BLAIR WITCH. Being of a certain age, I remember the media blitz surrounding The Blair Witch Project (1999): the ambiguous print ads and teasers, the early Internet presence, the promise of the scariest movie of all time, assembled from footage shot by young documentarians now lost. It was all bullshit, of course, but we all went anyway. And what we saw was a group of young white people wandering around in the woods looking frightened. It was a little hard to look at — the camera work made some motion-sick and I don't remember being particularly frightened. But we ALL went to see it. The movie cost somewhere in the mid-five figures to produce and after a studio bought it, re-cut it to a lean 81 minutes and sunk millions into advertising, it grossed more than $140 million. The plague of found-footage horror was upon us.
Somewhere in the summer dark, a young Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett were also watching The Blair Witch Project. I've been an outspoken proponent of Wingard and Barrett's work since they surprised me with You're Next (2011) and made me reconsider my stance on contemporary horror. They followed that with The Guest, a flawed but enjoyable thriller about a dangerously charming drifter (played to great effect by Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens). And now they've done this and I'm not sure what to believe anymore.
A true sequel, Blair Witch picks up with James (James Allen McCune) in real time: Almost 20 years ago, his sister Heather was among those who disappeared trying to find and document the witch. He's been combing the Internet ever since and now, having found a questionable scrap of footage, he's ready to go out into the woods and find her. Of course he has a friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who's taking a documentary class and needs a subject (her having no sense of story or how to frame a shot is a matter for her professors). And he convinces Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) to come along. They all head to the hinterland, where they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the crackpot yokel couple who posted the inciting video clip. There's more than a little tension from the outset: Peter taking particular offense at Lane's cavalier attitude and gigantic Confederate flag. Because James is so bent on his patently insane notion that his sister might still be rattling around the woods, they forge a reluctant partnership, with Lane leading the group to the spot where he supposedly found the video tape in question. Things go badly.
While Barrett's script expands on the fundamental story points of the original, and at least tries to introduce elements of character, the premise is still awfully thin. And Wingard's insistence on adhering to the "shaky-cam" model, updated though it may be with drone footage and USB ear-piece cameras, doesn't read like homage or a throw-back as much as it feels worn out. And the fact that the movie isn't so much edited as slammed together (ostensibly to suggest rawness and immediacy), works against any potential dread or scariness. Since childhood, I have steadfastly refused to walk out on a movie before the end. This one tested my resolve. R. 89m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SNOWDEN. Going in, my outlook on this was pretty dim. This being a pseudo-biopic about a contentious contemporary figure, handled by a director whose judgment I lately question. Granted, Oliver Stone made some movies that were fairly essential in my cinematic education. Platoon (1986), The Doors (1991) and U-Turn (1997) especially — I've probably revealed too much. Regardless, Stone has, in his later career, started making movies that are borderline unwatchable. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and Savages (2012), for example, both took promising casts and scenarios and ran them right into the ground.
I expected him to do the same with Snowden, despite the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most compelling, versatile actors working today. But somehow, maybe due to its narrower focus or Stone's belief in the material, this is quite a good movie. Starting around the time of Edward Snowden's (Gordon-Levitt) discharge from the U.S. Army due to physical ailments, it follows his trajectory as a star pupil in the CIA's cyber-terror training program, a patriot hoping to use his skills and talents in defense of his country. As early as his first posting, in Geneva, Snowden's personal ethics begin to conflict with the Agency's methodology. He resigns, finds subsequent work as a contactor with the NSA, and continues to grow increasingly concerned about the breadth of surveillance culture, coming eventually to question who and what, exactly, it is in aid of.
Stone examines Snowden's shifting perspective with more balance and care than I had come to expect. By its nature, this subject is and will be divisive, but it is treated here with delicacy and craft. The result is a compelling, thought-provoking examination of modern society, patriotism, warfare, politics and freedom. R. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. A boot-filled reboot of the classic remake of The Seven Samurai. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Haley Bennett. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Revival of the 1959 mistaken-identity Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. 136m.
STORKS. A retail delivery bird winds up in the baby business trying to get an infant to a family. Or you could just have the talk with your kids. Voices of Jennifer Anniston and Kelsey Grammer. PG. 87m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
BRIDGET JONES'S BABY. Renee Zellweger returns as the heroine, this time pregnant and unsure whether the father is her Yank fling (Patrick Dempsey) or her ex (Colin Firth). Insert Cathy "arrgh!" R. 123m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
DON'T BREATHE. Director Fede Alvarez's atmospheric heist-gone-wrong horror movie about teens trapped in a murderous blind man's home boasts a solid story and earned scares. R. 88m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
HELL OR HIGH WATER. A pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) in a fine, character-driven film about what poverty does to people. R. 102m. BROADWAY.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. A boy (Art Parkinson) battles supernatural foes with the help of odd couple Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). PG. 101m. MILL CREEK.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. Drama about a WWI veteran and his wife (Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander) who keep a foundling instead of reporting it. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY.
LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD. Director Werner Herzog articulates the complexities and impacts of technology and digital interconnectedness in a worthwhile documentary. PG13. 98m. MINIPLEX.
PETE'S DRAGON. Fantasy tale about an orphan (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon buddy in the Pacific Northwest. With Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. PG13. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SAUSAGE PARTY. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig voice a hot dog and bun, respectively, in this raunchy, gross-out funny cartoon about foods discovering they're food. R. 89m. BROADWAY.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. A family-friendly tale of rival dogs in New York City that doesn't really live up to its cast, which includes Louis C.K., Jenny Slate and Kevin Hart. PG. 90m. BROADWAY.
SUICIDE SQUAD. This mess of semi-random violence rattles on pointlessly as DC villains take on badder guys. PG13. 123m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SULLY. Director Clint Eastwood resists the soapbox for a compact, patiently told real-life story of heroism with a masterful performance from Tom Hanks. R. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE WILD LIFE. Animated animal-centric retelling of Robinson Crusoe. PG. 90m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill