difficult to dislike him. I’ll be reviewing the book on my writing blog once I’m through with it.

Anyway, back to the movie. The Visit is about a pair of siblings (played by young Aussies Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who go visit grandparents they’ve never met before because their divorced mother had a falling out with them many years ago. The elderly grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem nice enough at first, but soon strange and creepy things start to happen.

First of all, I think the biggest mistake Shyamalan made was in framing The Visit as a found-footage film. He could have made this movie as a conventional horror movie and I think it would have worked great, but instead he uses a contrivance — the sister wants to film a documentary about the visit — to make sure everything is caught on camera.

As with all found-footage films, credibility becomes a problem when things get a little crazy. Characters stubbornly hold on to their cameras and continue filming even when they should be pissing themselves or running for their lives, or the camera needs to be conveniently placed or dropped in perfect spots to “accidentally” capture the action. I hate this tactic and I’ve always hated it. No one’s been fooled by a found-footage film since The Blair Witch Project, and the stupidity must stop. Now!

That said, Shyamalan is too good of a director for The Visit to be a bad film. He’s always been masterful at creating atmosphere, and this time it’s no different. Shyamalan dials the creepiness up early on and keeps cranking it up higher and higher as the film progresses. Most of the scare tricks are not new, but to Shyamalan’s credit they can be quite effective thanks to skillful execution. They are also frequent enough, which immediately distinguishes the film from other found-footage horrors where the first three-quarters are all time fillers, red herrings and false alarms.

Since this is an M Night Shyamalan film, the question that everyone will ask is whether it has a big twist. I’m not going to answer that, of course, but I do think that aspect of his movies are over-emphasized. Just about every movie these days — and especially horror movies — has some sort of twist thrown in. What separates Shyamalan from the pack is not that his twists are “better”, it’s just that he is so much better at sleight of hand and creating diversions than most other directors.

So as a found-footage horror, The Visit is excellent, certainly notches above any of the Paranormal Activity movies and recent efforts like The Pyramid, Demonic, The Gallows, Devil’s Due and As Above, So Below. Sadly, though, I can’t bring myself to call The Visit a great film in the absence of such a caveat.

Apart from the fatal found-footage error, one of the issues I had was with the two kids. They’re just not very likable protagonists. The sister is bearable, but the brother is plain annoying. I found all his rapping more cringeworthy than funny. As a result it’s not easy to root for them. I also didn’t think the “character development” sequence in the middle of the film really worked either. Shyamalan doesn’t seem to be able to pin their characters down — they’re too mature one minute and too immature and naive the next.

Tonally, the film has a few glitches too. There is a surprising amount of humour, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. When it works, it helps relieve tension, but when it doesn’t it’s just awkward and harms the atmosphere Shyamalan has been trying to build up.

I also didn’t think the climax was executed as well as it could have been, with one decision in particular being a real head~scratcher as it sapped the scene of the tension it needed. The found-footage format was an obvious exacerbator.

Ultimately, The Visit ended up being a bit of a disappointment, though I’m glad Shyamalan toned down his ambitions with this stripped-down little horror flick. I guess when your reputation is in the dumps, anything half-decent movie can be considered a return to form. For me, while the film had its moments, there were too many poor decisions along the way — starting with the found-footage BS — to elevate it into the upper echelons of the Shyamalan catalogue. If you are a fan of found-footage films like Paranormal Activity, then there’s a good chance you’ll love The Visit. But since I’m not, I think it’s just a slightly-above-average film overall.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gallows (2015)

the gallows
The poster and the teaser trailers looked promising

Hory shet. Just when you thought found footage movies could not possibly get worse, here comes The Gallows, a strong contender for worst film of the year. I was stunned it got a theatrical release because you can grab any low budget horror movie off the video store shelf and it’ll be more watchable than this piece of shit.

The crazy thing is that the premise of the film isn’t that bad. In 1993, a school play called The Gallows results in the accidental death of a student when a prop error turned a fake hanging into a real one. Twenty years later, a new production gets underway, and a bunch of students end up trapped in the school as a malevolent force comes after them. There four main characters are: a footballer (Reese Mishler) who decides to star in the play so he can get close to his crush (Pfeifer Brown), his jackass friend who’s a bit of a bully and dickhead (Ryan Shoos), and the friend’s cheerleader girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford).

It’s not a great storyline, but it’s a workable one (if you ignore why the same school would ever want to stage the same production). And yet The Gallows manages to make the worst of it. For starters, it has no business being a found-footage film. It should have just been a “normal” horror film. Instead, the filmmakers had to come up with a lame excuse for some student to film everything. And yes, he films and films no matter what is happening. That alone makes the film lose all credibility, and what makes it worse is that the shoddy camerawork renders the visuals practically unwatchable. People who get nauseated from hand-held footage are warned watch at their own peril. Actually, that goes for people who don’t get nauseated from hand-held footage too.

Nothing makes sense. It makes no sense that a kid who has nothing to do with the school play would be filming it during rehearsals. It makes no sense why he would be filming when he’s badly hurt or running for his life. It makes no sense why they would want to break into school to trash the set. It makes no sense why some of the characters end up at the school with them. And it certainly makes no sense why anyone wanting to do something illegal would film the whole damn thing from start to finish. It’s one pathetic contrivance after another.

On top of all that, the film is not scary at all. Even ignoring that it’s just about impossible to follow what is happening on the screen at times, the tricks are ones we’ve seen a zillion times before. People freak out for no reason and walk around in silence for ages before some unseen entity snatches one of them into the darkness. Rinse and repeat.

Add to the dung heap a dose of bad acting, a lot of bad dialogue and completely undeveloped characters no one gives a shit about — oh and a laughably bad ending — and what you end up with is this sorry excuse for a movie that should never have seen the light of day. It may have been made on a shoestring budget of US$100,000, but that’s no excuse. It’s the worst. The worst.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Area 51 (2015)

Area 51

There was a time I was semi-obsessed with Area 51, the alleged secret US military base in the Nevada desert where alien secrets dating back to Roswell are said to be stashed. And so I thought I’d give the film Area 51 with an attitude akin to how I approach UFO sightings these days — sceptical but hopeful.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be even worse than what I thought it would be. In short, Area 51 epitomises everything wrong with the found footage sub-genre. It uses every trite tactic in the book, looks cheap, feels cheaper, uses little-known actors to play stock characters spewing pathetic dialogue, and most of all, offers zero scares, thrills or creativity.

The premise is as formulaic as you imagined. A bunch of young people decide to break into Area 51 to uncover the alien conspiracy and government lies. Despite been terrified of getting caught and going to jail, they do a lot of stupid illegal stuff and record it all on cameras while complaining about it the whole time.

As it turns out, security at Area 51 is worse than your local supermarket, allowing the teens to get in with ease. They see a lot of lame stuff they try to trick you into thinking is impressive with their fake excitement and shock, before — you guessed it — aliens break out and start killing people.

The film’s whole idea of horror is people running around with shaky cameras while breathing loudly. That and brief glimpses of a “monster” before people are suddenly snatched away are pretty much the only two tactics of the entire movie. I guess I should not have been surprised given that it is directed by Oren Peli, whose previous directorial effort was the first Paranormal Activity.

The characters do stupid stuff and say stupid things non-stop, such as “What’s that noise?”, “Where’s that sound coming from?”, and my personal favourite, “Do you think we should be here?”

Shamefully, the film doesn’t even offer much legitimate information about the real Area 51, or at least what sources believe the place is like. Come on, at least educate us a little.

So yeah, Area 51 is a flaming turd, a combination of everything that annoys me about movies. I disliked it immensely.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Project Almanac (2015)

Project-Almanac-poster

Found-footage movies just need to die. Not next year, not tomorrow. Now. The gimmick isn’t not fooling anyone anymore and hasn’t for a long time, and any perceived benefits are heavily outweighed by the forced and nonsensical execution, the vomit-inducing shakiness and the way it cheapens the overall feel.

And so it’s not hard to guess that I think the found-footage approach ruins Project Almanac, an otherwise barely-passable teen travel movie. There are some interesting ideas early on, though when you break it down it’s really a fairly pedestrian effort that doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before in the genre.

Directed by Dean Israelite, who has reportedly been selected for the new Power Rangers reboot, Project Almanac  tells the story of high school inventor David (Jonny Weston), who discovers the blueprint to build a time machine in his basement left behind by his late father. After some trial and error, David and his sister (Virginia Gardner), his friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner), and the girl he pine after (Sofia Black D’Elia) start using the machine to go back in time and fulfill their dreams.

