Phoenix Forgotten


A billboard you don’t want to see your image on.

(2017) Horror Sci-Fi (Cinelou) Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson, Matt Biedel, Ana Dela Cruz, Mackenzie Firgens, Jay Pirouznia, Marc Marron, Don Boyd, Tony Duncan, Richard Cansino, Hector Luis Bustamante, Joseph J. LaRocca, Larry Toffler, Cynthia Quiles. Directed by Justin Barber

 

Some may remember the notorious Phoenix Lights that on March 13, 1997 were witnessed by thousands of Phoenicians. Some in the UFO community consider it one of the most important sightings in history; others pass it off as military planes in formation dropping flares. Either way, it is still something of a mystery.

Three teens – Josh Bishop (Roberts), his crush Ashley Foster (Lopez) and their mutual friend Mark Abrams (Matthews) decide to head towards a remote area of the Arizona mountains to investigate the lights a week later. Their car was found abandoned by the side of the road but the three young people were never seen again.

Twenty years later Sophie (Hartigan), the younger sister of Josh, comes back to Phoenix to help her mom (Strittmatter) move. She comes across some of the videotapes her camera-obsessed brother took, including those of the lights themselves and decides to make a documentary of her brother’s disappearance. She interviews as many subjects as she can including her dad (Jordan) and other interested parties. At length she discovers a badly damaged camcorder found in the desert with the tape in it amazingly intact – which may solve once and for all the mystery behind the disappearance of the three teens.

The movie is in reality two separate movies; the story of the three teens told through their own videos, and Sophie’s investigation, which is a more standard storytelling method. The more interesting of the two is surprisingly the found footage. Barber has recreated it well, making it look like it was recorded on a camcorder circa 1997 complete with wavy lines, static and shaky cam. It looks real authentic as does the environment depicted; kudos to Barber for that.

The three “teen” leads are all as they tend to be in low budget horror movies attractive and do at least an adequate job of performing. Lopez in particular seems to have some screen presence and might well be on her way to a bright future in the business.

The thing here is that it borrows a little bit too much from The Blair Witch Project, even one of the character’s names is present. The plot is just about identical, adding elements from last year’s Blair Witch to sweeten the pot, substituting the Arizona desert for the Maryland woods. Imitation is of course flattery and in all honesty Phoenix Forgotten does imitate well, but if you’re looking for something more, you might end up disappointed.

Speaking of disappointing, the special effects are pretty poor for a film of this caliber – although they do get the aging of the found footage right. Mostly the effects consist of colored lights, wind machines and wires and it would have looked primitive back in 1997. In 2017, well, it’s simply not good enough. With maybe a little bit larger budget they could have done a more realistic job.

Still, the movie delivers where it needs to. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this assessment; the movie disappeared without a trace (much like its protagonists) at the box office and the critical reception was less than enthusiastic. I liked it though; there was plenty that worked that I can recommend it to horror fans and to thriller fans alike. Sci-fi fans might have issues with the subpar special effects. Phoenix Forgotten is likely to be forgotten judging on the overall lack of interest in it (there are only six reviews up on Metacritic; most major releases have anywhere from 20-45) but it doesn’t deserve to be.

REASONS TO GO: The found footage is cleverly utilized, making it more palatable. I got a bit of high school nostalgia watching this.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are nothing to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of peril and terror as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The footage of the Phoenix Lights was digitally simulated and then saved onto VHS tape. It was then converted back to digital. The analog effects are a result of this process and help to integrate the CGI into the era-proper technology.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING:7/10
NEXT: The Discovery

Nightcrawler


Louis Bloom sneakin' around.

Louis Bloom sneakin’ around.

