'Deborah Logan' Peels Away (Most) Found-Footage Tedium

Directed by: Adam Robitel; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: B

Another day, another found-footage horror film, right? A common theme persists in the criticisms tossed at recent unsuccessful entries into the sub-genre: there's untapped potential in the concept and it's still capable of spooking an audience, but filmmakers aren't willing to branch out from the cliches and formula to get their hands dirty with something inventive. The persistence of those impressions might lead one to think that, no, there really isn't this promise buried underneath the shaky cameras, the moronic characters, and the jump-scares fabricated from mundane sounds. Then, a film like Adam Robitel's The Taking of Deborah Logan comes along, confirming that a dash of innovation and the gusto to break those rules that have somehow formed over the past fifteen years can yield something similarly disturbing yet measurably original. It's not free of some of those proclivities, but it takes steps to ensure that this wouldn't play out like every other found-footage piece of work you've seen before.

Instead of investigating the paranormal, The Taking of Deborah Logan hinges on research of something much more grounded: Alzheimer's disease. It starts as a PhD thesis documentary on the progression of the disease in someone, Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), on the cusp between stages, with a crew of three being invited out to their home by Deborah's daughter and caretaker, Sarah (Anne Ramsay). Cameras are situated throughout the house to monitor Deborah's erratic movements and showcase her memory issues, while a two-man sound and camera crew assist Mia (Michelle Ang) in interviewing her about her prior life and her struggles. Things escalate surprisingly quickly with Deborah's condition, leading her to act in bizarre, despondent ways as her physical and emotional condition degrade. Some of her actions, however, start to have little to no logical explanation, increasing in bizarreness and volatility as the documentary crew and doctors struggle to make sense of it all ... and the answers start to point towards Deborah's past and forces beyond the realm of science.

The process of viewing found-footage horror differs between people: some simply watch the events unfold like any other movie, while others get wrapped up in the immersion of the situation's "reality". The Taking of Deborah Logan shakes up this pattern by crafting a scenario where mysterious, supernatural events are the furthest thing from what's expected, aside from the meta level of those who have seen the film's promo materials. In The Blair Witch Project, the crew knows they're entering the witch's domain. In Willow Creek, the couple knows they're trekking through Bigfoot's stomping grounds. Here, there's the expectation of the complications that follow Alzheimer's -- confusion, aggression, dementia -- but never does the possibility of the paranormal impact their assessment of the situation at first. That makes the emergence of the film's darker elements that much more potent and relatively surprising, informed by the escalating discomfort of the crew as they reassess their circumstances, making the captured footage feel fresh and alive.

The Taking of Deborah Logan doesn't just drop the footage in the audience's lap in a raw duct-taped format, either: it's been edited together into a makeshift documentary on the peculiar events that transpired, complete with formal interviews and archived material from the '70s. That allows writer/director Robitel to trim the fat of what the crew captured, producing a concise, intensely-paced supernatural thriller covering several months instead of a twenty-four hour period. While still relying on superfluous sound effects to rattle the audience -- the usage of digital interference and loud transition blips between cameras gets obnoxious -- Robitel skillfully declines the setting into a house of trepidation, where Deborah's vacant shuffles between rooms exist in the murky area between anomalous Alzheimer's symptoms and something more malicious. The characters' insecure interpretation of the ambiguity between the condition's aggressiveness and ... something else adds an intriguing layer, perhaps a willfully ignorant one on occasions, coupled with the drama of Susan Logan coping with her mother's worsening state.

These efforts might've been wasted had the actress playing Deborah Logan not been as malleable and unsettling to behold as Jill Larson, a role that demands a lot from the actress. A complete portrait of Deb's transformation takes shape through her performance, from the delicate and debonair woman seen raking leaves upon her introduction to a craggy, unpredictable, almost-feral beast of a person as her ... uh, ailment takes hold. Larson delivers those disturbing internal twists without a snag, the eeriness of her severe eyes and the agitation of her body language intensifying with each slight jump in time and every encounter throughout the house. She also has the very capable Anne Ramsay responding to those shifts in personality as her daughter, offering a boozy, worn-out yet resilient protagonist harboring a number of subtle layers. Their talents craft a convincing rapport that underscores the dramatic necessities of the story, the struggle with medical abnormalities and a lack of control, shaping Deborah's dangerous plummet into more than just a macabre curiosity.

