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

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The Tillman Story


The Tillman Story

The brothers Tillman (Pat and Kevin) in country.

(2010) Documentary (Weinstein) Pat Tillman, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Marie Tillman, Richard Tillman, Kevin Tillman, Josh Brolin (narrator), Russell Baer, Phil Kensinger, Stan Goff, Jason Parsons, Bryan O’Neal. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

 

It has been said that in times of war, the first casualty is the truth. That is just as true today as when it was first spoken.

Most Americans know who Pat Tillman was; a highly paid star for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, he left a lucrative career to serve his country as an Army Ranger. He served in Afghanistan only to fall in battle, dead at 27 leaving behind a grieving widow, parents and siblings. The army painted his death as a heroic attempt to save his men during an ambush by the Taliban. At his funeral, the oratory from such personages as Senator John McCain as well as by a parade of army brass bordered on the hysterical in painting a picture of a heroic American who died for a cause he believed in.

But to Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mother, something didn’t smell right. She wanted details about the death of her son and the Army at first was reluctant to provide them. Then, the story changed; it wasn’t a bullet from the Taliban that killed Pat, it was friendly fire – rounds fired by his own fellow soldiers. But how could that happen? What really went on? The more questions Dannie asked, the more frustrating the answers became. The Army finally provided her with the documentation she asked for – 3,000 pages worth, most of it redacted (i.e. heavily censored).

Many women, grieving over their lost sons, would hesitate to read documents detailing the gruesome manner in which their sons died but Dannie persevered. She hired Stan Goff, a former Army investigator and current private detective, to look into the matter. After months and years of being lied to and stonewalled, Pat’s father Patrick Tillman Sr. wrote a scathing and blistering letter which finally prompted a Congressional investigation into the death of Pat Tillman.

What eventually came out was a miasma of cover-ups and an attempt to turn the tragic death of the highest profile soldier in the Army into a propaganda goldmine. Scapegoats were found and those who had the most to do with it – including General Stanley McChrystal  and possibly up to and including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – got away with it.

Bar-Levi tells the story chronologically, allowing us to discover the extent of the cover-up along with the Tillman family. He wisely allows the facts to speak for themselves and tries not to editorialize much (although the Tillman family does that for him). He is also careful to make the distinction that nobody is criticizing the military as such – just the people who would use the deaths of the soldiers for political gain.

It is easy to get consumed by outrage watching this and as the movie has been out for quite awhile there is no need to be a belated bandwagon-jumper to express my own feelings other than to say “what they said.” As a documentary, this is well-made and just a little bit manipulative; while there can be no justification for what was done, little effort is made to hear opposing sides so be aware of that when watching the film.

Pat Tillman was not a religious man – he has been characterized as an atheist as has his family by detractors which I found profoundly pathetic and a little bit funny in a sad way; I suppose there are those in the military who think the best defense is to go on the attack. It would be nice, however, for the military – even at this late date – to man up and admit what happened and let those who were responsible for lying to the family of a fallen hero be made to answer for their actions.

We all want to believe that our military hold themselves to higher standards. We want to believe that the courageous men and women of the armed forces who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the nation have not made that ultimate sacrifice in vain. We want their deaths to mean something. Sadly, there are those who see these human beings as means to an end. That is perhaps the most detestable aspect of this whole senseless affair.

This is a movie that will inflame your passions but at the same time it is advisable to temper that passion with a little bit of forethought; like anything else, there are no absolutes in the military. As it is an institution made up of human beings, there will always be things that happen that are regrettable and even unconscionable. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for the military or their values. It is at times necessary to shine the light on those who misuse their authority. Perhaps the real legacy of Pat Tillman is to remind us that it is at all times necessary for us not to accept things at face value and that the test of a truly free people is the ability to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $802,535 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the movie made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friendly Fire

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In Her Skin

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion

 

Super 8


Super 8

Elle Fanning can't believer her eyes. Neither can we.

(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams

There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.

Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.

Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.

While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.

Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.

Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.

The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.

Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?

REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield.  Some fine juvenile performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Frozen