(2014) Thriller (Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Rick Chambers, Holly Hannula, Michael Papajohn, Marco Rodriguez, Ann Cusack, Kent Shockneck, Pat Harvey, Sharon Tay, James Huang, Bill Seward, Leah Fredkin, Jonny Coyne, Nick Chacon, Kevin Dunigan, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Carolyn Gilroy, Kevin Rahm, Christina de Leon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

The local news has its back to the wall these days. Even though it continues to be a main source of news for most people, it has become, like the newspaper before it, largely expendable in the face of the internet. With people wanting the news in a more immediate manner these days, news directors have their hands full trying to get footage that will draw viewers in. It has become more economically feasible for them to rely increasingly on third party news gathering agencies, who follow police scanner radio calls to the more lurid types of stories to satisfy the hunger for misery, bloodshed and death.

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a man who’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. Scrounging around for scrap metal to sell to a construction site, he isn’t above stealing – and if need be, taking down a night watchman (Papajohn). He even hits up the construction site manager (Rodriguez) for a job, but who would want to hire a thief? Disappointed, Louis heads on home but on the way there comes upon an accident. He also runs into one of those third party news gathering agencies, led by Joe Loder (Paxton) who explains that he doesn’t work for a specific television station but instead sells to the highest bidder. He doesn’t make a ton per story but it’s a lot more than Louis is used to. Intrigued, Louis gets himself a camcorder and a police scanner.

His baptism by fire comes at a shooting; he manages to get the site shut down by the cops when he crosses the line, incurring Loder’s disgust. Still, he has a good eye and that catches the eye of Nina Romina (Russo), the news director at KWLA, the last place station in local news in the City of Angels. He makes a sale and gets some good advice. Encouraged, he hires a navigator (Ahmed) and soon is making regular sales.

Louis however doesn’t exactly have a moral compass and he continues to increasingly take chances – pulling bodies away from where they had been so he can get better light. However, when he arrives at a home invasion ahead of the police, he leaves the line far in the dust, putting himself and his partner at risk and perhaps other innocent people as well. Louis is doing what he loves and doing it well, but who will pay the price?

Gyllenhaal is the focal point of the film and he takes it as far as I think it is possible to. He lost 20-30 pounds for the role (depending on which source you believe) and his gaunt, hollow eyed look and dead-eyed stare is unsettling. Louis can be charming with a quick smile and communicating in aphorisms that might have come off of those encouraging business posters – “Success comes to those who work their ass off,” “In order to win the lottery you have to afford to buy the ticket” and so on in that vein. But those aphorisms betray that there is nothing of substance within him. He’s a hard worker sure, but he’s completely amoral and the ends definitely justify the means and heaven help you if you get in his way. In short, he’s a sociopath. This is definitely one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date and there is plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding him right now.

Juxtaposed with the reptilian Louis is Rene Russo’s Nina. She’s smart, hard-nosed and has been around the block in the L.A. news wars. She’s been ground down and made cynical and even though she has a soft spot for Louis, whom she sees talent in, she also soon comes to realize that he’s a monster of her own making, who isn’t above using any means necessary to get what he wants. Russo, who was one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses back in the day, hasn’t had a role this juicy in years, even though she got to kick ass in Thor: The Dark World last year.

Using cinematographer Robert Elswit, first-time director Gilroy paints a lurid Los Angeles by night that is seductive, dangerous and seedy all at once. The urban sprawl is a city of lights by night that while not as charming as Paris has a beauty all its own. Elswit clearly has an affection for the city because it looks so amazing in his eye. I lived there for more than a decade and always had a soft spot for L.A. by night.

Other than Rick, Louis’ long-suffering assistant slash partner slash navigator, there aren’t very many nice people in this movie. As detailed before, Louis is not a nice person at all and he gets less nice as the movie goes on. It is a tribute to Gyllenhaal that we still root for him anyway. Days after seeing the movie, I felt a genuine moment of revulsion when I realized that I had been rooting for the character to get out of the house where a multiple murder had taken place before the cops got there; how sick is that, I wondered to myself. If it had been just a guy and not Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have been hoping the bastard got arrested.

That’s not the way the world works here, and such cynicism might not fly right with everybody. There is a dark world view here, where the masses are ravening for blood and don’t care how they get it, whereas parasitical videographers flit from tragedy to tragedy trying to get enough footage to sate the bloodlust of the masses. Nobody seems to care much about the truth or informing people about what they need to know. It is at the very least a sad commentary on how far our respect for news gatherers has fallen.

