Monday, May 08, 2017

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

The only true event in Phoenix Forgotten is the UFO incident in March 1997, when unexplained lights were seen over Phoenix by thousands of people and caught on amateur video. Everything else about this movie falls all too easily into the found-footage genre of which so many of us are getting so tired. But Phoenix Forgotten switches up the usual drill a few ways, and overall I thought it was intriguing and a pretty good time. Three teens investigating those lights go missing later in 1997. Our job, and the community's, is to find out what happened. Typically enough, the first half is the best part, taking the form of a Disappeared episode, the true-crime TV show that examined open missing persons cases. Phoenix Forgotten moves its story along briskly with news footage, talking heads interviews, and work in progress on a documentary about the case. The three missing teens, two boys and a girl, left their car parked neatly at the side of the road out in the desert. Like a good episode of Disappeared, it's almost perfectly mysterious. There were no useful clues at the car, which had been locked and was functional. Systematic searches went on for weeks but nothing useful was found. For the parents, it consumed their lives. The documentary filmmaker in the movie and our hero, Sophie Bishop, is the younger sister of one of the missing boys. It's 20 years later and she's consumed with it too. The dead end and key sticking point in the case is that a camera was left behind in the car. It was not like Sophie's brother to go anywhere without a camera, usually running—he was one of those, with the thing perpetually attached to his face. Eventually, through the use of plot devices, a second camera turns up. The tape has survived and on that tape we witness their fate. In fairness to director and cowriter Justin Barber, on his first feature, he doesn't make us wait long to see the tape once its existence comes along. He shows all of it, and it's a reasonable payoff. It's unfortunately too reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, notably with scenes of vertiginous running, but it's not bad. In the hurly-burly of the finish we see lots of things that register later, images and unexpected behavior and so forth, to make it effectively unnerving beyond seeing it. Whatever those lights are—it seems likely it's aliens from outer space, though secret government projects are not entirely ruled out—they mean those kids no good. This is more the lame side of the movie, but good enough generally to carry the momentum home for an 87-minute ride. Phoenix Forgotten dips into the usual problems of these things, notably the ridiculous constant shooting no matter what is going on. No one could be that dedicated in some of these scenes. Yet found-footage films do have the advantage of capturing an immediacy and raw tension that conventional narrative movies rarely get to, which also helps explain why so many are horror pictures. That trade-off is my explanation anyway for why I seem to see so many and often end up liking them, with caveats. Other good ones: Cloverfield (the first), Paranormal Activity, [REC], and Trollhunter. And Phoenix Forgotten.

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