The Taking of Deborah Logan takes on a different attitude once the other-worldly creeps into the story, increasing in pace as the panic escalates around Deb and the danger she poses to both herself and those around her. Driven by brusque edits and careful usage of shaky camerawork, director Robitel reveals a strong grasp on the genre as he cleverly breaks from the probabilities of other found-footage films, from the willingness of the researchers to bail on the project to the lack of safety zones even in public. The secrets behind Deb's condition transform into a maze of revelations that intentionally makes only limited sense, ultimately leading into a chaotic final act that doesn't shy from pushing boundaries and shedding blood amid the nonsensical mayhem, all while retaining a grasp on the drama behind the Logan family's bout with Alzheimer's. Navigating the unsolved labyrinth of Deborah's deteriorating mind ends up being enough of a variable to take the staleness of the genre down inspired, unpredictable paths.

'Automata' a Mechanical, Drab Attempt at Harder AI-Fiction

Directed by: Gabe Ibanez; Runtime: 109 minutes
Grade: C

Presenting the idea of artificial intelligence as a considerable form of self-aware life, as a sentient and evolving creation both different and similar to that of humans, has proven to be a tricky endeavor for Hollywood. Typically, those philosophical ideas manifest better in text where they're given room to ruminate without the concerns of pacing or sustaining a visual language, which have been stumbling blocks for the likes of Alex Proyas and Wally Pfister. Writer/director Gabe Ibanez attempts to convincingly bring those science-fiction contemplations to the big-screen with Automata, a plausibly bleak rendition of the future where humans became reliant on obedient, non-threatening robots to complete our dangerous or demanding tasks ... and what happens when their programming gets tinkered with. It's an admirable effort with recognizable but intriguing sci-fi ideas rattling around in its can; however, its lethargic pace, washed-out setting, and awkward emotive streak keep it from being one of the strong Asimov-esque slices of cinema destined to eventually come.

In 2044, the world has been rendered inhospitable due to encroaching solar flares, forcing the human population to persevere in radioactive conditions. To assist in the adaptation, the company ROC developed and produced robots, Pilgrims, that could handle the conditions, only they weren't entirely successful in keeping the threats at bay. As the years past and mankind settled into a weaker state of living, the robots transitioned to more mundane tasks -- difficult physical labor and household attendance -- in a commercial capacity, ever bound to two protocols (laws!) that force them to aid humanity and not personally alter their programming. When a Pilgrim does act up, ROC's insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan goes to the site and deciphers whether it's a result of faulty encoding or human error/fraud. When he's asked to investigate the termination of a robot that reportedly acted human and attempted to repair itself with stolen electronics, Jacq follows the leads to a "clocksmith" who might have discovered the key to overriding the protocols.

Automata's central strength lies in its ability to create a credible setting for the film's events: a desolate, gray, demoralizing glimpse at a future reliant on artificial intelligence, with cities resembling a barren and less-colorful spin on Blade Runner's dystopian Los Angeles. The tone created is one of sustainable desperation despite being surrounded by technological advancement, as if the population continues to count down a clock to inevitability instead of thriving, hitting a complicated balance between the practical and inherently drab results of the near-apocalyptic scenario. Together with writers Igor Legarreta and Javier Sanchez Donate, director Ibanez sticks as close to hard science-fiction as they can in their creation of an environment where humans and robots commingle, setting up rules to their universe -- the Pilgrims' protocols and memory banks, protection of the walled-off cities, ROC's desire to keep the peace -- and timidly breaking and elaborating on them through an investigation reminiscent of film noir. The building blocks are here for a substantial science-fiction thriller with the sensibility of a novel from Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

