Blair Witch (2016)

2017 #66
Adam Wingard | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada & USA / English | 15 / R

Blair Witch

Twists in movies come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the marketing. This latest film from the writer-director team behind You’re Next and The Guest was initially promoted as The Woods, only for its true name to be revealed at the first public screening. Quite neatly, during said screening they switched all the posters in the lobby for ones featuring the real title. It’s a shame it wasn’t possible to give every viewer that “oh shit, it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project!” surprise, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about the film.

Set however-many years after the original movie (and ignoring the first sequel, just like the rest of us have), it’s about the younger brother of one of the original missing documentary-makers, who comes to believe that his sister is still alive, somehow, in those woods, all these years later. So he sets out with a couple of friends to investigate, and of course one of them documents it, using all sorts of cameras — handheld, body mounted, even a drone. So, yes, this is once again a found footage movie. Well, they are all the rage.

In fairness, the first Blair Witch was the father of found footage, so it only makes sense to retain the form. However, I’d argue that everything that worked about the original movie did so because of how it was filmed — that the cast had been put in that situation ‘for real’ and the filmmakers were fucking with them. It gave it all a rough plausibility, which is largely what made it scary. Conversely, this Blair Witch feels scripted and constructed from the off. That’s fine for most movies, even found footage ones, but here it stands in sharp contrast to how the original worked, and I think it undermines this movie. Almost everything feels inevitable, and you know all the important stuff will be captured on camera (at least one major stunt in the original film was missed because the scared actors didn’t happen to point the camera at it).

A deserted house in the middle of a creepy forest? What could possibly go wrong!

As a horror movie, it does achieve moments that are kind of scary, but they’re undercut by a certain obviousness. I mean, of course a deserted house in the woods is scary when you know there’s a murderous witch inside and you’re limited to seeing it only from one character’s torchbeam-lit perspective. The whole movie is powered by similarly cheap jump scares: friends creeping up on each other; cameras glitching whenever they’re turned off; or, indeed, on — that kind of thing. The only genuinely terrifying bit, at least to me, was a final-act crawl through an underground tunnel. This is not a good movie for claustrophobics. And it only gets worse when you learn they made the actress do it for real.

In some ways Blair Witch is just a remake — a bunch of young people running around in the woods from something scary that we don’t see. Early on it seems like it will bring something interesting to the party with its use of new technology to update the concept: whereas in the original they had one simple video camera, here there are ear-cams with GPS, webcams they can mount in trees, even a drone. Sadly, none of these contribute anything except more angles for the editor to use. Plot-wise there’s a shiny new twist, though I wonder how many people guessed it a long time before the end. Credit to the filmmakers for not overplaying it — it’s there just to be noticed; it’s not highlighted when it’s revealed — but I was so expecting it that such credit doesn’t get them far.

Eh, that's a bit of a reach

According to, er, themselves in their commentary track, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually had a lot of interesting ideas about and explanations for the inexplicable stuff that’s going on in the movie. Unfortunately, they buried these notions so deeply in the finished work that it feels as if they’re not there at all; and now there’ll be no sequel to expound upon them, and the guys were in such a bitter mood when they recorded the commentary (within days of the film being a critical and box office flop) that they don’t explain them, apparently out of spite. Well, I guess we’ll have to take their word for it, then.

Maybe if they had bothered to explore the implications of their new tossed-in ideas then there’d be something to appreciate here, but instead it’s just 80 minutes (and it feels longer) of shaky footage of people running around in the dark. I suppose that, as a horror film, some of it works in the most literal sense of being scary in the moment. But it doesn’t feel earned; it doesn’t feel like it’ll be haunting me later, in the way the most effective horror movies do — in the way the ending of the first Blair Witch did.

2 out of 5

Blair Witch will be available on Netflix UK from tomorrow. It’s also currently available to rent on Amazon UK at a discount for Prime members as part of Prime Day.

