'Blair Witch' Echoes Original With Tense Mysteries, Blunt Scares

Directed by: Adam Wingard; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: C+

The Blair Witch Project, the eighty-minute indie trek into the found-footage genre filled with yelling and tears, shaky camerawork, and a slow but assured build of real-world tension, has always been a bit polarizing. Some bought -- and continue to buy -- into the illusion created by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, viewing the grainy film and muffled audio as an authentic relic left behind by three doomed documentary makers in search of Maryland's fabled Blair Witch. Others see it as nothing but hype pushing forward a not-so-scary horror film made exasperating by its frustrated characters. Perhaps my initial impressions were impacted by the fact that I originally screened the film at a rural drive-in theater nestled against a forested area, but I fall into the first category, seeing The Blair Witch Project as both an expertly-crafted novelty and a genuinely chilling horror experience. That's why the reveal of this surprise sequel to the Blair Witch saga, directed by You're Next's Adam Wingard with a clear grasp on what the original did right, generated plenty of excitement toward returning to the woods.

The result, the simply-titled Blair Witch, finds another, larger group of inquisitive youngsters entering into the Burkittsville forest to follow in the tracks of the original trio. This time, the hunt for the Blair Witch is by association: fifteen years after his sister Heather, the head documentarian from the first run of discovered footage, went missing, James Donahue has gathered together a group of his friends to take one last journey into the woods in hopes of finding her. Sparked by new videotape footage discovered and uploaded by a pair of YouTubers that revealed what could be the image of his sister in a dilapidated house, James and his tech-savvy film student friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), arm themselves and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) with state-of-the-art recording -- and global positioning -- gear to capture their experiences. With the YouTube uploaders Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) tagging along, the group of six enter the Maryland woodlands with awareness of the superstitions and schemes used by the woman of the forest, real or not.

Multiple headset cameras, a footage-capturing drone, and a high-quality DSLR elevate the quality of the discovered material in Blair Witch, offering perspectives that differ from the original film that double as modern solutions to the issues encountered there, too: how to shoot continuously, keep from getting lost, etc. Along with GPS devices and the spottiness of cell-phone reception, it's as if director Wingard and writer Simon Barrett wrote down a list of each and every way that the trio in Project could've gotten out of the original situation had it happened in the current era -- the reasons why it might appear dated now -- and preemptively addressed all the scenarios. But for all the technology at their fingertips, this new winding hike through the witch's domain still manages to play out curiously similar to the original, where the crew deals with many of the same problems and get embroiled in many of the same arguments over mistrust and navigation. There's a fine line between respecting and disguising a franchise's roots, and falling into the zone of duplication. This direct sequel stumbles across that line, repeatedly.

Despite the advancements in recording tech and the new toys at their disposal, Blair Witch retains a lot of the same jerky editing and wobbly camerawork you'd expect from the frantic movement of frightened people, so those who were bothered by it before won't have their minds changed here. Something's different this time around: a lot of effort went into creating as much authenticity as possible in Project to maintain the prankster guise of it being, y'know, feasible real, which are limitations that Adam Wingard doesn't have to so stringently respect; he's purely conjuring the illusion, not trying to swindle the audience into thinking this all really happened. With that freedom, he uses harsh glitches in the digital footage and loud bumps in the night for precise, boisterous jump-scares. These jolts are effective at creating an unpredictable and punishing landscape that's more openly exciting than it was before, but they also feel manufactured inside an experience that's still trying to walk and talk like found-footage horror, subtly interrupting and undercutting the film's general conceit.

By focusing more on these direct, hostile scares, Blair Witch also tweaks the methods used by the titular monster of Maryland's folklore, to a degree that comes close to being inconsistent with what happened in the woods fifteen years prior. In The Blair Witch Project, the witch was insidious and eerily manipulative; this time, she's outright angry, and exerts far more control over her domain than before. Perhaps a decade-and-a-half of search parties trampling through the land have further embittered her, but the terror she generates around her new victims is much more visceral and unabashed, an after-effect of those deliberate scare tactics. Even with this metamorphosis of her methods, however, very little demystification of the Blair Witch occurs, an impressive feat for such a sequel. While retaining many of the original mysteries, it also introduces a few of its own with enough obscurity to invite theories about what's really going on. Lifelike creepiness has escalated to Lovecraftian horror, and while reasonably potent, this transition within the found-footage genre isn't without missteps.

