Blair Witch (2016)

★★

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Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Deadpool (2016)

★★★

Deadpool PosterDirector: Tim Miller

Release Date: February 10th, 2016 (UK); February 12th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

When you strip away the humour, the action and the madcap characters, Ryan Reynolds’ decade-long pet project is a standard revenge tale. Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a cocky mercenary who becomes the seemingly invincible — and significantly cockier — Deadpool following an immoral experiment designed to cure his cancer. To make matters worse, Ajax (Ed Skrein, honouring his Britishness through elongated pauses and exaggerated vowels), the man who dished out said experimentation, now has it in for Wilson’s on/off lover, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). What we’ve got then is an unethical Robin Hood whose payback meter is on the brink of breaking point. Quite straightforward really.

Justly, a slow motion opening sequence ushers in the prevailing two-fingered mood. Rather than the names of the actors involved, we’re graced with the generic roles they will be playing: “A gratuitous cameo, a British villain, a hot chick.” Such blanket roles form part of an assault on the genre, supported by profanity-laden wisecracks. That’s all Deadpool is really, one giant gag. The jokes are self-referential to no end, and many of them aren’t even jokes — invoking names like McAvoy and Stewart, for instance, doesn’t take that much effort. A Detroit quip suggests smarter thoughts are at play, but they seem drowned out by an unflappable need to guffaw at anything genital-related.

Yet on the visual side of things, the film exceeds its own humorous expectations. Laughter might be hard to come by verbally, but visually director Tim Miller has crafted a goldmine: from an early shot of Deadpool popping his head out of the window of an overturned vehicle to arguably the movie’s funniest moment, a joke based around a mask. The latter works because Miller and cinematographer Ken Seng are careful in its construction, opting to tease us by positioning their camera at a certain angle. Another effective shot sees Wilson journey to his torture destination aboard a stretcher, creepily reimagining a similar scene in Jacob’s Ladder.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in Deadpool isn’t anything to do with the film itself, but its retrospectively overcooked marketing campaign. If you consider not just the punchlines but also the build up to those punchlines, there are probably around 30 or 40 minutes of Deadpool that anyone who has seen the trailers (which is everyone) will be familiar with. This means the jokes land with less oomph in the cinema, if any oomph at all — you could argue the best jokes are those that generate a laugh irrespective of how they are heard, which isn’t the case here. Here, repetition sucks the life out of would-be key moments, such as the opening vehicular mayhem or the standoff between Deadpool’s crew and Ajax’s gang.

By railing against the typical genre trappings, you would expect the film to at least offer something different upon nearing its conclusion. There is a joke about International Women’s Day that takes issue with uneven gender roles — a problem not completely eradicated on the superhero movie front — after which I found myself anticipating Deadpool’s response, for the film to maybe lead the way in making a statement. But it never does. Of the three main females on-screen, one is a wordless brute (Gina Carano), another is a moody teenager (Brianna Hildebrand), and the third is a prostitute (Morena Baccarin). And they remain as such: at no point do we see any of them deviate from their characters’ genericisms.

That was quite a lot of negativity, but Deadpool is undoubtedly an enjoyable twist on the genre and a piece that boasts its fair share of genuinely entertaining moments. The action is vigorous, any pulling of punches outlawed. It is a fairly brutal adaptation that certainly earns its stateside R rating; as violence goes, this has more in common with Marvel’s Daredevil than anything from the studio’s recent cinematic portfolio. A word too for an inventive closing credits sequence that implores you stick around, which is just as well given the post-credits scene is also cracking, an homage to one of cinema’s very best anti-authority comedy outings.

The movie wouldn’t be half as good without Ryan Reynolds, who looks and sounds like he is having a blast in spandex, his condescending voice a perfect match for the provocatively annoying character. The actor’s kid-in-a-candy-shop exuberance pollutes the air and spreads throughout the audience. It is a testament to Reynolds’ physical abilities that he manages to evoke Deadpool’s unique personality despite spending most of the flick beneath a mask. Mutant Wilson, by the way, looks like a terrifying cross between Freddy Kruger and the monstrous figure from Sunshine, so the mask is definitely a good call.

I’ll be the first to hold my hands up: in a packed screening room, my mellower reactions were consistently drowned out by uproarious laughter. This is a film that many have anticipated for a long time and it appears to have pleased the vast majority. There is clearly a desire to reflect the source material, which is admirable if a tad foolhardy. Maybe it’s the rebellious streak, or perhaps the cathartic undoing of distinctly poorer previous superhero incarnations (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern). Thanks to Ryan Reynolds, at least Deadpool offers something a bit different.

Deadpool - Ryan Reynolds

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox