Sunday, September 18, 2016

Found Footage Redux: Operation Avalanche and Blair Witch

Funny thing, timing - I decided to bump Operation Avalanche in the Fantasia review queue because it was coming out in some areas on Friday, and my first thought was to talk about The Blair Witch Project and how, even knowing that it was not actually a documentary when I got to see it, it still felt real and thrilling in a way that many of the other films that picked up the found-footage/mock-doc gimmick afterward didn't, with one of the rare exceptions being Matt Johnson's The Dirties... And then, just as soon as that's done, I squeeze the new Blair Witch movie in during a gap in the Somerville Theatre 70mm festival, and have something close to the same feeling.

I still recommend both of these movies, and if you're in one of the places where they're playing Operation Avalanche, I bet they make a fun contrast, with one updating the technology to show the things we can do now and the other doggedly throwing back. Both have a little trouble recreating what made their predecessors really memorable, but that doesn't necessarily take away from what they are in the here and now.

Operation Avalanche

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

I'm moderately surprised that, in the post-Blair Witch Project world, there wasn't more one-upmanship in attempting to further blur the line between reality and fiction the way that film did, genuinely making the audience question whether they were actually seeing found footage or not. Instead, it became a style but a recognized one, where the details of how well the filmmakers are faking it are likely to be observed and dissected in real time. One of the few films to create the same sort of nagging worry that maybe the viewer is seeing something real and horrible was The Dirties, and though the same crew has reunited for another but of faux-found-footage with Operation Avalanche, they're smart enough to know that you probably can't get what is in large part the same audience to fall for the same tricks from the same people twice.

This time around, filmmaker Matt Johnson co-star Owen Williams cast themselves as two of twenty-five Ivy League "Bright Recruits" hired by the CIA straight out of undergrad in 1965, but who by 1967 are bored investigating Stanley Kubrick for "Deep Red", and scheme to get themselves assigned to Operation Zipper - finding a mole inside NASA. Their brainstorm is that while the real rocket scientists there would spot anybody going undercover as an engineer immediately, they could pose as documentary filmmakers for public television. It gets them in the door but their various wiretaps let them in on a potentially bigger secret: There's no way to meet President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade - it will be '71 at the earliest - but Matt has another idea - why not fake the moon landing?

Most films of this sort, even if they don't intend to actually trick the audience into thinking that they're watching something real, at least aim to avoid obvious chances for the first to say "ha! obviously staged!" Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles (who, amusingly, appears in the film as Johnson's handler "Josh Boles") keep that in mind, but they also know that both having already done a movie like this and the subject matter they have chosen are working against them. So they have a bit of fun, demonstrating the technology that they're using in-story when many films would prefer the audience just not think of it, letting Johnson and Williams play their on-screen alter egos as a broadly-drawn goofball and straight man rather than having to blend. There's no winking at the camera - they are not making a spoof even if they are making a comedy - but they recognize that they've got no cover, and that gives them room to let the moments when they encounter familiar conspiracy theories or unlikely bits be fun, rather than just dry.

Full review on EFC.

Blair Witch

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2016 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

Blair Witch probably does The Blair Witch Project as well as a any movie since the original, and that's no bad thing - once upon a time, before home video or even television reruns, the purpose of sequels was just to give the audience more of a thing they liked more than a next chapter, and this film does that well. The thing is, even beyond how capturing the out-of-nowhere uncertainty of the first film is all but impossible in that first movie's shadow, one almost wishes that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard had made a knockoff rather than a sequel - covering the same ground as well as they do might work better if it's not explicitly the second time through.

It is, though - after a very familiar disclaimer about how these memory cards and DV tapes were found, we're introduced to James (James Allen McCune), whose sister Heather was one of the people who disappeared in the woods about 17 years earlier, when he was four. A new bit of video surfacing on the internet has him thinking she may still be alive out there, and his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), herself a film student, opts to document it. Also along are his oldest friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and they wind up joined by Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the couple that found the new tape. So they go out in the woods, hoping to find the house on the tape(s), although that didn't exactly work out well for James's sister.

It's been a while since I saw the first movie - possible since the original release - but I suspect that the new one actually has a stronger ensemble, both in terms of the characters on the page and the cast bringing them to life. Though maybe not the most ambitious exercise in creating characters likely doomed to get knocked off by some supernatural force, Barrett's script quickly establishes who htey are nad how they're tied together, and the cast adds enough little shadings to that to make them seem real enough to get hooks into the audience: There's a chemistry between James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez that can hint at unwitting attraction - or maybe Lisa being aware James likes her and using it to get this story - as well as awkwardness at people presuming their a couple; at any rate, these people seem to have history without manufactured drama. Brandon Scott especially does a sneaky-good job; he's got deadpan bits that would get big laughs in a horror movie calibrated slightly differently, and he handles moments when Peter can be kind of abrasive with aplomb. Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry weave in and out of the movie as characters outside the central group, but their moments are some of the best, and Corbin Reid handles the often thankless jobs given to Ashley very well.

Full review on EFC.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Jay,

I have a found footage film that I would like you to review. It is called The Cornell Case. Please tell us honestly what you think. I placed the link below. Thanks.