The heightened brutality of the Blair Witch makes it a lot easier to not get invested in the band of seemingly doomed travelers searching for her, a cluster of well-performed but bland and sporadically unlikable people more easily viewed as potential horror-film victims than anything else. Aside from James' motivation to find his sister, there isn't a lot to these characters, which makes their progression further into the witch's twisted realm less about their individual interactions with the Blair Witch folklore and more about the deadly tricks awaiting them in the pitch-black surroundings. This matters less in the final act, a culmination of the dwindling number of campers and the object of their pursuits, one that frantically messes around with expectations and crawls deeper into the mysterious foundation built by the enigmatic ending of the first film ... but you've got to get there first. Blair Witch fittingly extends the woods' dangers and ill-omened mythology, yet director Wingard can only partly recapture the landmark spirit of the footage cobbled together from those three original documentarians.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

White Whale Gets Orange Stripes in Gritty, Heavy 'The Tiger'

Directed by: Park Hoon-Jung; Runtime: 139 minutes
Grade: C

Ah, the hunt for elusive, legendary animals. It's one of the oldest premises for fiction out there, due in no small part to the effortless and easily relatable allegory found within each one. The prolonged search for these beasts of folklore -- often merely a larger or otherwise glorified version of more readily catchable animals -- speaks to the pursuit of success found in most people, setting a goal that's inherent difficult to achieve and prone to driving the seekers mad. Depending on the story, these stories can also delve into the kinship between man and nature, the tenuous balance between beings with common, somewhat primitive goals and perceptions about the territory in which they inhabit. South Korea's The Tiger sets its sights on this aspect within the space of a two-plus hour period drama, and while an exceptional performance from Choi Min-sik, engaging visual effects, and meaningful ruminations on family give it plenty of substance to chew on, it's also far too grim and heavy-handed to savor its intents.

Granted, there's a reason that the tone ends up being so severe, since The Tiger centers on an effort in the early '20s to eradicate all of the great cats from Japanese-ruled Korea. With the persistence of local hunters, the numbers have dwindled on Mt. Jirisan to the single digits, yet the enduring spirit of the wilderness -- the Mountain Lord, a massive, half-blind tiger often seen as a sort of godly embodiment -- evades their many tactics. An aging, retired hunter, Chun Man-duk (Choi Min-sik), often referenced as one of the greatest hunters in the region, also lives with his son in the domain of the tiger, yet he constantly refuses to engage in the hunt for the Mountain Lord. Soon, no other tigers are left in the region but this figure of folktale, whose capture -- and death -- nets an incredible reward. Reluctantly, Chun Man-duk gets involved with the search, pitting the hunter against the demons of his past and against the tiger that, at one time, forever altered his life.

Often carrying the subtitle An Old Hunter's Tale, The Tiger echoes the fabled hunter's voyage of "Moby Dick" within a stark wilderness atmosphere and historical backbone, focused on the harsh, earthen landscape while building up the legacy of the Mountain Lord. Speaking to the Korean culture's affinity with the tiger, the film quickly sets up the unconquerable beast of legend as the sympathetic victim and, in a way, the story's champion: the spirit of the mountain and its people resisting against the Japanese rule. Intricate, layered visual effects breathe life into the Mountain Lord, accentuating his intense presence and furious movement throughout the grim forested domain, yet without capturing the full breadth of the realistic aspects of the tiger's body language. What results is a snarling, imposing force of digital wizardry whose overt ferocity illusion, missing the sort of raw life present in, say, Shere Khan of Disney's recent live-action Jungle Book.

Not unlike The Revenant, which was released theatrically around the same time, The Tiger embarks upon a drawn-out, intentionally unpleasant depiction of the hunt for the remaining cats throughout Mt. Jirisan, casting a grim shadow over the father-son drama between Chun Man-duk and his sixteen-year-old, Seok. The expressive, honest eyes and lumbering movement of Oldboy's Choi Min-sik form into a weatherworn ghost of the hunter's old self, whose reasons for the disinterest in pursuing the Mountain Lord -- animals in general -- remains a mystery as other scarred, frustrated hunters fail in their attempts to do so. Their unyielding efforts to rid the forest of all tigers creates a downhearted tone in itself, but this Old Hunter's Tale deliberately and aggressively pushes the boundaries in doing so, revealed in the desperate and heartless tactics employed by local hunters and by the Japanese military to extinguish the symbolic spirit of the wilderness. Observing how they do so overreaches with this heavy-handed drama, bolstered by bitter, clear-cut parallels between humans and the animal kingdom in their parenting.

Against the backdrop of a snowy forest soaked in blood due to the Mountain Lord's vicious brushes with his attackers, The Tiger does succeed in carefully and extensively setting up the reasons that the Old Hunter ultimately agrees to track the legendary tiger, hinged on their complicated, primal connection. There's a meaningful backbone to the narrative spun by Park Hoon-Jung -- who wrote and directed the incredibly sharp gangster film New World -- that revolves around heritage, family, and guilt, but these general ruminations extend across over two hours of threadbare plotting with a limited number of pathways to go down. Not enough happens within the hunter and tiger's parallel stories to keep the drama moving forward at an engaging pace for its lengthy runtime, instead relying on story's spread-out, heartrending developments and affecting flashbacks to build up its somber presence toward an all-too familiar embodiment of the hunter-hunted kinship. It's an old tale we've seen and heard before, and The Tiger's historical context and downhearted reflections can't change its stripes enough to hide that.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Undermarked Oversights: Saved!

