THE UPPER FOOTAGE Review: Found Footage Lost

The Upper Footage PosterWhile it can be traced back to the the early 1980s, the found footage genre is, in terms of its practical existence and certain popularity, relatively new on the Hollywood timeline.

The idea exploded 15 years ago with the enormous success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and reinvigorated itself with 2007’s Paranormal Activity.  Since then, it hasn’t looked back.  And while horror is the main genre that utilizes this sub-genre to full effect, thrillers, sci-fi movies, and even comedies have exploited the found footage concept.

Every year sees numerous found footage film creations, and 2013 was no exception, highlighted by the excellent sci-fi space thriller, Europa Report.  Also released in 2013 was another non-horror found footage film, The Upper Footage.  The indie crime thriller, directed by Justin Cole, brings with it more than onscreen drama.  It brings some offscreen drama, too.

Four 20-something Children of the One Percent – Blake (the Alpha Male), Taylor (the Alpha Moll), Devon (the Obnoxious One), and Will (the Nice One) – hit the New York City streets (via limo) in search of a good time, fueled by booze and substances of varying affect and street value. After a series of starts and stops, party favors are procured, Devon picks up a girl named Jackie, and the gang takes their limo back to Blake’s high-rise apartment (the one with the devastating view of the city) for a good time over a long night. Will, a vlogger, films the night for posterity.

But Jackie isn’t a seasoned partying veteran, and the voluminous combination of clear liquid and white powder is too much for the newbie. After a violent vomiting episode in Blake’s toilet, Jackie dies. With the camera still rolling, the high society foursome makes poor decision after poor decision when trying to determine what to do next.

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The “offscreen drama” that I reference in the open of The Upper Footage pertains to the notion the events in the film were thought to have actually occurred, even beyond the usual “Is this real?” buzz that can surround a found-footage film.  News outlets were convinced the footage was real.  Entertainment shows featured the footage in televised stories.  Young female celebrities of considerable notoriety were thought to have been involved.  The film was even protested to the point of being pulled from NYC theaters because people thought a girl REALLY DIED (which would make this a snuff film of sorts).  But this “marketing” feat – something that rivals (and in certain aspects surpasses) what The Blair Witch Project achieved – turns out to be the film’s greatest enemy.  Without it – without the idea that the events of that evening happened as they were captured on camera – the film is mostly lifeless.

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No sooner does it fade in, it stumbles as it labors through six minutes (!!!) of title cards dissolving in and out, presenting a long, at times arduous backstory about footage and extortion and lawsuits and pixelated faces and on and on.  The intro has moments of interest, like when the Entertainment Tonight footage rolls and when Quentin Tarantino‘s name is invoked (trust me, it’s not worth explaining), but to sit through hundreds of words – even if the film had turned out to be a masterpiece – is far too much to ask.  A more created method filling in the past needs to open the film, not a short story.

Once that sequence ends, what is offered is a tale told in two acts.  The first act is nothing more than an edited “you are there” night on the town with the young and privileged.  The foursome (with an occasional fifth, Chrissy, who seems to be there only to serve as a punchline for misogynistic barbs about how willing she is to have sex) rides around New York City, talking about nothing even remotely interesting or significant, complaining about having a hard time scoring drugs, and trying to figure out what to do.  It has a real feel to it because the camera is all over the place, as if Will turned it on and sometimes shoots things and other times forgets it’s there, but that puts so much more importance on what is said, and what is said is nothing different than what you might hear in a food court at a shopping mall on a Friday night.  Simply put, listening to bored people talk is boring.

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The second act kicks off with an intense start when, after some apartment partying, Will finds Jackie dead in the bathroom.  It’s here that the realistic camera work, and especially what you hear offscreen, is bone-chillingly realistic.  The panic from the living room in the apartment sells the scene entirely.

And then everyone is back on camera and ad-libbing ad nauseam about what to do, grinding the film to a halt once again.  There’s some occasional mild interest once they get Jackie’s body out of the apartment (of course they don’t call the police), but as the young and privileged, they make scores of poor decisions.  Unfortunately for them (and for you), you could not care less about them because they have done absolutely nothing to endear themselves as people.

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The way the film ends … that is, the way it ends before more title cards appear … is quite good, but there is so little to like in the run up to the conclusion that it simply doesn’t matter.

If you are curious about the girl with the pixelated face in all of the pictures, that’s Jackie.  The hook is that her face has been obscured out of respect to her family – a clever conceit, I admit, as is the absence of any acting credits in the film or on IMDb.  There’s even a suggestion (with a title card!) that a sex scene is edited out for the same reason.  And yet seeing her slumped dead, head in a toilet, stays in.  Oh, the filmmaking here.

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The Upper Footage is a film built on a house of cards that crumbles under the weight of its reliance on its own gimmick – a gimmick that has long since been exposed.  Without the thrill of wondering if the events actually happened, watching the film is an exercise in watching a mediocre improv troupe pretend to be brats with bad judgement and even worse decision-making skills.  All that’s missing is the Friday night food court.





Disclosure: The producers made available to me a streaming copy of this film for review purposes.

GRAND PIANO Review: Every Note is Flat

Grand Piano PosterMy first recollection of movies being described based on an “elevator pitch” was in 1994, when Jan de Bont‘s Speed was released and touted as “Die Hard on a bus.” That unwittingly unleashed a slew of “Die Hard on a …” imitators, none of which are worthy to be compared to the 1988 groundbreaker, with the exception of the aforementioned Speed and Andrew Davis‘s Under Siege (1992), which was sold as “Die Hard on a ship.”

The elevator pitch is still being used to perfection by Hollywood today – and even the name Die Hard, some 25 years later, is still being invoked: two 2013 releases – Antoine Fuqua‘s Olympus Has Fallen and Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down are both “Die Hard in the White House.” (Neither are worthy, for the record.)

Now in 2014 comes my first experience with an elevator pitch spun from an elevator pitch. Where Speed was touted as “Die Hard on a bus,” Eugenio Mira‘s Grand Piano has been called “Speed at a piano.”

Five years ago, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) was the greatest concert pianist in the world.  But a terrible mistake at the end of a so-called unplayable piece – “La Cinquette” – was deemed “The Great Screw-Up” and drove Tom into retirement.  In the present day, Tom is relectantly poised to make a comeback, spurred on by his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé).  Adding pressure to the evening is the fact that Tom will be playing the piano that once belonged to his late, beloved mentor.  Like Tom, his mentor was the only other pianist known to be able to play “La Cinquette.”

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Tom has no plans of playing that piece until he sits down at the piano in front of the large audience.  When he opens his sheet music he finds a message scrawled in red: “One wrong note and I’ll kill you.”  The written threats continue and he is directed to put in an earpiece.  Speaking to him (and hearing him) is his would-be assassin (John Cusack), who spends the rest of the evening torturing Tom from afar with everything from intimidating language to pointing the red dot of a high-powered rifle’s scope on the sheet music to firing a silenced round into the floor next to Tom.  Tom is ultimately forced to play “La Cinquette” (lest his wife be killed), and his anonymous tormenter has a curious reason for making him do so.

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The core concept of Grand Piano is wonderfully fraught with tension.  The notion of a concert pianist making his improbable (albeit begrudging) comeback under such enormous pressure, and then intensifying that pressure ten-fold with the threat of being killed should he play a single wrong note, is practically Hitchcockian.  The problem is that the conceit is so structured that screenwriter Damien Chazelle doesn’t have the storytelling acumen to keep the story plausible.

