Monday, August 24, 2015

Why THE MIDNIGHT SWIM Is Found Footage Worth Watching

Note: This post contains what might be considered some minor spoilers throughout.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that although I watch nearly every one that hits the market, I tend to despise found footage horror movies. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but as someone who loved – and still loves – The Blair Witch Project, I’m forever holding out hope that there will be another FF film that engages me as completely as that one did. Nine times out of ten, I am disappointed. And yet I press on!

I was rewarded for my masochism when I finally had the chance to see The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith’s first feature length film. It’s the story of three sisters (June, Annie, and Isa) who return to their childhood home after their mother goes swimming in the nearby lake and never returns. The three women have to decide what to do with the house, a task that stirs up old memories and long-dormant issues. Littlest sister June handles the emotional upheaval by filming, and possibly warping, her version of reality, and that is the impetus for the enigmatic story.

It’s not a film for the impatient, but for those weary of the formulaic FF horror film, The Midnight Swim provides an entirely new, smarter class of horror. Here’s why.

The characters are realistic.

Unlike other FF movies, that doesn’t mean they are boring, or that they spend the entire movie ad-libbing arguments overstuffed with backstory. Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer LaFleur, and Aleksa Palladino are truly a marvel of chemistry. Everything about them – from knowing looks to shared bits about their mother – makes it difficult to believe the actresses aren’t really related to one another. When the sisters do have disagreements, they are subtle, mired in a silent history to which the audience is only partially privy. This history is never explicitly spelled out, because the filmmaker seems to realize there’s no need for that. We are given information on a need-to-know basis, and bolstered by the strong performances, that only enhances the mystery.

The presence of the camera makes sense.

So many FF movies feature an obnoxious character with increasingly flimsy reasons for continuing to film in dire circumstances: The wannabe documentarian who insists, “The world will need to see this!” even as the monster chases him to his death, or the reporter who continues filming “for the ratings” long after even the most fame-hungry narcissist would have wised up and hit the road. Even after the camera-wielding character is killed off, the lens always seems to land in a perfectly off-center position, showing just enough of the shot to attempt a final scare. The Blair Witch Project invented these tactics, and few filmmakers have bothered to try to move beyond them. At this point, they are tired, played out, and worst of all, distracting – the opposite of what should be a fully immersive viewing experience.

The Midnight Swim’s auteur – June – and her medium – the camera – are neither obnoxious nor distracting. Rather, they become almost a single character, so melded into her mode of expression is June. She relates to her family and the world through her camera, and so it only makes sense that she films. Furthermore, there is more than a little ambiguity surrounding June’s role in the strange happenings at the house, and so her decision to film, and more specifically, what she chooses to show, only adds layers to her character’s mental state.

June relates to the world through her camera and is rarely onscreen.

The use of the camera drives the story forward.

As I said, June and the camera can nearly be considered one character, and turning the camera into an actual character is a brilliant move. Rather than being an unwieldy extra element, the camera is the audience’s seamless window into an intimate story. The footage we see is alternately a home movie, a documentary about local legends, and a music video made by the sisters. As mysterious footage begins showing up in the camera’s memory, we begin to wonder if the camera might even be a gateway to the supernatural. Therein lies the mystery, and the camera is an indispensable element of that mystery.

It’s original.

This is key, and much rarer than you might think. It’s not the same old exorcism or haunted house schtick we’ve seen countless other times in abysmal efforts like The Devil Inside and Apartment 143, or in the downward trajectory of the Paranormal Activity franchise. While the found footage genre was once a way in for innovative new filmmakers, it has devolved into little more than a cash-grab, recycling the same ideas and scares over and over again.

The Midnight Swim differs from these other FF movies in many respects, but one of the most important is its penchant for the eerie over the dramatic. Instead of employing one jump scare after another (a tactic horror fans are basically immune to at this point), it goes for a lingering sense of anxiety and unease, rooted in a "local legend" that is both familiar and entirely new. The Midnight Swim may not be action-packed or bursting with blood and guts, but its brand of horror will haunt you long after your television is turned off. I can’t say that about many found footage films I’ve seen in the last decade.

Monday, August 10, 2015

DARK PLACES - Wherein I attempt to review the movie without talking about the book, and fail

I can probably count the book-to-movie adaptations that really worked for me on one hand – Carrie, American Psycho, Stand By Me, Jaws. There might be a few more, but for the most part, those are all examples of movies I loved, adapted from books that I just sort of liked, and I’m guessing that’s why those films worked so well for me. When it comes to books that I love being adapted into movies, though, I can almost assume the movie version will be a disappointment on some level, right? Because how can anything compare to what I've imagined and idealized in my own head?

