Movie #76: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Starring: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Mike Williams

Cannes Film Festival (1999):

Award of the Youth, Foreign Film: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

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Three amateur filmmakers shoot a documentary in Burkittesville, Maryland about The Blair Witch, a local folklore.  What started as a weekend trip ended up costing each of them their lives as they went from curious and intrigued filmmakers to terrified people just hoping to survive.

It’s been a couple of years since I saw this film, but it still creeps me out just thinking about it.  I’m not a fan of horror films, plain and simple, so even watching this movie once was a big deal.  I watched it at night of all times while living alone.  I didn’t sleep well for a couple of nights after watching this.

There are a few things that stand out about this film.  The marketing of it no doubt is something that sets it apart from most other films.  The movie itself was presented as fact: three filmmakers had been killed, and their film footage had been recovered and pieced back together nearly a year later.  The media buzz around that generated a lot of free publicity, though confusion from the audience.  I didn’t figure this was a true story, and since this was still largely a pre-digital world of film making, I found it hard to believe they would be able to piece together a relatively complete story with the film being out in the elements for so long.

Though the film spends most of the time with the three filmmakers on their trip, the beginning scenes where they’re interviewing locals told and lot and did some foreshadowing for what was to come.  I don’t remember who said it, but one of the people they interviewed hesitated for a second and more or less said they shouldn’t be doing this project.  Myrick and Sanchez also do a great job of connecting some of the things these people said with how the film ends.

Something that sets this film apart within the horror genre is the slow, gradual suspense that builds throughout the film.  Though the audience knows the end result, it’s interesting and disturbing to see how quickly the three filmmakers become more paranoid and frightful.  The scene where Heather breaks down and confesses that she thinks no one will survive is often ridiculed, but by that point in the film it almost seemed unbearable.

The Blair Witch Project adds a sense of realism in that there isn’t some knife-wielding killer or spooky ghosts or monsters popping out in the film.  There were many times throughout where that could have easily happened, but the suspense of it not happening almost had a greater impact than it these things had been used.  The amateur, low-budget camera feel also adds to it, though at times I found it a bit too stomach-wrenching.  I guess that was the desired effect though.

It has since been parodied and made fun of to the point of exhaustion.  However, The Blair Witch Project took the horror genre back from a more mainstream approach that had started nearly a decade earlier with films such as Misery and The Silence of the Lambs. It returned, I can only assume, back to a more genre specific and less mainstream film as it was in the 1970s and 80s.  Unique marketing and continued and exhausting suspense helped set The Blair Witch Project in a category all its own.  It goes without saying that the one time I watched this will be the only time.  It’s not one I would normally watch, but as a film it still impressed me.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Movie #75: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Director: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, and Russell Simpson

Academy Awards (1941):

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jane Darwell

Best Director: John Ford

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Henry Fonda

Best Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson

Best Picture: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson

Best Sound, Recording: Edmund H. Hansen/20th Century Fox SSD

Best Writing, Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson

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Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma after spending four years in prison for homicide.  He finds that his family has packed their things and is preparing to move to California in search of work.  Their journey is representative of many farming families of The Great Depression as they had to deal with homelessness, starvation, greedy company owners, and crooked cops as they searched for a means to provide for their family.

This is an interesting film, to say the least.  The Joad family here, representative of many families of the time, deal with a wide array of issues and problems: starvation, corporate greed, desperation.  At times it was sickening to see to what lengths those in charge would go to maintain control and keep their workforce more or less as indentured servants.

It’s sad how some of those injustices still exist today.

Henry Fonda does great as there strong-willed, though naive at times, leader of the Joad family.  Something Ford did right with this film is how he didn’t take away from the main message of the book for the sake of following the Hollywood formula.  Tom is a flawed hero: dealing with his anger and at times it getting the best of him.  In this film Fonda finds that balance of knowing how to be calm, but also to lose his calm when facing certain injustices.  He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story.  I’m not sure the Academy got that one right though.

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Though Tom Joad is the upfront leader of the family, Ma Joad (Darwell) is really where the buck stops with the family.  She puts Tom, and anyone else for that matter, in their place and is the strong voice of reason and rationality most of the time.  The only other film I’ve seen Jane Darwell in is Mary Poppins, and since she plays the bird lady in that film, The Grapes of Wrath is the only one I’ve seen that’s really showcased her acting talent.

Needless to say, she nailed this one.  I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job.  Her command of her scenes is unquestioned, and her constant awareness of the state of the family really grounds the story.

At just over two hours, The Grapes of Wrath does a good job of advancing the story and it kept me engaged throughout.  I had mixed feelings about the sometimes short cut scenes.  There would be a fade in, a 15 to 20 second scene, and cut out.  Though I’m not generally a fan of that, Ford does a good job with these in making the most of the limited screen time for some of these scenes.  They serve their purpose, advance the plot, and communicate the message.

