Thursday, March 28, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part VII)

  The Bay (2012) dir. Barry Levinson

For competent directors, populist horror trends tend to serve as the launching points for Hollywood careers, allowing these filmmakers to prove themselves capable of wrangling a successful product out of an easy formula while under the constraints of a limited budget. Not totally screwing up-- or, even better, displaying a bit of creativity-- in these early genre projects can open up some significant studio doors for aspiring filmmakers. (See, for instance, the careers of most of the young directors who first worked making horror films for Roger Corman (and then went on to become people with names like "Coppola" and "Bogdanovich") or, more specifically to the topic in question, gander at the upcoming projects of successful FF directors like Chronicle's Josh Trank and Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli.) With this in mind, it's curious to see a horror trend like FF being used as a shelter for a faltering career instead. Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson (he of Diner (1982), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997)) has had a rough past decade in multiplexes, and after a few successful TV projects we find him returning to feature films with The Bay, a modest FF/mockumentary horror that in many crucial ways is indistinguishable from other modern efforts in the subgenre made by less seasoned filmmakers. That isn't necessarily a dig at Levinson's skills, as it's actually quite impressive to witness how seamlessly he integrates The Bay into the FF movement's current trends and aesthetics, but-- simultaneously-- it's also disappointing to see how little his four decades of experience behind the camera adds to the film. While in many way an enjoyable film, The Bay still suffers from the same tried and true deficiencies that so many other FF films are afflicted with: terrible amateur acting, preposterous plot points, and themes with the subtlety of wrecking balls.

Like so many animal terror movies, The Bay positions itself as an ecologically conscious critique of the level of pollutants we allow into our environment by demonstrating the effects of an exaggerated consequence (in this case, the appearance of a freakishly large, water-based, tongue-eating mutant parasite, the Cymothoa exigua, in the eponymous polluted zone). Yet, more so than nearly any animal terror film, The Bay appears to fancy itself a totally earnest and, in essence, truthful ecological tract against the abuses of industry, using its horror elements merely as visceral support for its claims (rather than the usual track these films take: legitimizing the horror with an ecological context). This might have been a successful track to take if the film were more thoughtful and accurate than the alarmist fairytale it is, depicting, as it does, a comically evil mayor who colludes to pollute the town's water for profit (and then attempts to prevent panic when townsfolk start becoming infected: another animal terror film trope) and a wildly incompetent and disinterested CDC who really can't be bothered to deal with the alleged "outbreak" in some small town in Maryland. Regardless, the infrequent bits of horror that the film includes are admirably done, and the film's conceptual mutant critters are so squirm-inducing that it would have to try pretty hard to screw them up (it doesn't). In terms of its aesthetic approach to FF, the film is also of interest for its higher-than-average number of footage sources, including that from TV news crews, Skype sessions, FaceTime chats, home videos, scientific research video logs, and police cruiser dashboard cams. How all of this government-suppressed footage of The Bay's disaster winds up in the hands of an amateur-in-every-respect reporter (as seen in the film's wraparound segments) is unclear because the film has no good answer for its conceits, but the variety is appreciated nonetheless.


Area 407 (2012) dir. Dale Fabrigar & Everette Wallin

One could suppose that if a person has no other frame of reference, Area 407 might resemble a movie. But that might also be stretching it. Rather, it more closely resembles a belabored string of arguments and reaction shots captured through the lens of a camcorder, sprinkled with ADR'd noises off in the distance and the occasional blurry clipart velociraptor being dragged across an open window. Area 407 is sort of like the pilot episode of LOST, if it were set on New Year's Eve, if the plane had crashed in a field in California rather than an island, and if the shaking trees had indeed turned out to be dinosaurs rather than a mopey smoke monster. It's a poor enough excuse for an FF film (there's no motion towards an explanation regarding how we're seeing this footage (and if we have only the last shot to go on, it was swallowed by a dinosaur); the C.O. more often aims her camera at the faces of other characters when a dinosaur is howling away in the woods directly behind her), so what's even worse is that it can't manage to be at all interesting on any other level. The dinosaurs, which even in a bad movie would be reason enough to power through it, are obscured until a brief final shot (the very expensive camera conveniently malfunctions during all previous attacks), so what else could there even be to latch onto here? A big nil. If two things can be said in Area 407's defense they would be that the majority of the acting is not atrocious and the arguing-- though taking up an unfortunate amount of the running time-- is at least convincingly derived from a stressful and dangerous situation. Yes, the actors who run away from a CGI velociraptor's tail don't embarrass themselves too much. Would they like a noisemaker or a glittery party hat for their trouble?