Despite Antonio Banderas' claims that it "tastes different", however, Automata doesn't do enough to innovate away from other contemporary films about synthetic life, reminding one of the developing intelligence concept from Transcendence and the defiant streak of I, Robot without establishing its own flavor. While the environment itself draws interest in the fate of both the Pilgrims and humankind on a wider scale, the mystery and the characters propelling the story forward lack the same verve. Director Ibanez mechanically navigates the theoretical concepts of robot prevalence in society and the technological singularity, attempting to be thorough with his incorporation of ideas without a grasp on how to add something fresh to the conversation, aside from a few musings on the parallels between birthing a child and programming a life into existence. Ideas about concealing truths from the public and the blunt, destructive nature of humans take the plot through twists and turns, but there's a dire lack of suspense or originality around every corner Jacq Vaucan takes both in and outside the city.

Antonio Banderas musters obligatory glum brooding and sleuthing determination as a noir-ish insurance investigator in Automata, escalating as Vaucan digs deeper into the Pilgrim mystery and struggles with his wife's pregnancy. However, the actor's strengths get lost in the abrupt expressive demands placed on the character later on, forcing him into weepy and distraught mannerisms that fall flat in barren surroundings. He slowly becomes less and less convincing as someone involved with the subtleties of robotics, while also losing steam as a compelling protagonist as he's dragged kicking and screaming into the murky world of modified synthetic lives. Melanie Griffith doesn't really offer much either in a glorified cameo as Dr. Dupre, awkwardly miscast as a robotics expert who feebly delivers techno-babble in what seems like little more than stunt casting alongside (then-husband) Banderas. Dylan McDermott is unrecognizable but shrug-worthy as the thuggish cop who puts everything in motion, while character actor Robert Forster delivers a fine but forgettable authoritative performance as Vaucan's boss.

Strangely, as if trying to offset the austere tempo preceding it, Automata eventually loads up an assertive emotional streak about sympathizing with robotic (co)existence and the demands on Jacq Vaucan's personal life, driving the film into exaggerated territory amid the search for the fabled clocksmith responsible for the technological divergence -- and Jack's relationship with Cleo, previously a love-bot with a female voice and face. Despite an uptick in inspired visual effects for the budget and a uniquely pulsating score from Zacarias M. de la Riva, this third act transforms into a overwrought mess, bolstered by mustache-twirling corporate practices and paternal trauma that overwrites many of its nuances. The murky demands of the story shove Vaucan into a situation where he has no choice but to recalibrate his philosophy behind synthetics as a valid form of life, and the conclusions he reaches in lethal conditions lack authentic catharsis. It's a shame, because there are some clever thoughts at director Ibanez's fingertips: to challenge the audience's perception of the creation of awareness and what differs human thought-processes from those of a computer. Here, it's a dull jumble of previously touched-on concepts that needs a more powerful bio-kernel to construct them.

'What If' a Pleasing, Modern Rom-Com Look At Friend Zone

Directed by: Michael Dowse; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: B-

Regardless of the clockwork nature of the genre's output and devotion to formula, one of the redeemable things about romantic dramedies can be found in how each one makes observations on the ways relationships change with time, whether it's by intent or simply in the DNA of the script's setting. They all fit together into a continuing jigsaw puzzle, even the weaker ones, revealing hints of progression in gender dynamics and the abandonment (and perseverance) of stereotypes; some, naturally, are more successful at this than others. What If doesn't have that many innovative traits in its take on the underdog rom-com, relying instead on kitschy dialogue that frequently comes across as parading its eccentricity. That said, its valiant depiction of the playful banter, modern professional life, and the line between kinship and chemistry snaps together into a spry, satisfying piece of the puzzle about "the friend zone", driven by a convincing performance from Daniel Radcliffe as a despondent idealist.

