Oct 12, 2014

24FPS @LFF 2014: Roundup

Some reviews from the last week at LFF.

Dir: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
There are many things that are great in isolation, but combining them with other great things, interesting as the idea may be, doesn't always lead to a third great thing.  That seems to be what has happened here.  You have to give Spring the daring and originality of its concept; filtering Before Sunrise through a Cronenbergian monster movie is an intriguing idea but in the hands of writer/co-director Justin Benson and co-director Aaron Moorhead the execution is less satisfying than the concept.

After his mother dies Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), finding himself aimless and wanted after a bar fight, decides to use his inheritance and gets on a plane to Italy.  There he meets and falls for Louise (Nadia Hilker), but this new romance is complicated when it turns out that she is not just the beautiful woman she appears to be.

For most of it first hour, Spring keeps its cards very close to its chest, not even giving away the genre of the film it becomes.  For a while it simply follows Evan; home from the bar after his mother's funeral and then to Italy, where he meets two boorish Brits who take him on a booze fuelled road trip.  This is all pretty engaging, because it allows us some time to get to know Evan and because Lou Taylor Pucci, unrecognisable with close cropped hair and clean shaven, makes him amusing and enjoyable company (the same can not be said of the Brits, Tom and Sam, who are cliché irritants).  By the time Evan meets Louise we're as ready as he is for things to switch gears, and they do, into a rather endearing, if not unfamiliar, getting to know you style romance.

The body horror movie Spring eventually becomes (and if that constitutes a spoiler you're making the wrong assumptions about the Cult strand of the festival) needs this slow burn approach to work, but it's a mixed bag.  Charming as Evan is and gorgeous and interesting as Louise is for the third act to work you have to believe that there is deep, deep love between them.  I just didn't buy it.  A connection, both sexual and as people, sure, but that's different and given the stakes of the ending I found this lack of belief in the depth of their relationship a near fatal flaw.

On the plus side the performances are good.  Pucci believably charms Nadia Hilker's Louise and she, even before we know the true scale of things, is someone who you can buy into any guy falling pretty hard and fast for.  The script in their early scenes together is light and fun (their first meeting, which ends with both of them a little confused, is especially amusing) and you do warm to them as a couple.  Then, when the film springs its surprise, which has elements of Cronenberg and more than a few visual echoes of Possession it does turn your head and change the direction of the film.

Unfortunately the third act never quite delivers on this promise.  The interplay between Evan and Louise is all too often reduced to Louise expositing at him.  Of course it's important to establish certain rules, but spending so much time on raw exposition not only somewhat over explains things but also leads to the very problem that means that the film's final shot lands, at least for me, with a bit of a thud.

There is much to like here.  Benson and Moorehead deliver main characters worth investing in, who both have actual personalities (a rarer quality than I'd like) and when they steal they steal with taste and manage to put a spin on their influences.  There is some striking imagery here too, especially in the transformation sequences.  It's just a shame that, after holding two seemingly disparate ideas together for an hour they can't balance them for the last third of the film.  That said, Spring remains an interesting and original piece of work and it's worth checking out, because we'll be hearing from Benson and Moorehead again.

Appropriate Behavior
Dir: Desiree Akhavan
Not quite a rom-com, Appropriate Behavior nevertheless concerns itself with modern romantic relationships and has a whole lot of good jokes along the way.

Shirin (writer/director Desiree Akhavan) has just split up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) and through the course of the film we see her trying to adjust to being single, get over Maxine and figure out how to tell her Iranian parents that she's bisexual without being disowned. 

Several things mark Appropriate Behavior out but perhaps the most striking is its viewpoint.  I don't know how closely Akhavan is drawing on her real life here, but this feels like a very personal film, especially when it comes to Shirin's interactions with her family and with Maxine.  The flashbacks to the various stages of Shirin and Maxine's relationship capture in short order both the thrill and fun of falling in love and the sting of it ceasing to work.

The side stories provide some fun jokes too, especially when Shirin gets a job teaching a filmmaking class to 5 year olds. Scott Adist of 30 Rock scores a laugh with every line as her boss, and the finished films riff nicely on pretentious video art and on the kind of movie a 5 year old would actually want to make (it's about farts).

Despite a few dark turns, Appropriate Behavior is quite a light film.  Arkhavan's direction is pretty unobtrusive most of the time, though she does use the camera well to suggest the discomfort of an impromptu threesome that Shirin finds herself in, she fares well as an actor's director, doing strong work herself and helping the rest of the cast find a very natural register that suits the story and style well.  Akhavan is particularly well matched by Rebecca Henderson, who can be caustic as Maxine, but also lets us see why Shirin is drawn to her.  There's also a fun supporting part for Halley Feiffer, very funny as Shirin's fickle straight friend Crystal.

Appropriate Behavior may not be the most groundbreaking of films, but it's funny, intelligent,well acted and points to an interesting voice with a particular viewpoint in Desiree Akhavan.

In Darkness We Fall
Dir: Alfredo Montero
It has always puzzled me why so many filmmakers seem to think that populating their horror movies with total arseholes is the way to get us to care whether the characters live or die.

In Darkness We Fall follows Carlos (arsehole who films absolutely everything all the time), Jaco (alpha-male arsehole), Ivan (arsehole who shags the girl he knows his friend has been after), Carlos' girlfriend Celia and her friend Bego on a camping trip.  One morning they decide to explore a cave.  They find themselves lost and things go from bad to worse while they are trapped.

For most of its first hour, In Darkness We Fall (a better title than the Spanish original: La Cueva) is annoying.  The characters aren't fun company and the group dynamic between them doesn't really work (especially in relation to Jaco, who'd go on holiday with that guy?)  That would be fine if they were interesting, but they aren't.  Writer/director Alfredo Montero is apparently operating a strict 1 trait per character limit.  So we follow these people who are largely stupid (because they leave no track behind them when exploring a cave) and unpleasant and watch on shaky found footage cam as they get lost and crawl around in circles.

The third act does herald the film's one would be interesting scene, in which there is a debate that has an interesting moral, and indeed practical, question at its heart and the horror of the situation is heavily ramped up.  But it's undermined by the fact that I don't care who lives or dies.  This is also true of the final setpiece, which, to be fair, has one very effective jump scare, but is also the film's most implausible moment.

For a film shot as found footage In Darkness We Fall doesn't look bad and the cave does have some atmosphere though the film is never, despite trying hard to be, as claustrophobic as The Descent.  In the end, In Darkness We Fall has the same problem as Open Water.  There I was rooting for the sharks, here I was rooting for the cave.

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