Friday, April 21, 2017

Phoenix Forgotten Review

As I've said a few times recently, April is an interesting month for movies. Outside a few exceptions each year, April is that awkward time between March and May where studios refuse to release movies that they have any real hope for, thus we get a barrage of low budget, low quality films that can often be hard to sort through to determine which ones are worth seeing and which ones are worth being thrown to the wayside. Take this weekend for example. We have five new releases this weekend. Five. For a film-lover like myself, you would think that this would be movie heaven given that I now have a ton of options. But instead it was more stressful and annoying as I tried to figure out which one to actually see. "Unforgettable" looks like a horrifically awful thriller. "Free Fire" looked like a dumb action movie that throws logic and story out the window. I haven't really cared to see any of DisneyNature's documentaries, so "Born in China" was a no. I was waiting for reviews on "The Promise" and those are in the basement. See the problem here? A sixth option, "The Lost City of Z" looks like a great choice, but that didn't expand far enough. So instead I headed out to "Phoenix Forgotten," our found-footage alien invasion movie with no idea what to expect.

When I say I had absolutely no idea what to expect, I mean that almost literally. When I went into the theater to see this, there were no reviews up on Rotten Tomatoes. None. A few have trickled out since I finished the movie and started writing this review, but none were up when my screening started. All I had to go by was the user score on Flixter and the IMDb score, both of which were positive (80 percent on Flixter and 8.1 on IMDb), but there weren't enough votes in on either to make it a reliable source. So I went in based on trailers alone, which looked intriguing enough for me to give it a shot. But we all know how reliable trailers can be, so I decided to go in and blaze my own trail with this experience, which I actually enjoy doing, even though it doesn't happen very often. Obviously I try to come up with my own opinion without being influenced by what I read, but it's not often that I go in having no idea as to what to expect. And do you know what? This might end up being one of 2017's little hidden gems. No one seems to be paying any attention to this and we can point our fingers to several different factors as to why that is. But when it comes to found-footage movies trying to play off what "The Blair Witch Project" did, this is a pretty effective little film.

If you clicked on this review having no idea what this movie is about or potentially not even having heard of it before, allow me to explain. This is a movie that is centered around the Phoenix Lights phenomenon in 1997 that still perplexes people to this day. I didn't actually learn of this until recently, but apparently one night in March there was a strange set of lights that showed up in the sky one night around the Phoenix area that has been hard for many to explain. There's a lot of theories out there about what this could've been, but when you have something like this that is hard to explain, there's also a lot of conspiracy theories that arise. With this situation, the big conspiracy theory is obviously that this phenomenon was a UFO flying across the sky. In true Blair Witch Project fashion, "Phoenix Forgotten" is a found footage movie where three teenagers go out searching for these UFO's and end up missing. Much of the movie actually takes place in the present day as one of the teenager's younger sister is now putting together a documentary trying to uncover clues as to what happened to her brother 20 years previously and comes across some unseen footage in the process. Thus we have a big mystery movie that attempts to connect the dots as to what happened back then.

You can definitely see this movie as a shameless rip-off of "The Blair Witch Project" as it does a pretty good job of going almost note for note to that movie. However, I actually think that there's a lot that this movie does right that didn't make me upset at the final result even though the similarities are strikingly obvious. For one, I think the overall goals of the two movies are different. "The Blair Witch Project" was a movie in the late 90's that set out to trick audiences into believing that the footage they discovered and put together was actual footage from actual missing teenagers. They went to great lengths to play this gimmick out. Not only did the movie make a ton of money and popularized the found footage genre, but there were a lot of people that walked out of the theaters fully convinced that they just saw actual footage of teenagers who had gone missing in the woods due to a potential witch legend. Brilliant! It's a once in a lifetime movie that you can't repeat again because there's no way that you can fool everyone twice. However, because their primary goal was to trick people, I think the movie itself doesn't hold up very well as a movie. A lot of wondering around and complaining at being lost in the woods. It gets kinda old after a while.