After his life spiraled out of control, losing his girlfriend and his career ambitions, Wallace (Radcliffe) essentially escaped from the world for a year. The initial scene in What If marks his cathartic jump back into a social life, commemorating the occasion by hopping into a party thrown by his friend, Allen (Adam Driver), to which he makes a connection with a smart, reserved animator, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), also his friend's cousin. On their walk home, Chantry reveals that she already has a boyfriend, a successful (and therefore busy) international lawyer. Despite that, the pair land on the idea of building a friendship instead of going their separate ways, leading to a platonic relationship that drudges up the expected inquiries among their friends about what they mean to one another. As life complicates around them, from work opportunities to the prospect of dealing with a long-distance relationship, Wallace and Chantry struggle with figuring out exactly what their feelings towards one another entails as well.

With a few adjustments, What If could easily be confused for an update to When Harry Met Sally, hinged on the eternal question of whether members of the opposite sex can be friends if they have chemistry and are open about their romantic lives. Things have changed since the '80s, of course, notably in the open rapport between the sexes and the comfort level of men and women contently existing in the friend zone, so there's a worthwhile reason for screenwriter Elan Mastai to rework those ideas through T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi's play, "Toothpaste and Cigars". Wallace and Chantry's relationship builds around idiosyncratic banter about odd sandwiches, vocab magnets, and excrement humor that tries a bit too hard to be quirky and modern, yet there's earnestness in their humble beginnings that's admirably low-key, balanced with a real-world perspective on their lives outside of the friendship. It's the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are also interesting in their individual spheres, especially Chantry's struggle with independence and professional advancement.

Wallace is largely the focal point in What If, since most of what happens does so through his point of view: his romantic pessimism, his decision to pursue a friendship with a taken woman, and his evolving chemistry with her. It's a straightforward role, but Daniel Radcliffe enriches his pangs of despondence and deepening infatuation for Chantry with an endearing hang-dog disposition, the Harry Potter actor's soulful eyes and innate reservation fitting well with Wallace's forlorn confusion over how to handle the situation. Zoe Kazan offers a singular object for his confused affection as Chantry, a unique blend of meekness and confidence through the eyes of an artist. Their imperfect chemistry works with the crossed wires and ambiguity of a pseudo-relationship, the nebulous of non-dates and tiptoeing around Chantry's fiancee, but things get a little patchy once the film's conversation turns towards a fated romantic kinship. Their destination might be the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are arguably more interesting as awkward will-they-won't-they individuals, especially considering Chantry's independence and job prospects.

That's one of What If's more impressive traits: the handling of elements outside of Wallace and Chantry's relationship and within their individual spaces, the things that restrain their leaps into romantic endeavors. Despite the intentionally exaggerated full-throttle romance between Allen (Adam Driver in charismatically zany fashion) and his new-flame Nicole that's designed to juxtapose Wallace and Chantry's lack of passion, the story represents sincere real-world complications and considerations, especially in the appearance of Chantry's beau, Ben. It'd be easy to make Wallace's "competition" out to be someone worth leaving; however, aside from a few overt (and unsuccessful) plays on humor, the story does almost nothing to vilify Ben beyond giving him healthy ambition. It'd also be easier to make Wallace into someone plainly desirable, yet the story actively points out his unattractive traits and his inadequacy as a "role model" for his single-mom sister's child. The film attempts to make a distinction between what's sensibly desirable and what feels right, and it succeeds more often than it falters.

As What If plays out, however, there's little denying that it falls into a safe and unsurprising rom-com formula, with halfhearted stabs at both humor and romantic crescendos bouncing between Wallace and Chantry's conundrum. Despite sprinkling it with whimsical animated touches and snappy dialogue (though not as overtly quirky as 500 Days of Summer or other indies), director Michael Dowse ultimately cannot conceal this been-there, done-that safeness of its plotting later on, with the drama hitting expected high notes -- a party, an embarrassed forced-romance scenario, a crazy gesture of affection -- in unadventurous fashion. Granted, those familiar ideas occur in ways that still feel genuine and aware of the talent involved enough to bring Wallace and Chantry's could-be potential full circle, culminating in above-par execution that's worth watching for the actors' embodiment of conventional characters with a modern edge. Could've been more, but it fills the 2014 rom-com gap with more maturity than expected.