The Dinosaur Project (2012) dir. Sid Bennett

I'd like to think that the directors of Area 407, Dale Fabrigar and Everette Wallin, tucked their velociraptor tails between their legs in shame after seeing The Dinosaur Project, released in the same year as their negligible dinosaur FF film and in every way surpassing it. Granted, the folks behind The Dinosaur Project obviously had a bigger pot of funds to pull from (we actually see dinosaurs!) and there's no denying that the film is aided by some gorgeous, if geographically confusing, location shooting in South Africa. But the film also bothers to anchor its story by establishing a believable central relationship between its estranged father and son protagonists, and the mere effort (so often lacking in FF films of this sort) convinces us to connect to it on a basic level. Moreover, the film cultivates a sense of wondrous adventure commingled with very real terror, resembling a sort of contemporary version of  Doyle's The Lost World and leaving the film feeling more fun than horrifying, much like the similarly successful Chronicle (2012). Also much like Chronicle, with its mind-controlled floating cameras, The Dinosaur Project attempts some snazzy innovation of the FF aesthetic (by way of zooming velcro micro-cameras and a dino neck collar cam) while at the same time pushing or ignoring the boundaries of camera coverage verisimilitude. But small chinks in the armor of the film's FF conceit are not enough to fell the whole. If nothing else proves the film's good intent, witness its denouement, which both satisfyingly hints at the further adventures its protagonist will have in dinoland and actively avoids the easy set up for a sequel by literally dismantling the camera. Much appreciated. Director Sid Bennett is responsible for another FF oddity, the recent Discovery Channel mockumentary Mermaids: The Body Found (2011), and if The Dinosaur Project represents his desire to continue playing around with the form, then let him at it.

The Frankenstein Theory (2013) dir. Andrew Weiner

Andrew Weiner's The Frankenstein Theory is one of the first major FF releases of the calendar year, and if we were to anticipate the rest of 2013 in FF on it alone then the prognosis wouldn't be entirely grim. Conceptually, the film is near ingenious, positing that Mary Shelley's novel was based, in fact, not on then current Romantic-era scientific conjecture but on an actual story of a scientist, here a Dr. Venkenheim, who reanimated a hulking corpse in his spare time to disastrous results. The discovery of this long-buried truth inspires a descendent of Venkenheim to hire a film crew to accompany him on a journey to the Arctic to substantiate reports of the Creature's continued existence. With this focus, the film aims for some literary cachet (there's a passing mention of a Justine-like character who is hanged for the Creature's crimes, and the tireless Arctic quest of the descendent of Dr. Venkenheim and his film crew's threats of mutiny echo the foolhardy pursuit of the novel's Walton) but one can't escape the feeling that the writers were working off the CliffsNotes (the Creature is a lumbering, wordless beast who eats meat, huh?). Still, the effort spent carving out some light themes and literary allusions is welcome, considering the rest of what's here is, at best, middling. For much of the film, little happens, and we're treated to a wealth of landscape beauty shots as our characters traverse the winter wasteland (plus, whoever edited together this-- again-- miraculously recovered footage was kind enough to splice in a few establishing shots). 

Besides a predominance of tedium until the final act, the film's most obvious issue is its deliberate avoidance of FF verisimilitude. Sure, the FF conceit of a film like The Dinosaur Project has a few holes, but The Frankenstein Theory's is a gulch. For awhile, the viewer may not realize that there is a cameraman, as he makes not a peep for most of the duration (there are, in fact, two camera operators at certain points, only adding to the confusion). But the primary C.O.'s professional silence makes the FF aesthetic feel abnormally artificial in the film, as if the filmmakers wanted to make their scenes more "cinematic" by removing the human operator while still having the film broadly conform to the FF trend. What this results in is the camera cutting to different shots and camera angles within a single scene that would be impossible with the crew's established documentary camera setup (and again raise questions about our mysterious footage editor). I noticed at least one glaring instance in which the camera jumped from in front of two characters to behind them without any passage of time or a cameraman visible in either shot, but I recall smaller bits of camera confusion as well (like a plethora of scenes featuring inexplicable shot-reverse-shot editing). Why bother creating an FF film, with all the form's inherent limitations, if you've decided to violate those very limitations for ease and convenience of storytelling? The only occasions in which the filmmakers use the aesthetics of FF are when they desire to obscure the Creature from our view during attacks, which always feel like a cheap shot in these sort of affairs to begin with, but are doubly unearned here in a film that wouldn't otherwise hesitate to cut to clearer footage from some other magical floating camera. Perhaps it's a small quibble, but it seems to be one that matters as FF films shift ever closer to resembling traditionally filmed cinema and begin to lose their unique spark. The Frankenstein Theory isn't the only offender on this count, and probably won't be the last. And, even then, the film redeems its transgressions in its enjoyable final act, in which the Creature plays a game of Occupy Yurt and meets (the descendant of) his maker. This conclusion presents a clever play on the novel's depiction of the Creature's desires, acting as a sort of wish fulfillment for the poor guy and (perhaps unintentionally) laying the foundation for a sequel I wouldn't mind seeing. Let us patiently await Bride of Frankenstein Theory.

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