Apr 8 2011

Lo

Creative and ambitious, but not as engaging as it should-or could-be. 2 1/2 out of 4

The best thing about the “Watch It Now” feature on Netflix is the immediate availability of countless kinds of films.  Anyone can casually surf through the Netflix catalog and find themselves watching anything from a Kurosawa film to any one of Troma’s foul-but-fun exploitation pictures.  Granted, half of the fun of cinephilia is happening on some obscure film by accident, whether it be through catching it on a cable station at one in the morning or rummaging through your local video store, but anything that gets people exposed to films slightly to the side of the mainstream is a good thing.

Which brings us to Lo, an independent film that received little exposure outside of a few film festivals.  Lo is one of many films that sports a tiny budget that relies on word-of-mouth, something made easy through Netflix.  Lo will no doubt find an audience: it possesses a style that is as unique as it is interesting, and at its core there is something about the film that is very touching.  However, there are developmental issues concerning Lo’s story and characters that make for an incomplete experience.

When April (Sarrah Lassz) is snatched from her bed by a demon in the middle of the night, her loyal, but dopey boyfriend Justin (Ward Roberts) summons the demon Lo (Jeremiah Birkett) to return her.  While the two argue over her return, Lo re-creates moments in Justin and April’s relationship, adding his own cynical commentary which reveals, quite possibly, that there may have been more to April than met Justin’s eye.

Lo looks like a well produced black box theater performance, which is an unusual approach for a film, but it gives Lo a very singular presence.  The whole film takes place in an empty black room, and the flashbacks take place on what looks like a small stage just off to the side; there are even stagehands handling props and loosely interacting with the restaged memories.  Some may find this design amateurish, but the minimalist approach is handled with a creativity that is oddly charming, and fits the whole underworld concept quite nicely.  After all, what better way to represent oblivion than the absence of anything visual?  And the flashback side stage?  What better way to demonstrate a condescending view of the earthly lives of mere mortals?

There is, however, something of a conflict of interest in the film: Lo seems more interested in its own playful view of Hell and its inhabitants than it is in the world of the living, which would not be so bad if the two were not co-dependent on the other.  The raison d’etre (French for “reason of existence.”  I felt like being a bit snooty and clever today) of the film is Justin’s desperate attempt to rescue the woman he loves, but we only see three brief moments in their relationship.  Without getting to know April or getting to see much of the relationship, it is impossible to sympathize with Justin or identify with his desperation; we root for him only because we know he is the protagonist.

It doesn’t help matters that those portraying the human characters do very little to bring their characters to life.  There is a moment of true sincerity involving Lassz, and although it is effective, it only lasts a moment, and the film is going to   need a little more than that to convey any level of tragedy concerning love and damnation.  Ward Roberts, for example, overacts his way through the film, making his already-unappealing, one-dimensional character very annoying.  Since he spends the whole of the film inside his “protection circle,” Roberts over compensates for his lack of physical movement with big, exaggerated facial expressions, not unlike a less-than-exceptional theater major.

Those who inhabit the dark, however, rescue the film from becoming entirely flat and uninteresting.  For one, the makeup and costume design of the demons are surprisingly good; Lo looks like an abominable cross between man and ape, and Jeez (Devin Berry) has a face like a stegosaurus and wears a Nazi uniform with the appropriate camp and sinister bravado to boot. Birkett manages to deliver a surprisingly convincing performance and steals the show; there is a genuine feeling of sincerity within his cynicism that makes one actually question Lo’s motives and purpose.  Observing demons as tragic, fallen reflections of humanity may not be wholly unexpected, but Birkett does a pretty impressive job conveying that very sentiment.

Lo would have made a great off-Broadway stage play given its minimalist, DIY setting and great use of make-up, and these attributes translate very well on film.  Writer/director Travis Betz is clearly as resourceful as he is creative; an imperative quality for an independent filmmaker if ever there was one.  Although Betz is in touch with his demonic characters, he loses sight of his human elements of the film, which should act as foils for the less-than-human subjects.  Without a basis for life, the tragedy and meaning of loss has none.  

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