Film festival favourite, The Dark Tapes, finally makes its way to Failed Critics and found-footage fan Owen Hughes reveals the good and the bad of this low-budget horror anthology.
AKA Primer For Dummies.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Project Almanac is the debut feature of director Dean Israelite, although it’s presumably more well known for having a certain producer attached to it. Regardless of the fact that a producer’s role can be quite vague, particularly ‘executive producers’, whose influence is often disputed by directors and writers alike (here’s looking at you, Raymond Chow). Nevertheless, the name “Michael Bay” being anywhere near the film’s poster will either repel audiences like a fart in a lift, or draw in punters on mass, given how his features are often a license for studios to print money. If only the film’s biggest problem was simply two small words printed on the poster. Alas, it is far more severe than that.
The plot revolves around a group of clever teenagers and school chums: Sam Lerner (Quinn), Allen Evangelista (Adam), Jonny Weston (as David, the closest thing the film has to a lead actor) and Virginia Gardner (David’s sister Christina and frequent camera-person). They all work together to help David get enough money together to afford to get into MIT. Unfortunately, $40,000 isn’t easy to come by unless your widowed mother decides to sell her enormous house and downsize, or apparently if you’re the son of a super-genius and can invent something that will earn you a lot of money.
Whilst rummaging through his deceased dad’s old junk in the attic, David and Christina discover an old video camera with some footage of David’s seventh birthday party still on it. It’s this point in the film where things promise to get interesting, as the older, current teenage David is seen wandering about in the background of his younger-self’s party. Lo and behold, David’s father was working on a time-travel device before he passed away, which the group discover securely locked in a box in the basement, and begin to use it to start playing around with time.
Whilst the plot is an intriguing mash-up of genre movies like Primer, The Butterfly Effect and Looper, there’s only one way I’d describe Project Almanac and that is as an aggressively found footage time travel movie. It constantly reminds you via various gimmicky methods and invasive camera angles that it is, at all times, unequivocally a Found. Footage. Movie.
I don’t inherently hate that style of film making. To be perfectly honest for a second, I’ve repeatedly and unashamedly admitted to being a fan of the style on numerous occasions. It’s been used fantastically well in slightly bigger budget films such as Cloverfield, Chronicle and End of Watch, as well as smaller budget indie movies like The Sacrament and The Bay, never mind the glut of b-movie horrors like [REC] and Grave Encounters and classics like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. I’m aware just how unusual a thing that is to admit to; for a lot of people, it’s an immediate cinematic turn off. As long as it’s used in an innovative way (or even in an unoriginal way, so long as it’s done well, such as in The Borderlands), then I don’t have a problem with it. As a method of film-making, I firmly believe it has gone beyond simply being a gimmick. It is now a creative choice made by directors who want their story to be told in a particular style, to put you ‘the viewer’ in the shoes of a character (or characters) as opposed to simply being about making it stand out from the crowd and/or more marketable.
So take it from me when I say that Project Almanac is a bad example of a found footage style movie. It may not always be apparent and I’m aware of my tendency to drift off on tangents in reviews, but I usually try to remain impartial and objective as often as I can. I know what I do and don’t like, but try not to let that colour my semi-professional opinion too dramatically. For this movie, I will throw all of my self imposed rules out of the window and drift into areas of outright subjectivity.
I have never, ever felt physically unwell because of a film before. The sound of cracking ankles in Audition came close and Antichrist made me feel uncomfortable in ways I can’t explain, but Project Almanac is a first for making me feel so nauseous that for a moment, I was about 90% certain I was going to throw up. In my haste to take off my jacket, roll up the sleeves of my jumper and unbutton my shirt to try and cool myself down a bit, I kicked some bloke’s foot (accidentally, of course) next to me, causing him and his chums to giggle like a gaggle of idiots. “Hur hur he touched your foot did you see that?” I probably did look like I was dying, which I suppose is quite funny. Right? I don’t know. It’s not kicking some bloke in his elevated foot that I’ve taken exception to.
Instead, it was the bloody intolerable rotating, swaying, spinning and wobbling shaky-cam that was causing my sudden rush of queasy stomach and throbbing temples. Have you ever been on a National Express coach on a warm summers evening that is overcrowded, where all of the windows are dripping with condensation, the stench from the chemical toilet is polluting the carriageway and all of a sudden the bozo next to you decides to eat a tuna sandwich that has been in their bag all day long? Well I have. And it wasn’t pleasant. It was that same feeling that was gripping me again. It got to the point that I (and the chap sitting in the isle over from me doing exactly the same thing) had to cover my eyes with my hand (obviously he covered his eyes with his hand, not my eyes with his … never mind) so I couldn’t see the screen. I just couldn’t stand to look at it any further.