The Visit (2015)

2016 #124
M. Night Shyamalan | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The VisitAfter a sidestep into big-budget director-for-hire movies that brought him even less acclaim than his last couple of self-penned efforts, once-fêted director M. Night Shyamalan goes back to basics with this low-key found-footage horror.

When their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on holiday with her new partner, teens Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go to stay with her parents, who she hasn’t seen or spoken to for years. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem kindly, but no one will tell the kids what happened years earlier to leave the family estranged. But soon they discover the strange, disturbing behaviour of their grandparents, particularly after dark, leaving them to wonder just what they’ve let themselves in for…

Although Shyamalan has always moved in supernatural circles in his movies, and The Sixth Sense is labelled a horror because it’s about ghosts and has a few jumps, he’s not really directed a proper Horror movie before now. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising that his skill set lends itself to the genre. Although the found-footage format is a little forced at times (isn’t it always?), it’s also used effectively to create some nailbiting sequences, putting you alongside the kids as they fear just what the hell is going in. And some of it is pretty darn freaky. One sequence — a demented game of hide-and-seek underneath the house, where we’re aware of stuff going on behind the kids that they don’t see — is particularly terrifying.

DeJonge and Oxenbould make for naturalistic kids, with the latter’s affinity for rapping providing some necessary levity, while McRobbie and Dunagan (in a particularly bold performance) well negotiate people who can be sweetness and light one moment and blood-chillingly terrifying at another.

Well suspiciousOf course, there’s a big reveal to explain everything that’s been going. People call it a “twist” because it’s a Shyamalan movie, but it’s more of an explanation. I mean, what was going on had to be explained somehow, and the explanation comes at the point where you’d expect the explanation to be. I’m not saying it’s not a twist, because it does change what you think you’ve been seeing, but it’s also not a be-all-and-end-all kind of failed-rug-pull, which Shyamalan’s worst twist-obsessed efforts have been. This one works. Or, it did for me.

The same can be said for the film as a whole. The Visit doesn’t quite represent a full-blown return to form — it’s not got the sophistication of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, or even Signs — but it is an immensely effective scarer, which suggests there’s still some hope for Shyamalan’s flatlining career.

4 out of 5

End of Watch (2012)

2015 #111
David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Europa Report (2013)

2015 #158
Sebastián Cordero | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Astronauts head to a Saturnian moon to examine its water in this scientifically-accurate drama.

The voluminous “special thanks” to space-related organisations shows how seriously the filmmakers took that accuracy, and it pays off in the exploration of some neat ideas. A faux-documentary style lends verisimilitude, as well as an effective “unreliable narrator”-style twist.

However, story construction is frustrating, jumping around in time merely to create mysteries out of thin air, a technique so forced it becomes irritating. It also fails to disguise that Sharlto Copley’s entire storyline is just padding.

Still, worth a look for fans of realistic near-future sci-fi.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Chronicle: Extended Edition (2012)

aka Chronicle: Extended Director’s Cut

2014 #115
Josh Trank | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

ChronicleThe birth of the “found footage” sub-genre and the resurgence of the superhero movie began around the same time, the former with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and the latter with X-Men in 2000. They both arguably came of age towards the end of the noughties, with the box office success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s Iron Man. It was inevitable, really, that someone would eventually combine these coincidentally-linked post-millennial cinematic obsessions, and that someone was director Josh Trank, who became one of (if not the) youngest directors to open a movie in the #1 spot at the US box office with this, his debut feature.

The obvious route for a found-footage superhero movie is surely in the Kick-Ass/Super mould: a wannabe dressing up in a funny costume and setting out to fight crime, in the real world. Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have grander ambitions, however, setting their sights on characters who develop Superman-esque powers. It means the movie isn’t as low-budget and independently-produced as you might have expected (although clearly not high-budget, it’s full of special effects, and was released by 20th Century Fox), but it does retain a more subversive element — for one, that great responsibility doesn’t necessarily follow great power.

