From Blair Witch to Cloverfield to Battle: Los Angeles, the faux-documentary has invaded genre filmmaking much as the single-camera sitcom has taken over TV comedy. The strategy can be a practical workaround for storytellers on limited budgets, or it can be a crutch for hacks with few ideas. The trick is to use a shaky cam in service of something greater.
The Norwegian monster movie Trollhunter, directed by André Øvredal, opens with bear corpses popping up all over the countryside. A trio of aspiring college filmmakers grab their handheld cameras and set off in search of what they think is a poacher. They find a scraggly haired weirdo who lives out of an A-Team van. He also reeks of something. Turns out, he’s hunting considerably bigger game: trolls.
The build-up is slow and obvious, but full of droll, comic details — like the tanning beds and ultraviolet cannons in like van, or the government’s Troll Security Service, which has used the dead bears as decoys. The TSS has identified many species of troll — including Tosserlad, Ringlefitch, and Jotnar — as well as details like: They are all born, after a gestation period of ten to fifteen years, with one head, then quickly develop more (none of them functioning), like tumors. And, yes, they do love the smell of a Christian man.
I was beginning to think that Øvredal might be going for a more aggressive, Zombieland-style comedy, but the film never fully commits, then devolves into lots of herky-jerky running away from trolls (which, once seen, are as chintzy looking as anything you’d find on the Syfy channel). What was fresh and scary in Blair Witch twelve years ago (like long shots of the floor when the guy holding the camera freaks out, or night-vision shots of walking through the forest), just isn’t anymore, and ØvredalIn has little else in his bag of tricks.
One Lucky Elephant
Lisa Leeman’s muddled documentary One Lucky Elephant introduces the kindly circus ringmaster David Balding, who met a year-old African elephant sixteen years ago and turned her into a freakish amalgam of cash-cow and daughter: Balding trained the elephant, named her Flora, and created a viable business — Circus Flora — around her. She even walked down the aisle behind him at his wedding. But somewhere along the way, Flora lost her zest for standing, sitting, and, performing her signature trick: opening and closing suitcases with her trunk. “It’s hard to think I made a mistake to take this elephant’s life and merge it with mine,” says Balding.
The film begins sixteen years after Balding found her, when the now-aging impresario is attempting to find Flora a fitting retirement home. For both an emotional Balding and the captive Flora, the process is a struggle. When she does settle into a zoo, she acts out violently and is forced to move. Soon, the proprietors of a Tennessee elephant reserve are making specious claims about Flora’s post-traumatic stress disorder, which are rebutted by the Baldings’ own dubious theories about separation anxiety. The elephant’s care devolves into a bizarre battle, with each party claiming to know the animal’s inner thoughts.
There’s a vague portrait of Balding in here, but little sense of circus life or how he got into the business, and virtually no acknowledgement of the historic flim-flam of circus ringmasters. An epilogue awkwardly reframes this oddball Americana sketch as a call for pro-pachyderm justice, but there’s too little outside context to justify a larger argument. You can imagine Errol Morris turning this into a clinical document of conflicted animal obsession — a sequel to Gates of Heaven. Or Werner Herzog making it into an atavistic grotesquerie on the impossibility of taming an animal’s wild nature, à la Grizzly Man. Instead, Leeman goes for the sappy and slight, turning what might have been a big-tent attraction into a sideshow.