Project Almanac (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Project Almanac (2015)

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David Raskin is the technological wunderkind of his high school and hopes to get into MIT with his genius ideas.  But when financial support falls flat and his mother puts the house onto the market to pay for his college, he starts looking for a way to pay for it himself.  Little does he suspect his father hid a life-altering secret in the attic, one which will tempt him in ways he never realized.  Dean Israelite directs Project Almanac from a screenplay written by Jason Harry Pagan, and Andrew Deutschman and stars Jonny Weston and Sofia Black D'Elia.

Hooray for time travelIn one of my favorite reviews with Siskel and Ebert, Ebert brings up some criticisms which cause Siskel to reverse his thumbs up and advise viewers to pass as his thumb turned down.  One of the features of writing solo is that I don’t have to worry about being talked out of my opinion…at first.  There have been plenty of times where I think I’m going to pan a movie but instead find a lot of interesting things to write about.

I bring this up because talking about Project Almanac wouldn’t be too complicated.  Its pleasures and problems are as simple and clean as the notes I took while it was playing.  If I’m being honest, and I strive to be, I could probably have been talked down to an Indifferent if I got in a too-long conversation about it.  But, in the same spirit of that honesty, I might have allowed myself to degrade a simple film which has problems but manages to do some things really well.

Project Almanac has received a myriad of mixed reviews precisely because it’s a blend of multiple cinematic conventions.  The primary layer is the found-footage genre, then fighting for position over the second layer are teenage coming-of-age and time travel movies.  Back to the Future springs to mind, but putting that as a comparison point doesn’t do justice to either the nostalgic tone of the first or the economic troubles and bittersweet solutions of the latter.

I'm frequently in deep admiration of the cinematography in Project Almanac if not always the story using it.

I'm frequently in deep admiration of the cinematography in Project Almanac if not always the story using it.

What I admire about Project Almanac, thanks to director Dean Israelite and screenwriters Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, is how they try to go whole-hog in with every tone the different genres require.  This means shifting on a dime from joyous scenes of the teenage David (Jonny Weston) creating a new motion sensing technology to complicated economic decisions made by his mother (Amy Landecker) and the eventual oddity of time travel.  There’s no winking or nostalgia tainting any one of the three storytelling paths, and they don’t condescend their “time travel for teens” by letting their moral decisions be free of consequence.  In one complicated plot thread David replaces an earlier version of himself to say all the right things to his crush Jessie (Sofia Black D’Elia).  When she finds out she was manipulated like this she reacts in terror and disgust – but what happens afterward, in terms of the story, is David committing suicide.

The exact means of which I’ll allow you to discover, though fans of Donnie Darko may both figure out the plot path as well as see what truly committing to that decision would be like.  But there aren’t many teen movies which basically show a young man learning that the appropriate response to taking advantage of a woman is to kill yourself.  It’s coached in metaphorical terms and images, yes, but that’s essentially what happens.  Kudos to the creative team for putting each storyline in this complicated frame, be it the morality of making money through time travel or something as simple as getting answers right on an oral quiz.

The not so secret weapon in Project Almanac’s arsenal is the cinematography by Matthew J. LloydProject Almanac is gorgeous from frame one and there’s a lot of subtle visual clues to follow when thinking of the morality of what these kids are doing.  There’s being confronted with a wall of economic reality as David learns his mom can’t afford college and a house at once as he is framed against a physical wall on one side and the rest of his view blocked by the home, followed by strong beams of dusty lights in an attic providing David clues to the time machine.  The scenes in his lab are the strongest with individual light sources and some nice practical ferrofluid effects highlighting both the responsibility he’s taking on himself as well as the charming DIY nature of his experiments.

Ferrofluid is a nice way of conveying weirdness in such a practical and low-key way that I've always loved its appearance in movies.

Ferrofluid is a nice way of conveying weirdness in such a practical and low-key way that I've always loved its appearance in movies.

Those are the joys but when Project Almanac is bad it made me want to stop watching.  Some establishing scenes of the teen’s social lives are fine, but the frequent ogling of teen girls in a production helmed by adults is still creepy.  The lowest point here is when the gang goes to an Imagine Dragons concert, already part of my idea of what the soundtrack to hell sounds like, and the camera keeps cutting to girls bumping and grinding.  Sure, an easy way to show David’s attraction to Jessie, but so unnecessary it borders on ridiculously considering the number of scenes she’s already acknowledged the attraction.

Even then, it’s part of the aesthetic.  Everything in Project Almanac is presented in a way which is trying to sell a potential audience on something.  The opening scene if pitching David to MIT, later on David is pitching himself to Jessie, and finally David pitching to himself to make better moral choices.  There are deft ways already in Project Almanac to handle some of the problems, but hoping for a different film than the one you watch is foolishness.

Instead, I’m left with Project Almanac, which I respect in many ways if not often admire.  This is more than I can say for most movies, so must ultimately let Project Almanac fall on the side of Like.  Feel free to debate me on this, I’m sure we’ll have a good discussion.

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Tail - Project AlmanacProject Almanac (2015)

Directed by Dean Israelite.
Screenplay written by Jason Harry Pagan, and Andrew Deutschman.
Starring Jonny Weston and Sofia Black D'Elia.

Posted by Andrew

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