Even so, I try to go into adaptations with an open mind. I’m not one to gripe that a movie “ruined my childhood” by not turning out exactly the way I had imagined it (frankly, I can’t imagine anything sillier), and it’s not as if a movie can erase a mental image of a character. So when I heard that they were turning Gillian Flynn’s (writer of Gone Girl – the book and the movie) Dark Places into a movie, I was excited. Dark Places is one of my favorite mysteries (treading that lovely line between thrilling and genuinely moving), and I couldn’t wait to see it brought to life on screen. When I heard that they’d cast Charlize Theron as the main character, Libby Day, I was a bit skeptical – Theron is just nothing like I’d imagined the character, physically or otherwise – but Theron is unquestionably a great actor, so I figured I’d wait and see how it all turned out.

For those of you that don't know, Dark Places is about Libby Day, who is the sole survivor of her family's brutal massacre, save for her brother Ben, who she herself accused of the murders. As an adult, she is bitter, selfish, and alone, and only agrees to dig a little deeper into her childhood memories when an organization of serial killer fanatics, aptly named "The Kill Club," offers to pay her for her troubles.

Overall, Dark Places, the film, is a solid companion piece to Dark Places, the book. The film is a good little thriller on its own, but I think you need to have read the book to fully appreciate a lot of the things that the film glosses over or speeds through. It’s a common affliction among adaptations; a piece of art that was originally 400 or 500 pages long has to be condensed into less than two hours onscreen, so something is generally lost in the translation. In this case, a lot of the heart – in the form of characterization – was lost in favor of keeping the plot moving along as swiftly as possible.

The character of Ben Day is the most glaring example. Although I think the casting was spot-on (Tye Sheridan does a remarkable job of conveying the teenaged Ben’s many complex emotions with very little dialogue), the subplot of Ben being accused of crimes against young girls happened so quickly, and was explained away a little too handily, so that the audience barely had time to register what had really happened, or why. Ben is a character full of self-loathing, shyness, sensitivity, and false bravado, but those emotions were only hinted at in the movie, making Ben's storyline far less cohesive by the end.

Another major problem was that Charlize Theron was crucially miscast. There’s no denying that she’s an amazing actor, but regardless of how she was described in the book (diminutive, for one), Theron just didn’t work for the part. Libby is a survivor, but not the kind that spouts motivational quotes. She’s meant to be an angry, angsty little pistol who only made it out alive by being the tiniest, quietest, most resilient little mouse in the house (even enduring the loss of a few body parts to frostbite, a fact that's completely ignored in the film). She’s far tougher than she looks, and that is vital to her character. Try as she might, Theron just doesn’t fit that description.

Take for example the scene where Libby meets Lyle Wirth, treasurer of the “Kill Club," in a quiet Laundromat. Lyle, played by an unassuming Nicholas Hoult, takes a step towards Libby, who holds out a hand and exclaims, “Just take a fucking step back, man! What is it with you and personal space?” Maybe it’s because I recently watched Theron overwhelm literal hordes of crazed men in Mad Max, but it was difficult for me to believe that she – looking rather formidable in thick black combat boots, her broad shoulders draped in a leather jacket – felt even remotely threatened by Lyle. It’s a problem throughout the movie, as the adult Libby never truly seems to be in much danger (her opponents later on are only slightly less bumbling than Lyle). Theron still does a good job, of course, but a different casting choice could have taken this movie from thrilling to terrifying.

For every good casting choice, there is another misstep. Chloe Grace Moretz positively shines as Ben’s narcissistic, drama-loving girlfriend, Diondra. She practically glimmers with manic energy every time she’s onscreen, and you can absolutely see why a lonely teen boy would fall head over heels for her. It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, when we meet the adult version of Diondra (Andrea Roth), who doesn’t possess even a dimmed version of that off-kilter flare.

But none of that makes for a bad movie. If you’re looking for a good way to spend a Friday night in, this certainly could be it. Dark Places is a solid mystery-thriller and I don’t mind that I spent a few dollars to see it. If you’re looking for a great mystery that unfolds organically and with more than a sprinkling of human drama, however, I strongly urge you to read the book first. Finally, if you're too lazy to read, I recommend the film version of Gone Girl which, ironically, I liked much better than the book.