Wallowing at Willow Creek

By pure definition, a “found footage” film implies something that Willow Creek ultimately fails at. The basic idea behind of these films is that something terrible has happened and all that remains is videotape and that that videotape has then been found and assembled into a film by some invisible being that audiences are meant to watch and hopefully be terrified by. Obviously, we all know this isn’t how found footage horror movies actually work, and that they can be just as meticulously crafted and thought out as any other film, aiming to manipulate the viewer in ways that other films can or won’t, but it bears mentioning. They don’t always work for various reasons, but I find myself defending many of them. Not only for providing an effective way of eliminating the hurdle of disbelief that can come with films about ghosts, possessions, or – in this case – Bigfoot and putting an audience directly in the action, but also for the way they shirk the high-gloss HD digital look of their brethren. Today any film can look a million bucks, whether it’s detrimental to the film’s effect or not. Willow Creek certainly does not look a million bucks, nor should it. Thankfully.

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If we’re to believe this line of thinking with found footage, however, then whoever found the footage of Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) out in the woods of California mustn’t have had much to work with. Willow Creek is 80 minutes long, but only 30 of that are actually scary. Or designed to be scary. Or attempt to even get to scary. The rest is made up of a seemingly endless prologue involving Jim’s intentions to make a movie about Bigfoot, and a second act of casual repartee between its (admittedly likable) leads. Furthermore, if Jim is wanting to make a film about Bigfoot then why didn’t he bring a tripod? Or proper sound recording products? And why keep filming the girlfriend if she doesn’t want to be in it. Willow Creek lacks real world logic, which is usually one thing that the found footage concept allows a filmmaker to circumvent to focus on other, scarier things.

I liked many individual aspects of Willow Creek, but I just wished they came together as a whole better than they do. I respected that the film is basically one big essay on why The Blair Witch Project still works so well and how it’s impossible to recreate it (attention Hollywood, I guess). I also thought the dynamic between Johnson and Gilmore was fun, which is important given how shapeless much of the film is. Without their personalities this film would be dead long before the end credits. The two share some funny dialogue that has the air of improvisation about it (I particularly enjoyed their riffing on a Bigfoot mural) and the progression of their relationship is in retrospect far more interesting than anything else in the film. Especially as director Bobcat Goldthwait appears far more interested in them than anything involving Bigfoot. Their scenes have a certain Joe Swanberg observational quality to them that would make for a nice film if Willow Creek weren’t also trying to be a horror film, which is ultimately where Goldthwait trips himself up. It’s all well and good to want to say things using the world of a horror movie, but it’s even better when you don’t forget to try and be scary for 75% of the runtime.

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These elements are strung together in 50 minutes that barely even attempt at creating atmosphere and tension. At least the film’s final 30 minutes are excellent in the way sound is used to create a sense of dread and terror. One scene that runs for nearly 20 minutes, and will remain this film’s calling card for as long people remember it, in particular makes a perfect case for horror filmmakers only really needing a decent sound designer to send chills up an audience’s spine. Something like The Conjuring breaks records by throwing everything at the screen, but when Willow Creek works it does so by stripping everything away and relying on the things that in our own homes would scare us the most. The rustling of an unfamiliar sound, an unexpected animal cry, things that literally go bump in the night.

The end is abrupt and doesn’t have half the power of The Blair Witch Project’s (an image that haunts me to this day), but at least does something interesting and effectively scary. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie is a limp attempt at recreating old glories. Goldthwait appears to be attempting at shoehorning subjects into the narrative like relationship isolation and the cost of mythbusting to storytelling most prominently, but as a horror film, there is not enough meat on the bones to justify its few moments of greatness. As a piece of found footage horror, it lacks its own internal logic and reason to work more than fleetingly.

 

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Burning Blue Runs Cold

Subtlety is apparently not in writer/director DMW Greer’s repertoire if his debut feature, Burning Blue, is any indication. This is a well-intentioned drama about the development of and eventual ramifications of a relationship between two men in the American Navy before the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell from the government law books that only fleetingly reaches the dramatic heights that its material is clearly striving for. Viewing now in the clear light of a post-DADT world and the grand-standing dialogue of Greer and co-writer Helene Kvale come off as weightless, drooping under the clichés and perceived inherent power of its story that is neither particularly romantic nor tragic beyond the very basic definitions of those words.