Because of this, I actually think last year's sequel "Blair Witch" is a better overall movie, despite its many flaws, when you watch the two back to back, even though nothing is going to top the theatrical experience that many people had when they saw "The Blair Witch Project." "Phoenix Forgotten" is another movie that isn't trying to trick people into thinking this is actual footage, but rather they are simply trying to make a good movie that successfully uses the found footage genre, which admittedly has been overused. A lot of movies have used found footage because it's cheap to make and usually gets you a good profit. But they have no idea how to successfully use the technique to make a good movie. And if they do, they don't care to do it right. A couple simple questions to ask while watching a found footage movie are, first, why is the character in the movie choosing to film things with their camera and, second, do the results of their filming make logical sense? In other words, if the movie itself would be just as good, if not better, without the found footage elements, then they probably shouldn't have filmed it that way, especially if the footage itself is not believable camera work. You'd be surprised as to how many found footage movies get this wrong.

When it comes to "Phoenix Forgotten," how do these two elements hold up? Quite well. The first question, why are they using found footage? Well, in the 1997 footage, the brother is doing a birthday tribute for his little sister, or something to that effect, at the moment the Phoenix Lights phenomenon happens and he is lucky enough to capture it on camera. So why does he continue to use the camera? Well, first off he doesn't use it non-stop for the rest of the journey, filming everyone and everything for no particular reason, which is refreshing. But his goal is to make his own little documentary about the phenomenon. Then he goes on a journey with his two friends and their goal is to continue this and hopefully capture some UFO footage. It makes sense. In the future scenes of the movie, his sister is also making a documentary about what happened to her brother. At this point she is 26 years old, thus it makes sense for her footage to be slightly more professional, but she is interviewing family and friends as well as police and detectives about what happened while integrated the old footage from her brother. It makes sense. It's a pretty realistic fictional documentary as well. Believable camera work from old and new time periods, thus satisfying the second question.

In terms of story, I do think the flow of the movie is done well. What bothered me about "The Blair Witch Project" is that there was too much wandering around and complaining. That was most of the movie. The fact that this movie is done in the form of a fictional documentary put together by the sister makes it much more balanced. We don't spend the whole movie with our three teenagers wandering around. We bounce back and forth between the past and present, spending just the right amount of time with both. Also, this movie doesn't try to shove conspiracy theory down your throat. Rather it touches on it enough to make for some interesting thinking about the subject. While I didn't know much about the Phoenix Lights situation, I did live in Roswell, New Mexico for seven months starting towards the end of 2009, so I'm well acquainted with conspiracy theories surround aliens and UFOs. While I don't buy into myself, I do find it fairly amusing. A fun way to try to reconcile confusing events in your brain. And the other good thing about this movie is that the focus here is on the mystery behind it all. What were these lights and what happened to these fictional teenagers? It's not a horror movie and there's no cliche horror elements that bog down movies like this.

Sure, this is not a movie that is going to leave your mind blown when you walk out of the theater. But if you are in the movie for a fun UFO mystery movie, I'd say this is worth checking out. I'm actually really glad that I chose to see this movie as I felt I was watching a hidden gem given that the marketing push wasn't very strong and it got thrown in a weekend in the middle of April that already had four other new wide releases. Thus this movie is being left in the dust. I didn't know what to expect going in and I was hoping that this wouldn't be another dumb found footage movie that does the genre wrong. This easily could've been a disaster, but I was happy to discover that this movie does found footage right. There is a reason and a purpose behind the found footage. The horror cliches that litter these found footage movies are completely gone. In fact, I wouldn't even call it horror. It barely even classifies as thriller as it doesn't get intense until the very end. This is a mystery movie surrounding UFOs and the mysterious Phoenix Lights with a good story and well-written characters that make this easy and fun to follow. I was very pleased walking out of "Phoenix Forgotten" and I think if you decide to give the movie a shot, you might be pleased as well. I'm giving the movie an 8/10.

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