If I wasn’t watching the film so I could talk about it on this week’s Failed Critics podcast, it would’ve been the first film I’d walked out on since abandoning an outdoor screening of The Exorcist in Reading a couple of years ago due to an unusually freezing cold night, a lack of promised barbecue (seriously, that was bang out of order) and faulty headphones picking up interference from a local radio station playing an interview with ZZ Top. But that is what Project Almanac did to me. It made me so unwell that if not for dashing out of the screen to drink some tap water from a squeaky polystyrene cup, I might have just fainted there and then in the cinema. It was like torture.
Well, probably not torture. I’m sure trivialising torture as being like subjecting yourself to a poorly shot film is a bit over the top. But you know what I mean.
The thing is, even with missing about 5 minutes worth of plot at a crucial point in the film as I sorted myself out before returning to finish the rest of the movie, it did not have any effect on my overall impression. Nor did it hinder my understanding of anything that had happened. Such is the nature of Project Almanac that you are never in any doubt whatsoever about what is happening and why at any particular point during proceedings. If you didn’t get it the first time, don’t worry, they’ll be going over it again later.
As for the story itself, the beginning of the film isn’t bad. As paper thin as the characters are, they all have moments that will make you smile, if not laugh. The hijinks they get up to as they work out various means of acquiring some cash and how best to use their new found technology seems true to form for a bunch of carefree young adults. Cheating on the lottery, going to festivals, that sort of thing, although playing the stock market is swiftly dismissed in what is but one of many references to Primer.
No one individual character is especially irritating either, which already makes it one step up from of a few of its contemporaries. You know which role each character is going to fulfil from the moment we meet them and the introduction of Sofia Black-D’Elia as Jessie, David’s crush, is timely and adds a much needed new dynamic to the group. Simply by way of association, Jessie makes David infinitely more interesting than the bore that he had been previously too, which is handy.
As unconvincing as the leaps in logic happen to be that lead to the jump from the group building a remote control drone powered by a mobile phone, to assembling a time machine from bits of old Xbox 360 and crap from the local DIY store – as Steve once said on an old podcast, you have to forgive shit like that in 90 minute time travel movies. There’s always going to be paradoxes, inaccuracies and stupid or unrealistic decisions. It doesn’t completely excuse some of the film’s faults, however, Project Almanac doesn’t purport to be anything more than it is. It clearly isn’t desperately trying to redefine what science fiction movies are. Instead, it feels like an homage to those movies it borrows heavily from. It’s firmly in that teen-to-mid-twenties age bracket demographic and it knows it. You may have seen Primer and found that graphic online that illustrates how faultless the film’s ideas around time travel are, but the audience Project Almanac is going for are those who may not have seen it. If they have, great, they’ll spot a few references, but if not then it doesn’t really matter. And that’s perfectly reasonable. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to understand the science aspect of its fiction, but it’s not exactly Sarah Palin levels of dumbing down either.
Aside from the dizzying shooting process, the shallow (albeit occasionally amusing) characters and jumbled references, the other problem the film has is its pacing. 40 minutes had passed when I checked my watch and barely anything of any note had happened yet aside from about two montages of machine building. Whoop-de-doo. There wasn’t even a Vince DiCola soundtrack! It took a further 10 minutes for any real dilemma or tension to exist at all, which was basically solely related to how the time travel was affecting the relationship between two of the excitable young teens; how it was forcing them to break their own set of rules and the consequences of doing so. But every scene that has something remotely clever in it is milked for all its worth, which also made the whole thing drag.
The crux of it is, if you’re looking for something on TV one night a year or two from now and stumble across Channel 4 at about 11pm, or if you’ve spent half an hour looking around Netflix and nothing stands out, then there are worse films than Project Almanac to waste 90+ minutes of your time on. Particularly if you have a pack of travel-sickness tablets going out of date but aren’t planning on going anywhere soon.
Project Almanac is in cinemas right now and you can pick up motion sickness tablets from most reliable pharmacists (and probably a few unreliable ones too.) Why not listen to Owen talk about the film on our latest podcast with Steve, Matt and Paul on your way there?
You know that time you went to a gig and the guy in front of you spent the whole evening with his arm in the air, filming the entire thing on his phone? To the point where you distractedly missed your favourite song, because you were fantasising about pounding him in the head with his own camera? Devil’s Due is the story of that guy.
Zach films everything. It’s his thing. His schtick. It’s not creepy, or annoying, or down right ridiculous at all. He starts the movie by scaling a wall and climbing into his fiance’s bedroom the night before their wedding, while filming it, so your opinion of him is pretty low from the get go. Yet for someone who, apparently, spends 95% of his time with a video camera in hand (if the impassive reactions of his family are anything to go by) it’s astounding how incapable he is at holding the fucking thing steady. “This is where you’re going to go to school”, he later narrates to his unborn baby. Only you can’t see a clear shot of the building through his hand tremors. The certificate should include a motion sickness warning: do not eat a massive katsu curry and ice cream directly before viewing.
I’ve heard enough disparaging references to “bastard found footage” to know this genre is something of a bone of contention amongst the Failed Critics. I love horror films, but haven’t seen many of this type since my mainly snot based memories of The Blair Witch Project. According to the directors “Devil’s Due doesn’t pretend to be footage that anyone has found or compiled, it’s simply a story told through cameras that exists in that world […] as the character’s lives spiral out of control, we’re able to mirror that journey visually by shifting to different POVs”.
Sure, I can suspend my disbelief as to the collation of such footage. However I still can’t fathom quite how and why those cameras exist in that world. But why, I wanted to scream at every scene, why is he filming that? And why does no one seem in the least bit surprised? Why aren’t kids in the street asking him what the hell a video camera is? How come you never see him charge the thing? Most importantly: how did he just get away with filming a load of strangers at a pregnancy yoga class, without a hormonal woman choking him with her pillow? That would simply never happen.
Yet even more frustrating than the incessant videoing is the fact that he never watches any of it back! The couple spend hours filming their honeymoon, fair enough, they’re sickening newlyweds. But they never bothered to show the highlights to their excitable extended family? He never stuck their zip wire clips on Facebook? Never revisited the shots of his hot wife on the beach, before she got all pregnant? Unrealistic. He is finally driven to dig out the rushes when his missus starts killing priests with her red eyes, but by that point everything’s gone to shit anyway.
Poor Samantha, the previously hot wife, is pregnant and supposedly showing signs of ‘erratic’ behaviour, which are intended to suggest there might be something seriously wrong with the baby. My friend and I (29 & 28 weeks pregnant respectively) watched the film in its entirety and concluded that she displayed entirely normal and rational behaviour throughout. Examples include –
Sitting stony-faced through her baby shower, nursing a grubby champagne flute of orange juice, while all her friends got pissed and shrieked about blankets.
Smashing in the windows of a 4 wheel drive, after it almost reversed into her in a car park.
Screaming ‘DON’T TOUCH US!’ at her husband, when he interrupted a bout of insomnia and started pawing at her bump in the middle of the night.
Ditching her surprise birthday party (who throws a pregnant woman a surprise party? Come on!) to go upstairs and attend to more pressing tasks, like decorating the nursery. Ok, so she was scratching a massive hole in the floor with a knife, whereas I just bought an Ikea rug, but we all have different opinions on aesthetics.
As a long time vegetarian, standing in the meat aisle of the supermarket eating raw minced beef directly from the packet. I had a similar incident with black Jelly Babies at an Asda checkout last week. And I don’t even like Jelly Babies.
After a lot, and a lot (and a bit more) build up, the inevitable blood, gore, birth and death finale is all rather anticlimactic. Far more disturbing is the moment earlier in the film where Sam’s new doctor glibly announces his intention to perform an amniocentesis, before plunging a 16 foot needle directly into her abdomen. As it stands, it’s all a bit abrupt in the end. It would’ve been nice to have discovered if she’d given birth to a little boy devil baby or a little girl devil baby. Or to see how Zach’s overwhelming urge to document everything went down with his fellow prison inmates.
I felt for Sam, with her chocolate chip cookie binges, and fridge full of discarded takeaway cartons. Pregnancy can be a shitty time even when you’re not carrying the Antichrist. Nonetheless, she married the douche with the video camera. And, at the end of the day, they both made some pretty poor choices on the last night of their Dominican Republic honeymoon. The riskiest thing we ever did on our honeymoon was take a drunken Segway tour. Frankly, they had it coming.
Gerry is technically an old man who can’t stay up past 11pm apparently.
Anyway, better late than never! On this week’s podcast we review the latest instalment of the Big Fish in the Found Footage pond – Paranormal Activity 4. We also catch up on what the critics have been watching in the past week, including the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed, the utterly bonkers Holy Motors, and the little-seen Speed Racer. Steve also finally got around to watching The Raid.
Join us at the weekend for Triple Bill where we discuss the films that have scared the crap out of us – and next week the Review returns with a review of Skyfall and a BOND SPECIAL!
Welcome to another helping of the scooped-out mind-innards of yours truly. This week I want to talk about a style of film-making and, some might say, a genre in its own right – Found Footage.
On Saturday I went to see Paranormal Activity 4 (featured on this week’s Failed Critics Review podcast) and it reaffirmed all of the issues I have with found footage films. They are completely unrealistic, and actually alienate me as a viewer.
First let’s look at the reason people make found footage films. The bottom line is that they are cheap. Very, very cheap. The original Paranormal Activity only cost about $15,000 to make, and The Blair Witch Project was also made for peanuts. Studios love these films because they represent a low-risk green-light decision, especially in the horror genre which, more than any other genre it seems, has an inbuilt audience who are willing to give films a chance.
The reason these films are so cheap to make is not just because they don’t use expensive sets and equipment, but also because the people involved are cheap to hire. From the director, to the screenwriter (especially with a number of these films improvised in nature), to the actors (usually unknowns who are cheap, and this also helps make them seem more realistic. No one is going to believe Brad Pitt in a found footage movie).
So from a business point of view I totally get it. I even admire these films.
But from an artistic point of view?
The other argument I have heard in support of found footage films is that they are ‘more realistic’ and that in the horror genre this makes them scarier. This is where I have to disagree. In my opinion, found footage films are less ‘realistic’ than any stop-motion film, CGI-powered superhero film, or badly dubbed and bloodily violent 1970s kung-fu film.
Let me explain.
Cinema has been around for over 100 years. In that time, as a species we have evolved our perception of cinema as art-form and entertainment, and can now put ourselves in a state of suspended disbelief when watching a well-crafted film. When I watch The Exorcist, or Ringu, I forget that I am watching a film and get drawn into the horror that the characters are facing. This is despite the fact that I am seeing things that I couldn’t possibly see in real life – including camera angles and special effects. A well-directed and shot film feels ‘real’.
So any attempt to consciously make a film appear real has the opposite effect on me. My suspicions are instantly raised. I can’t suspend my disbelief and find myself asking questions – why are they talking about boring things in a film? Who ‘found’ this footage? Why are they recording this seemingly random set of events?
And that’s the killer for me – I spend the majority of every found footage film questioning why a character is filming that particular footage. Once a film sets itself up as being ultra-realistic, the slightest crack in the façade ruins the whole pretence. I have the same issue with 3D films presenting themselves as being more immersive, when in fact the opposite is true – but that’s for another day…
DVD – New out this week is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – and you can hear what we thought of that on the podcast here. Instead, why not treat yourself to one (or both) of the lovely re-releases of classic films available for the first time on Blu-ray. Steven Spielberg’s E.T., or Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
TV – Layer Cake. Film 4 on Fri 26 Oct at 9pm. If you’re not going to see Skyfall on Friday night, then why not watch Daniel Craig’s breakthrough performance in Matthew Vaughn’s debut film that is that very rare thing – an excellent, modern British gangster film.
Lovefilm Instant – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). If you’ve heeded my advice above and forked out on the Blu-ray release of E.T., then make an extra-terrestrial night of it and watch Spielberg’s other ‘they came from the stars’ classic from the era in which he could do no wrong.
Netflix UK – Dreams of a Life (2011). Recently discussed on the Failed Critics Review, this fascinating documentary investigates the circumstances around the death of Joyce Vincent who died in her bedsit aged 38, and lay undiscovered for three years.
Also on the podcast that dare not speak the name of a hideous entity from the depths of Hell for fear of granting it extra power (basically that Neeson-starring revenge sequel), we review Paranormal Activity and the ‘found footage’ genre, Will Ferrell’s latest comedy The Campaign, and Gerry decides it would be okay to do something completely different this week.
What this podcast lacks in accuracy and insight, it makes up for in sheer shambolic joy!
Join us later in the week for our Triple Bill of Top Revenge Films!