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Yes, the situation that the two men – Trent Ford as Daniel, and Rob Mayes as Matthew – find themselves in, inspired as it were by a true story, was terrible and dehumanizing, but the material is given little in the way of shade and texture. It’s all fairly one note, only occasionally rising above the rather dry screenplay thanks to some impressive scale in its military sequences, as well as some nicely acted scenes involving the two men as they assess their own feelings while being very keenly aware of the consequences both professionally and personally. Secondary plots involving Daniel’s flying partner (Morgan Spector) and the betrayal he feels, as well as a girlfriend character who is dismissed from the plot faster than she is introduced feel, well, secondary but also take away impact from the central story. Likewise, the military investigation that takes over the second half of the narrative feels mishandled.

Funnily enough, one of Burning Blue’s most troubling aspects is in the casting. The male stars are all very handsome beings, but in casting a film without a single person of colour (at least for the first hour, and only then the lone black castmember is a homophobe) where the men all dress identical and all have names like Daniel, Matthew, Will and John it becomes almost impossible to distinguish who is who in the early stretches. When they mention the name of somebody who has died in a training exercise and the only real way of determining who it was was by seeing who shows up at the funeral and who does not. That’s how seemingly interchangeable these men are. The women, too, are all fairly identical with only the impressive features of Tammy Blanchard standing out amongst them, but for a while it is difficult to figure out what name goes with what face, and just what is happening to who. Rob Mayes, with his fuller frame, stands out the most.

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While the story of Greer’s film is an important one, Burning Blue is perhaps a film that ought to have been made ten years (or more) ago. In fact it sort of already was in the 1995 TV movie Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story starring Glenn Close as a officer who is discharged after admitting her homosexuality, which won Glenn Close and Judy Davis Emmy Awards. Title cards that end the film mention Obama’s eradication of the primitive policies that kept LGBT citizens from performing their patriotic duties without fear of persecution and malice, and it is a sentiment that tugs are the heart. Sadly, the 100 minutes before it just aren’t strong enough to work as anything more than a minor telling of an important moment of gay history. Consider the recent HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart and think of how these historic gay stories can still resonate and impart on audiences a sense of pride and anger in equal measure. Burning Blue has a nice love affair at its centre, but Greer’s efforts at aiming for something more are undercut by the unremarkable way his film goes about them. C

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Cold in July, The Babadook, and the Knife’s Edge of Horror References

Horror films are becoming more referential. This probably isn’t a surprise to anybody who watches these movie, not should it be a surprise given it’s only natural to recycle what one reveres. Still, the horror genre above all seems to not only embrace this borrowing style with more pride, but is also critiqued far more for doing so. It’s a knife’s edge with a fine line between success and failure. Tarantino hardly suffers from people saying they should simply watch the originals of the films he plucks from. Maybe it is because he twists his references into large-scale (some would say increasingly unwieldy) works of populist entertainment whereas the horror genre is typically confined to smaller, more intimate works and so suffer in the eyes of many as being simple copies of better films.

Whatever the case may be, there’s already been several so far this year. In February I discussed the rather obvious similarities between Grand Piano and the works of Brian de Palma as well as Blood Glacier (out now on home entertainment in Australia by the way) and John Carpenter. Carpenter is again at the centre of a new film’s focus: Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. It is this adherence to reference in Mickle’s fourth film that makes me consider it an artistic step backwards for the American filmmaker who so impressed me with his breath-of-fresh-air remake We Are What We Are (superior to its Mexican original, I say). Although Cold in July is a technically accomplished feature through and through – whether it’s the colour-saturated photography, the chilly score of Jeff Grace, or the stand-out performance of Michael C Hall – but it works best as a technical piece; a way for Mickle to get this Carpenter fixation out of his system.

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This decision is ultimately what makes Cold in July not entirely work. The first two acts, especially the first, are wonderfully tight and take the characters in interesting and not entirely predictable territory while paying particularly strong debt to the stylings of Carpenter – particularly the score, with its piercing synthesisers. When Mickle and his co-writers Nick Damici and Joe R Lansdale attempt to veer off, they prove to have very little say, ultimately turning their film into a rather derivative revenge shoot-out narrative that feels neither fresh nor original or a fun referential take on another filmmaker (compare to the upcoming Blue Ruin and its shortcomings are only exacerbated). It’s disappointing especially since Michael C Hall is so good in the role of a man whose second amendment rights send him down a terrifying path when he shoots a robber in his home.