The best way to describe Project Almanac is a mix between Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect. The film wants to capture the slick style of Chronicle with the found-footage approach and the change the teen characters go through as they struggle to deal with the inheritance of a grew power (and thus responsibility). It also takes, quite directly, the time-travel concept of The Butterfly Effect in that every decision we make creates ripples we might not expect.

All that is fine; there are almost no truly original films these days anyway. The problems with Project Almanac have more to do with the script and the execution. I don’t need to discuss how annoying the found-footage thing is again. It doesn’t add to the realism and is a complete distraction. It just makes no sense why they would film some of the scenes that exist in the movie.

Secondly, the film wastes far too much time testing the time machine. It’s pretty obvious they’ll eventually get it to work, or else that would make one very lame movie, so what’s the point of showing us failure after failure — other than padding time and showing off special effects?

Thirdly, the film gets bogged down by a toothless and predictable romance. It’s embarrassing that something so boring and cringeworthy could end up being such a pivotal device in the film, and what makes it worse is that the human reactions to it make zero sense, especially for people who are supposed to be intelligent.

Fourthly, there are some obvious logic gaps in the time travel concept that are never explained. Time travel movies usually involve actually changing the past and thus changing the future, or finding out that time is a loop you may think you are changing but can’t. Project Almanac inexplicably adopts both.

The one thing I will give the film credit for is the way it depicts that exhilaration of discovering you have he ability to change the past, and how the characters first decide to take advantage of this power. Think about what you might do if you were an American teenager, and it’s probably not that far off. I found this part of the film, at least at the start of it, rather satisfying, and it’s a shame the plot later descended down the wrong path.

Project Almanac is not without its moments, but on the whole there are just too many flaws that bring it down, with the annoying found footage gimmick being arguably the biggest culprit.

2 stars out of 5

Battle of the found-footage horrors: Devil’s Due (2014) vs Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

My disdain for found footage horror films is well documented. But as often is the case, I am gullible and always get sucked into watching more because people tell me “This one’s good”.

Apparently, two new ones released this year, Devil’s Due — basically a found footage version of Rosemary’s Baby — and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — the gazillionth entry in the worst movie franchise of all time, are “good”, or at least “better” than the other ones, given the trash we’ve seen in recent years. To me, that’s like asking which animal’s turd smells the best.

And so I am surprised to say, both of these films are actually, genuinely, “better” than most found footage horrors I’ve seen over the years. Not to say they are good, but they’re not hair-pulling terrible for once. I’ve decided to pit the two against each other to see which one is less bad.

Devils Due (2014)

devil's due

I don’t agree with the idea that you can’t remake a classic like Rosemary’s Baby, and  I don’t have a problem with a semi-remake in the more contemporary found footage style. After all, I’ve seen the new Zoe Saldana mini-series remake that was released recently and it was atrocious, so I’m not against taking a fresher approach.

The premise is fairly typical — a young married couple head to the Dominican Republic for their honeymoon and are tricked/drugged by locals before participating in some kind of satanic ritual. And boom, the wife is pregnant, and the rest of the film plays out plot points that are eerily similar to Rosemary’s Baby, complete with the paranoia and the raw meat eating. The ending, to the filmmakers’ credit, is different, going for the sensational climax as opposed to Rosemary’s Baby’s muted horror. But it’s not better, with the special effects on the low-budget end, and the final scenes are about as cliched as they come.

If you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby then there might be something to take away from this film, even though the ending is nowhere near as chilling. The acting is not bad and there are some genuinely creepy moments that are by and large better than the scares you get from the Paranormal Activity franchise. And while it is strictly speaking a straight-up horror flick there is a sense of fun and humour injected throughout.

But my two main problems with the film are: (1) the story is too derivative; and (2) it struggles, like most found-footage films do, to justify the constant use of hand-held cameras. I liked the idea of splicing the footage with CCTV and security cameras, etc, but there’s just no logical explanation why anyone would keep filming in circumstances the characters find themselves in. It takes away the realism the film is trying so hard to achieve.

2.5 stars out of 5

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Paranormal-Activity-The-Marked-Ones-Poster

I don’t know what’s more frightening: the fact that they’ve made yet another Paranormal Activity movie or that the franchise is so successful that they are now making spin-offs. Either way, we’ve got one, and it’s arguably better than all the other ones.