The comparison to Speed is a accurate one, but it’s also a good exercise in compare-and-contrast.  With Speed, the “one false move and your dead” peril is based on active movement (don’t drive the bus slower than 55 MPH), which allows for some of the great set-pieces to naturally evolve: managing that feat in traffic, and with people on the bus, and with a partially unfinished freeway (not to mention an in-motion rescue attempt).  With this film, the “one false move and your dead” peril pertains to … Tom’s hands.  The only thing he needs to keep moving at the right speed are his hands.  Where do you naturally go from there?  Chazelle and director Mira answer that question by forcing action – by spreading outward instead of tightening inward – usually to the point of ridiculousness.

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Most of the problem occurs within the context of the story.  Even looking past the fact that the opening minutes needlessly stress and re-stress “The Great Screw-Up,” the rest of the story demands you to believe that no one else in the audience or in the orchestra noticed the laser point on the piano, the cellphone next to Tom’s leg that he uses to send an emergency text, or the threatening bullet that oh-so cleanly enters the stage floor.  And that’s just the action onstage.  Yes, there is action offstage because Chazelle and Mira can’t possibly sustain any length of time onstage without becoming quickly boring or even more preposterous.

Sadly, offstage is no more plausible.  The action that takes place involving Emma’s insufferably two-dimensional non-celeb BFF Ashley (Tamsin Egerton), as well as Ashley’s kept boyfriend Wayne (Allen Leech), is laughable for all the wrong reasons.  At the end of the film, there is a reveal that invokes memories of Now You See Me, and in the worst possible way.

With that to work with, Mira tries to visually inject life into a story that is thematically still.  He does so by wildly overplaying camera movements (another negative comparison to Now You See Me), trying to make the you believe that more is going on in the film than is actually happening.

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The performances are about as good as the material will allow them to be, but in the end it’s the material that undermines the film.  The filmmakers could have had something special had they embraced the Hitchcockian side of the conceit and gone smaller and more intimate, like Rear Window or Rope.  Instead, they turned Grand Piano into a riff on Speed, and in the process brought a clever idea to a grinding halt.



August 2, 2014 1 comment

Guardians of the Galaxy PosterOn February 19, 2014, I replied to a tweet about the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer.  The tweet, from colleague Max Covill (@impsndcnma), said:

“#GuardiansOfTheGalaxy trailer was okay. Captain America still the superhero film to beat.”

I replied:

“Completely agree. Key word ‘okay.'”

On April 5, having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier the night before, I posted to Twitter:

“Nice to [see] the #GuardiansoftheGalaxy trailer on the big screen. Still not wowed by it.”

And on May 19, after seeing another trailer, I tweeted:

“Yeah. Still not hooked on that feeling.”  (The line is a reference to the song “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, which has become synonymous with this film.

Not one single promotion for this film – from that first trailer to the 17-minutes of “advance screening” footage that played on IMAX screens in early July (I passed on it) – impressed me.  It’s not that I thought the promotions were bad, I simply thought they were uninteresting.  This might night not sound good, but going into a film disinterested is sometimes the best way to go into it – you have no preconceived expectations.

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The year is 1988 and a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) has just lost his mother to terminal illness.  Distraught beyond words, the boy runs outside and, mysteriously, is abducted by an alien ship.

Fast-forward to present day outer-space and Quill (Chris Pratt) – aka Star-Lord – is a space pirate on a quest for an orb that will fetch him a lot of money.  But no sooner does he have the orb, he finds himself the target of a bounty hunt.  Space villain Ronan (Lee Pace) is after the orb on behalf of the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited) because of what it contains.  Dispatched to fetch the orb from Quill is Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is sent in lieu of her half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  Interested in the bounty for Quill are bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a raccoon and tree, respectively.  The quartet ultimately wind up in prison together, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants to kill Gamora because of what Thanos did to his family.  They make at least a temporary peace and break out of jail, where the adventure is only beginning.

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As a film, Guardians of the Galaxy is far superior to whatever it is the marketing people were trying to sell, but I understand now why they struggled.  The film – despite all of the technical wizardry that its $170MM budget provides – relies heavily on character depth and the chemistry of its five main players (the Big Five).  It’s hard to get all of that across in a 2-minute clip package, especially when so much attention was given to the film’s soundtrack.  Sure, the dichotomy of seeing futuristic space action set to the tunes of Blue Swede or Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit In the Sky”) are fun, but they’re limited.  This film offers more than that.

Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, does a remarkable job efficiently establishing and nicely developing our heroes, and he does so to the depth they need to be established.  Because Quill is the de facto leader of the team and the centerpiece of the film, he gets the most attention, and his back story – set in 1988 and which opens the film – is Spielbergian in construct and execution.  Gamora follows, with Drax and Rocket not far behind.  Groot is the least developed character because, well, he’s a tree and doesn’t really need heavy treatment.

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The characters are cleverly introduced to each other naturally band together despite believable conflicts (of which there were more than I expected).  Their banter is well-paced, the humor is varying degrees of funny (there is a Jackson Pollock reference that is to die for), and none of their relationships ever suffer from cliché.  Even Groot contributes to the laughs and shows a little pathos by the end.  And if it’s action you are looking for, the Big Five provide all of it, with the best part coming from their exciting prison break.

Pratt is terrific in this role – a throwback to the action heroes of the ’80s (complete with abs), yet without the sticky cheese of catchphrases or excessive preening.  He’s the lovechild of Indiana Jones and Die Hard‘s John McClane, with a little Han Solo and a little Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley in there too.  This is clearly his franchise, and he is up to the task.  Saldana delivers as expected, and wrestler-turned-actor Bautista hits his marks, says his (easy) lines, and brings the pain when the situation calls for it.  Cooper, however, is a pleasant surprise.  You might think a smart-mouthed CGI raccoon with some anger issues wouldn’t be much, but Cooper makes him into something memorable (and again proves he’s more than just a pretty-boy actor).

Yep.  Everything about the Big Five hits on all cylinders from beginning to end.

If only the rest of the film had anything remotely close to this going for it.

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As the saying goes, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” and for as much as Gunn does the former, he almost equally does the latter.

Any scene that doesn’t involve at least two of the Big Five brings the film to a grinding halt.  The bad guys’ story of intergalactic double-crosses and higher political machinations is terribly overwrought, as is the dialogue that litters these scenes.  This leaves Pace, Brolin, and Gillan little choice but to incessantly chew the scenery.  Gillan is especially wasted here.  As a lithe villainess with no hair and two-tone blue skin and coal-black eyes, she is ripe for the role of space femme fatale, but she’s more screamer than schemer.

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On the side of the non-Big Five good guys, every punch line feels forced.  As lawman Corpsman Day, John C. Reilly plays a space-bound version of his frat pack alter-ego.  And lines like “What a bunch of a-holes,” delivered in thick snootiness by Peter Serafinowicz, have a sense of a wishful “Do you think it would be funny if …” instead of a confident “This is funny.”  Even the reliable Michael Rooker, who plays something of an anti-hero, is given nothing more to work with than a blue-skinned version of his chippy Merle character from TV’s The Walking Dead.  These moments – characters and lines and scenes – are a considerable detriment to a film that displays moments of greatness.

As for that soundtrack, while it’s great in terms of the songs it includes, it is a mixed bag when listened to in the context of the film; some of the songs feel out of place in the scenes where they are used.  This improves as the movie progresses, but early on it’s quite awkward.  When we are first introduced to present-day Quill, he’s listening (and singing and dancing) to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.  It’s a great tune, but it is so out of place in the moment.

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Guardians of the Galaxy is a good movie and worth seeing in the theater.  But it is also part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that grand expanse of filmmaking that, until now, has only included The Avengers and its members’ solo films.  Thanos is the connection here, and it will be interesting to see how it all ties together.  But if Gunn and Marvel have plans to stand Quill and Company side-by-side with the likes of Tony Stark (Iron Man), Steve Rogers (Captain America), and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow), they’re going to need more than Chris Pratt’s abs and “ooga-chaka” to keep up.