REASONS TO GO: One of Gyllenhaal’s most intense performances ever. Gritty and gut-churning.
REASONS TO STAY: Exaggerates the “if it bleeds it leads” concept.
FAMILY VALUES: Expect plenty of violence, some bloody images and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gyllenhaal blinks only three times during the entire film. He also memorized the script as if it were a stage play.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Confidential
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stake Land

Paranormal Activity


Paranormal Activity

Things that go bump in the night.

(2009) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer, Randy McDowell, James Piper, Crystal Cartwright.  Directed by Oren Peli

We think of haunted houses of being old Victorian mansions and Gothic monstrosities in fog-shrouded, rain-soaked streets with black cats and kudzu aplenty. However, paranormal activity can occur even in the most innocuous of settings.

Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) have been together for a few years now and have taken the big step of moving in together, into a beautiful suburban San Diego home. He’s a day trader and a pretty typical modern 20-something guy. She’s an English student and a pretty typical modern 20-something gal. They have high hopes for the future.

Then strange things begin to happen. Doors open and shut of their own accord. Things fall off of shelves. They are awakened by loud bangs in the night. Micah, however, being a pretty typical modern 20-something guy, has a major league digital video rig. He determines to film the goings on in the house; this becomes something of an obsession with him. As things escalate, Katie grows more terrified (she’s had experience with paranormal events in her past), Micah grows more determined and the strain begins to show on the couple. The question is: what does this entity want?

This is as successful a horror movie as you’re likely to see, both from a profit standpoint (see below) but also from an artistic standpoint as well. The movie has almost no budget and very few visual effects that aren’t practically generated. This is a found footage movie consisting entirely of Micah’s videotaping which can be both good and bad; it allows us to be privy to some very intimate moments for the couple (not the sexual kind) but also leads to long periods of really not much going on.

Fortunately, Featherston and Sloat have a natural chemistry together; they act and feel like a real couple, with Featherston getting exasperated with Sloat and Sloat being a guy about things. They argue, they kid each other and they show each other affection the way couples who have been together for awhile do. There are other actors here (such as Friedrichs as a paranormal expert) but it is Featherston who is onscreen for nearly every shot with Sloat being more often the voice of the guy holding the camera.

There are some genuine scares here but the movie goes for atmosphere more than anything else. The movie works because it generates a mood and relies on that to elevate the tension. The scares pop the balloon nicely, leaving us unbalanced for most of the film which is what a good horror movie is supposed to do.

The fact that the setting is so ordinary and mundane makes the film even creepier. It could be taking place in our own homes. And that ability to make it relatable is what makes the movie all the more effective. A lot has been made of the film’s very effective marketing campaign, the low budget and the big box office. All these things have tended to obscure the fact that this is a well-made horror movie that will keep you hooked until the very end. Now that the Saw franchise has come to an end, Halloween has a new franchise to look forward to.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most effective “found footage” movies yet. Surprisingly good performances from unknowns Featherston and Sloat. Atmospheric and scary yet believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Starts out very slowly and there are a lot of stretches where nothing exciting happens..

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language and some really disturbing moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was filmed in director Oren Peli’s home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Limited Edition comes with an unrated version with an alternative ending, a collectors card with a film cell on it and a limited edition t-shirt.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.3M on a $15,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster and maybe the most profitable movie ever on a budget under six figures.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity 2

127 Hours


127 Hours

James Franco might just be looking at Oscar gold.

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Posey, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, Sean Bott, John Lawrence, Rebecca Olson, Lizzy Caplan, Pieter Jan Brugge, Jeffrey Wood. Directed by Danny Boyle

Being capable can sometimes be confused with being arrogant. However, being capable can sometimes cause one to become arrogant. Arrogance can then lead to hubris and that can lead to the kind of disaster that can change a life completely.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is the prototypical Type A personality. He never met a physical activity he didn’t like, a challenge he couldn’t face. He’s at his happiest when he’s alone in the canyons of Utah’s Canyonland National Park, even though it’s a bit of a hike from his Colorado home. Sure, he has friends like Brian (Lawrence) whom he works with and even Rana (Olson), an ex-girlfriend who sees through the cocky bravado and pronounces that he will end up alone.

Still, Aron is naturally charming as he proves when he meets a couple of pretty young women (Mara, Tamblyn) out hiking. They’re lost, he knows his way around and soon they’re frolicking around in an underground pond. When they separate, one leans into the other and says “You know, I don’t think we even figured into his day.” And they’re right, although he will eventually look back on their encounter with some regret.

He’s going to have the opportunity to dwell on that, and other aspects of his life. While crossing a cut canyon, he steps on a boulder he thought was stable and goes plummeting, downwards-like. When he lands, he discovers the rather inconvenient fact that his arm is pinned to the canyon wall by a boulder the size of a home AC unit. He tries to move the boulder, but no good. He tries pounding the boulder, unsuccessfully. He takes a deep breath, lays out all the contents of his backpack and tries to think. The sinking realization is that nobody knows where he is. Nobody can hear his cries for help. His water supply is limited as is his food. He has no real tools that can extricate him from the situation apart from a multi-purpose tool with a dull knife blade.

After freaking out a little bit, Aron realizes the grim situation he is in. He has only enough water to last him a few days. Nothing short of a jackhammer is going to get that rock off of him. He is going to die. 

Dying is a funny thing, particularly when you have time to wait for it. You are given a chance to reflect back on your life, see the road not traveled and figure out who you are and what didn’t work. And, as his water begins to run out, the lack of sleep and the exposure to the elements begins to play with his mind. And as his time runs out, he is faced with a devastating choice between the will to survive and a horror that thee and me could never contemplate.

Most of you know by now that Aron Ralston is an actual person who went through this, and that devastating choice was whether to saw off his own arm with the dull knife or else wait to die. Obviously he chose the former, and stumbled out of that canyon to be rescued by a pair of hikers who alerted authorities.

You wonder how a film set in a cramped space for 127 hours – a little over five days – can be a riveting experience but Oscar-winning director Boyle makes it so. Even though for the most part you know what everything is leading to, you get to see inside the person that Ralston is. During his ordeal, he made several entries on a digital video camera that essentially detailed what he was going through but also served as a goodbye and apology to his family for the times he put his own needs ahead of theirs. In the end, he realizes that he had insulated himself from the things in life that were most important.

Franco is an expressive and often physical actor who is perfectly cast here. This might be the defining performance of his career; it is as sure a bet to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months as any performance this year is. He is onscreen for the entire movie and spends much of it alone. He has to capture the attention and imagination of the audience without interacting with anybody other than himself, and he does it in a way that is both natural and unforced.

The amputation scene is not as graphic as you might think, although there are reports of people fainting during it. It certainly is disturbing and I would think long and hard if I were the sensitive sort about putting myself through it. If you have someone who is affected by such, you might want to take it under advisement that they might not do well at this movie although the scene isn’t gratuitous in the least.

The cinematography here is breathtaking, utilizing the majestic desolation of the Utah landscape as a character in the movie. It is this that Aron disrespects and winds up paying a heavy price.

REASONS TO GO: A career-making performance by Franco and another great movie by Boyle. This is the kind of movie that stays with you long after its over.

REASONS TO STAY: Sensitive sorts will be disturbed by the amputation scene, and claustrophobics might be made uncomfortable with the surroundings in the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of bad language (hey, you’d curse if you had a boulder on your arm) and some pretty disturbing scenes of self-amputation that are definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The camcorder that James Franco uses in the film is the same one used by Ralston on his ill-fated trek. The video he shot had only previously been shown to family and close friends, but Boyle and Franco were allowed to watch it for accuracy sake. The video is kept in a vault for safekeeping.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the film takes place in a cut canyon, a very narrow environment, but some of the shots of Canyonlands National Park are just breathtaking and should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Police, Adjective