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Having neither seen nor read The Grapes of Wrath, and honestly not knowing a whole lot about the story, I was impressed with this film.  It works well as a historical look at the times and attitudes of farmers from The Great Depression, and presents compelling social observations.  Strong acting and directing communicate the message of Steinbeck’s book and remaining an entertaining film.  While I probably won’t read the book (and from what I’ve read the movie’s ending is a watered-down version of the book’s), I wouldn’t entirely rule it out.  I’d probably watch this again as a teaching tool in talking about the time period.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #74: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, and Jean Heather

Academy Award Nomination (1945):

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Barbara Stanwyck

Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: John F. Seitz

Best Director: Billy Wilder

Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa

Best Picture: Joseph Sistrom

Best Sound, Recording: Loren L, Ryder

Best Writing, Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder

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Walter Neff (MacMurray) an insurance salesman devises a plan with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) to have her husband killed.  They plan on making it look like an accident so she can collect on her recently opened life insurance policy.  They take it a step further by staging the death to look like her husband fell off the back of a train, one of the circumstances that would grant her double indemnity, or a payout of double the policy’s value.  They run into a huge snag though with Barton Keyes (Robinson), the insurance company’s claims investigator.

The film opens with Neff recording his confession and weaving through the elaborate plan as the murder and subsequent investigation by the insurance company.  This was a great way to tell the story, and I must say I was impressed with the script.  This film is based on a murder that took place in the summer of 1927, where a housewife and her boyfriend killed her husband, attempted to make it look like an accident, and were eventually caught for the liars that they were.  I recently heard a little about the original murder on NPR, and it was significant because it was one of the first major murder cases that got the tabloid treatment and widespread publicity that has since become commonplace.  Insurance fraud is certainly something that has also developed and evolved over the years.

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A film like this needs two strong leads, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck perform wonderfully.  Walter’s character is savvy, but there’s the little hint that he knows the plan will ultimately not work.  MacMurray gives a great balanced, laid back performance.  Stanwyck does great as one of the first femme fatale characters.  Though not overtly sexual in her performance (it was still a major Hollywood taboo), she hints just enough to let the audience fill in some of the blanks.

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Edward G Robinson’s performance as Barton Keyes really tied the film together.  He provides a very strong moral compass, listening to his ‘inner man’ who tells him Phyllis’ husband’s death was no accident.  It’s his instinct to be critical where others might brush something like this off.  Keyes’ exchange with Ness at the end of the film was bluntly honest, superbly acted, and was shot very well.  Wilder had originally shot an ending where Ness is killed in a gas chamber, but changed his mind after seeing the exchange these two characters had.  While I think that would’ve been a fitting ending, it would have paled in comparison to the ending they ultimately went with.

Double Indemnity was an enjoyable film.   It laid a great foundation for this type of mystery film, as well as introduced a model for the femme fatale character that Barbara Stanwyck brilliantly pulled off.  While I won’t see this one again, like many others I’m glad to have at least seen it once.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano

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Keller Dover (Jackman) is a God-fearing family man who runs a less-than-successful carpentry business.  His family, attends a Thanksgiving party at the Birch’s, their neighbors, house.  While running home to retrieve a red whistle, Anna Dover and Joy Birch are abducted.  Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and Alex Jones (Dano) becomes a person of interest because his RV was seen parked in the neighborhood, then was gone after the abduction.

Dover and Loki each try to piece together the abduction in their own way.  Loki through regular police investigation procedures, Dover taking the law into his own hands, even bringing Franklin Birch (Howard) into the mess for a time.

Aaron Guzikowski’s script for this film is excellent.  While the actors and actresses deserve a lot of credit, they have some great source material to work with.  As the plot unfolded throughout the film, I found myself wondering who was responsible for what and how everything fit together.  As with a good script and story, the pieces fell into place at the end, and the plot kept my attention throughout the film.

In addition to a great script, Villeneuve does a great job with the cinematography and sound effects.  There’s just enough suspense throughout to keep the audience on guard.  Again, the film kept my attention and had me guessing and wondering what would happen next.  It also didn’t help that I was the only person in the theater and constantly had the A/C kicking on throughout the movie.  The sound effects are subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as cheesy, and they complement the great acting showcased in Prisoners.

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Without a strong lead actor, a film like this simply falls apart.  Hugh Jackman does great as the conflicted father who becomes more and more desperate in the search for his daughter.  He’s a guy I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with.

One scene in particular in an exchange Keller has with Loki in his squad car.  He goes from raging lunatic to grieving father on a dime.   It’s good to see Jackman finally give a great performance in a film that’s based entirely in realistic life terms.  Yes, he was good as Wolverine, and I’m sure his performances were top-notch in Australia and Les Miserables, but those are musicals.

And don’t even get me started on Real Steel.

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Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a convincing performance.  He maintains that balance of being a professional and keeping as objective and rational as possible, but there were just enough times to show that he also had a heart in trying to find the two missing girls.

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Melissa Leo and Paul Dano both turn in great performances as Holly and Alex jones.  Their characters come across as very simple-minded, which of course makes the audience believe there’s more to their story than meets the eye.  There’s one particular scene that’s very disturbing involving Dano,  I’ll just leave it at that.

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Terrance Howard and Viola Davis do a great just as a voice of reason for Keller.  Though they become somewhat involved, they have the good sense to back out before they get in too deep.  I’ve come to expect good performances from these two, and was not disappointed.

Overall I thought Prisoners did a great job at weaving together a complex story involving many players.  There’s just enough suspense throughout to keep the audience’s attention.  It also benefits from strong acting throughout the cast, as well as good cinematography and sound effects.  However, I don’t know that the film had to be as long as it way.  While the story progressed, at times I thought it went a little slow.

Will I see this movie again? Probably not.  The suspense and not knowing how things would turn out is gone, and I feel an additional viewing is unnecessary.  Other films like this were far less entertaining the second time watching it for me.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.