THE UPPER FOOTAGE Review: Found Footage Lost
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.