Christianity might regularly change with the times to appeal to the youth of their flock, but its effort toward a "hip" and "cool" makeover in the late-'90s and early 2000s struck a mainstream chord, marking the rise of Christian alt-rock, WWJD bracelets and brand-parody shirts, and massive worship conferences. While writer/director Brian Dannelly drew from his own experiences with Christian schooling and subculture during his youth while writing Saved!, a teen-comedy powered by religious satire, it's the timing of its release around the period of this "emerging church" that herded it into a cult-classic niche. Satirizing religion -- especially when involving teenagers -- can be tricky, but Dannelly know how to cross necessary lines that ask questions and push buttons without attacking the entire institution, resulting in a sharply funny depiction of teens navigating the complexities of morals, zealotry, and figuring out what their beliefs are in the process.

Mary Cummings (Jena Malone), a senior at American Eagle Christian High School, has a lot going for her. Along with graduating soon, she's also a member of a pop-music singing group that started at her school, the Christian Jewels, which is led by her wildly popular best friend, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Mary also has a good Christian boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), whom she can see spending her life with. The couple are confronted with a challenge, however, when Dean tells Mary that he might be gay, obviously a no-no when it comes to their faith. To help save the relationship and under the pretense that her actions will lead Dean astray from even worse sin, Mary decides to take their relationship to another level. In the process, Mary ends up pregnant, leaving her to hide the secret from her secular friends as she turns to the school's pariahs -- like Hilary Faye's handicapped brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), and the school's wild-child "witch", Cassandra (Eva Amurri) -- for comfort and help with the situation, while also ducking the untimely flirtations from a ministry skateboarder, Patrick (Patrick Fugit).

Writer/director Brian Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban channel long-term perceptions of Christian schools and this turn-of-the-century "revamp" movement of Christianity into the halls of American Eagle Christian High School, a place where it's difficult to tell who runs the place: the teachers, or the hero-worshipped Hilary Faye and her model posse of "Christian Jewels". Mandy Moore's overly cheerful charisma plays up the foundation of her character's higher-power faith into both a tool for her popularity and a weapon against those who clash with her and her beliefs, shaping Hilary into a unique kind of villain who stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Regina George in Mean Girls or Heather Duke in Heathers. From hands-in-the-air concerts with the Christian Jewels and the slang-riddled preaching from the school's dean to soul-saving prayer "interventions", Dannelly nails down a kind of moral battleground full of charismatic worship that won't stand for deviations from its -- or Hilary's -- way of thinking, a place of insistent love hiding its underlying intolerance.

Of course, what's a better way of using this buttoned-up atmosphere than to throw a bunch of challenges at its status quo? There's a degree of convenience behind the moral "hiccups" that Saved! introduces in its religious takedown, where teen pregnancy, homosexuality, and demonized non-believers all erupt at the same time around meek senior Mary, played with convincing naivete and simmering ferocity by Jena Malone. Yet, the personal experiences and research channeled into their stories neatly weave together with the setup orchestrated by director Dannelly, striking a balance between elevated reality and outright parody that carries enough authenticity to take seriously. Our playfully-named heroine, Mary, goes down a path that leads her through conflicts of morality and the integrity of her religion, and the broadening of her horizons along the way telegraphs a solid message about figuring out what elements of higher-power belief -- if any -- make sense to different people.

Backed by a soundtrack featuring tunes recorded by Mandy Moore, recognizable classic Christian songs like Jesus Christ Superstar, and seasonal music to mark the passing of time, Saved! follows the calculated moral battle that Hilary Faye wages against the "pariahs" of American Eagle over the schoolyear. While Mary struggles with how to handle and cover up her pregnancy situation from, well, everyone, effective humor forms around exorcisms, converting non-believers, and the dirty little secrets people keep about themselves. Punchlines are rarely overt, though; the funniest line in the film gets tossed out in the film's trailer. Instead, the comedic timing and chemistry within the rising-star cast elevates the surprisingly witty and cautiously subversive jabs in the writing -- especially through Mandy Moore's deadpan villainy as Hilary and Eva Amurri's brazen rebelliousness as Cassandra -- easing up on its satirical edge with a reputable amount of honest teen-oriented drama and romantic diversions.

Luckily, Saved! doesn't preach about the touchy topic of the Christian faith among high-schoolers, nor does it rely on using religion itself as the butt of easy or cruel jokes ... even though it probably could've held onto more cynicism while delivering the culmination of Mary's tribulations through intolerance. Between the budding relationships -- occasionally playing like relics of late-'90s sappy sitcom TV -- and the repartee between zealous believers and their opposing outsiders, a versatile tone builds between these fleshed-out caricatures and stereotypes that writer/director Dannelly brings together. This relatively dark comedy does focus on a clear point: there's an unquestionable commentary going on here about the stringent and sometimes hypocritical grasp people have on morals, forgiveness, and the Word of God. Saved! largely works because it understands how to step over those bounds for the sake of its critical satire, though, while also staying pleasantly accessible as it appeals to a broader, receptive audience with the actual spirit of its message.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]