As I understand it, The Marked Ones is the first in the franchise that departs from the same old “haunted house” formula, but it still could not help itself from being somehow tied to the convoluted storyline that involves the woman with the big boobs (Katie Featherston) from all the other entries in the series. The reason they made it was to appeal to the Latin American market, but the vast majority of the film is in English.

The plot focuses on a bunch of Latino teenagers in California who break into a neighbour’s apartment following a murder. In there they find some weird shit, including VHS tapes and journals containing spells. Of course, strange things start to happen to the characters from there, including superhuman strength, behavioural abnormalities and other paranormal activity ripped straight from the X-Files. They investigate, stuff gets escalated, and eventually the shit hits the fan. What a surprise.

The reason I liked it a little more than the others is because it feels different. I never found the original Paranormal Activity all that scary, but there were at least some decent moments. By the time you got to the second, third and fourth films, there was never anything new. It was always the boring formula of filler, filler filler, false alarm scare, filler, filler filler filler, false alarm scare, filler filler filler, crazy screaming ending. Always.

The Marked Ones throws a bit more of a curved ball at audiences, with hints of witchcraft and occurrences that take place outside of the usual confined space of the family home. The tricks are not all that creative — it’s the typical gradual “possession” narrative — but at least they breathe life into a franchise that never really had much to begin with. There were a few more unexpected scares as well, plus the occasional successful attempt at generating a creepy atmosphere, though on the whole I still feel like I wasted 84 minutes of my life.

It’s not clear why the kids had to film everything even when they are scared out of their pants, but by this stage it’s pointless to ask.

2 stars out of 5

PS: I’d avoid both, but if I had to make a decision I’d say Devil’s Due gets the nod over The Marked Ones (but at least it still earned the best rating I’ve ever given to a Paranormal Activity film).

Movie Review: Chronicle (2011)

Doesn't this remind you of something?

I’m usually not a fan of pretend home-made video movies shot with hand-held cameras that are supposedly pieced together from “found footage”. I find the concept gimmicky, contrived and overdone, and most of all the constant shaking makes me nauseas.

Accordingly, while it might not say a whole lot, Chronicle may very well be the best film of this type that I have ever seen. Surprisingly and unexpectedly, I should add.

The premise of Chronicle is simple. Seattle teenager Andrew starts filming his life. His mother is dying of cancer and his dad is an alcoholic. Life is not much fun for him – until, of course, a discovery (which is never fully explained) which gives him, his cousin Matt and his friend Steve, totally freaking awesome superpowers.

I won’t go too much into what kind of powers they are but if you’ve ever played the game Infamous on the PS3 then you’ll have a bit of an idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure that game had at least a bit of an influence on this film.

Anyway, as Andrew and his friends learn to harness their powers and become more and more powerful, things inevitably start to get out of hand.

What I particularly liked about the film, apart from the fact that it’s damn entertaining, is that it’s not about superheroes. It’s not about making the world a better place or saving it. There’s none of that “with great power comes great responsibility” crap. These are immature teenage kids who suddenly find out they can rule the world – what do you think they would do? What do you think you would do? If anything, this is a film about the corruptive nature of inheriting too much power for one’s own good.

The film works because it doesn’t try to be “big”. For the most part, it operates within the confines of the teenagers’ lives and the issues accompanied by their daily problems, such as bullying, rebellion, girls, popularity, and so forth. This gives the story a more personal feel and makes it more relatable to viewers.

The short 83-minute running time is another plus, keeping the story progression tight and compact. There are very few “time fillers” in this movie, unlike say all the films in the Paranormal Activity franchise. An extra 20 minutes could have completely ruined this movie, so kudos to debut director Josh Trank for knowing when enough is enough.

The actors are largely unknowns (I had never seen any of them) but they give natural performances. Good enough to pass the “home video” test, anyway.

The real stars are the special effects, which are essentially seamless and added an additional layer of realism to the film. The stuff the kids do in the film is incredible, but never did I feel like I was watching digital effects while they were doing them.

As for the nausea, the film made a very clever choice to keep the camera as still as possible (for the most part) and used an ingenious method of justifying it. If you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean.

Chronicle might not be “superb”, but it’s a rare film that manages to make the home video/found footage idea work, and for that I give it…

4 out of 5 stars!