Far more successful in its references is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Nowhere near as overt as Cold in July, this scary Australian horror film is more indebted to Roman Polanski in its look at the fear of motherhood, the lonely progression of grief, and the all-too damaging effect that society’s expectations have on a person that is expected to simply “get over it”, “move on” and continue on with life in a perfect, Stepford-esque existence. Polanki’s Repulsion, with its shifting sands of mental instability and (literally) expanding set design, feels like a film that hovers over the proceedings, much like the titular children’s book character hovers over the bed of its main character, Essie Davis’ traumatised Amelia, with its recurring, garbled refrain “baaa-baaa-dook-dook-dook”.

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The Babadook is more than just a haunted house movie (is it even a haunted house movie?), but a film that, like many of the best works of the horror genre, uses the mechanics of horror to tell audiences something else entirely. The mature way that Kent and Davis handle the material feels revelatory for an Australian horror film, and with thanks to the impeccably on point production and character design (this is one of the scariest villains in quite some time thanks to his top hat and somewhat undefined figure, not to mention the book he’s housed in is the best since The Necromicon from The Evil Dead) and sound design it rises to the level of world-class. It’s boutique, yes, but it’s more refined than The Conjuring and stays in the brain much longer, too.

This is a rather exceptional work of cinema from Australia in a year that has already seen the likes of Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays and Aaron Wilson’s Canopy raise the bar for local filmmakers telling unique, interesting stories economically yet of an astonishing high standard. One can hope that the film finds the audience that it deserves. In a year that has seen our last great horror legend, Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor, turned into a carnival freak show (for better or worse, I still liked Wolf Creek 2), Kent’s Babadook is a new frontier for local horror and a must-see for genre fans.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Village People in Can’t Stop the Music

Infamous bad movie Can’t Stop the Music is perhaps one of the strangest pictures ever made. Watching it today, whether for the first time or the seventh, it is impossible to look at it without the filter of dated camp. Even in 1980 its time had passed, what with the famed ‘Disco Demolition’ derby of 1979 still fresh in the memory, and The Village People’s success winding down. It’s such a ludicrously mounted production that it thrills me to no end that it was a hit in Australia and nowhere else. The soundtrack album, too, which went to no. 1 on the Kent Music Chart and has since become a late night television staple, typically on New Year’s Eve because networks expect drunken idiots to sit around and watch.

cantstopthemusic-posterThe film opens with Steve Guttenberg (ding), working in a record shop (ding ding) on roller skates (ding ding ding) as mad hordes of customers fight their way to the register to purchase the latest, hottest, chicest disco vinyl (ding ding ding ding we have a winner!). Quitting his job to become a composer and rolling down Broadway to the beat of David London’s “Sound of the City” as glitter-sparkle credits fly across the screen. It’s patently absurd and how anybody thought it was a good idea even then is mind-boggling. Still, Can’t Stop the Music is a curiously fascinating film to watch, which certainly helps explain its cult status. Much like the other famous terrible musical of 1980,Menahem Golan’s The Apple (which received zero Razzie nominations compared to Music‘s seven; explain that!), there’s a genuine sense of awe to be found in its ugly, chintzy excess and tone deaf style. To be a fly on the wall of this production would be an eye-opener.

Visually, it’s easy to see what they were attempting. It’s full of bright colours and bustling energy, juxtaposing its pulsating disco beats with the working class that were (supposedly) buying these records as escapist fantasy: New York City as a musical utopia unlike any other. The Village People may have told gay men to “go west”, but Can’t Stop the Music attempts to lay claim to New York as the place the be if you want to make it big, whether you’re a retail lackey or a construction worker. It’s a city where artists mingle and can be creative, where even amidst the skyscrapers and the office workers strolling to lunch meetings and coffee breaks the sound of a disco record can make it feel like a wide-eyed wonderland. I mean, there’s a scene where the Indian village person crawls through the window of his friend/neighbour/stranger and she says, “This is neighbourly New York.” This was the New York City that many wanted, when really they were getting The Equalizer.

Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the cars on the street
New York is the fans of the Yankees, New York is a cop on the beat
Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the steeple bells chime
New York is a city of magic, New York is a hip state of mind

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The Enemy of My Enemy

If the enemy of my enemy is my friend then what do we make of Enemy? When your enemy is yourself, does that mean you’re your own worst enemy and best friend? Thankfully for a film made of such origami-esque folds in logic as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, it’s never as convoluted as one might expect. In fact, the efficiently put together puzzle box – it’s 90-minute runtime is sweet relief compared to Prisoners’ 150 – is actually rather easy to follow, with its more mind-bending aspects better left dangling as ominous, lingering threads of unease and macabre menace. If you don’t fall under the quiet spell of this José Saramago adaptation then its occasional moments of excessive outré imagery will likely fall on deaf ears, but I found it captivating.