Boys will be boysThe story sees high school senior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) decide to start filming everything in his life, thanks to his borderline-abusive alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen). The same day (what a coincidence!), his cousin and only friend, Matt (Alex Russell), takes him to a party where, along with most-popular-kid-in-school Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they discover a hole in the woods with mysteries inside… Days later, all three begin to develop telekinetic powers, which they learn they can levy in various incredible ways — those ways being super, but largely without the heroic…

Which, in case you misread me, is not to say the boys become supervillains. Rather, they do what a lot of teenage lads would do: throw balls at each other with their mind; eat Pringles without having to pick up the can; use a leaf blower on a girl’s skirt; and so on. Using the found-footage style naturally, the friends experiment with their abilities, gradually increasing them, and bonding in the process. The story isn’t short of action or incident (some might disagree), but is equally character-focused, presenting individuals who are more rounded and believable people than your average superhero characters.

Rooftop bondingThis is even more pronounced in the extended version (“extended director’s cut” in the US), which includes over five minutes of extra bits that, in my opinion, make it a superior edit. Some are minor in impact, true, but there are a couple of short sequences with Andrew and Steve that deepen their relationship further, which enriches events at the end of act two. There’s also a moment that subtly prefigures the climax, and an extra bit in said finale that seems nigh-on essential to me. Considering the film still runs (just under) 90 minutes even with these additions, it’s difficult to see why they were cut in the first place. “Pace” is usually the rational for that, but if this is indeed a Director’s Cut then clearly Trank didn’t think they were an issue; equally, I can’t see why Fox would have objected. Still, they’re here to enjoy on Blu-ray…. though not on DVD… and I guess they’re not in TV screenings… Tsk.

Some accuse the film of being clichéd and predictable, which I don’t hold much truck with. It’s not twist-filled, but I felt the characters and their interactions grew naturally — if you can see where it’s going, it’s because it’s well-constructed, not because it’s how every movie does it. The time invested in growing our relationship with all three lead characters pays off increasingly as the movie rolls on, too, so that the climax is about more than just spectacle.

Spectacular climaxThat said, spectacle it has. You wouldn’t expect that from a $12 million found-footage movie, but an epic duel through the streets of Seattle is one of the strongest climaxes to any superhero movie I can remember. It’s kind of like Man of Steel’s, only released a year earlier and executed a thousand times better (the lack of mass destruction and associated innocent-bystander massacre is a bonus). The finale is undoubtedly the high point of the film’s visual extravagance, but numerous other sections are striking too, not least thanks to Andrew’s mastery of controlling the camera with his mind, letting it float gently around as he films himself and others.

The qualities of the climax could be seen as a microcosm for the entire film, actually: a stylistic gimmick that works so well you forget many people consider it a gimmick; a scale grander than you might expect from both that gimmick and the movie’s budget; a largely-innovative treatment of a much-trod genre; and, similarly, characters who are multi-dimensional and better-realsied than your average, thanks both to Landis’ writing and a team of top-notch performances, particularly from DeHaan and Jordan — there’s a reason they’ve both gone on to bigger things.

One to watch out forIn the hands of many a desperate-to-get-noticed filmmaker, a found-footage superhero movie would likely have been a straight-to-DVD affair that could at best be described as “mediocre”. In Chronicle, however, Trank and co have crafted one of the best movies produced in either sub-genre. Most of the people involved — as well as the film they’ve all come from — can be classed as “one to watch”.

5 out of 5

The network TV premiere of Chronicle is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

It placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* Right: Chronicle was released in UK cinemas as a 12A, but with a couple of cuts for violence. On DVD/Blu-ray, it’s an uncut 15. Meanwhile, in the US, the theatrical version is PG-13, while the extended cut is technically Unrated. However, most of the additions are character scenes, so it’s surely still a PG-13. ^