Perhaps the film is an allegory for Villeneuve’s own creative to-and-fro between the more mainstream-oriented worlds of Incendies and Prisoners and that of his more experimental artistic endeavors such as Polytechnique and his wonderfully grotesque short Next Floor. As duel Jake Gyllenhaals traverse around a murky Toronto – looking as it does as if it has been slathered with amber and frozen in a not-too-distant and not-quite-real time and space – fighting a soft-spoken battle for supremacy, its mysteries only deepen and its director’s whims get more refined. Villeneuve, working from a screenplay by Javier Gullón, has never felt this unobscured and singular in his vision. All of the elements work in perfect harmony, which is something I certainly didn’t think about PolyTechnique or Prisoners (the latter of which I really liked; the former not so much), which had elements that stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the world he had created. The dreaminess that Enemy revels in is perfectly in sync with the aforementioned darkened honey hues of cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (nicely described as “uretic” by Guy Lodge), the austere production design of Patrice Vermette that appears as if it could unfold at any moment into a parallel dimension, and the blunt, discomforting score of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

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2013: Best and Brightest

I guess I should do this, yeah? I saw more films in 2013 than any year before – both films from 2013 and just films in general – so I at least feel like the following “ballot” is a more comprehensive list than I may have given years prior. All of that, of course, has to do with my moving to America and, most specifically, New York City. I got to see more new release films in cinemas than ever before, including obscure, little-known and all but invisible titles that Oscar voters likely have little time for. I was also able to attend various film festivals including Tribeca (within days of arriving in New York), San Francisco, and New York. It all allowed me access to films that in Australia would only be seen if you were lucky enough to pick the right festival schedule. Many of the films I saw in 2013 will never get a release in Australian cinemas, and will instead be relegated to home entertainment and direct-to-TV releases at some point over 2014.

I thought 2013 was a great year for cinema, although I don’t think my own personal tastes have aligned less with the Academy’s before (again, maybe just symptomatic of seeing more movies than usual). With the Oscars this Sunday (Monday in Australia) I thought it was finally time to publish this “best of” list that is in no way definitive and final. I will add to it over the years if I catch films that went under my radar (or, in the case of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, rather inexcusably missed). But, as of now, this is a very good look at my time at the movies in 2013. These are the performances and technical achievements that I will associate most fondly with the past year. Some of my eligibility rules may appear lax: Oscar-qualifying runs count, Australian films released in 2013 (but 2014 in America) count. Some categories have six or seven because I thought they all really deserved it, plus it’s my blog I can do what I want to. Some of the best films I saw in 2013 - Hide Your Smiling Faces for instance – won’t get official releases until 2014 so they’re not featured. Films that I saw in 2012, but didn’t get American releases until this year - LoreBerberian Sound Studio – are not included here.

* Image choice doesn’t necessarily denote who I’d pick as the winner. I’m not choosing “winners” apart from the top ten.

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Best Picture
1.
 The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh)
2. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
3. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
4. Laurence Anyways (dir. Xavier Dolan)
5. A Touch of Sin (dir. Jia Zhangke)
6. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
7. No (dir. Pablo Lorrain)
8. Una Noche (dir. Lucy Mulloy)
9. In the House (dir. Francois Ozon)
10. You’re Next (dir. Alex Wingard)

2o13 Oscar Prediction: 12 Years a Slave

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De Palma and Carpenter Inspire New Genre Thrills in Grand Piano and Blood Glacier

Like many modern films that fall into the niche genre game, Grand Piano and Blood Glacier owe much of their inceptions to other, old films. Thankfully, these two wonderfully audience-baiting flicks find new rhythms and maneuvers to allow them both to step out of the shadows of their obvious forebearers and become entertaining, even original, works. Despite indulging in the horror and thriller tropes, they become more than mere copying, spinning off into directions that are inspired by, but not beholden to, the classics.

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a thoroughly ridiculous premise that borrows liberally from films such as Jan de Bont’s Speed, David Fincher’s Panic Room, and, most strikingly, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Much like that 2002 thriller with Colin Farrell as a man stuck in a telephone booth with a sniper’s rifle fixed on him, Mira’s films features a more-or-less single location with a lone man aware of the stakes and an escalating tension that is seemingly at odds with its intimate focus. Needless to say, it is a better film than Phone Booth, but that may be because the Spanish director (Grand Piano is in fact a Spain/US co-production) decided to reference Brian De Palma more than his most direct influence, Alfred Hitchcock.

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